Posted by: HAT | November 14, 2010

Gay is OK, Biblically Speaking

Free to be, you and me

One of the positive consequences of having finished my dissertation is that I feel I can read books that I don’t have to read for The Project, just because I want to read them. I have a long, vague backlog of those books. All of them are relevant to something or other, just not directly related to The Project.

One of those is Jack Rogers’ Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, which I got to read a couple of days ago. Relevant to lots of things, and of particular interest to me because of my conviction that the disagreements in the Presbyterian denomination and the wider church over full official LGBT participation will not be resolved until the solid Biblical arguments about the not-sin-fulness of homosexuality are developed and disseminated. People who are Christian, and who think of themselves as trying to do what God wants them to do, and who think of the Bible as information about what that is, can have all the good intentions in the world and still feel constrained to support inhumane rules and practices, because they have in their heads that God is opposed to the equitable and humane alternative.

So I like Rogers’ book, because the not-sin-fulness of LGBT relationships is one of the things he addresses directly, and he does it in a way that will meet a sizeable fraction of conservative Bible readers on their own hermeneutic territory. He isn’t speaking to the folks who embrace “inerrancy,” but he is at least addressing those who take a high view of scripture as a vehicle of divine communication and inspiration, in conjunction with a recognition of its human origins, cultural context, linguistic limitations, etc. He is one of those people. So his argument doesn’t depend, in essence, on a willingness to toss out inconvenient scripture. It does rely on the premise that there are guidelines, prescriptions, and proscriptions in the Bible that are less than universal, that are addressed to and within a specific time and place, and as such are not prescriptive for contemporary Christians.

Rogers takes up a brief but pithy interpretation of the scriptural texts that come up in the debate over homosexuality and its compatibility with Christian life after a review of his autobiography (to document his conservative roots and his cautious trajectory), the pattern of using Biblical texts to support oppressive social practices (as in the case of slavery in the US and the case of the denial of civil rights to women), and the developments in hermeneutics that have taught Christian readers to interpret individual scriptural texts in the light of the whole Bible, and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ (summarized in the guidelines for interpreting scripture in times of controversy, which he lists and comments on at some length).

That interpretation finds that the Bible, properly read, does not condemn homosexuality or the people we label today as homosexual, lesbian, gay, bi, transmen and -women. Instead, the Bible condemns inhospitality (as in the story of Sodom, or the story of the episode in Gibeah in Judges 19). The Levitical injunctions appear not to target homosexual acts per se, but behavior in a specific cultural context that takes on a specific meaning of “mixing” — strictly avoided in context — and of undermining the unquestioned value of male supremacy. Rogers recognizes the larger message of the Bible as calling that value deeply into question. The Biblical vice lists of the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy texts employ words that are difficult to pin down, but that seem — in light of the best available scholarship — to refer to practices different from those encompassed by the term “homosexuality” today.

Finally, Romans 1 also does not prohibit “homosexuality,” but rather is concerned with the condemnation of idolatry, and records as one consequence of idolatry consequences that would appear serious from the perspective of the 1st century Mediterranean world-view, namely loss of self-control and loss of father/husband control over women — again, in Rogers’ view, a time- and culturally-specific value that has been qualified elsewhere in scripture. The use of Romans 1 to condemn contemporary GLBT relationships depends on the illegitimate use of auxiliary arguments, in particular reasoning from the tenets of “natural law,” and the argument that heterosexual marriage is prescribed in Genesis 1. [Ironically, it seems to me, since the early Christians had to work hard to sell the argument that Adam and Eve were married; the earliest Christians thought the non-marital state of the first humans was obvious, as was the fallen state of marriage, or so I have read.] That is, it isn’t the Bible that condemns homosexuality; it’s a culture that has made up its mind to condemn homosexuality for reasons that have nothing to do with “God’s will.”

All this argument no doubt seems tedious to people who think religion itself is obviously one of the problems in, and not potentially part of the solution to, oppressive human social arrangements. Doesn’t the religious dimension of the ongoing debate about whether to permit LGBT people to live equitably along with everyone else illustrate this? But then there is that larger message. The message of God’s unqualified acceptance of humanity (which means we need to practice that), of God’s demand for justice (which means we need to strive for it, to do it), and of what justice means (everyone needs to get what they need, not just what you feel like giving them). And there is the tenacious positing of an alternative to “the unspeakable world that is” that goes along with religion, the nurturing of a vision of something different and better. The conviction that our best ideas are still a long way from what would really be ultimate good, that we still have a great deal to learn. Those are marks in favor of the religious approach, I think. [As if I stick with Christianity because I am reasonable. That isn’t really it.] The effort to hang on to that, and to keep the vehicle for that from participating in the oppressive arrangements that are the focus of change in the first place, still seems worthwhile to me.

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