Sir Pence and Scripture

This is from Mike Pence, regarding the press’s questioning his wife’s enrollment at Virginia’s Immanuel Christian School: “To see major news organizations attacking Christian education is deeply offensive to us.”

Crafty. “Major news” is bad. “Christian education” is good. Shore up all the messaging when your boss’s approval numbers are slipping. “Deeply offensive to us” is a line that Pence ostensibly means in terms of Karen and himself, but it also shouts out to his voters. In fact, I’m wondering if I’d go too if I said that it identifies that base as a group that should be protected as a culture we diversity-minded people should avoid offending: “Hey,” says Pence. “If you really stand for civil rights, protect those groups that seek to strip civil rights from others.” That is, after all, the Trumpites’ definition of religious freedom.

I’m not going to get into the weeds about that. Virginia doesn’t prohibit discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity—so despite Pence’s bleats about endangerment, the law is very much on the “Christian” patriarchy’s side.

I am tempted to talk about what Christianity is (and isn’t)—especially in light of the fact that the Dept. of Health and Human Services just revealed that thousands more immigration children saw separation from their families than the Trump administration reported. I’m also tempted to talk about what Christian education should be, considering that a real study of the Bible reveals that the so-called anti-gay scriptures pertain to idolatry and breaches of hospitality. I ‘d further like to discuss the fact that, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, over half of all American Christians support gay marriage, while over half of all religious Americans support LGBT protections. And maybe I’d choose to finish by quoting Immanuel Christian School’s actual code of conduct, which reserves the right to terminate employment or enrollment, based on “heterosexual activity outside of marriage (e.g., premarital sex, cohabitation, extramarital sex), homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female, sexual harassment, use or viewing of pornographic material or websites, and sexual abuse or improprieties toward minors as defined by Scripture and federal or state law.” In other words, I wonder how Mr. Pence feels about the fact that his own boss couldn’t work there.

But the truth is that if I expounded on all that, I’d let Mr. Pence take up too much of my morning. So, instead, I’ll say this. Mr. Pence: On account of your bigotry, misogyny, and hypocrisy, I find it deeply offensive that you call yourself a Christian. On account of your hack scholarship, your hostility to diversity, and your attacks on the press, I find it deeply offensive that you try to speak for education of any kind. And on account of the fact that your wife just happens to take a job at this school while your Russia-linked administration desperately needs the support of its base, I find it deeply offensive that you call yourself a public servant. According to the Hill, the Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times, you have said that you think God has chosen you to become the president. I hope he has. I hope that, upon Trump’s impeachment, you have that job for a day, or a week, or even a month. And during that time, you will suffer such meticulous scrutiny that you’ll reveal to everyone exactly what your piety is—how many back doors it has, how many dungeons and double sides. And then, God willing, you will embody the very sank in your movement’s sanctimony.

How the Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

I have just navigated some rather unpleasant websites to see exactly which Bible verses the religious right uses to make their case against gays. What I discovered is that I have more well-fitting pairs of pants in my closet than they have explicit scriptures in their arsenal. This makes six (scriptures). And the amazing thing is that I–who am not seminary trained, but just a pretty good reader–can knock out all of those scriptures in about as many paragraphs.

Right away, I can clear up Leviticus 18.22, Leviticus 20.13, Romans 1.27 and Corinthians 6.9. The first two scriptures–which are the only Old Testament scriptures–say the same thing: Men lying with men do something detestable, and should (according to Lev. 20) be killed. This is because, back in the day, idolators could be killed. And idolatry is at the center of this entire debate. When these “anti-gay” laws were written, the Israelites were a little clot of folks who were trying to keep their culture alive among some pretty established pagans. Mainly, there were the Canaanite peoples. And among the Canaanites were the Assyrians, who liked to dissolve the culture of anyone they vanquished by scattering that culture among other members of the empire. All of these Canaanite civilizations included homosexual practices. (Please note that during most of my spiel, I’m going to use the rather clunky phrase of “homosexual practices,”  This is because in much theology of biblical antiquity, homosexuality was seen as a “practice.” instead of a relationship.  That’s part of the whole disconnect that faces us today)  Among many pagan peoples, such as the Babylonians, homosexuality occurred in religious rites. So, while the Israelites were resisting all of this idolatry, somebody codified what’s in Leviticus 18.22. But notice what surrounds the verse. Right before it is a law against child sacrifice. This is something that the Canannites also did; they burned their children to the fertility god, Moloch. Apparently, they beat drums to drown out the screams. Now look at what comes right after Leviticus 18.22: “Do not defile yourself in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.” In other words: Don’t become Canaanites. A similar scripture exists around Leviticus 20.

Flash forward to Romans 1.27. Here, Paul says that God, in his wrath, afflicted the Old Testament idolaters by making them commit “unnatural,” homosexual acts. Mind you that he’s writing to people in Rome.  More than that, he is writing to Nero’s Rome.  And if you’ve learned anything about that guy, you know that a loving, monogamous, homosexual relationship would function as sort of the oatmeal of his sexual smorgasbord.  But even if we dispense with him, we know that lots of the regular Romans had sacred orgies–many of which were homosexual, if not actually omnisexual. And the Romans, again, were a huge empire that had swallowed a nascent church that was trying to preserve its emerging doctrine among some very well-established, and very well-armed, adversity. Paul says: Don’t become Romans. This is the important thing. Really. The homosexual prohibition was not anti-gay–not in our sense of the word. It was anti-cult. Paul’s laws were a way of maintaining an identity among the threat of cultural obliteration. They prevented a person from falling away from the church by entering pagan vices–which is what I Corinthians 6 describes. Pauls’ admonitions functioned, in fact, as ritual laws–which are distinct from moral laws–which is to say that they rattled in the same bin with the soon-to-be defunct Old Testament rule against eating from a pagan’s sacred grove.

It is true that, if you’ve been swallowed by an empire, and if you maintain your religious identity in the face of other rituals, and then, if you also impress others with your love and your goodness, you may impact those who jumble up against you. In the case of Rome, you might even convert your conqueror. But it’s very worth noting that when these insulating, ritual laws start to limit your own potential converts, it’s time to reflect and adapt. The early Christians did this with diet and circumcision–two subjects that receive far more attention in the Old Testament than homosexuality ever did. Paul himself was wise enough to know that these practices neither added nor subtracted from a person’s devotion to God. He proclaimed (ironically? appropriately?) that what matters most is love. And unless our gay brethren start, say, setting children on fire, I think we can solve the gay-rights issue by following Paul’s own example.

Now. The last two anti-gay scriptures are about Sodom and Gomorrah. The first is Genesis 19, which describes the event. But have you read this story? It’s like something out of Cinemax. It starts with hospitality. Abraham and Sarah host two angel-like “men of God.” Then the men go to Sodom to stay with Lot, who also hosts them. The Sodomites–who, in this case, are all men–bang on Lot’s door and demand that the angels come out so they can get gang raped. And Lot says, “No! These men are my guests!” This is important. Note that he doesn’t say, “No! That act is detestable,” or “No! Are you crazy? These men are angels!” But when the Sodomites insist, he does say another thing: “Here, crazy rapers. Take my daughters. They’re virgins. Go to town.”

Few people in this story come out looking good. That’s something to remember about the Bible. It’s self-censuring; it admits that its very heroes behave badly. Folks like the ancient Egyptians made a point of not recording their failures. Not so the Israelites. This is one of the things that makes their literature so whole. So: Lot offers his daughters up to what is literally a rapacious orgy. The Bible doesn’t comment. The Sodomites go after the angels instead, and all hell breaks loose. Lot and his daughters head for the hills (that’s where the phrase comes from)–and look at what happens next: The daughters get Lot drunk, and they rape him while he’s asleep. Now, even if we leave Sodom and Gomorrah aside as little ash-heaps, we’ve got nearly enough sexual sins in Lot’s own family to field a bingo card. But notice again: The Bible doesn’t judge. As a result of the rape, each of the daughters starts a line of peoples–the Moabites and the Ammonites. Later, these races do have a checkered past with the Israelites; everybody wars over the land of Canaan. But still, Ruth herself is a Moabite. And she, of course, is part of the line that gave us Jesus.

The point is that there are sex crimes galore in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Most of them go without comment from either the characters or the narrator. Instead, the focus is on hospitality. Hospitality–the ancient rule that requires you to shelter even your archest enemy–the rule that echoes in all the Mosaic laws that provide comfort for the stranger–it’s this rule whose infraction makes the Sodomites most wicked. And one could argue that by our denying comfort to the gay community, we are doing the same. In fact, I’ll push this further: If a society pressures a person to have sex in a way that she would not choose–be that with an individual or an entire gender–that’s rape too.

Finally, we come to Jude 1.7, which says that settlements like Sodom and Gomorrah, “giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh” will face destruction. “Fornication” is from the Greek fornix, which was the name of the underparts of bridges where prostitutes did their business. Sodom and Gomorrah were famously wicked places (that’s why the angels were there in the first place), so it stands to reason that they would have prostitution. In any event, fornication does not mean gay sex. Strike one. So let’s look at “strange flesh.” Another way to translate this is “the flesh of strangers.” Again, I point you to the sin of inhospitality. Don’t like the hospitality angle? Then here are other questions: Is this “strange flesh” a man’s flesh? Is it an angel-man’s flesh? Is it not a beloved’s flesh, but a hot-piece-of-ass flesh? Is it flesh that you’re going to share with a crowd of buddies? Is it flesh that you’re going to “go after,” even if it’s unwilling? Really, we don’t know any of these answers–but we do know that the Sodomites were of Canaanite flesh, which is to say of pagan, ritually-irksome flesh. (See Genesis 13.) That’s strike two.  And as long as we’re being persnickety about scriptures, let’s take a look at Ezekial 16.49.  It says this:   “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  And that, dearies, is the end of the ballgame.

And actually, that’s also the end of my argument. Really. That’s it.  But here is one more thing–a scripture that Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson put in our arsenal: Jesus speaks to his disciples in John 16. “I have much more to say to you,” he admits, “more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you in all truth.” The Bible couldn’t predict every struggle that we’d face over whole millennia of faith. Bishop Robinson proclaims that it couldn’t anticipate stem-cell research, or abortion, or gay rights, or even abolition. But it did mention a guide, a Spirit, which, at our best, might find reflection in our conscience. It is a kind of faith to trust your conscience. I’d say it’s a kind of prayer.

So: Use it to judge dogma. Use it to judge scripture. Conscience isn’t foolproof. Bonhoeffer writes about how it can become a trap. But when a heterosexist finds that a loved one is gay, and when that heterosexist starts revising his idea of who gay people are, he is reacting with conscience–which is to say that he is reacting with an intellect that’s informed by love.

In spite of all this, there are those whose consciences say that gay people will go to hell. There are those who say that allies of gay people will go to hell. But knowing the friends I have–the friends whose courage I admire–the friends I love–I would bet my soul that such a thing is not true. It is not true. And if my detractors say that my obstinacy only furthers my own damnation, I say that they, of all people, should recognize faith when they see it.

My Review of Call Me by Your Name

This week, I watched Call Me by Your Name. I’m going to write a review of it here. And this may say something about how the film has stuck with me, as the only other movies I’ve reviewed on fb have been Star Wars flics. I recommend Call Me by Your Name to anyone. It’s a beautiful, challenging film. I most especially recommend it to parents. 

(The following contains spoilers, but I don’t think they go much beyond what the movie’s preview implies.)

First off, the movie makes you want to live in it. Call Me by Your Name situates itself in an Italian vineyard, in 1983, where a Jewish-American professor of archeology lives with his vineyard-owning wife and their precocious son, Elio. Most of the movie takes place over a summer. And as a result, you have the Italian countryside, and the post-wars ruins, and the spring-fed ponds, and an old guy carrying a fresh-caught fish. And then there’s the food and the wine. And on top of that, you’ve got this villa, which has a piano (which Elio plays), and old books in multiple languages, and Roman artifacts, such as sculptural arms and heads. And it’s all sort of funky and in use, so it’s not at all pretentious. And on top of that, you’ve got the Walkmans and the bicycles and the Orangina bottles of 1980s Europe, plus a cast of characters who speak Italian, English, and French at will. This is a place where artists and scholars drink limonade and do what they love. Who wouldn’t want to visit?

So the complication is that the professor-father has an American, post-doc student come to live on the vineyard. Elio falls in love with him, and after some resistance, the post-doc (Oliver) loves him right back (and forth, and up, and down). This is a movie that portrays a lot sex. The cinematography is too deft and realistic to qualify as soft-core porn, but if you watch the film for your kid, it might be more comfortable if you don’t watch it with your kid. Before all the sex, Oliver just appears out of the blue—and it took me forever to figure out why he was there. Maybe I missed something that flew by in a subtitle, but until the middle of story, I wondered if he was supposed to be Elio’s tutor, or his father’s colleague, or just an erudite boarder. From the book the film plays from, you learn he’s supposed to be 24. (Because there are so many 24-year-old post-docs.) In the movie, he looks like he could be 34. Elio is supposed to be 17 (and he’s played by an actor who is 21), but he looks like he could be around 15. 

The age difference is something that troubles Oliver (who is quite scrupulous), and it has also enraged some of the movie’s viewers. I think the age problem is something worth talking about. I admit that, in the middle of the movie, I shouted, “He’s just a boy!” But I also admit that the age of consent in Italy is 14, and that Elio is by far the aggressor in this relationship, and that maybe back in the European eighties, before people openly discussed either homosexuality or legal age of maturity, this sort of thing just happened. Beyond that, this movie is not at all about predation. Oliver lets Elio take the lead. And all of this lends a touching realism to such moments as when Elio throws himself into Oliver’s arms, and just dangles there, mid-air, while Oliver wears this expression of affection, yes, but also fear. And by this time, you gather that this fear is not of breaking a taboo, but of breaking Elio’s heart. I did wonder, every once in a while, why the filmmaker (James Ivory) didn’t just make Elio eighteen. That would have been an easy fix that avoided some sticky difficulties. But he didn’t, which means he chose not to. Just as he chose to show sculptures of naked men from the classical era, and he chose to make Elio look like a boy and Oliver look like a man. There’s something going on here that I’m not sure I entirely “get.” There’s a kind of master/protege thing that bubbles up—but only in the most loving sense. And I’m left feeling not so much offended but, as I said before, somehow challenged. 

I will contend, however, that this is not the only love story in the movie. And the second one is why I recommend it to parents. Elio’s mom and dad know far more than Elio thinks. And without giving too much away, I’ll say that the point where I broke down and wept is not during the crowning moment in the gay love affair, but when Elio’s father talks to him about goodness and love. I wish I could tell you more without spoiling the movie. (For one thing, it would make this article more proportional). But that moment between a father and son is a speech worth memorizing. In a way, I think all of the movie was leading there. And it is so effective that I sometimes wonder if this is what offends the gay-rights opponents more than any seven-year age difference. The parents—and the movie—aren’t just compassionate with Elio. They understand Elio. There’s a huge difference between the two. They recognize the great thing that has come upon him—and they call it by its name, which is love.

(Originally posted March 16, 2018)

The Surgeon General Warned Us

It’s a sad (and thoroughly-perforated) troll who wants to “preach” on a gay-rights website, but doesn’t proofread his comment, and then ends up typing that sodium is an abomination.

File under: You Haven’t Read Anything Carefully, Have You?; or Times When Autocorrect Really Corrects; or So That Was the Thing with the Pillar of Salt. 

(Originally posted February 14, 2018)

Condemnation

I am so tired of having to say this. I am both a Christian and a pretty good reader. I can tell you, with chapter and verse, that the Bible’s so-called anti-gay scriptures come from only the most parsimonious interpretations of laws that are actually injunctions against idolatry and inhospitality. The Bible is a dangerous document in how it judges the reader. Your interpretation of scripture will disclose who you really are. And if you use the Bible as an excuse to harm your neighbor, then it will readily condemn you.

(Originally posted August 30, 2017)

Solidarity

As a member of the Christian left, I’d like to show Christians (and non-Christians) that liberal Christianity is a robust and hallowed alternative to conservative “Christianity.” Liberal Christianity gave this country the first college that educated blacks and women; it was one of the major instigators of the abolitionist movement. (In fact, many of the little Christian colleges that sprang up in the midwest were essentially abolitionist strongholds.) My denomination was the first to ordain an openly gay minister in 1972. And it has sought to strike down the Doctrine of Discovery, which was an 1823 Supreme Court decision that said white settlers could take land from any indigenous person they wanted. (This ruling was last used in 2005, btw.) This is the Christianity that stands with Mary’s Magnificat, which is such a call to revolution that Guatemalan despots outlawed it in the 1980s. Liberal Christianity has its faults; historically it dallied with the eugenics movement and the Native American boarding schools. (Many of us have since apologized for both.) But if its voice isn’t as strident as those who support Trump, it’s because it speaks from peace instead of condemnation, ecumenicism instead of fear, and reason instead of hostility. We are here. We stand against Trump. And we stand with you.

(Originally posted October 11, 2016)