Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

GLBT Persons in the Church: Today’s Gentile Inclusion?

In the second post in this series, I gave some guidelines for the use of Scripture in Christian ethics–a beginning, but not an ending. I have written several articles on this topic (and reviewed more books on hermeneutics, biblical authority, etc. than I could count in a day) and may one day write a book on the topic.  But, for our purposes (and to help bring this series to a long overdue close), I will try to draw out the similarities I see between this debate and the 19th C. debate over slavery–and the first Century debate over including Gentiles in the Church without circumcision and without requiring adherence to Levitical purity laws (see esp. Acts 10).

  • In the 19th C., almost all the actual texts of Scripture were on the pro-slavery side of the debate–the morally wrong side.  The abolitionists could and did argue that biblical slavery was not race-based–and try to argue against the racist use of the story in Genesis of Noah’s cursing of Ham and his son Canaan which slaveholders (mis)used to justify singling out Africans for perpetual chattel slavery.  They could argue that the Exodus and the liberating work of Jesus undermined slavery.  They could point to Paul’s attempt to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus.  But there are no actual statements claiming that slavery is always and everywhere wrong. From Genesis to Revelation,  the owning of some humans by others is assumed.
  • This was the first crisis of biblical authority in U.S. Christianity.  Modern biblical criticism that began mostly in Germany in the 19th C. barely penetrated the awareness of U.S. seminaries until after the Civil War–certainly not as a widespread phenomenon.  But slavery was another matter–as it was earlier in the British empire.  The moral high ground was with the abolitionists–but the letter of the biblical text was with the slaveholders. 
  • The debate over slavery and biblical interpretation has often been compared to the debate over the equality of the sexes and women’s roles in church, home, and society. (See, e.g.,Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women:  Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation [Herald Press, 1983].) And there ARE similarities. In the New Testament, for example, the biblical texts which are used to support the subordination of women in church, home, and society are usually the very same texts which were used to support slavery!
  • But there are also strong differences which those who are egalitarians regarding women and men, but not affirming of GLBT persons (folk like Catherine Clark Kroeger, David P. Gushee, Ronald Sider, Richard Hays, the late Stanley Grenz, Marva Dawn, etc.) point out with some frequency:  In the case of women’s equality with men, there are also strong texts that clearly support egalitarianism whereas, at best, this is ambiguous regarding both slavery and GLBT folk.
  • In both the 19th C. debate over slavery, and the current debate over “homosexuality,” the traditionalists employ a “flat Bible” hermeneutic which claims to place all direct commands on the same level unless they have been specifically repealed. (In practice, the literalism is far more selective and piecemeal, with little guiding it accept the biases of the traditional culture.)
  • In both debates, the traditionalists seem to use a hermeneutic of “control,” even of domination. Abolitionists and inclusivists, instead, are guided by solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

Can we find a new path? I want to argue that it matters not only HOW we read Scripture, but with WHOM. Reading Scripture with the poor is different from reading with bankers and Wall Street day traders.  If white Christians had been reading their Bibles with Black Christians during segregation, could white churches have continued to support it? (The same could be asked of white Christians in South Africa under apartheid.) Reading Johannine texts about “the Jews” is different once one has celebrated a Seder meal with Holocaust survivors.  Reading divine promises to Israel concerning the Land sound different when read with Palestinian Christians whose families have been Christian since the first C. and whose homes and farms were lost in 1948–or plowed under more recently to make room for THE WALL.  Likewise, I began to change my views on “homosexuality” when some Christian friends I had known for years “came out” to me as gay and when I began reading the handful of texts in Scripture used to justify exclusion in the presence of these friends–some of whom can never go back to their home churches or even their biological families since coming out of the closet. Some have lost jobs, been falsely accused of child abuse, been denied access to partners in critical care units in the hospital (reserved for “family members,”), had children taken from them as “unfit parents,” lost housing, been denied the right to adopt, received hate mail or death threats–and so much more.

A clue from Acts 10.  Peter is given a vision of animals that are ritually unclean and told to rise, kill, and eat. He refuses, keeping the dietary laws (kosher) of Judaism, as he has done all his life.  After the vision, he is summoned to the house of a Gentile (a god-fearer, near-convert, who had gone so far as to build a synagogue and had a good repute from the entire Jewish community), an occupying Roman soldier named Cornelius.  It was considered taboo even to enter the house of a Gentile (but Peter, following Jesus, had already begun to question such purity concerns–he is staying in the house of Simon the tanner–and tanners were considered unclean because they handled dead animals), but Peter does it.  Cornelius is converted in the middle of Peter’s sermon and the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles (they speak in tongues as proof)–without waiting for circumcision or anything. So, Peter figures he might as well baptize them since they ALREADY HAVE the Holy Spirit.

He is called before the Jerusalem council to answer for his actions and says, in effect, “Yeah, I know what the Bible (Moses) says, but I tell you I saw these perver–er, I mean Gentiles, receive the Holy Spirit–the same as we did!”

The decision of the early church to include Gentiles without requiring circumcision, as people from Ken Sehested to Jeffrey Siker have argued, should be a major clue to how the contemporary church should welcome gay and lesbian Christians–without adding burdens by demanding a higher sexual ethic (mandatory celibacy) of them than we do for heterosexuals.  The risk those early Jewish Christians took in deliberately setting aside the clear word of Scripture for the demands of the gospel was no less than we face today regarding GLBT folk.

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January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | 3 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion, 7

Yes, Gentle Readers, after long neglect, I am returning to this series.  I am arguing (too slowly) for full inclusion (‘welcoming and affirming’) gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church. I am arguing for a single sexual ethic that includes the options of monogamy or celibacy for everyone–instead of the current ethic of most churches whereby heterosexual Christians may be monogamous (and we wink at “serial polygamy,”–one spouse at a time) or celibate, but GLBT Christians are told they must either be celibate or “cured” of their sexual orientation. 

Rom. 1: 18-2:1.  :  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of  those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.  So they are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

       Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.

       For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.  Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.  Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

    And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God have them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.  Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die–yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

   Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 

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This is the most important biblical passage about our topic so far.  It is the only passage in which same-sex acts between women (lesbianism) is discussed along with male/male acts.  It is also the only passage which gives a theological rationale for condemning same-sex activity.  For many people, this is the passage which controls their decision on such matters.  For instance, the late Stanley Grenz, Canadian-American Baptist theologian and ethicist, said that without Romans 1, he would adopt a fully inclusive view toward GLBT folks like I am endorsing. Because of Rom. 1, Grenz coined the term “welcoming, but NOT affirming” for his view.  (See Stanley J. Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. ) For many years, I came to the same conclusion.

The condemnation is clear:  There are no difficult translation issues as with other passages.  Same sex acts are condemned clearly without being overly graphic in description.  The reason is also clear:  Paul thinks all same-sex activity is “unnatural” and a result of rejecting the general revelation of God (a kind of “natural law” thinking) and embracing of idolatry–which has resulted in “a debased mind,” and unnatural passions, leading to all kinds of sin.

It is important, however, to see that Paul’s emphasis is not on “homosexuality.” It is not called more sinful than other things, nor even listed in the sins condemned in vv. 29-32.  We need to step back and see Paul’s larger purpose by seeing the structure of Romans as a whole. 

The church (or series of house churches) at Rome was not one of the Christian communities that Paul founded.  Unlike the recipients of most of Paul’s letters, most of the believers in Rome did not know him. Paul was about to visit them (he thought) before a planned missionary trip to Spain. (Paul was arrested and eventually brought to Rome in chains and executed without ever having the opportunity for the visit with the Roman Christians, much less the mission to Spain.) He wrote both to introduce himself and to outline his basic gospel message–along with some peacemaking, as we’ll see.

The house churches in Rome were divided between Jewish and Gentile Christians, each boasting and prideful toward the other.  For Paul, the gospel of justification by grace through faith denies all reasons for pride and boasting and demands reconciliation.  Romans is a careful argument for that message. 

Romans 1 is part of a larger argument that climaxes in Romans 5: Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus and we must reconcile with one another–boasting only in suffering for the sake of the gospel.  To get to this point, Paul must convince both Gentile Christians (Rom. 1) and Jewish Christians (Rom. 3) that they have no grounds for boasting–they all sin and they are all without excuse.  Jews are without excuse because of special revelation in God’s delivering acts and in giving of the Torah (Law). Gentiles are without excuse because even though they didn’t have the Law, they had enough general revelation to worship God (not idols) and to know the basics of morality.  Romans 1 condemns stereotypical Gentile sins (all the Jewish Christians were saying “Amen!”) and Romans 3 condemns stereotypical Jewish sins (and then the Jewish Christians said, “say what?” and the Gentile Christians said, “Yeah!”). 

The purpose of Romans 1 is not to make heterosexual Christians feel superior–it climaxes in 2:1 with the condemnation of the one who judges (i.e., condemns) as being a hypocrite because the judge does the same things. 

Having said that, it isclear that Paul understood same-sex acts as sinful.  He sees them as evidence of idolatry and rejecting God’s standards revealed through nature–that is, Paul sees the primary purpose of sexuality as procreative.  NOTE: I am not claiming that Paul sees procreation as the ONLY purpose of human sexuality even within marriage. I believe that to be a later doctrine–when Greco-Roman views of the body as inferior to the spirit led Christian theologians to elevate virginity and celibacy as somehow more holy than monogamous sex–a view that intensified after the work of St. Augustine, who projected his own past lusts onto everyone and distorted Christian views of sex in the West for centuries.  I don’t think Paul shared that view.  But Paul did believe that procreation was a primary purpose of sex and that same-sex actions denied this–and were thus unnatural.

Paul was trained as a rabbi. His thinking is very Jewish–even as transformed by the experience of the Risen Christ and his salvation.  So, doubtless Paul shares the thinking behind the condemnations we saw in Leviticus:  The need to separate the sacred from the profane.  Crossing categories is taboo; it pollutes. Thus, same sex acts (unlike in Leviticus, Rom. 1 does not specify intercourse–other sexual acts could have been included–and for the women most certainly were) are unnatural because they violate the “order of creation.” Paul has no concept of a created order in which some are naturally attracted to their own sex. That is outside his worldview–which is shaped by Levitical purity concerns, not by scientific study of human psycho-sexual nature.

The import of this text for the contemporary church discussion of GLBT inclusion depends not on its exegesis, but on how we understand it’s authority.  This is Scripture and I confess believing it to be inspired and authoritative.  But Paul’s intention here is to teach human sinfulness (without excuse) and the need for justification by faith. Are we to understand his background views about human sexuality to be equally inspired?  What authority do we give to new scientific perspectives which tell us that some persons are born attracted to their own sex?  Paul assumes that all people are heterosexual in orientation unless their idolatrous ways lead God to “give them up” to unnatural passions. He clearly sees same sex acts as the result of idolatry and excess lust (“burned with passion.”) Well, there is no denying that SOME same-sex activity, like much heterosexual activity, is a result of such things.  There are some feminists who adopted lesbianism for political reasons.  And we live in a culture that exploits women and promotes rampant promiscuity–and part of that ideology is to convince “Girls Gone Wild” that they should commit sex acts with other women (regardless of their sexual orientation) in order to increase the lusts of men. 

THAT kind of same sex activity (along with the promiscuous heterosexual activity) is clearly condemned by this passage. But what of those for whom attraction to their own sex IS natural and attraction to the other sex is unnatural?  One response to this is to deny that such people exist.  Everyone is heterosexual as Paul believed.  But does the inspiration of Romans mean that Paul had revealed scientific information? Would Paul have written Romans 1 in quite the way he did if he had known that some people are naturally oriented to their own sex? That not all same-sex couples are the result of “a depraved mind” and excess lust?

We cannot know.  But having information that Paul did not, we have to wrestle not only with the text, but with new questions, new challenges.  I think that relativizes the normativity of vv. 26-27 while reinforcing the overall argument of the epistle:  All have sinned; all are without excuse; none are righteous in themselves; none have reason to boast; none have a right to condemn others–all need justification by faith in Christ.

Update: Comments have made it clear that I have been less than clear in places.  D.R. Randle has been asking me from the beginning of my NT survey on this subject to deal with Plato’s Symposium.  He says (following, I suppose, people like Robert Gagnon, Thomas Schmidt, & Craig S. Keener) that because Plato deals with “homosexuality” in the Symposium and condemns it as “unnatural,” that Paul probably got his “natural/unnatural” terminology from Plato (I agree) and that this shows that Paul knew about same-sex monogamous love analogous to heterosexual marriage and rejected THAT.  Here, I disagree.  Plato didn’t know about modern biological understandings of sexual orientation anymore than the biblical writers did.  Nor did Plato think of marriage in terms of monogamous sexual love between equals–heterosexual or homosexual equals.  For Plato, women were inferior to men. Therefore, marriage was for procreative purposes and childrearing. One could have only an inferior kind of love between men and women.  The highest forms of love had to be between equals which meant that men had to love men and women had to love women.  This was traditionally done in the case of males when an older man, a mentor, undertook to educate and prepare an adolescent boy for manhood.  For Plato, this was to be without sex.  That is why we get the term “platonic love” or “platonic relationship” for deep, loving, friendships that are not sexual.  But this mentor-student relationship often degenerated in practice into what we, today, would call pederasty–sexual abuse of a minor of the same sex.  THIS Plato condemned. And these kinds of exploitive relationships (along with male prostitution) are what Paul understood when he condemned “homosexuality.”

Does this mean that if Paul HAD KNOWN of monogamous same-sex relationships between equals, he would have considered them “not sinful?” We CANNOT KNOW that. He might still have used the natural/unnatural analogy.  But that natual law tradition is not based on deep understanding of human sexuality–but on basic “this fits there” reasoning and on the connection with procreation.  Should we declare the understanding of sex “inerrant” rather than focus on what Paul is trying to teach (or what God is trying to teach through this epistle)? I contend that would be like those who insist that, contrary to modern botany, the mustard seed must really be “the smallest of all seeds” because Jesus said so in Matt. 13:32–instead of focusing on what Jesus was trying to teach about the Rule of God in the parable of the mustard seed.

In my next post, I will stay with Romans 1 and interact with NT scholar Richard Hays who comes to a “welcoming but not affirming” position. Hays is a brilliant scholar with whom I am often in agreement and whose work I usually celebrate. I want to show, however, that on this issue, his exegesis is better than his conclusion–because he violates the hermeneutical (interpretive) perspective that he outlines in his larger work.  After that, I will turn to a neglected word from Jesus that may bear directly on our subject.  After that, my biblical survey will be complete and I will turn to other considerations in coming to our final conclusion.

N.B.: I will be very busy with a writing deadline for several days. If I take awhile to get to your comments, rebukes, etc., please be patient. I am not ignoring you and will get back to you. You may have to discuss among yourselves for awhile, first, though.  Sorry it took me so long to get back to this series.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues | 1 Comment

My Debt to Jewish Thinkers

Reprinted from Levellers in 2007.

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In previous posts, I have spelled out some of my major dialogue partners among liberal theologians and among conservative evangelicals.  But I have other influences, other dialogue partners, and some Jewish thinkers (theologians, philosophers, political theorists) are extremely important.  Christianity has a different relationship with Judaism than with any other faith. Judaism is both our mother and older sister. We began as a messianic movement among 1st C. Jews–one far more open to Gentile inclusion.  But soon we became a mostly Gentile religion and there was what James D. G. Dunn calls the “parting of the ways” between synagogue and church.  With the destruction of the temple, the Sadducee movement was finished.  With the final destruction of Jerusalem after Bar Kochba’s revolt, the Zealot movement, and violent nationalist strains of Judaism disappeared.  The Pharisee movement became normative, rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora.  But with the “parting of the ways,” and soon with Christian use of imperial power to persecute Jews, Christians lost sight of the Jewish nature of our faith–and much that developed since can only be considered pagan.   Christian pastors and theologians need Jewish dialogue partners–perhaps more than they need us.

People will rightly notice the absence of the major Jewish “Holocaust Theologians”: Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg. I have, of course, learned things from these worthies. But I have become convinced by “post-Holocaust Jewish theologians” such as Ellis and Goldberg, listed below, that the WAY Wiesel & Co. have placed the Shoah at the center of Jewish life has distorted the central moral dimensions of Judaism and led to uncritical support of everything the modern State of Israel does.  Some even contend that the gradual movement of many mainstream U.S. Jewish institutions from a center-left political stance to a center-right, or even neo-con, stance can be traced to these Holocaust theologians.  I do not know. And I certainly think Wiesel, Greenberg, and Rubenstein have written important works that both Jews and Christians need to engage. But MY thought has been more shaped by those Jewish thinkers listed below.

  • Martin Buber (1878-1965). I have been deeply influenced by Buber’s “communal existentialism,” especially his “I-Thou” dialogic principle. But I also have learned to appreciate Hasidism from Buber–and I confess that previous to reading some of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, I thought of the Hasidics as simply “Jewish fundamentalists” with little to teach modern people. Now, I see them as one effort to avoid assimilation–and contemporary Christians need desperately to find ways to avoid assimilation into the wider cultures of the world.  If Zionism has any redeeming qualities, it would have to be something like Buber’s “cultural Zionism” in which he worked from the beginning for Arab and Jew to share the Land of Promise.  Buber’s many writings can be found here.
  • Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the great “public intellectuals” of the 20th C.  Born (in Warsaw, Poland) into a family in which both parents were descended from a long line of Orthodox rabbis, Heschel’s initial education was in a traditional Yeshiva, and was “ordained” a rabbi with an orthodox smicha. But Heschel felt himself compelled to interpret Judaism to the modern world and so earned a second ordination at a Reform seminary in Berlin while simultaneously earning a Ph.D. in philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Berlin.  A Holocaust refugee (almost all the rest of Heschel’s family perished in the death camps), Heschel came to the U.S. and taught first at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnatti ( a Reform school) before finding a better “fit” at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (a Conservative institution where one could be both a historical critic and take halakah seriously).  At JTS, Heschel interacted with several Christian scholars at nearby Union Theological Seminary. He also became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement–once telling a group of Rabbis that if they wanted to hear the authentic voice of the Hebrew prophets in America, today, they would listen to Martin Luther King, Jr!   It was Heschel’s two-volume work, The Prophets, which first blew me away. I still consult it today as one of the best interpretations to the biblical prophets available.  Heschel captures well how the Hebrew prophets were both drunk with God and completely OUTRAGED over injustice.  Heschel also taught me how to appreciate the Sabbath and the hallowing of time–whereas the Christianity I knew as a child taught that all Sabbath keeping was simply “legalism.” Like Buber, Heschel had a mystic view of God coupled with a profound compassion for all humanity.  Daughter Susanna Heschel is a professor of religious studies and a pioneering Jewish feminist.  Find many of Heschel’s works here.
  • Geza Vermes (born 22 June 1924 in Hungary)  Vermes and his parents were all baptized into the Catholic Church when he was seven, but whether that was social climbing assimilation on his parents’ part (common among Middle and Upper class European Jews of that era), or genuine conversion, I do not know.  At any rate, it did not save his parents from dying in the Holocaust.  Vermes became a Catholic priest and was one of the first scholars to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and he wrote the first translation into English.  Something in his discoveries led him to leave the Catholic Church and reclaim his Jewish identity.  He moved to Britain and eventually became the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, a post he retained until his retirement in 1981.  Vermes has also been at the forefront of contemporary Jewish reclaimations of Jesus, beginning with his groundbreaking Jesus the Jew in 1973.  I don’t always agree with him, of course (I am a Christian, after all), but I greatly appreciate Vermes’ reconstructions of the Judaism(s) of the NT era and his placing of Jesus within such a context.  Vermes’ books are here.
  • Michael Walzer (b. 1935), who taught in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University, is one of the foremost political theorists in the U.S.  Walzer is a just war theorist and I am a convinced pacifist. Walzer has some blind spots concerning Israel and, initially (until they went overboard even in Walzer’s view), supported some of the Bush administration’s actions in the “war on terror.”  So, I obviously don’t just agree with all his views. But Walzer’s method of moral and political reasoning has greatly influenced me.  Some have noticed that I stand between Alasdair  MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout as a self-declared “democratic communitarian.” I learned that alternative stance from Walzer, especially in Thick and Thin: Moral Reasoning At Home and Abroad, The Company of CriticsInterpretation and Social Criticism and On Toleration.  I largely agree with his pluralistic account of “complex equality” in Spheres of Justice and share his commitment to a democratic socialism–in a nation without a viable democratic socialist party!  Walzer began his career as a rather assimilated Jew, but his work on particularist identity and universalist commitments led to his reclaiming increasingly more of his Jewish identity–something which first became very apparent in his Exodus and Revolution which showed how the revolutionary politics of the biblical exodus has influenced so many other “reiterations” of the narrative.  Now, Walzer is in the midst of editing a huge multi-volume work on “The Jewish Political Tradition”–a project that connects in spirit to my own identification with the radical free church democratic vision of the Levellers.  Walzer’s writings (through 2011) are found in his c.v. here.
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow (b. 1933) is one of the leaders of the “Jewish Renewal Movement” in the U.S. which seeks to get beyond the way that U.S. Judaism has been divided into “denominations” (e.g., Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) while losing ever more young people to assimilation or conversion.  Waskow also began as a fairly assimilated Jew who was a historian and political activist throughout the 1960s.  In the wake of the conservative backlash of the Nixon era, Waskow began to see that radical social reform took deep spiritual roots and began to forge institutions and practices of Jewish renewal (while also participating in interfaith work with Christians and Muslims). In 1995, this process led to Waskow’s rabbinic ordination with a beit din composed of one Orthodox rabbi with Hassidic roots, one Conservative rabbi, one Reform rabbi, and one Jewish feminist theologian.  Waskow has been working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians since 1969 and is a former board member of Rabbis for Human Rights. Currently, he runs the Shalom Center and is a leading voice connecting worship to peacemaking.  Waskow has influenced me mainly through his example–seeing that reconciliation with enemies or partnerships with alien traditions cannot take place through watering down one’s own particularism, but only through rediscovery and and deep transformation of one’s own tradition.  See some of his major works here.
  • Judith Plaskow of Manhattan College.  Her Standing Again at Sinai was my introduction to Jewish feminism.  Because of it, I resist versions of Christian feminism which try to blame everything patriarchal on the Hebrew Scriptures and, Marcion-like, see the New Testament as a repudiation of all that came before. (This Marcionite tendency is also prevalent among some forms of Christian pacifism and I resist THAT, too.)
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner (b. 1943) is another former ’60s radical who combines spiritual depth and social passion.  Lerner, who has one Ph.D. in psychology and another in Jewish philosophy, studied under Heschel at JTS–but found the rest of his teachers disappointing.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beyt Tikkun in Berkely, CA, founder and editor of Tikkun magazine (a Jewish-inspired interfaith journal that is similar in political outlook to the Christian Sojourners), and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives which seeks to renew a spiritual Left in the U.S.  A strong defender of Israel’s right to exist, Lerner is also a strong defender of a Palestinian state, free and peacefully co-existing alongside Israel.  He has worked to end the estrangement in the U.S. between African-Americans and Jews (once a firm coalition), working with Cornel West to uproot Jewish anti-black racism and African-American anti-Semitism.  Unlike those listed above, I have met R. Lerner more than once and I always learn much from him–but not usually about Judaism, per se, I have to say. His writings (in addition to articles in Tikkun) are found here.
  • Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (b. 1949) was one of the earliest women in America to be ordained a rabbi, finally becoming ordained in 1981, the first woman ordained in the Jewish Renewal Movement.   Gottlieb is a co-founder of Congregation Nahalat Shalom in Albuquerque, NM, where she served for many years.  She is a major peace and justice activist, serving on the boards of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Rabbis for Human Rights, and founding the Jewish-Muslim-Christian peace walks. She also is the founder and Exec. Director of Interfaith Inventions, a daycamp for children and youth.  A master storyteller (Haggadah) who uses theatre arts in social transformation, Rabbi Gottlieb is also a leader in the recovery of the Hispanic Jewish heritage that came to the “New World” during the expulsions from Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand and a student of Sephardic Jewish culture.  I met her first in 2002 at a meeting of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and got to know her better when she was a guest speaker at the 2006 meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  There, R. Gottlieb so impressed my youngest daughter, Miriam, that she wanted to become a rabbi! (Miriam was 6 at the time!)
  • Marc H. Ellis.(b. 1952), directs the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Waco, TX. Baylor is closely related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and this is the first Center for Jewish Studies at a confessionally Christian university–at least in the U.S.  Marc Ellis has been one of the strongest voices for Jewish-Palestinians reconciliation. Further, and more controversally, Ellis has contended in many books that the story of the Holocaust has been misused so that Jews see themselves as “eternal victims” and are unable to criticize an Israel that has power, even nuclear power.   Ellis helped me to see that the modern State of Israel has often functioned to warp normative Jewish thinking in a way analogous to the establishment of political power for Christians with the Constantinian settlement. (Ellis does NOT argue, as he has been accused, that Israel should cease to exist. One cannot turn back the clock without more bloodshed. He simply seeks to recover the moral center of Judaism that uncritical defense of a nation-state has warped.) Ellis has also been the Jewish theologian who interacts most with Christian liberation theologians.  Ellis’ many writings on Jewish and Christian topics are found here.
  • Update: As noted in the comments section (of Levellers where this was first published), Jonathan Marlowe reminded me of another major dialogue partner:  Rabbi Michael Goldberg, who  is another “nondenominational” rabbi. After receiving his ordination, he completed a Ph.D. at The Graduate Theological Union under one of my mentors, the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  R. Goldberg has become a major contributor to the “narrative theology” genre.  In his 1995 book, Why Should Jews Survive?, he echoes Marc Ellis’ contention that Holocaust-centered Judaism distorts the moral center of the faith.  In his Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight, Goldberg draws some contrasts between the Jewish “master story” (the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Sinai) and the Christian “master story” (Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection) which I understand, but cannot agree with, because he strips the Exodus from the Christian story and claims that the Christ event is a fundamental misinterpretation of the Exodus-Covenant.   This kind of interpretive disagreement may be irreconcilable–I cannot see how Goldberg could change his view without becoming a Christian and if I cannot see how any Christian could agree with his reading without abandoning Christian faith.  But Goldberg doesn’t pull punches and makes explicitly clear the fundamental disagreement between Christians and Jews.  Read Goldberg’s books.
  • Michael Wyschogrod (b. 1928) is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston and one of the first Jewish thinkers to attempt a systematic theology.  He is associated with the “Modern Orthodoxy” movement within Orthodox Judaism.  He has been called a “Jewish Barthian,” a term which caused Barth himself some amusement. As a philosophy major at City College of New York (B.A., 1949), he encountered the Christian existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard and this began his fascination with Christian theology. Wyschogrod earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1953 with a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Heidegger. His books are listed here.
  • Rabbi Pinchas Lapide (1922-1997), who died in the late ’90s, was a German Orthodox rabbi and also a scholar of the historical Jesus and a participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue.   He argued that God really raised Jesus from the dead and he was contemptuous of so-called Christian theologians who attempted to demythologize Christ’s resurrection.  However, even though Lapide agreed that the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Christ’s message, he did not agree that Jesus was the promised Messiah! (So much for some kinds of apologetics!) Lapide also entered into dialogue with Jürgen Moltmann concerning Jewish monotheism and Christian Trinitarianism. Lapide also wrote a major interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, showing its many roots and parallels in rabbinic thought.  Yet, Lapide thought Jesus actually went beyond the rabbis in calling not just for good treatment of enemies, but for the love of enemies–this was the radically new element in Jesus’ thought! But, said R. Lapide, if this is true, then it is clear that from about the 3rd C. until today, more of Jesus’ physical brothers and sisters (i.e., Jews) had come close to loving enemies than Jesus’ spiritual brothers and sisters (i.e., Christians)! The truth of that observation is profoundly embarrassing.  R. Lapide’s writings are here.

These Jewish thinkers in theology, biblical studies, philosophy, political activism, interfaith dialogue, and spiritual renewal have all been deep influences on my thought. I truly believe that all Christian theologians need to be in dialogue with specific Jewish thinkers–because in a Church that has been almost completely Gentile since before the end to of the 1st C., Jewish-Christian dialogue keeps us Gentile Christians from becoming pagan in our theology.

 

May 23, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: Index

  1. Terms and Presuppositions.
  2. Use of Scripture in Moral Discernment
  3. Range of Christian Views on “Homosexuality.”
  4. The Sodom Story
  5. Two Texts from the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus.
  6. Addendum: Pro-GLBT “Over-readings” of Biblical Texts.
  7. Two Brief Texts from Paul (with major issues in translation).
  8. Romans 1:18-2:1. (The most difficult passage for the revisionist/inclusivist position I advocate.)
  9. Addendum 2: DVD Review of For the Bible Tells Me So.
  10. Richard Hays’ Argument, A.
  11. Richard Hays’ Argument, B.’
  12. Matt. 19:11-12: A Positive Word from Jesus?
  13. Addendum: Loose Ends.
  14. Sexual Orientation: Science.
  15. Identifying Threats
  16. Acts 10: Gentile Inclusion
  17. Bibliography
  18. “Final” Post: Toward a Single-Standard Sexual Ethic for All Christians.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | 4 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (B)

Okay, when Hays gets to Romans 1, he argues on the exegetical level for a very similar reading of the text that I give: Paul is describing first the state of fallen Gentile humanity and then the state of fallen Jewish humanity in order to get to his conclusion that “there is no excuse,” all have sinned, Christ’s redemption is the only remedy, and there is no cause for boasting for either Jews or Gentiles.

Hays, “The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms [italics in original]: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin (cf. Rom. 3:9).”  From here he goes on to make what he calls several important observations about Romans 1 and “homosexuality.”:

  • Paul is not describing the individual life histories of pagan sinners; not every pagan has first known the true God of Israel and then chosen to turn away into idolatry. When Paul writes, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” he is giving a global account of the universal fally of humanity.  This fall  is manifested continually in the various ungodly behaviors listed in vv. 24-31.  [But what if, I ask, a different understanding of sexual orientation means that some same-sex behavior, namely that in covenant relationship between two people for whom this is their natural expression of sexuality, is NOT an “ungodly behavior”–even if it bears surface resemblance to the same–but a variation in God’s creation like left handedness?]
  • Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s created order.  God the Creator made man and woman for each other, to cleave together, to be fruitful and multiply. When human beings “exchange” these created roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”  [I agree that this is how Paul sees things. It assumes that all sex is for procreation.]
  • Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in this passage (vv. 29-31)–no worse in principle than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents.
  • Homosexual activity will not incur [emphasis in original] God’s punishment: it is its own punishment, an “antireward.” Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely informed Paul’s thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this, “Therefore those who lived unrighteously in a life of folly, [God] tormented through their own abominations” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:23). [Here I agree completely with this exegetical reading. Paul understands gay sex as a result of human fallenness and idolatry.

Hays concludes that the contemporary church should welcome GLBT persons the way it welcomes all sinners, but should continue to teach that all same-sex acts are always sinful signs of human idolatry/fallenness. He concludes that the church should not bless same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage and should ordain gay and lesbian ministers only if they are celibate (as it would single heterosexual ministers).

He reaches this conclusion for several reasons–and it is here at the hermeneutical level that I think Hays’ argument fails.:

  1. The Bible speaks sparingly about homosexual acts (contrary to the impression from many preachers), but it speaks with one voice. The canon is unanimous in condemnation.  (I think there is a possible text he has overlooked–subject of my next post in this series–but it is ambiguous. Hays could be right. But, his conclusion need not follow. The Bible is also unanimous in never explicitly condemning slavery, but Hays would not conclude that slavery that followed biblical patterns, was not race-based, etc. could be legitimate.  In the case of slavery, the general direction of biblical message as a whole undermines the commands/permissions of specific texts.  The relevant question for our discussion is whether or not this is also true for same-sex covenantal love.  This is the metaphor making act of interpretation that Hays has emphasized–the embodiment of the Word in churches as communities of moral discernment.
  2. Hays points out that the Christian tradition is even more condemnatory than the Scripture. He’s right. But the tradition is also almost entirely supercessionist in its treatment of Judaism–and Hays conclusion on that issue is that the tradition gets it completely wrong.
  3. Hays is worried that revisionists like myself are simply substituting personal experience for the authority of Scripture.  There is always that danger. I share Hays’ concern here–he and I are equally critical of the way that, since Constantine, the churches have blessed war and militarism in direct opposition to the witness of Jesus and the New Testament writers.  He and I share a loyalty to biblical faithfulness against faddish trends.  But Hays’ misses the way that his own experience is shaping his interpretation, especially at the hermeneutical level: He begins the chapter on “homosexuality,” with a story about a friend of his, a gay Christian named Gary, who died of AIDS. Hays has personal loyalty to this friend–a friend who saw his inability to remain celibate as an addiction and who rejected as “cheap,” the revisionist welcoming and affirming line that I am taking.  (It is even more obvious in the original article in Sojourners from which this chapter comes that Gary’s story, including his interpretation that God had cured him of same-sex desires before his death, drives Hays’ interpretation throughout.) Likewise, it is Hays’ experience with Jews in a post-Holocaust world that directs his re-reading of the NT and rejection supercessionist readings–as he admitted personally at a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics under questioning from a former student. Thus, without the Holocaust, Hays would probably have drawn different conclusions–more in line with the supercessionism of the church through the centuries–on Israel and the Church.  So, experience and contemporary new insights affect ALL our readings of Scripture–Hays’ included.
  4. Hays’ normative conclusions turns Romans 1 into a set of rules: Do not ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians; do not sanction same-sex marriages or “Holy Unions.”  But Hays has said that we should not transform Scripture from one mode of ethical discourse to another (see previous post).

I think it makes a difference in our normative Christian ethics not only how we read Scripture, but with whom.  If black and white North American Christians had read the Bible together in the same church buildings, could white Christians have continued to justify slavery or segregation?  Likewise, the catalyst for many of us in re-reading Scripture on “homosexuality” was our experience of reading these texts in the company of gay and lesbian Christians–and the testimony of their lives of holiness.

The full theological argument for my revisionist position awaits.  But for Hays’ counterargument(s) to work, he has to modify several of his guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–or come to different conclusions on his treatment of the supercessionist texts. As it stands now, his conclusions on “homosexuality” show a use of Scripture that is in tension with the use he gives in Jewish/Christian relations.

Hays is codifying Paul’s presuppositions about the causes of homosexuality–and allowing no new information to challenge those presuppositions. I think that not only fundamentally distorts Paul’s argument in the structure of Romans (Paul could have used another illustration than same-sex acts for Rom. 1), but it turns an illustration in a moral argument into a rule. On every other issue in the book, Richard Hays is a better theologian.

We all have our blind spots and I conclude that this is one of his.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | 1 Comment

Matthew’s Birth & Infancy Narrative: Birth of the Anointed Deliverer!

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are, in my view, interwoven mixtures of historical accounts (“history remembered” in Marcus Borg’s terms) and mythical or metaphorical interpretations of those events. The Virgin Birth aside, it is not easy to separate out historical fact from what we might, with Robert Gundry, call the Evangelists’ midrash on these events. The visit of the Magi seems very unlikely historically, for instance, but King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents (all boy children two and under in Bethlehem) is completely in character: he killed several of his own sons and Bethlehem was small enough that such a slaughter could have totalled 10-15 kids, small enough to keep from imperial records. But if the slaughter of the innocents is “history remembered,” it needs a motivator and the visit of of the Magi is the only option given in our sources.

Or take Luke’s narrative: Empires, ancient and modern, conduct censuses of their occupied territories in order to more efficiently tax and oppress them. But, as E. P. Sanders points out, a census in which each man was sent back to his ancestral home town would disrupt the entire empire and surely be a source of controversy–and therefore likely to have been mentioned in secular histories of the day. But there is no such census mentioned, throwing doubt on the historical accuracy of Luke’s account. Further, why would Mary, so late in her pregnancy, accompany Joseph back to Bethlehem? Wouldn’t staying in Nazareth with relatives and midwives while Joseph took care of the census have made more sense? Yet, as Richard Cassidy, S.J. writes in his Jesus, Politics and Society, Luke’s knowledge of “Empire history” is extensive. He gives dates and times that he expects his, largely Gentile, audience to know and if his narrative were wildly inaccurate or implausible, it would undermine his apologetic/evangelistic purposes. A modern historian who is open to the miraculous, but is not pre-committed to historical inerrancy, must make difficult judgment calls–hemmed about with many a “maybe.”\

Fortunately, our task is easier. The strong theological themes of these stories are much easier to detect–and these themes are where the Evangelists themselves place their emphases.

Matthew’s Account (Chaps. 1-2): Written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience (perhaps in Syria?), throughout the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes–now amazingly open to Gentiles, too. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1). More than any other New Testament writing, Matthew refers to Jesus as “Son of David,” a Messianic claim–and specifically a claim that Jesus is a King-Messiah and not the “priestly Messiah” of some Jewish hopes. Although Matthew’s account will re-define “Messiah” in ways that are nonviolent rather than military, there is no escaping the challenge in such claims to Roman rule–or the rule of client kings like the Herods. The opening line is revolutionary. (The Gospel will also present Jesus as a “new Moses” giving new Torah. Matthew’s narrative, as almost all commentaries mention, is structured around 5 major teaching blocks, paralleling the 5 Books of Moses.)
Next, Matthew uses a carefully crafted genealogy to prove his opening claim. Using some “fuzzy math,” Matthew concludes in 1:16-17, And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to the Messiah fourteen generations. 14–twice the holy number 7, shows completeness–even if Matthew has to skip some people and move others to get his numbers right. The point is that Jesus was born with the right lineage and just the right time to be the Messiah.
Now, anyone who has spent any time reading biblical genealogies knows that they seldom mention women. In that very patriarchal society women were seldom mentioned at all–men were seen as the actors in society and history. But Matthew’s genealogy includes 4 women (in addition to Jesus’ mother, Mary) who each played pivotal roles in Israel’s history. Why are these women named? There have been 4 major reasons given in church history and each has something to recommend it, in my view.

  1. The women were notorious sinners and foreshadowed Jesus’ role as savior of sinners. This was proposed as early as St. Jerome’s commentary on Matthew. Some have even seen this as a rebuttal to the ancient Jewish anti-Christian polemic that claimed Mary was an adulteress and Jesus her bastard son. But although this cannot be ruled out, I am not certain Matthew’s readers would have instantly understood these women as sinners: Tamar seduces her father-in-law as a pretended prostitute, but this is because her father-in-law refuses to follow the levirate marriage custom of giving her to another of his sons. Genesis portrays her actions as acts of faith that perpetuated her deceased husband’s lineage. Rahab had been a prostitute, but the book of Joshua understands her as a convert whose actions in hiding the Jewish spies in Jericho–though treasonous from the viewpoint of Jericho–are considered righteous. Ruth, Moabite convert to Judaism and grandmother to King David, certainly seems to have acted irregularly in “uncovering Boaz’ feet” in the fields, but this led him to become kinsman redeemer for Ruth and Naomi. So, once more, Matt.’s readers likely would NOT have seen Ruth as a sinner. Even Bathsheba, whom Matthew refers to as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite,” was not always condemned in rabbinic literature since her adulterous actions led to the birth of Solomon. (Of course, from our contemporary standpoint, Bathsheba would be seen as David’s rape victim–refusing the king was a death sentence!–rather than a seductress at all!) So, while this first reason for the women’s inclusion cannot be entirely dismissed (as Raymond Brown seems to), I don’t think this is the major reason.
  2. The women represented foreigners, thus foreshadowing the gospel mission to the Gentiles. This view was first popularized by Martin Luther. The Bible does identify Rahab as a Canaanite and seems to imply this about Tamar as well. Ruth is a Moabite and Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, even if her own nationality is never mentioned. Thus, Matthew not only indicates that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has Gentiles in his ancestry, but shows that Gentiles are involved in the heart of Israel’s redemptive history.
  3. There was something unusual, even scandalous, involving each woman’s pregnancy. Tamar’s pregnancy by Judah was certainly scandalous, though Judah pronounces her “more righteous” than he was in securing her dead husband’s lineage.We are not told the circumstances of Rahab’s marriage to Salmon, but the fact that she was a former Canaanite prostitute makes that marriage and subsequent pregnancy scandalous. We have already noted the irregularity behind Ruth’s union with Boaz and Bathsheba’s pregnancy by David (and the subsequent royal murder of Uriah) was more than scandalous for the prophet Nathan and the authors/editors of 2 Samuel. It is therefore quite probable that Matthew is preparing his readers for the scandal that Joseph is not Jesus’ father. However, Jane Schaberg’s contention that Matthew is thereby hinting that Jesus is illegitimate and that the Virigin Birth story should not be understood literally, doesn’t really work. Why would Matthew try to subvert his own narrative?
  4. Each of these women took an active role in furthering redemptive history and was thus seen as an agent of the Holy Spirit. This has much to recommend it: Tamar schemed to get the offspring for her deceased husband that Judah owed her under levirate marriage. Rahab’s bold initiative in hiding the Israelite spies in Jericho enabled Israel to enter the Promised Land. Ruth’s initiatives kept Naomi from starving, led Boaz to become their “kinsman redeemer,” and secured the emergence of the Davidic line. Bathsheba’s manipulations at the time of David’s death led to the succession by Solomon–a move not seen as positive by all biblical writers, but seen as God-blessed by the dominant Jewish piety of Matthew’s era. However, the problem with this proposal is that Mary’s role in redemptive history in agreeing to birth the Messiah is related not by Matthew but by Luke! Mary is entirely passive in Matthew’s account–and the heroic role goes to Joseph for agreeing (after a dream) to wed Mary and bear the shame of the scandal that she was pregnant before their wedding (but not before their betrothal–binding as marriage in Jewish law).

In the previous post, I already focused on the theological motifs of Messiahship in the angelic dream visitation to Joseph and in Matthew’s reworking of Isaiah’s prophecy. Originally the prophecy in Isaiah 7 was a sign to King Ahaz that he would soon not have to fear Assyrian invasion. Thus, the sign could not be the miracle birth of a far future Messiah. A young woman shall conceive and bear a son, named Immanuel, and before the kid is old enough to know right from wrong, he will “eat curds and honey” (i.e., have prosperity) because Assyria will be deserted. The young woman was most likely either Isaiah’s wife or the king’s. But Matthew deliberately uses the LXX Greek version of this story to make this a prediction of a future Virgin Birth. We would call this prooftexting. More generously, Matthew had a wider understanding of prophetic “fulfillment” than moderns and constantly saw Jesus’ life as mirroring previous patterns in Israel’s history.

For this same reason, Jesus must recreate Israel’s captivity in Egypt and subsequent Exodus. (“Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Hos. 11:1 was originally a reference to God’s calling of Israel from Egyptian captivity.) The Visit of the Magi doesn’t just set up this refugee flight, however, but also signals a major Matthean theme: Jesus the Jewish Messiah is recognized by Gentiles and rejected by many Jews. It is also not sentimental: The salvation Jesus brings is a threat to empire (including client kings like Herod) and they resist it with violence–including the brutal slaughter of the innocents. (Which, once again, Matthew sees echoed in biblical literature–Jeremiah’s lament over Babylon’s treatment of Ramah in Jer. 31:5.)

This is long enough for today’s post. In Matthew’s perspective, the major point of Christmas is not the Virgin Birth, though he indicates that Mary was a virgin and even “creatively reworks” a prophecy of Isaiah to justify it. But the emphases in Matthew are Jesus’ as the rightful Davidid Messiah, and fulfillment of Israel’s story and hopes–with surprising recognition by Gentiles and violent opposition by empire–Jewish and Gentile. The scandalous nature of Jesus’ birth is foreshadowed by other births in his ancestry (and Israel’s history) as is the Gentile mission. Next, we’ll see Luke’s even more revolutionary themes.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment