Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

A Tribute to Walter Wink (1935-2012): New Testament Theologian of Nonviolence and Power

On 10 May 2012, Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, passed away less than a week before what would have been his 77th birthday (23 May).  He had, apparently, been suffering some form of dementia for several years.  Dr. Wink was a huge influence on me through his writings, but I met him only once–in Washington, D.C. in 1989 when we were both arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience outside the White House–protesting the continued support of the Bush I administration for the apartheid-era government of South Africa.  (The protests, called “Stand for Truth,” had been planned for months and were huge that Mother’s Day weekend in ’89, but the news was somewhat overshadowed because less than a week earlier, the Chinese government had massacred protesting students and other pro-democracy groups in Tienenmen Square.  I met an amazing array of Christian peace and justice folk that weekend including Wink’s wife, June Keener-Wink, a young Jesuit priest named Fr. John Dear, S.J., who would soon make major contributions to peace and nonviolence theory, to theology, and to peace activism, but, who, that weekend before his fame was very quiet because his handcuffs were too tight and he was in great pain; Sister Joan Chittister, OSB; Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners; Joyce Hollyday; Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American Pentecostal whose work with the Boston 10 Point Coalition was greatly reducing violence in street gangs; many more. It was a life-changing weekend for me.)

Dr. Wink lived an amazing life of witness. He was born in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression. He was born and raised in Texas in the midst of Texas Methodism–coming to a very different form of Christian nonviolence than fellow Texas Methodist Stanley Hauerwas.  He earned his B.A., magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University (Major: History; Double minor: Philosophy; English), but rather than pursue his theological education at SMU’s own Perkins School of Theology, Wink earned his Master of Divinity (1959) and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies (1963) from New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary of great influence. There is some irony here:  Union Theological Seminary is known as a center of non-pacifist liberal Christianity.  True, there are a few pacifist voices associated with UTS: Harry Emerson Fosdick and James Forbes, both Senior Ministers at nearby Riverside Church, were pacifists who taught preaching at UTS. But “Union” has become almost synonymous with names like Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), proponent of “Christian Realism,” Paul Tillich (1889-1965), German-American proponent of Christian socialism and a neo-liberal theology,  James H. Cone (b. 1938-), one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, and Beverly Wildung Harrison (b. 1932–), foremother of Christian feminist ethics–and all of these voices represent strands of liberal Christianity that, while not militarist or “pro-violence,” are decidedly non-pacifist and endorse nonviolence only tactically and not out of principled conviction.

Wink was an ordained United Methodist Minister who spent time as a youth worker and a parish pastor before teaching at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. From 1976 onward, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NYC, a sister-institution to UTS in covenant with the Presbyterian Church, USA (and found on UTS’ campus).  During his time as a youth worker at East Harlem Protestant Parish, Wink came under the influence of the lawyer and Episcopal lay-theologian, William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s interpretation of the “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament would profoundly influence Wink’s own work.

In 1973, Wink published a small book called, The Bible in Human Transformation that declared “the historical-critical method is bankrupt.” I have to confess that I was unable to follow Wink’s point when I first encountered it.  I had come from a tradition of conservative evangelical Christianity and had found the historical-critical method to be liberating from biblicist literalism.  But Wink was not wanting to repudiate the gains of the historical-critical method, but to add to them–using insights from psychology (and later from sociology).

He is best known for his 3 volume work on “The Powers,” i.e., on the biblical terminology for power, especially in the Pauline corpus, that uses terms like “Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, ” etc. For centuries, these terms were simply dismissed as speaking of demons–and demythologized by the likes of Bultmann and fetishized by some Pentecostals and some Fundamentalists.  Hendrikus Berkhof, John Howard Yoder, and William Stringfellow began to see the importance of this language as pointing at once to political realities and to spiritual realities “behind” political institutions.  Wink, with insights from process theology and depth psychology, gave a metaphysic for the Powers that attempted to be non-reductionistic while acknowledging that none of us on this side of the Enlightenment can simply adopt the pre-modern worldview of the New Testament.  Wink also derived a theological ethic from his study of the Powers, especially in his third volume, Engaging the Powers.  The Powers form a world-system Wink called “The Domination System,” and the inbreaking Kingdom of God is “God’s New Domination-Free Order.” The Powers are not simply evil for they were created by God to bring order out of chaos. But they are “fallen,” twisted from their created purpose and used to enslave and dominate humanity.  They must be engaged–resisted and redeemed–by the followers of Jesus.

Wink also helped many reinterpret the Sermon on the Mount so that Matt. 5:9 is understood not as a call to nonresistance or passivity in the face of evil, but to a “Third Way” of Nonviolent Confrontation of Evil.  In a lexical study of the verb αντισθηναι (“antisthenai”), usually translated “resist,” Wink finds that it actually means “stand against” as in armed rebellion or murder, so that Matt. 5:9 should be translated, “Do not violently resist evildoers.” Wink demonstrates that turning the other cheek when backhanded by a social superior , removng both garments in court when sued for one’s outer garment (thus stripping naked in protest), and going a second mile when a soldier of the occupying army compels you to carry his gear the required one mile are all nonviolent direct actions against acts of domination and oppression.  He first published this is in a small book published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for black churches in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle–churches that were seeking a way to be true to the gospel but resist the apartheid evil.  (See Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa:  Jesus Third Way [Fellowship, 1984]).  He expanded and deepened his defense of this approach in several academic articles and book chapters aimed at changing the way New Testament scholars, especially translators and writers of commentaries on Matthew, understood the Sermon on the Mount.  Finally, he reworked his original popular study for a larger audience–beyond the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. See Walter Wink, Jesus and Violence:  A Third Way.  Because of this “active nonviolence” interpretation, Wink did not like the term “pacifism,” (too easy to confuse with “passivity,” and refused to be called a pacifist even though his dedication to nonviolence was strong–and he was a critic of the way that Christian admiration for the life and testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated into justifications of violence. (The liberationist left often uses Bonhoeffer to justify violent insurrection against conservative governments and the rightwing uses it to justify bombings of abortion clinics.)

Wink was an early defender of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church.  Eventually, he edited a collection of writings on the topic that did not simply include the “usual suspects,” but also the voices of pro-gay evangelicals like Peggy Campolo, Lewis Smedes,  and Ken L. Sehested.  See Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches.

Wink also edited one of the best collections of writings on nonviolence by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation over a 50 year period.  See Wink, Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It’s truly a remarkable collection.

Walter Wink seamlessly combined the roles of pastor, teacher, scholar, and nonviolent Christian activist.  I give thanks for his life and witness hope that God continues to raise up prophetic voices like his.

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May 25, 2012 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, biographical entries, biographies, church history, Fellowship of Reconciliation, heroes, Methodists, nonviolence, obituary, peace, peacemakers, theologians | Leave a comment

Why I Am a Straight Ally in the Struggle for LGBT Equality: A Testimony for Family & Friends

I’m behind on this blog.  Among other things, I’ve promised a personal tribute to New Testament theologian Walter Wink, who died a few days ago. I’ll have to publish that on Sunday, I guess.  A Facebook conversation with one of my nephews last night prompted this blog post–more than the heartbreaking passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina (defining marriage as one man and one woman–thereby not only banning same-sex marriage, but also same-sex civil unions, domestic partner benefits and protections even for unmarried heterosexual couples, etc.) on Tuesday. It was also a greater prompt than Wednesday’s surprise announcement by President Obama that he has finished “evolving” and now fully supports marriage equality–both heart-stopping events for different reasons.

Last night, one of my nephews, a college student active in the LGBT rights group on the campus of Virginia Tech, and who came out last year while at university (although he started coming out at the end of high school), thanked me for my efforts as a straight ally.  Actually, I’m not sure I’ve done all that much.  Yes, I wrote a blog series on “LGBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion.” I’ve preached some sermons along this line in places where they’ve seldom heard a Christian support LGBT equality.  I spoke against and voted “no” in 2000 when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to include a rule against hiring any personnel or endorsing any missionaries who were out, non-celibate lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered persons. (I think the CBF actually said, “practicing homosexuals,” but that language is misleading and I won’t use it.) When I returned home from that meeting, I recommended to our congregation (and they followed through) that we cease to be members of CBF and not contribute to their missions.  I voted “yes,” in 2004 when the Alliance of Baptists, the small denomination to which I and my congregation belong, endorsed marriage equality.  (The Alliance was already strongly on record for LGBT rights, including ordaining out LGBT persons for ministry and endorsing out LGBT missionaries. Several Alliance congregations had already performed same-sex weddings by 2004–some in states where these marriages would have legal recognition and some, like mine, where the state would not recognize what God’s people did in blessing covenantal unions.) After the 2004 elections resulted in 11 states, including KY where I live, writing discriminatory bans against same-sex marriage into their state constitutions, I urged my congregation (already a leader in LGBT equality fights–with many persons in our congregation well ahead of me in actions taken and leadership shown) to lift our flag higher by joining The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), a network of gay-affirming Baptist congregations–mostly, but not entirely, in American Baptist circles.  Since 2000, I have spoken and marched more on these kind of issues than before–but it is minor compared to other justice causes and very minor compared to what others have done.  So, I’m not sure I deserve my nephew’s praise.

I take that praise as a goad to do more–to be more worthy of the title “straight ally” in the struggle for LGBT Equality.  But whether I am a strong ally or a weak one, I didn’t really start out trying to be an ally in this movement whatsoever–and this is a good chance to state why I’ve become a straight ally (however weakly or poorly) and what led me, precisely as a Christian, to take such a stance.

First, I should say, that, although I never sought to be an ally in this struggle, nor did I seek to be an adversary or opponent, much less an LGBT enemy.  I’m not saying that I didn’t grow up with homophobic and heterosexist prejudices–that would be nearly impossible in this culture. I don’t think there are any non-racist American whites–just recovering racists who struggle for racial justice while also seeking constantly to root out hidden racial prejudices and keep repenting and struggling toward greater sanctification in this area.  I don’t believe there are any men in this or other patriarchal cultures who are completely non-sexist–just those of us who keep repenting of our sexism and keep struggling for sex and gender justice in home, church (synagogue, mosque, etc.), and society and seeking greater sanctification in our own lives.  I must say the same thing regarding homophobia and heterosexism–I seek to be a recovering homophobe and recovering heterosexist. One of my hopes is that there can be generational progress as well as individual progress.

But even from childhood, I did try somewhat to swim upstream on these issues when I first became aware of them in the 1970s.  The issue of marriage equality was nowhere on my radar, but I join my parents in opposing former Mouseketeer and orange juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant, in her hate-filled witch-hunt against gays in public schools who were supposedly “recruiting” because they couldn’t reproduce.  My mother was furious that Bryant was using her fear-mongering as an excuse to get FL to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment (and this bait-and-switch was successful)–and, from this, we both learned that there is a profound connection between patriarchy and homophobia.  I had one gay teacher (that I know) and he was amazing–the man who first made history important for me. I knew him to be a person of integrity who had no designs on anyone’s children–except to get them to fall in love with learning.  By contrast, in those far off days, I knew several male teachers sleeping with high school girls and two female teachers sleeping with high school boys. The former were at risk of prison for statutory rape, but the same abuse of boys by adult women was only considered “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” and there was little risk of prosecution in those days. Fathers of boys seduced by a female teacher would probably have patted the kid on the back and thanked the teacher for “making a man out of my boy.” (These attitudes seem archaic–but maybe not. We seem to be going backward in so many areas lately.) So, I early on opposed laws which singled out “homosexuals” for discrimination–the more so after an elderly Jewish couple whose lawn I mowed (Holocaust death camp survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms) told me about the “men of the pink triangle,” the gay men and suspected gay men whom Hitler rouned up and sent to death camps right along with the Jews.

But I didn’t have any openly gay friends in high school. In the 1970s, in Florida, few teens “came out.”  I knew a few of those who did, but we were only aquaintances and, as they embodied many stereotypes, they made me uncomfortable. I squirmed around them even though I stopped those who tried bullying.  My attitudes were mixed. In my late teens I became a born again evangelical Christian and so adopted the common evangelical view that “homosexual practice” is sinful. (It was a long time before I believed differently.) But I rejected as clearly unbiblical the view that such actions were worse than other sins and needed to be singled out for special condemnation. As a young, liberal, social justice activist (even then), it bothered me that more Christians were angry about the supposed growth of the “gay agenda” than were angry about poverty, war, capital punishment, racism, damage to the environment.  Also, I had to sympathize at least a little bit with gays who were bullied. As a born again Christian, I was trying to be celibate until marriage–and in many circles this led people to suspect I was gay. I was also involved in theatre and chess, and was socially awkward around girls (even with 3–and later 4–sisters!). So, I know what it’s like to be called “faggot,” and “queer,” and even though I am heterosexual, I didn’t want others called such names, either. And I was sometimes the victim of violent bullying–and I knew that gays had it worse.  So, my teen years were marked by very, very mixed feelings. I thought “homosexuals” were sinning, but I thought those harming them were guilty of greater sins.

When I briefly joined the U.S. Army at 17 (leaving as a conscientious objector), I discovered a small piece of what closeted gays have to endure in the military–and this was before even the “compromise” of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” much less the recent ability for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces.  Even straight men in the military would act “hyper-masculine,” because anyone suspected of being gay would be beaten by gangs of their peers. Some even died and the military did little to investigate their deaths.

By the early 1980s, when finishing college and heading to seminary, I mostly wanted this “issue” to leave me alone. I wanted to help revive the older 19th C. evangelical tradition in which evangelism and mission went hand-in-hand with campaigns for social justice.  I was and am an opponent of the Religious Right.  But I knew that “evangelical” did not used to mean “political conservative.” In the 19th C., evangelicals–born again, on-fire, holy-rolling, revive-us-again, Jesus-loving, hard-preaching, GOSPEL living Protestant Christians–were often the leaders in such social struggles as: the abolition of slavery, women’s education and women’s right to vote, the end of child labor, prison reform, workers’ rights, including the rights of organized labor to organize and engage in collective bargaining, the rights of immigrants, racial justice, peacemaking and the abolition of war.  Today, I would say that the struggle for LGBT equality fits seamlessly in that tradition, but as I headed off to seminary I couldn’t see how it fit.  I read a few revisionist biblical interpretations but didn’t find them exegetically or hermeneutically credible and I was (and remain) committed to biblical authority in the church.  I don’t mean “inerrancy,” which is a heresy from the late 19th and early 20th C., but the authority of the Word of God speaking in and through the human words of Holy Scripture in power and authority. I hold to that to this very day.  I agreed that Christians should defend the civil rights of gays and lesbians versus those who wanted to deny employment and housing, etc., but I thought that those who wanted to ordain out and non-celibate gays and lesbians were simply jumping on a bandwagon. I wanted Christian social activism to flow seamlessly from the gospel and not be driven by whatever fad of political correctness came along–and that’s what I thought the “gay Christian” movement was.  But I did not rest easy in this view. My conscience was guilty.  I suspected that I was guilty of special pleading.

The AIDS epidemic complicated matters, to say the least.  On the one hand, the attitude of the Religious Right that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosecual sins absolutely horrified me. How could anyone worship a God they believed was capable of such things??? And the illogic floored me, too. I knew that lesbians were the group least at risk of catching the HIV virus.  Yet no conservative argued that this was a sign of God’s special approval of lesbianism.  Yes, risky lifestyles, gay or straight, increased the risk of infection–which in the ’80s meant death, horrifying and 100%. There is a degree of self-punishment in passing one’s body around like pieces of baloney, regardless of whether one catches any diseases or not.  Sexual addiction is self-degradating and sex outside of covenant love almost inevitably involves exploitation and abuse (things which are not easily avoided even with covenantal structures in place). And I could see that, socially, AIDS had much in common with leprosy in Scripture and that Jesus would expect the church to minister to AIDS victims in exactly the same way as He healed lepers.  But AIDS linked sex and death very closely and this made it difficult for most people to think clearly–it made them, including me, to some extent, victims of fear.

I compartmentalized those feelings and concentrated on other areas–although I began meet gay and lesbian Christians who lived lives of discipleship and holiness that put mine to shame–and this was a chink in my armor.  To my shame, I refused to seriously investigate the issues (biblical, psychological, theological, etc.) until after I was married.  I remember–and am deeply embarrassed by this memory–that when I first went to the seminary library to check out every book I could on the many related LGBT subjects that I kept flashing my wedding ring in the air–subconsciously afraid that someone would think I might be gay. Why the fear? Why was I so insecure in my sexuality? It is not easy to confront such images in my past.

By the 1990s, I had “evolved,” sort of.  I had joined a gay-affirming congregation.  I had come to embrace one sexual ethic for everyone.  I had come to endorse the ordination of out gays and lesbians, to advocate for full equality of LGBT persons in church and society. (It did take me longer to understand what “transgendered” meant and that Transgendered persons are not “homosexual” at all.) But I wasn’t very loud about it.  I wanted to be hired to teach theology and ethics in evangelical contexts and I knew that being an out-front advocate of LGBT equality would make this difficult–and I knew that my degrees from evangelical institutions would make it unlikely that I would be hired by mainline Protestants who were more gay-friendly.  I thought that if I simply had academic freedom to “teach all sides of the issues,” I could keep my integrity.  I was very afraid that if my views on LGBT equality were known, I would lose influence on issues that were vitally important to me: peace and nonviolence, racial and gender justice, economic justice for the poor, etc. Others could take up the cause of justice for LGBT persons–none of us can do it all.  I tread this path  for most of the 1990s. But as more LGBT persons “came out” to me, I knew my silence was harming them–especially as American society seemed to become more homophobic and heterosexist than ever.  By 2000, I decided that by virtue of being a married heterosexual white male with a Ph.D. in theological ethics, I had, ipso facto some social power–even if not very much because I was always at the bottom of the academic heirarchy.  It finally dawned on me that I needed to take some risks on behalf of LGBT persons with less power, whose very lives could be at risk if they spoke out.  Coming out as an ally might cost me some jobs (it has), but it likely would not lead to humiliation, eviction from home, family, or congregation, and not to legal charges or loss of life.  All of that could be true for LGBT persons, whom I now knew included friends and at least one family member (one of my wife’s brothers).

The elections of 2004 pushed me, too. The Republican Party put bans against same-sex marriage as amendments into 11 state constitutions–and it was done simply to turn out more rightwing voters in order to “re”-elect George W. Bush president.  What horrified me the most about this was that I knew that George W. Bush didn’t really care about this issue.  Laura Bush is in favor of same-sex marriage. Dick Cheney’s daughter is an out lesbian.  Thousands of lives of LGBT persons were harmed and they weren’t really the target–just an excuse to advance OTHER (equally bad, in my view) political agendas.  That brought the men of the pink triangle back to my mind.  And I couldn’t pretend that LGBT equality was a “lesser cause,” however worthy, than economic justice, racial or gender justice, or peace and nonviolence–all causes that were originally closer to my heart.

So, stumblingly, and fearfully, I became a straight ally.  Since that time, the “issue” (and no person likes to be thought of as “an issue”) has become more personal for me.  We Baptists don’t really have godparents, but my daughters’ unofficial godmother is lesbian.  I have participated in the ordination of several out gay friends, now.  And my daughters were flower girls at a lesbian wedding–in a state where this has no legal standing at all. Two brothers-in-law are out gays and one is a Presbyterian minister.  And, about a year ago, as I said at the beginning, one of my nephews came out in his first year at university–and his mother, my sister, is a much more conservative evangelical Protestant than I am–a devotee of the Religious Right I have spent my adult life opposing. She’s been as supportive of her son as she knows how, but I have felt compelled to give more open support. My nephew’s “coming out,” (and becoming an activist) has subtly (without his asking at all) pushed me to do more–just as the thanks he gave me, which I don’t really deserve, pushes me to go further and risk more.

Even with setbacks like NC’s Amendment 1 (and NH, MD, MN, and Washington State may see similar rollbacks on election day in November), I’ve been thoroughly amazed at the rapid pace of progress since 2004.  And my daughters’ generation cannot see what the fuss is about.  I don’t mean to downplay the bullying in school, not at all, but their generation has known many more out gays and lesbians personally, adults and people of their own age, as well as far more celebrities than in my generation. (My mother’s generation didn’t realize Liberace was gay and my generation didn’t know Elton John was gay! We seriously had no gaydar at all.) I cannot explain to my daughters why Ellen deGeneris lost her 1990s sit-com by coming out of the closet.  They grew up on Will and Grace and their favorite news anchor is openly lesbian Rachel Maddow.  Polling shows that from Gen X onward even evangelicals are far more accepting of gays and lesbians than their elders. (Younger evangelicals are even MORE anti-abortion-for-any-reason than were those of my generation, so this change is NOT a result of simply going along with the wider culture.) And, although young people are leading the way, polling shows that ALL age groups, including the 65 and older (which is the most anti-gay) and all demographics, are becoming more accepting of LGBT equality–though at different rates.  Frankly, I have more hope for social progress here than on other pressing concerns which seem to be moving the other direction. But it is no time for resting.  As progress is made, those who are most homophobic and heterosexist, most fearful of change, are getting desperate.  They are enacting laws they themselves predict will be overturned within 20 years–just to set back the changes as long as possible.

So this Christian straight ally, along with everyone else who cares about justice, has more work to do.

May 12, 2012 Posted by | "homosexuality", civil rights, ethics, GLBT issues, human rights, justice, sexual orientation | 4 Comments

For the First Time–A Majority of Americans Support Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage

A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows that 53% of the nation now believes that marriage between partners of the same-sex should be legal. This is a dramatic change.  Barely 5 years ago, only 35%–just over a third–favored the legalization of same-sex marriage.  This is an amazing shift in public consciousness in just five years.  The support is strongest among those under 35–which argues for the eventual success of marriage equality.

March 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", civil rights, ethics, GLBT issues, human rights | 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: 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.

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

Sexual Orientation: The Scientific Evidence (Such As It Is)

[In reproducing this series, I left out this post and one other. When I give the index, all will be in the correct order. MLW-W]

As I stated at the outset of this series, the term “homosexuality” is coined in German in the 1860s and comes into English a few years later.  So, the idea of someone with a sexual orientation that is primarily directed to their own sex (as opposed to same-sex acts) is a modern concept.

Freud believed it was a neurosis caused by an overprotective or dominant mother and/or an absent or abusive father.  In the 1950s, especially, psychologists blamed mothers if their children were gay or lesbian. Psychologists and psychiatrists regularly used electro-shock therapy to “cure” gays and lesbians. They also used lobotomies and “aversion therapy,” all of which would now be considered torture.  In 1973, the American Psychological Association dropped homosexuality from its lists of neuroses and psychosis and the American Psychiatric Association followed soon after. 

What changed? Not the political culture.  The gay rights movement had not yet emerged until a little later in the decade of the 1970s (immediately leading to the anti-gay “crusade” of former Mouseketeer and orange-juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant!).  What changed was the groundbreaking study of human sexuality by Alfred Kinsey and the institute he founded.  Kinsey discovered that few of us are completely heterosexual (ONLY attracted to the opposite sex) or completely homosexual (ONLY attracted to our own sex). Rather, most of us are dominantly heterosexual or homosexual.  Kinsey also discovered that, although the persecution of homosexuals by church and society often leads to attendant neuroses, there is no neurosis or psychosis in the condition itself.  That is still the conclusion of almost all psychologists and psychiatrists, and is reflected in their Diagnostic and Statistics Manual.

UPDATE: In the comments, Daniel Schweissing (Haitianministries), corrects this statement slightly. I accept it as a friendly correction and, since some readers never read the comments, reproduce it here:

While Kinsey’s groundbreaking study was undoubtedly influential in the decision of the APA, et al. to change their views on homosexuality, politics also played an important role. Gay theologian Robert Goss, in his book _Jesus Acted Up_ (Harper San Francisco, 1993 –pp.44-45), documents how gay and lesbian activists demonstrated at and disrupted a number of psychiatric and medical conferences, beginning as early as 1968 in attempt to convince them to change their views. This, in part, is one of the reasons why many conservative Christians continue to reject the professional opinions of such groups in regards to homosexuality. A better reading of this change in thinking might be that the political pressure from gay and lesbian activists forced the APA, et al. to take studies such as Kinsey’s more seriously.

Thanks, Daniel.

One often hears conservative preachers claim that “homosexuality is only found in human beings,” and that it’s claimed non-appearance in animals is proof that it is unnatural and sinful. The claim is false as anyone who has spent time around animals will tell you.  In some species, like dolphins and dogs, the majority of the males will mount anything that holds still! (Also, see what penguins are up to here!)In species that mate for life, a small percentage form same-sex pairings.  I have personally observed this in red-shouldered hawks–with two male hawks actually building a nest together!  This is always a small minority or the species in question would not survive.  But it happens.  Human sexuality is enough different from animal sexuality that this point is of limited value, but I had to refute an oft-made, but false, claim.

Among humans, approximately 90% of us are dominantly heterosexual in orientation.  About 5% are dominantly homosexual in orientation.  5% or less are bi-sexual or nearly equally attracted to members of both sexes.

Studies of the causes of homosexuality have been few and inconclusive. Several of the studies have either been poorly designed or given inconclusive evidence or used too small a sampling, etc.

There have been studies of monozygotic male twins which have shown that if one twin is gay, the other is gay 50% of the time. This has proven to be the case even when the twins were separated at birth and raised in very different environments. This does not answer the question of causation, but it does indicate something not-chosen and not environmental.

There have been studies in brain size and chemistry which purport to show differences in the brains of gay men and straight men.

In the mid-’90s, studies of birth order found that the more male children a woman had, the more likely that her last male child would be gay.  The hypothesis is that her body treated the male child as a foreign object and that, over time and with many children, the mother’s body introduced chemicals to change the sex to female–and sometimes got a gay male child, instead. The study was suggestive, but far from conclusive.

The most profitable field of research for causes is genetic.  However, many gay and lesbian people fear research in this area, because they fear that parents will either abort or attempt genetic manipulation in utero to prevent having gay children. (The fundamentalist president of my once-great alma mater, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., opined on his radio show that if geneticist discovered a “gay gene,” it would be a Christian responsibility to be screened and to have corrective procedures in utero. Way to channel the Nazi doctors there, Al!)

No “gay gene” has been isolated, but the human genome mapping project has suggested promising areas of research.  The general “consensus” (to the extent there is one) in the field is that homosexual orientation is probably caused by a variety of genetic and hormonal causes prior to birth and to some environmental factors shortly after birth. The only real consensus is that dominant sexual orientation is set by age 5 and not really alterable after that.

The scientific evidence (including recent studies on rats!) is found here.

Note on transgendered persons:  Transgendered persons have a different gender identity than their outward biology at birth.  Whereas gay men identify as male and lesbian women identify as female, but are just oriented to their own sex, transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body.” We don’t know the causes of this, either, although they may be partly biological. A rare medical phenomenon is someone who is born with both male and female genitalia. They are arbitrarily assigned one sex or the other and “corrective” surgery is usually performed shortly after birth.  This suggests that transgendered persons also have some biochemical reason or genetic reason for identify with the other sex, no matter their outward primary and secondary sex characteristics.   Sometimes such persons choose sex reassignment surgery to finally find peace by no longer feeling “trapped in the wrong body.”

For more information on transgendered persons and the church, by the only Christian transgendered person I know, see here.  That is the website of Rev. Elise Elrod (formerly Ronnie Elrod), who speaks on bias, one-thing thinking (reducing people to one feature), and acceptance.

Now, why this interest in causes? Because moral responsibility usually implies choice; ought implies can.  But, this is not always the case.  Many like to compare same-sex sexual orientation to alcoholism or to violence. I may have a predisposition to violence–it does not justify my hitting anyone when I am angry.  I may be predisposed to alcoholism, but the conclusion would be that I should not drink (or if already addicted, seek help), not that alcoholism is “right for me” and I should pursue it.

This is what I meant above by saying that science itself provides no moral guidelines.  However, the relevant question to ask those who argue that “homosexual orientation is not chosen, but the behavior and can be changed,” is whether or not same-sex sexual orientation is really analogous to alcoholism or violence.  It seems to me that the conclusion of psychologists and psychiatrists that “homosexuality” is not itself a neurosis or psychosis rules out too close a similarity with alcoholism or violence.

Given the constraints in which most gays or lesbians live in our society, persecuted and outcast, subject to job loss or housing discrimination, often rejected by church and family, one would be very surprised NOT to find many gays and lesbians who have accompanying psycho-social problems. But we find such problems in heterosexuals, too. And the amazing thing is that we also find gay and lesbian Christians who lead lives of deep holiness. The ones I know personally are much better Christians than I am.

These things lead me to believe that same-sex sexual orientation is not a flaw, but simply a variation in nature, in God’s created order–like left-handedness. By itself, it is no more or less sinful than heterosexuality

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

GLBT Persons in the Church: Final Post for This Series

As we wrap up this long series, people still have questions–more than I can answer.  First, let us remember that this is a discussion of church life–not questions of civil liberties in society.  Those are also important.  Someone could decide that the church cannot change its sexual ethics but still work to stop the discrimination in society against GLBT folks.  This is a position I once held:  I thought is analogous to heterosexual adulterers–you would not let them be fired from jobs for their marital problems, nor denied housing, etc.  I am in favor of same-sex civil marriages–no church, synagogue, etc. is forced to recognize them.  It is a matter of secular justice.

But, at the same time, churches that agree to revise their sexual ethics (as mine has) are free to marry gay or lesbian couples–whether or not the law recognizes them.  One heterosexual couple in our congregation was married without a civil license–refusing the legal benefits of marriage until gay and lesbian couples can have them, too. It was a courageous stance of solidarity.  Legal marriage is the right to sue one another if you get tired of each other–it has little to do with Christian marriage or Jewish marriage, etc.

Some say that Gen. 2:24 is the reason we cannot allow Christian same-sex marriages. But that verse is not a command, just an etiological rooting of the practice of marriage in creation.  To turn it into a command would be to claim that every must marry.  See this blog on why “order of creation” arguments fail.

Others claim that celibate singleness is the default position for Christians and that it should take a special calling to marry. But the church would have died out with such an ethic.  It is true that Paul (who might have been a widower–it’s hard to see how a man who was never married could have been part of the Sanhedrin) wished for all Christians to “be as I am,” i.e., single–but that was because of his belief that the End was near and that single-minded devotion to the work of the gospel was needed. Even so, he did not command single celibacy–and, in fact, recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit.

So, what can we say about sexual ethics for the church?  More than can be said here.  These are some broad conclusions and not a complete sexual ethic.

  • Let us begin by recognizing that the Bible does not contain any single sexual ethic.  In different portions of Scripture, we have polygamy, concubinage, levirate marriage, and much else.  By the time of Jesus, monogamy seems to be the Jewish norm, but, as African Christians would be quick to remind us, no word of condemnation is said about the polygamy of of several Old Testament “saints.” Divorce is permitted in the Torah, but condemned in very strong terms by Jesus–terms that are slightly relaxed by Paul.  The Bible gives us an ethic of love–given different form in different cultural contexts. Those in the U.S. who promote a politics of “family values” based on the Bible seem never to have read the Bible. Which family values? Those of Lot volunteering his virgin daughters to be gang raped if only the men of Sodom will spare his male (and angelic) house guests the same fate? Solomon’s many wives and concubines? Abraham having children by his wife’s slavegirl–then later driving mother and son into the desert to make peace with Sarah? Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac? Tamar’s playing the prostitute with Judah in order to force him to grant her rights  under levirate marriage? (Judah pronounced Tamar more righteous than he was.)  The Bible does not share the Religious Right’s “Leave It to Beaver” romanticism about nuclear families.
  • Human sexuality, though sharing much with that of other mammals, including a drive for procreation, is far more complex.  Procreation is one purpose, but far from the only.  We must reject the view of the Medieval Church that saw procreation as the only purpose that justified marital sex–which leads to condemnations of artificial birth control and masturbation–not to mention the absolutely bizarre judgment of St. Thomas Aquinas that heterosexual RAPE was less sinful than masturbation or same-sex acts because at least rape allowed the possibility of procreation!!!!!!!!
  • Sex is a created good, but a human, mortal, finite good.  I think we must also reject the teaching that marital sexuality is a sacrament. Yes, Paul compares marriage to the relationship of Christ and the Church, but he does not say that married SEX is like the relationship of Christ and the Church! This sexualizes God–and is far too close to the “sacred sex” of ancient fertility cults. 
  • Nor is sex as sacrament fair to one’s spouse: One needs to be “in the moment” with the partner, not using the partner to (weirdly) get closer to God.  Sex is a good, but a human, finite good.
  • Sex is a powerful human drive and most people are not given the charism for lifelong celibacy.  To say, as the Church has for most of its history, that heterosexuals have the choice between celibate singleness and monogamy, but that gays or lesbians (or bisexuals or transgendered persons) must be celibate WHETHER OR NOT they have the charism or calling to do so is to add burdens that one is not willing to bear one’s self. That’s what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.
  • Monogamy is hardly a perfect thing, but it is the best thing we have.  If sex is to be Christian, it must be in a covenantal relationship–not some form of recreation or entertainment.  We usually call this covenantal relationship “marriage” for heterosexuals.  I am not particularly concerned with whether we call covenantal unions between gay or lesbian couples “marriage” or “holy unions” or whatever (a matter of debate even among gay theologians), but that we recognize and bless such covenants as places to fulfill godly callings.
  • Monogamy is not perfect, but it helps prevent or reduce chances for exploitation. Bi-sexual persons, if they are Christian, are no more permitted to live lives of promiscuity than any other Christian.  I suppose they may date members of either sex (we would assume such dating to be as chaste as we assume any other Christian dating would be), but in choosing a life partner, they would be expected to be faithful.
  • Update: I want to avoid misunderstanding of the last point. I am NOT implying that bi-sexual persons are any more or less promiscuous (as a group) than anyone else.  They are simply attracted to (certain persons of) both sexes.  I do not mean to play into stereotypes about bi-sexual persons. However, I am trying to correct a misunderstanding on the part of traditionalists that any modification of the church’s traditional sexual ethic amounts to “anything goes.” Throughout this series commenters (and others emailing me) have asked, “How can you welcome and affirm bi-sexuals? Are you not allowing three-ways and promiscuity?” I am not, but I am sorry that my refutation of that error was done so clumsily as to seem to reinforce the stereotype that bi-sexual persons are any more inclined or tempted to sexual promiscuity than any of the rest of us. (The evidence seems to indicate that, if anyone is to be tagged as more promiscuous, as a group, than any other, it would be heterosexual males.)
  • We must reject all sexual violence.  This does not go without saying:  In much of the world, marital rape is not even a legal concept.  ANY sex act (as any other act) which harms or humiliates the partner is wrong.  Within covenantal limits, feel free to experiment–as long as the partner is just as willing. No, must mean no, regardless of whether or not one previously said, “I do.”
  • Sex leads to great vulnerability, emotionally. Covenantal arrangements do not prevent this, but do create more of a safe space for “appropriate vulnerability.” Harm is done when only one partner is so emotionally vulnerable. This happens within marriage, too. One of the many reasons promiscuity is sinful is that it teaches people to detach themselves from the sex act–to objectify it and with it, one’s partner.
  • The issues around transgendered persons are difficult.  Should the church encourage those who feel “trapped in the wrong body” to have sex reassignment surgery? I contend that it should–hopefully before one has married.
  • Great harm is done not only to gays and lesbians, but to their heterosexual partners when misguided Christians encourage them to enter heterosexual marriages in order to be “cured” of their same-sex orientation. I have seen the shattered pieces of such marriages–including with my sister. (She would NOT believe those of us who told her that her fiance was gay. Three sons later, he left her.) The current church teaching, and so called “ex-gay” ministries, is just setting up heartbreak for spouses and children. It must stop.
  • Though we reject the teaching that procreation is REQUIRED of all marriages (or same-sex unions), that Christian couples who are childless by choice are sinning, we must reinforce the view that Christian marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual) is more than simply for the happiness or emotional needs of the couple.  Either by adoption or by making one’s home available to host others, or by some other way, any Christian marriage must serve the Kingdom of God.

For further reflection, I recommend Kim Fabricius’ Twelve Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church. 

I had imagined a more richly theological end for this series, but I have run out of steam. I do hope the series has been helpful. I hope it begins rather than ends questions. I think some readers came with closed minds and just wanted to see if they could criticize–but some of them nevertheless asked important questions. I think the majority of readers, whether or not they agreed with me, did come with open minds and with a desire to stretch beyond cookie-cutter answers. That can only be good for the health of the Church.

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

GLBT Persons in the Church: Bibliography for Further Study

A Bibliography for Further Study:

There are far too many books on this subject to read them all.  I highlight ones that have been helpful to me. In an attempt at fairness, I will include a list of the best “NOT affirming” books at the end of this post.

I. Anthologies that Cover Diverse Views:

Jeffrey S. Siker, ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

Sally B. Geis & Donald E. Musser, eds., Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality. (Abingdon Press, 1994).  (Most of those in this book are participants in the debate within the United Methodist Church.)

Michael A. King, ed., Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (Cascadia Publishing House, 200&). Participants represent the debate within the Mennonite Church, USA.

Timothy Bradshaw,ed., The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church. (Eerdmans, 2003).

Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. (Augsburg-Fortress, 2003). A debate between two well-known NT profs, with Via arguing for the revisionist/inclusive view and Gagnon arguing for the traditionalist/exclusivist view.

II. Revisionist Views:

     A. Biblical Arguments:

Alice Ogden Bells and Terry Hufford, Science, Scripture, and Homosexuality (Pilgrim Press, 2002). A collaborative effort between a biologist and a biblical scholar.

Jack B. Rogers, Jr., Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006). Rogers is an evangelical theologian (formerly prof. of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary; later president of San Francisco Theological Seminary; still later, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA) who describes his journey from the traditional to a revisionist view.

Walter Wink, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for Christian Churches (Augsburg-Fortress, 1999).  More than most revisionist collections, this anthology contains several essays by prominent evangelicals including Ken Sehested, Lewis B. Smedes, Peggy Campolo, and others.

Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality. (Augsburg-Fortress, 1983).  Although, I now see that Scroggs overstated his case on Romans 1, this was the first book on this topic to be a major help to me. Scroggs’ basic argument is that the NT condemnations of same-sex behavior have a different focus than our current debate and, thus, are being misused in most of the debates.  I think that broad argument still stands.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response, revised and updated edition.  (HarperOne, 1994).  Significantly stronger than the first edition. When the first edition was published in 1978, it was almost the only revisionist book from a Christian perspective, and definitely the first written by evangelicals. (Later, Mollenkott herself came out as lesbian, terrified that her friend, Letha would reject her as her home congregation had.) The original edition was written before the dominance of the Religious Right in North American evangelicalism–the book got a somewhat positive review in Christianity Today. (The CT review did not accept the thesis, but recommended it as a conversation starter in all churches!)

John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, 4th edition. (Beacon Press, 1993).  When published in 1976, this was one of the first studies of its kind–possibly the first revisionist study in English by a Catholic priest.  This was the book that converted one of my heroes (and a deeply biblical Christian), Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S. J., to a revisionist view. In 1987, Fr. McNeill was thrown out of the Society of Jesus for refusing to stop ministering to gays and lesbians.  Later, he was thrown out of the priesthood, despite having remained faithful to his vows of celibacy.

   B. Testimonies from GLBT Christians:

Mel White, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. (Plume Books, 1995). Mel White began as a member of the Religious Right. A ghostwriter and film maker for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell (his “autobiography”), Pat Robertson, and a speechwriter for Oliver North!  He worked for years to be “cured” of his gayness (and save his marriage), but eventually had to admit he was always going to be gay. He also came to a different view of Christianity. Today, White is the founder of Soulforce, an organization which uses nonviolent direct action to confront Religious Right and evangelical churches and leaders with the harm they do to gay and lesbian Christians.  (In recommending the book, I am not necessarily agreeing with all of the tactics of Soulforce.)

Michael Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church.  (Westminster/John Knox, 1994).

Gary David Comstock, A Whosoever Church: Welcoming Lesbians and Gay Men into African-American Congregations. (Westminster/John Knox, 2001).

 III. Best Books from the “Not Affirming” Perspective

Stanley Grenz, Welcoming but NOT Affirming:  An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998). Written by a Canadian Baptist theologian and ethicist who died unexpectedly.  The hardest part for me with this book is that I support Grenz’ wider views on sexual ethics–which are so much more Christian than much of what is sold as “orthodoxy.”

Thomas B. Schmidt, Straight & Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. (InterVarsity Press, 1995). 

Marion L. Soards, Scripture and Homosexuality: Biblical Authority and the Church Today. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995). Written by a former Southern Baptist who became a Presbyterian to escape fundamentalism, but still sees the revisionist/inclusivist view as a threat to the health of the church.

Paul A. Mickey, Of Sacred Worth. (Abingdon Press, 1991). Argues against the Religious Right’s singling out of gays and lesbians for persecution, but also against revisionism on ordination or same-sex marriage.

More could be added from all perspectives. This is the tip of the iceberg where this literature is concerned.

See also the books recommended or cited in earlier posts in this series.

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

GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion–Identifying Threats

I have mentioned the late H. Richard Niebuhr’s dictum for moral discernment that, before asking the question, “What must I/we do?” we should ask “What is going on?” In my mentor, Glen Stassen’s lectures on ethical method (and, no, I am not saying that Glen agrees with my conclusions on “homosexuality;” When last we discussed this issue, which is not a frequent topic between us, he held to a “welcoming, but NOT affirming” position and may do so still. But it was Stassen who alerted me to the Manchester U. dissertation on Matt. 19:11-12 and he SEEMED to be reconsidering based on this–or at least open to doing so), he draws attention to the perception of the situation that precedes and informs our moral reasoning (biblical interpretation, etc.).  Certain “critical variables” (like variables in an algebra problem) have major influences as to how we perceive any given moral situation. We have already talked about the variable of differing loyalties and interests that we bring to bear:  Richard B. Hays’ loyalty to his deceased gay friend and that friend’s rejection of pro-gay Christian arguments; loyalties to certain understandings of biblical authority or certain approaches to biblical texts; others have loyalties to gay relatives or friends or interests for or against changes in the church’s moral stance.

Another critical variable in perceiving the situation we face with “the issue” of “homosexuality,” (and, once more, I understand why gay or lesbian people don’t want to be treated as an abstract “issue” and apologize) is the threat that is posed or that people perceive.  For example, if we were talking about capital punishment/the death penalty, one could easily see that if someone were threatened by the idea that innocent people might accidentally be executed, such a person would perceive the issue very differently than someone who is threatened by the rate of violent crime.

In the case of sexual ethics and the church (with special reference to GLBT persons), some see a threat to the (heterosexual and nuclear) family.  Any redefinition of “family” by either church or society, we are told by many, will weaken the family, lead to more divorces and children raised by one parent only with a knock-on series of ills for society.  It may surprise some of my more conservative critics, but I also see the nuclear family as threatened in our culture:  I just don’t think gay or lesbian couples have much to do with the real threats.  What are some of the real threats to (heterosexual,  nuclear) family life? How about the fact that we live in a culture which teaches us to commodify everything and treat all people and values as “market values,” and thus to use even our intimate loved ones in a utilitarian fashion? All day long our consumer culture teaches us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” and far too often this carries over, usually unconsciously, to our home lives.

Or take the threat that economic strains in a globalized capitalism place on families: Even in middle or upper-middle class families, there is the threat of having one’s job outsourced at any time to cheaper labor elsewhere in the world. To keep that from happening, the 40 hour work week has been replaced by 50-60 hours, with work brought home and less time with spouses and kids–and more stress when interacting with them.  If one is poor or working in a job without health benefits and has a sick kid, the strains become worse.  In periods of heavy unemployment or economic insecurity, the divorce rate soars–as do the rates of spouse and child abuse.  (Country music, as the music of the white working classes, is filled with songs of cheating and broken homes–because these songs reflect the strains that impact the working classes first!)

Or take the “Hollywood” obsession with “celebrities” who cannot seem to commit to any relationship for more than 20 minutes.  The glamorization of their empty lives of self-indulgence is a huge threat to the nuclear family. 

Others see the threat concerning GLBT inclusion to be a threat to the church’s faithful discipleship.  I can understand this:  Throughout most of its history the church has been profoundly unfaithful to Christ in one dimension or another–with some periods shockingly so.  I know that one of the reasons it took me 10 years to come to a welcoming and affirming view of GLBT persons in the church was that I didn’t want to jump on any faddish bandwagons.

There are real risks here. But I think the greater threat to the church’s integrity is its failure to look with compassion and identify with the outcast and the marginalized.  If we place concerns about purity ahead of matters of compassion for the outcast and ahead of dignity for all people, we will be far more unfaithful than if we risk changing the church’s sexual ethic in this area and turn out to mistake God’s will.  When I stand before the Last Judge, I would rather be able to say that I erred (if I did) on the side of standing with the marginalized than that I erred on the side of purity.

The loyalties and interests and threat dimensions are joined by the critical variable of one’s attitude toward social change.  During the Civil Rights era, some people who were theoretically strong for racial justice were nevertheless strongly opposed to the Movement–because they believed social change should be slow and ordered and come through calm deliberation of laws or customs, not from the agitation of a mass movement.  They did not share Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of the now.”  One can easily make the analogy regarding current attempts to change laws allowing same-sex civil marriages in the U.S.–and the way this spills over into electoral contests where the main issues seem to be other matters.

(After this series is over, I need to blog more extensively about ethical method.)

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | Leave a comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: Addendum–Loose Ends

Some “cleaning up” matters on these posts before going to the next stage.  I am rushing through some things in order to try to finish this series and be done with it. The series is tiring for me and I don’t want to neglect it again.

At any rate, there are some loose ends on the biblical survey to date that need to be cleared up.

  • Would the biblical writers, especially the Apostle Paul, have known of long-term, same sex, partnerships based on love? I have followed the likes of Robin Scroggs and Victor Paul Furnish in saying, “No.”  However, several classicists have pointed out that such pairings were well-known in the Greco-Roman world–something I did not know when I began this series. (Randle and others repeatedly cited Plato’s Symposium. The thrust of that discussion still seems to me to be Plato’s condemnation of pederasty in “mentoring,” but there are mentions of longterm male/male lovers. Ergo, Scroggs’ original claim, and mine by extension, was too strong.)   However, this does not settle the question of whether Paul would have known them or had them in mind in his condemnations. It is certain that he is condemning exploitive relationships like pederasty and temple prostitution. If, in Rom. 1, he is also including non-exploitive same-sex pairings more like marriage (which is possible), it is not because he knows the concept of sexual orientation, but because he considers such acts to be evidence of idolatry and “unnatural” behavior.
  • In 1 Cor. 11:14, Paul asks rhetorically, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him. . .?”  Here “nature” clearly means “custom,” because what is “unnatural” is cutting one’s hair.  So, it is possible (by no means certain) that Paul has the same meaning in mind in Romans 1 when he calls same sex pairings “unnatural.”  What is clear is that Paul is not a reliable guide to “nature” or to natural law arguments.
  • I have said that Romans 1 is the only place where lesbian acts, not just male same-sex actions, are under review.  What I didn’t know until quite recently is that lesbianism may not even be mentioned in Romans 1.  The early church, up to and including St. Augustine, interpreted “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones,” NOT as referring to female-to-female sex acts (i.e., lesbian behavior), but to male-female anal intercourse.  It is only beginning with St. John Chrysostom that the early church starts interpreting this verse as referring to lesbian actions.
  • If the earlier tradition is the correct exegesis, then nowhere in the Bible are lesbian acts discussed.  The focus is entirely on male/male acts and the concerns are purity/holiness concerns and concerns about men being treated “as women,” like conquering armies did in raping those conquered. Note the strong connection between condemnation of male homosexuality and patriarchy.

In my next post, I will briefly turn from the biblical texts to discuss the (little) we know scientifically about the causes of homosexual orientation. Science does not give moral guidance on its own. But, as H. Richard Niebuhr constantly reminded his students in Christian ethics, the first question to be asked is not, “What should I/we do?” but, “What is going on?”  This post will also include a brief discussion of the related-but-different issues surrounding transgendered persons.

From there, I will make some comments on ethical method and on hermeneutics (as it applies to our discussion).  My concluding posts will present a theological case for fully welcoming and affirming GLBT persons in the church:  Defending their civil rights in society (something I would expect even of “welcoming, but NOT affirming” folks since public justice matters are distinct from purity issues or moral issues for religious communities); blessing same-sex covenantal unions (whether or not the law grants them the status of “marriage,”); and ordaining those called to ministry with same standards of chastity used for heterosexuals (not restricting all gay or lesbian ministers to celibacy unless the same standard is required for heterosexual ministers).  I will conclude with a brief outline of a “single standard sexual ethic” for the church today–one which is open-ended and welcomes additions and corrections by my readers.

I will then update the index of all these posts and create a new page of indexed series.

I hope to post the science post this afternoon/evening.

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