Saturday, June 09, 2012

A Christian Argument for Homosexuality

There's been a lot of gay marriage in the news lately, and since I am not presently bound by an employee/employer agreement to avoid discussing potentially divisive political issues on my blog, now seems like a good time to revisit that issue. On the news front, if you haven't read, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional (I haven't read the opinion yet, but my immediate reaction, as it has been for the past six years, is "duh"). In addition, the Ninth Circuit has declined to revisit its decision earlier this year ruling Prop. 8 unconstitutional (again, duh - a motion to revisit boils down to asking the court, "Okay, I know you just gave me your ruling, and I don't think I'm entitled to a new trial or anything, but would you pretty please reconsider?" Three guesses what the most common response is). Oh, and of course the president's stance on gay marriage is becoming increasingly favorable.

What brings me to my keyboard, though, is a news article I read recently quoting somebody who lamented that the Democratic party is not articulating the religious case for gay marriage to what this person called the "religious left." I don't think I like the label of "religious left" any more than I like the label of "religious right," because I don't think anybody whose stance on sociopolitical issues is truly religiously determined reaches his conclusions on the basis of current politics (plenty of people, I'm sure, do reach conclusions on such issues on the basis of current politics, and then cloak those conclusions in religious terminology, but as that isn't religious activity I am not particularly concerned with it). However, I do think there is a religious (specifically, Christian) case for gay marriage, and I think it might be instructive for me and my hypothetical readers to articulate it here a la Natalie.

This will not be a short post.

Let me first take a new paragraph to make two points clear. Point the first, this is not necessarily my current thinking on gay marriage as a religious issue. Point the second, I don't much care what my current thinking on gay marriage is as a religious issue. I already know what my current thinking on gay marriage is as a political issue, so that equips me to wield my franchise on this issue any time it comes up. And, continuing the theme of my earlier post, I don't actually have a religious belief about gay marriage per se. What I have is a belief in the process of interpreting the Bible (with corollary beliefs about why I should care about interpreting the Bible). Let me dwell on this point for a moment to make explicit the implications. If somebody doesn't share my belief that Scripture is wholly sufficient to tell us what we need to know about God, and wholly accurate in that respect, then I don't care what their religious stance on gay marriage is because they aren't part of my religion. If they are part of my religion, then I don't care what their religious stance on gay marriage is so long as they have reached that stance as the result of an honest, best-efforts read of Scripture. Gay marriage is not integral to Christianity. Deciding our stances on moral issues on the basis of honest, best-efforts reading of Scripture is. If two honest, best-efforts reads of Scripture come to different conclusions on any given issue, well, that is the nature of reading.

Which brings me to the first thing I think should be understood whenever anybody tries to discern the Bible's stance on gay marriage, which is this: the Bible does not discuss gay marriage. It doesn't even discuss being gay (as I've previously said). It barely even discusses gay sex. Now, this does not mean that the Bible has nothing to say about gay marriage, any more than the fact that the Constitution doesn't discuss gay marriage means that the Constitution has nothing to say about gay marriage. It is a property of all texts that they may implicate issues they do not explicitly discuss. But it does mean that right-thinking people could reach more than one conclusion about what the Bible has to say on this issue.

This is nothing shocking. We deal with this all the time in Christian pop culture when we try to apply the Bible to dating. The Bible discusses dating even less than it discusses gay sex, but we remain convinced (rightly, I think) that the text contains principles that can lead us to some version of Godly dating. And while we're on the subject of Biblical ambiguity, let me take a moment to state the obvious fact that we, as Christians, generally continue in fellowship with people who share our core religious beliefs but reach different conclusions as to what the Bible says on specific issues. I know plenty of Christians who don't even think that Christ died for everybody, which is much more fundamental to the faith than gay marriage, and they are still in every sense my brothers and sisters in Christ. Shame on me, and shame on my coreligionists, if we can't stay in fellowship with believers who disagree with us on something as trivial as gay marriage, homosexuality, or gay sex.

So, on to the argument itself, as I would make it.

Let me start by positing the following principle: that as Christians, we should presume that any given activity is moral until proven otherwise. By "moral," I mean "not wrong in the sight of God." I think this is a fairly uncontroversial assertion, but let me try to give it some backup just in case. Paul once told Titus not to oppose those Jewish Christians in his community who were teaching morality based on Jewish traditions and mythology. "To the pure," he said, "all things are pure." (Titus 1:15). Again, Paul admonishes us that the general attitude of a Christian towards moral activities should be permissive in Romans 14. Observing the Sabbath? Drinking alcohol? Whatever, the apostle says. Abstain or not; the act itself makes no difference to God. The case of eating food sacrificed to idols has always seemed particularly instructive to me. Suppose one of my pagan friends invites me over for dinner. Before we eat, my friend prays over the meal, thanking Demeter for her bounty and offering the meal to her glory. Should I still eat this food? Paul's answer in 1 Corinthians 8 (which actually discusses a slightly more extreme version of my example) is, whatever. "Food does not commend us to God," he says in verse 8. Most interesting to me is the fact that Scripture's answer to this question is not predicated on the premise that Demeter does not exist. Maybe she does, Paul says in verse 5. And still the answer is that eating food consecrated to Demeter does not consecrate me to Demeter - this despite the fact that the whole reason one eats food consecrated to a god is to affirm the connection between the eater and the god. Despite all this, Paul says, it's just food.

If we are satisfied that in Christianity activities are to be considered moral by default, we must now attempt to demonstrate that gay marriage is specifically excepted from this general principle of moral liberty. How might we do this?

Let's start by treating gay marriage as a species of marriage. We often hear it preached in churches and at weddings that because God created one man and one woman as the first married couple, we should infer that God defines marriage as between one man and one woman. This argument does not persuade me. God plainly does not endorse the one man, one woman (1M1W?) model exclusively. David himself kept multiple wives, and in 2 Samuel 12:8, God says that he would have given David even more if he had asked. We might infer from Adam and Eve that God prefers marriage between one man and one woman, but if so, he apparently didn't prefer it enough to tell people like David (or any of the Bible's other prominent polygamists) to stick to one woman. Before we go drawing too much from Adam and Eve, I would point out that creating one man and one woman as the species' first family is also consistent with a world in which God doesn't give a fig for what form our marriages take.

But then again, we are told in 1 Timothy 3:2 and again in Titus 1:6 that a bishop should be the husband of one wife (or, if you prefer, a man of one woman). Doesn't that demonstrate that God's highest ideal is 1M1W? I would say no. That view postulates that God will accept many versions of marriage, but considers one to be a better version than others. I think it is clear from these passages that God prefers fidelity to infidelity, but when God says something is acceptable, it is acceptable. Consider the example of marriage vs. singleness. We know that Paul preferred singleness, but we also know - from Paul - that God does not rank one higher than the other. More to the point, I cannot swallow a metaphysics where God would tell "bishops" - little more than local pastors, in Paul's day - that 1M1W is the best form of marriage, and not tell the kings or priests of all Israel the same thing if indeed this was a universal principle.

As a last marriage-based objection to gay marriage, we might consider the fact that there are no married gay couples in the Bible. We might accept polygamy on the basis that Godly men practiced it with no objection from on high. But we have no examples of Godly men (or women) married to each other. This is all true, but it also postulates a rule of morality that states that something is only Godly if we can find Biblical precedent for it. As discussed earlier, I do not think that is the rule of morality that the Bible proposes. Besides, there is a perfectly sensible reason for there not to have been any gay marriages in the Bible, which is that no cultures in any of the Bible's time periods practiced, or even struggled with the issue of, gay marriage. Why should they? The very concept of a "gay man" thinking of himself as a "gay man" wouldn't be invented for almost two thousand years (depending on when in the Bible's timeline we are placing ourselves, more than two thousand years). And let's not even get started on the differences in people's reasons for marriage now as compared to two millennia ago.

Let this dispose, at least until somebody raises a new objection, of marriage-based objections to gay marriage. What about sex-based objections?

Before we start in (again) on the Bible's view of gay sex, we might observe that sex is not the whole of marriage. This is a point we are fond of remembering at heterosexual weddings, but fond of forgetting when it comes to gay marriage. Still, the fact remains that no marriage consists solely of sex. Many marriages barely include sex at all and are still, by many lights, successful marriages. I think we can all agree that sex is good for a marriage - but then again, I think we can also all agree that it is bad for any marriage to be primarily about sex. So I think we might justifiably be wary of any argument that says that gay marriage is immoral because one component of gay marriage is demonstrably immoral. Still, I don't think anybody gets married planning to have a sexless marriage, so let us proceed with sex-based arguments.

There are few enough passages in the Bible that discuss gay sex that I think we can treat almost all of them here. In roughly chronological order:

Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). Insert all the standard disclaimers about how "sodomy" is improperly named after Sodom here. What's that? You don't know what those disclaimers are? Go educate yourself; the post will still be here when you get back. Now that you know that, really, is there any doubt here that the evil Lot is trying to shield his guests from is not gay sex but rape? Okay, yes, it's gay rape, and yes, he offers his (allegedly) virgin daughters to the mob to be raped in their stead. Two possibilities there. One is that Lot thought having his daughters raped was okay, because that's heterosexual, but thought that having his guests raped was objectionable, but that's homosexual. Two is that Lot felt like his obligations as host required him to do anything in his power to protect his guests (and probably didn't have too high an opinion of women in general). Which seems like the more culturally appropriate interpretation to you? I go with the latter. If the angels visiting Lot had manifested as women (leaving aside all the weirdness it would throw into the story for two women to walk into a city all alone and visit a man they were unrelated to), I don't think his actions would have been different. I conclude that Genesis 19 has nothing to say about the proprieties of gay sex.

Leviticus 18:22 ("You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination."). At first blush this seems like a fairly clear Biblical prohibition against gay sex. But I think that is not really fair. To begin with the most pedantic objection, it says nothing about lying with a woman as with a man. If this was really about homosexual sexual activity, wouldn't God list that somewhere? Perhaps we should construe this as about procreation, or the supposed sanctity of the male body. To play devil's advocate to myself: well, maybe. Maybe women aren't mentioned because it's culturally appropriate to refer to male activity as including equivalent female activity unless otherwise specified. To play devil's advocate to my devil's advocate: ... really?

Okay, less pedantic. What does it mean to lie with a male as with a woman? Does that cover anal sex only? Plenty of men and women, homosexual and heterosexual alike, have perfectly fulfilling sexual lives without ever experiencing anal sex. If anal sex is the only way we think gay men have sex, we need a better sexual education.

Less pedantic still. If we think that everything God said to the Hebrews applies to Christians, we need a better religious education. This prohibition falls squarely under "the Law," which the very first pan-Christian council decided did not apply to Christians (Acts 15). As a religion, we encountered, debated, and answered this question within ten years of Jesus' death. If you are Jewish, Christian, and gay, maybe this poses a religious problem for you. I couldn't say, not being educated in Jewish theology, let alone Jewish Christian theology. Now, to be sure, plenty of Christians take pieces of the Law as devotional activity, ranging from waving hands as part of worship to tithing. But I think Paul is clear in passages like Acts 13:38-39, Acts 15 (particularly vv. 23-29), Romans 2-8:11 (particularly 6:14), Galatians 2:15-16, and Ephesians 2:14-16 that no part of the Law applies to Christians except as they choose to adopt it. Which, to be clear, raises the further implication: that the Law may be used to infer God's view of pan-cultural morality only with the greatest delicacy.

Leviticus 20:13 ("If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them."). See above.

Judges 19 (the story of the rape in Gibeah). Much of what is said of the story of Sodom applies here, although there is an additional wrinkle. For those who don't know the story, here's the gist of it. A man takes a concubine and displeases in some unspecified way, so she returns to her father's house in another city. The man, feeling remorse, goes to her and wins her back. On their way back to the man's house they stop at the city of Gibeah, where, not knowing any of the locals, they prepare to spend the night in the city square. A Gibean man takes pity on the strangers and invites them to stay at his house instead. As he is entertaining them, a mob of locals demands that he give up the traveler so that they can rape him. The Gibean host tries to placate the mob with his virgin daughter and his guest's concubine, but they will have none of it. In the end the host turns out his guest's concubine, who is raped to death. Her master finds her body in front of his host's house, her fingers stretched out towards the door. The man takes his concubine's corpse home and rouses the other eleven tribes of Israel against the entire city of Gibeah for permitting the crime. Gibeah's own tribe (Benjamin) rises to defend their tribe-mates, and the eleven tribes inquire of God whether they should go to war against all of Benjamin. God says yes. A bloody civil war ensues which almost sees the entire tribe of Benjamin wiped out.

Judges spends three chapters on the story of the rape, the civil war, and how the other eleven tribes manage to prevent Benjamin from dying out in the aftermath, so I think it's fair to say that the text of the story is not homosexuality. Still, if we want to focus on this one particular detail, it must be said that the Gibeans saw a man and a woman enter the host's house and demanded to rape not the woman but the man. The questions relevant to the instant inquiry are these: is this detail supposed to be evidence of Gibeah's depravity, and if so, should we take that as evidence that God finds homosexual sex depraved?

I would tentatively answer the first question yes. It's always dangerous to infer cultural attitudes from a single detail which is not the point of the story, but I think we have evidence in Leviticus that ancient Hebrew culture abhorred (or was thought by later Jews to abhor) male-on-male sex. However, I don't think there's evidence here for God finding homosexual sex abhorrent. For one thing, we're talking about homosexual rape here, which is not the same thing as sex at all (and even cultures which could view homosexual sex as a positive thing, as classical Greeks did, could view homosexual rape as a negative thing - you know, not unlike most people's attitudes towards heterosexual sex and heterosexual rape). But in addition, let's consider why this story is in Judges in the first place. Allegorically speaking, I think this is a story about God's wrath and restoration. The rest of Israel apparently found the rape and murder of the concubine unusually horrific; they rose against Gibeah "united together as one man" (Judges 20:11), which suggests the kind of mob mentality that only truly horrific crimes can inspire. That they have God's blessing to avenge the crime is explicit, and reinforced by the fact that despite Benjamin's initial success in the civil war God tells the other eleven tribes three times that they are doing the right thing. After the war is won the eleven tribes are distraught that Benjamin's resistance means the tribe will likely die out, and oaths taken during the war prevent the eleven tribes from intermarrying to repopulate the tribe. Judges then spends as much time as it spends on the war itself describing the ingenious solution the eleven tribes find to repopulate Benjamin without breaking their wartime vows. In other words, God will pound you back to the Stone Age if he has to, but even if he does he will raise you back up. Benjamin is pounded for failing to prosecute the rape and murder of a woman. To take all this story and say, "Thus, QED, God finds consensual homosexual sex abhorrent" is absurd.

Romans 1:18-32. This passage is too long to quote, and in any case I dislike quoting short passages Scripture except to adduce the larger context or where the passage really does stand on its own, as in the Levitican passages I quoted earlier. Paul's claim in this section is that all people know the essentials of God's nature from observing creation, and that when men turned to their various false religions, worshiping created things (e.g., storms, the sun, etc.) rather than the creator, God gave their cultures over to various forms of moral and cultural debasements, such as covetousness, murder, disobedience to parents, and gay and lesbian (both listed explicitly this time) sex.

In my mind this is among the strongest Biblical passages to support the proposition that God views homosexual sex as immoral. The argument goes something like this:

1. God does not inflict good things as punishments.
2. God inflicted gay and lesbian sex as a punishment.
3. Gay and lesbian sex are not good things.

Which is fine as long as that's a fair description of the passage. But Paul's aim here is not to give a list of immoral activities; his aim is to describe what it looks like when a society goes bad. So what are the "vile passions" with which men and women in a decaying society "burn?" Is it homosexual activity? Or simply infidelity? The Greek here could as easily be translated "husbands and wives," and if you replace homosexual activity with heterosexual activity the gist of the passage doesn't actually change. The problem here is that Paul doesn't simply say, "In these past corrupt societies, women had sex with women and men had sex with men." There is an element of lust to it. A non-religious view might cite that as evidence of cultural bias against homosexual activity (i.e., the stereotype that all homosexual activity is lustful), but as we are taking the religious view, that will not serve.

To illustrate the problem, take another example of the decayed society according to Paul: murder. Murder is not simply homicide. Homicide, as Paul points out elsewhere, and as religions of all stripes at all times have held, is not necessarily an immoral act. Paul gives the example of judicial execution of criminals as non-immoral homicide. When Paul lists murder as one of the things to which a decayed society is given over to, he is referring to a particular species of homicide.

So the question the reader of Romans 1 must answer is this: is Paul referring to all species of homosexual sex? Or merely to some species? If the former, we must ask ourselves why homosexual sex is listed with pejorative adjectives and adverbs whereas all the other behaviors a decaying society evidence are simply listed. If men having sex with men was, from God's point of view, for all cultures at all times and for any reason, wrong, why did God feel the need to say that men in a decayed society "burn in their lust for one another" (v 27) rather than simply saying that they have sex? Because God gets more worked up over homosexual sex than he does over other items in the list, such as being unloving, evil-minded, or unforgiving? I have a really hard time buying that.

1 Corinthians 6:1-11. In this passage, Paul remonstrates to the Corinthian Christians against the divisions that have sprung up among them, and how little they act as if they are all brothers and sisters (chiefly evidenced by their apparent zest for suing one another). In this context, he warns them that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, and goes on to list several examples. Among these is are the infamous (at least in circles that discuss Christianity and homosexuality) arsenokoitai. I transliterate that word because it is difficult to translate. To get an idea for the problem, consider Shakespeare. Everybody knows that Shakespeare made up words. Most of the time we can figure out what they mean because they were either adopted into the language (and thus used by subsequent authors) or appear in the context of a sentence. Now imagine that Shakespeare made up a word that was not subsequently adopted into the language and appeared in a list of bad things, with no other context. What does that word mean? How would you know?

This is exactly the problem of arsenokoites. Maybe Paul didn't make it up, but if so, other contemporary books that used this word did us the disservice of not surviving to the present day. From its appearance in a list of bad things, we may infer with some certainty that the word refers to a bad thing. Its most literal meaning is men-fuckers, from which we may infer that, whatever its precise meaning, it involves fucking men. The word is grammatically masculine, from which we may infer with a strong degree of certainty that it refers to men fucking men. The dangers of interpreting it to mean all men who fuck men are illustrated by the word that appears immediately prior, malakoi. The same literal reading of malakoi would give us "men who are soft," which might be what Paul is saying (only rough, un-gentle men will inherit the kingdom of God?), but I think most people would assume that Paul has in mind a more idiomatic meaning. The same may well be true of arsenokoites. The reader who intends to use 1 Corinthians to demonstrate that homosexual sex is incompatible with the kingdom of God must demonstrate by what means he knows that arsenokoites refers to all men who have sex with men (and by extension, presumably, all women who have sex with women?).

1 Timothy 1:3-11. This is a similar sort of passage to the prior one. In it, Paul urges Timothy to exhort his local pastors not to weave their teachings overmuch with Jewish legend or draw too much implication from who begat who or other Old Testament Scripture, reminding him that the point of the Law is to point out what is wrong, not what is right. In this context, he says, the Law is made for "the lawless and insubordinate, the ungodly and the sinners ..." and goes on to list several examples. In that list, the arsenokoitai make another appearance. I don't find this context meaningfully different, for purposes of determining precisely who the arsenokoitai are, than the 1 Corinthians discussion.

Finally, let me address one point that is commonly made but I don't think is commonly properly rebutted. I often hear it said from proponents of gay marriage that God made homosexual people to be homosexual, and it would be ridiculous - not to mention blasphemous - to pretend that their homosexuality is therefore sinful. This argument has a fine ring to it, but when made in a Christian context I consider it, frankly, a child's argument.

I am personally willing to stipulate that God made homosexual people to be homosexual, by which I mean that whatever causes people to be homosexual, I believe that at least some of that cause is not attributable to the individual's choice. But it does not follow, in a Christian vein of argument, that because God made something it is good. Maybe in other religions it does follow; I don't know. But Christianity would have it that I was born corrupted, that no part of me (physical, mental, spiritual, big, small, etc.) was wholly good. God "made me" that way, in the sense that he caused the universe to work as it does and thus for my life to come into existence, every bit as much as he has hypothetically "made" homosexuals to be born homosexual. The fact that I was born a certain way does not mean that way is good. Only children believe that.

Now, of course, it is common in Christian circles (particularly evangelical circles) to conclude that some aspects of the good, purified version of yourself can be deduced from your natural traits. I think there's reasonable Biblical support for this notion. However, we must distinguish between this principle and the principle that because it exists (i.e., God made it), it is good. Let us suppose that I was born with a predisposition to tell stories, and also a predisposition towards depression. God gave me both traits; are they both good? On what basis might we say that one is a gift I should exercise and the other something I must struggle against my entire life? The Christian answer to that question is the nature of God; the answer to how we are to describe the nature of God is a holistic study of Scripture. It always comes back to Scripture. So let us suppose that I was born with a predisposition towards homosexuality. God made me that way, but on what basis might we say that my homosexual disposition is a gift I should exercise or something I must struggle against my entire life? It comes back to Scripture, which is why this post spends a lot of time on Scripture and very little on the "but God made me this way" argument.

So there it is, the Christian argument for gay marriage (or, more precisely, the argument that Scripture does not disclose that God considers gay marriage immoral) as I would articulate it. If anybody has made it this far, this is a post I would particular enjoy reactions to. The comment box is little used, but it does work.