The Thing in the Forest

Joe Marcus.jpgOn Friday, I went for a walk down an all-but-deserted road that runs near the cottage I’m visiting in Michigan. This was about a week after straight-line winds passed through, and left much of the region without power for three days. The storm lasted ten minutes. It knocked down so many trees that at first we thought that their crashing was thunder.

Along this road, seven days later, the clearing crews had certainly visited; some of the surrounding branches had saw cuts. That said, there were still a lot–I mean, a lot–of limbs in the road. You could probably drive over them if you had a good truck, but even then, you’d likely drag a few of them with you. So as part of my daily exercise, I hauled some brush. I felt pretty mighty, tossing my branches. And then I came to this.

I decided I could take a hint about when to quit. I turned around–and as I did, I peered into the surrounding woods. There, beyond all the No Trespassing signs, the trees had been tossed in clumps. They’d been sheared, left a-dangle, torn up by the root ball. This upending probably went on for miles. If, from above, you’d been able to watch the storm that did this, it would have looked as if it were parting these woods.

Last week, about an hour after those winds came through, the coyotes started to howl. I hadn’t heard Michigan coyotes for years. The next morning, my mother drove past a clearing, and saw a congregation of turkeys with their chicks. She said it all resembled some kind of moot.

I remember that it had been awesome enough to watch that storm from my back, bedroom window. The treetops looked as if they were just hopping off their trunks. But houses have a way of mitigating the Terrible. There goes a roof, and that is humbling–but it’s all still framed in the human context. Elmo’s pontoon boat washes down to the bridge–but there still is a bridge, and a waterlogged Evinrude, and also the guys at the Hart Haul and Tow. If you were in the woods when that storm came upon you–if you had witnessed all those trees laying themselves down, well, you would too. Wouldn’t you? I mean, wouldn’t you try to make yourself utterly low? I read somewhere that there exist in this life both the ethical sublime and the aesthetic sublime. The ethical sublime–the German schoolmaster, say, who chooses to accompany his students to the concentration camps–is holy, no doubt. But the aesthetic sublime is also such. And many times, at its height, it has nothing to do with us.

Some people ask that idiotic question about whether a tree falling alone in the forest makes a sound. And the answer, every which way, is that it does. Of course it does. It makes an address. It makes a testament. And if we aren’t there to hear it, then it simply discloses itself to its own country, which is wilderness.

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.

She Nods and Nods

So I went to a thing today that talked about community organizing on a one-on-one level. It was an interesting workshop that centered, in part, on collecting power for change. The guy who gave the presentation was part of a Catholic organization, and as he taught us pleasant Iowans about how power can be a good thing, he mentioned Mother Theresa. “Mother Theresa!” he said. “She was tough. She was ruthless. Do you know where she sat when she rode in a plane?” Nobody answered. He stood right in front of James and me. “On the plane,” he said. “Every time. Do you know where she sat?”

Dearies, I did not know the answer. But you will be proud. In the name of sensitivity and decorum, I refrained from saying, “On the dashboard?”

The answer, by the way, is that she sat in first class. She said this is where all the rich people were, and she needed the rich to contribute to her cause.

(Originally posted May 5, 2018)

Bad Lib

I had agreed earlier in the week to be the liturgist for my church’s Maundy Thursday service. This is the ceremony during Holy Week when we celebrate the last supper, and remember the betrayal, arrest, and ultimate killing of Jesus. It’s a solemn, beautiful holiday whose ritual involves, among other things, singing in growing darkness. 

Meggie the liturgist. I’d get to lead the first half of the service. There would be some call and response; a prayer of confession; a declaration of pardon. The service started. We sang the first hymn—and I realized I had left my lines in the back of the church. They were about ninety feet away, on a table next to the offering plates and the kids’ coloring books. I threw a look at the minister, who was busy being a minster—and there was nothing I could do. The bulletin had half of what I needed—and I had my hands on that—but I also had a hundred people who were ready to confess and who were waiting for a pardon that I would have to pull out of my own little ex nihilo. So that’s what I did. The organist, who apparently knew the script well enough to register when it had gone off the rails, reacted with the professional performer’s mild alarm. I patched together some stuff about Christ and praying. I did remember, after a pause, to say that we are in fact forgiven. But honestly, if you were in services yesterday, and you wondered why the pardon was somewhat abbreviated and odd, I must apologize. It’s because the hamster in my skull was racing on its wheel, trying to reach something holy, other than crap crap crap.

(Originally posted April 14, 2017)

Sin

When I was younger, I thought that taking God’s name in vain was saying something like, “Christ on a bike.” You know what it really is? It’s using God’s name to justify actions and attitudes that are truly unholy. Whether you use it to justify subway explosions, or edicts like the Doctrine of Discovery, or camps for conversion therapy, you are committing what some would call a mortal sin. I don’t threaten people with damnation; that tactic belongs to another sect. In fact, I don’t even believe in damnation–or at least not in the vindictive, I-loved-you-once-but-now-I-hate-you kind of thing. But do I think that this sort of name-in-vaining can damn well summon hell.

(Originally posted November 20, 2016)

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)