Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Response to A Reader’s Comments

A Response to A Reader’s Comments

Occasionally, a reader is kind enough to offer comments in response to my posts here at Redeeming Barth. I received a response last week while on vacation to my two part entry on “Coming to Grips with the Beast.” It was left by a reader self-identifying as Anonymous. What follows is the comment and my response:

COMMENT: I have a question. I have read your entire post about homophobia and the sin that it is. I agree and acknowledge that Jesus indeed preached the golden rule and treating others the same way you would like to be treated. But what do you do with Romans 1. How do you reconcile that with your understanding of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle and not sinful?  - Anonymous, Aug. 12, 2012

Dear Anonymous,

I want to thank you for taking the time to leave your comments. I always consider such comments a favor. They indicate that someone has read and actually considered my thoughts. I almost always publish the comments I get, even when I find myself unable to respond to them for whatever reason. I evidence the seriousness with which I take these particular comments with my own response.

Let me begin by urging you to have enough courage - if not simply transparency - to make your comments publicly both here and in other forums in which you may leave comments and not from within the closet of anonymity.  Anonymous comments often function a bit like concealed snipers scoring pot shots. If one feels strongly enough to make a comment, they should be willing to stand by the comment and take whatever responses may be elicited thereby. To do otherwise is to operate out of a degree of intellectual dishonesty if not cowardice.

Closets are made for clothes, not people. When we forget this, the results can be deadly. Trust me on this.

I have read your entire post…

I appreciate your willingness to read my “entire post.” Even so, I must admit that I found that statement curious. I have always found it necessary to read an essay in its entirety if I wished to understand it, much less offer an informed comment on it. And I have to admit that I hear in that description a thinly disguised complaint about a post whose length in MS Word document terms was about nine pages. That translates to about 18 minutes of reading time at average high school reading level (2 minutes/page). That’s not a lot of space to develop ideas as complex as the ones I was attempting to deal with in that post. It’s also not a lot of time commitment from a reader.

That being said, I also realize that we live in an age of sound bites, MacNews nuggets and constant distraction. Reading is hardly a given today so I thank you for investing the time required to read my “entire post.” Indeed, it’s quite possible that my undergrads, many with inordinate senses of entitlement, have conditioned me to hear whining where it may not actually exist.

…Jesus indeed preached the golden rule…

Of course, the reference in my post was to the Second Great Commandment. After loving G-d with all of one’s existence, Hebrew people were commanded to love their neighbors as themselves. While we don’t know whether Jesus actually said this (his travelling stenographer may have had the day off), as a devout Jew, Jesus would likely have known these exhortations from Leviticus. Indeed, one of his contemporaries, Rabbi Hillel, was actively teaching this particular combination during Jesus’ lifetime in a slightly different frame: "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary" (Shabbat 31a).

While the Great Commandments are similar to the Golden Rule with its basic ethical requirement of reciprocity regarding individuals, they differ in an important way - their scope. The Great Commandments originally appear in the Gospel of Mark, the first of the gospels written and the template for both of the later synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, in a rudimentary form. Taken from two different sections of Leviticus, the commandments to love G-d and love neighbor as self are spliced together in Mark with no real explanation or commentary.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew expands upon Mark’s two commandments with an applicatory aspect which echoes that of Hillel: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,”  The Second Great Commandment  is offered as the basis for one’s ethical duties to G-d, oneself and ultimately to one’s neighbors. Thus it not only serves as the ethical basis for social relations, it also provides the critique of both cultural values and social institutions which fail to observe that requirement.

If one is not certain how far the duties imposed by the commandment extend, the writer of the Gospel of Luke, the last of the three synoptic, provides an insight. The recitation of the Great Commandments in Luke precedes the parable of the Good Samaritan. “(But) who is my neighbor?” inquires the lawyer - the great satan of the parable - probing, testing, tempting, demanding Jesus give the expected tribal answer: “Only to fellow devout Jews.”

 But Jesus surprises his hearers with a story in which the very person whom Jewish purity law required avoiding at all cost serves as the very exemplar of Jewish law, the neighbor who lives into the duties to love neighbor as self owed to others. Here the law with its customary tribal applications comes into conflict with a universal duty to love all created beings bearing the image of G-d. And it is important to note that in Jesus’ resolution of this conflict, it is the principled, post-conventional moral reasoning of the Second Great Commandment which prevails, not the conventional reasoning based in social prejudices of the tribe.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.

The duty to love one’s neighbor as oneself – neighbor constructed as all living beings created by G-d - will always exceed all tribal restrictions upon that duty, all socially constructed artificial barriers, all cultural values based in tradition and “common sense” and thus, by definition, all social prejudices. It is my observation that this is the lesson it has taken the Episcopal Church a half century to hear, consider and finally live into. With the past General Convention, it has taken an important step in the direction of going and doing likewise. The church is to be commended for its willingness to wrestle with its conscience for so long and for having the courage to make a wise decision.

But what do you do with Romans 1….

Anonymous, this is an interesting question. Let me note initially that the question appears to evidence a presumption that the mere presence of the writings of Paul in the canon of Christian scriptures somehow creates an obligation to “do (something) with” them one way or the other. I’m not sure why that would be true. There are certainly plenty of sections of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that its readers simply ignore on a regular basis. Ask yourself when was the last time you really spent much time seriously pondering the contents of Numbers in the Hebrew Scripture.

As someone who has spent the last 25 years of his life studying religions, I long ago recognized the wisdom in Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong’s maxim regarding the appropriation of Christian scripture: Because I take the Bible seriously, I never take it literally.  While that may be a bit glib, I have found it to be intellectually sound. Literalist approaches to scripture tend to be superficial, focusing on the text without consideration of context or subtext required to make sense of that text. And, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson is wont to say, “A text without a context is a pretext.”

So let’s start with the subtext which asks the questions of meaning not explicitly conveyed in the text itself. Literalist approaches to scripture tend to implicitly import into their reading a subtext of divine dictation. The result is that what one reads in scripture is somehow like hearing G-d speak. We hear variants of that presumption in almost every tradition of Christianity including my own Episcopal Church which concludes the readings of its lectionary each week with the assertion, “The Word of the Lord.”

While I don’t find the notion of divine dictation of scripture particularly credible given the history of its creation, I readily recognize the inspiration that readily appears in scripture. Many aspects of scripture point beyond themselves to concepts that are, indeed, beyond ordinary human experience. Such aspects speak to both transcendence of daily existence as well as the potential to transform daily existence.

Transcendence and transformative power are qualities that human beings have long ascribed to the divine. In that sense, scripture can rightly be seen as divinely inspired. The voice of the divine may well be heard in the words of scripture. But, those words come by way of distinctly human speakers, writers and editors. And they are read by very human readers. So, while it may be “the word of the Lord” we are hearing when we read the Bible, there are a lot of other voices we’re hearing along with it. Thus, a critical approach to scripture is required if one is to avoid the trap of an uncritical bibliolatry.

What do we bring to the reading?

If we are to do justice to any reading of scripture, we must begin with our presumptions about that scripture, i.e., what we bring to the reading. What I “do with Romans 1” is precisely what I do with all of scripture – I take it seriously by reading it critically.

Whatever meaning I may make from its contents, I try to begin with what is actually there. I try to see all scripture for what it is historically, the product of an early 1st CE religious community trying to make sense of its experience of the divine, using the best words and concepts available to it, operating within its own worldviews and cultural universes, refined over several centuries and subsequent cultures operating out of each of the contextual worlds in which those words and concepts made sense.

This is not a process for the intellectually lazy. It is also not a promising source for those who seek instant gratification and simple answers. On a good day, this is a moving target, a reality unlikely to provide much satisfaction for those whose presenting needs in their approaches to religion are for the certitude of absolute, unchanging truth.

Thus we turn to context.

While the words of Romans 1 are routinely cited by those who would suggest that G-d somehow sees homosexual behaviors as sinful and blame worthy, that evinces a presumption that homophobia, a common human prejudice, somehow finds its origins in the mind of G-d. However, social prejudices speak to human limitations – irrational thinking and unexamined motives. By definition they are the antitheses of transcendence and transformation. Thus, it is more reasonable – not to mention intellectually honest - to locate whatever prejudices we may find in scripture in the understandings arising out of the cultural matrix of its very human writers and editors than to place such misanthropic values in the mind of G-d.

Whatever else St. Paul might have been, he was certainly a product of his culture. Patriarchal cultures by definition tend to be homophobic, homosexual behavior generally being seen as a sign of weakness in cultures whose primary virtues are almost always power.

Romans 1 no doubt made sense to many of Paul’s readers in the first century Roman occupied Palestine. And it continues to make sense to some readers of Paul today who share the same cultural presumptions as Paul and his 1st CE cultural matrix, a culture in which homophobia was seen as normal, self-evident if not divinely ordained. Patriarchy, with its worship of power, has proven a highly appealing way of constructing the social world for a very long time.

But this is precisely where the critical approach to scripture comes in. Unlike Jefferson’s presumptions about human beings found in the Declaration of Independence, all scripture is not born equal. Nor is all scripture necessarily “the word of the Lord.” A critical reading of scripture requires an intellectually honest reader to recognize that the writings often reflect the very human limitations that mark all human cultures. And when that becomes apparent, the reader must have enough integrity and courage to simply say, “That is simply not the divine speaking to us here.” 

Of course, many thoughtful believers have long since learned how to practice critically discriminatory reading of scripture. Most of us don’t continue to see the destructive practice of slavery as divinely ordained, or the misanthropic attitudes of racism or sexism as divinely commanded. Moreover, we have been more than willing to ignore scriptural admonitions against state killing or excessive lending rates in a culture which happily kills our fellow citizens - whether guilty or not – and drives families from their homes with predatory lending practices. One wonders what practicing the example of G-d’s dealing with Cain might mean to the prison industrial complex in America or what a Jubilee Year might mean to the current home mortgage crisis.

The aspects of scripture which we seize upon as non-negotiable inevitably reveal more about us than anything about the divine. Paul Tillich speaks of those aspects of our lives to which we afford “ultimate concern” as revealing our true objects of worship, the gods of our religions. When given a choice between the base, common prejudices of conventional moral reasoning of which homophobia is but one manifestation and the post-conventional requirements of universal love of neighbor as self, regardless of tribal conventions to the contrary, there should be little doubt as to which more readily evinces the divine. 

So, what do you do with Romans 1?

So, what do I do with Romans 1? I take it seriously, but not literally. I undertake to assay the divine from the profane, an undertaking fraught with potential dangers (and no small amount of arrogance, no doubt) but nonetheless demanded of the intellectually honest reader of scripture. I recognize the limitations that Paul’s cultural matrix placed upon him and I account for those limitations in his thinking here by calling them what they were – common, base social prejudices. When I weigh those prejudices against the post-conventional demands of the Second Great Commandment , I find that Paul, whatever other merits his writing and thinking may evidence, simply comes up short here.

That said, I must quickly add that this assessment doesn’t give me the luxury of simply dismissing Paul as a mindless homophobe unworthy of serious consideration as far too many have been willing to do. Indeed, as a Southerner who has devoted a life time to coming to grips with the racism he ingested as a child, I implicitly know better than that. In his essay “They Can’t Turn Back,” black writer James Baldwin speaks of how difficult it is to come to grips with the toxic misanthropic understandings one has learned as a child: “It took many years of vomiting up ail the filth I'd been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”  More than five decades after my own upbringing in the racist culture of a segregated Central Florida, I still wrestle with that beast. 

One thing I have learned from that wrestling is that summing up complex human beings by a single attitude or belief system is an exercise in reductionism unworthy of a critical mind, not to mention one who would seek to live into the demands of the Second Great Commandment. To paraphrase Sister Helen Prejean, the chaplain to the inmates of Death Row at Angola, Louisiana’s death machine, “People are more than the worst thing they’ve every (believed) in their lives.” There are no constitutional homophobes to be reviled, only human beings holding homophobic attitudes which merit engagement in the light of modern science, democratic values and the imperatives of the Second Great Commandment.  

That brings me to the final part of the comment.

How do you reconcile…homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle….

If we take the rubric of avoiding reductionism seriously, the problems with seeing “homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle” are immediately apparent. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation which a certain portion of the human population has always found as their dominant inclination. Homosexual behaviors are engaged by virtually every species of animals, some as their dominant expression, others in varying degrees along with heterosexual expression and some not at all.

But sexual orientations and behaviors are not lifestyles. One might compare Ward and June Cleaver with Elizabeth Taylor or Mel Gibson and their multiple spouses in lives of serial polygamy. Clearly the sexual orientations of each of these people is predominately heterosexual as evidenced in the mates they have chosen. But which of these exemplars provides the normative heterosexual lifestyle and upon what basis?

Even more problematic is the notion that this nebulous, reductionist “homosexual lifestyle” is somehow alternative in nature. To what norm would that alternative be and upon what basis would that norm have been established? It’s important to note the heterosexist presumption that clearly informs this statement – Everyone is like us (heterosexual) or they ought to be. And if they aren’t, there is something wrong with them.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a group of men who dress in the habits of religious women for purposes of bringing homophobia to consciousness. At the National Coming Out Day on the Cal campus in Berkeley in 1992, Sister Vicious Power-Hungry Bitch offered this observation: “Instead of calling heterosexuality normal, call it what it really is – common.”

Heterosexual orientations and behaviors are certainly common in the human population. But mere statistical prevalence, while providing a mathematical norm, hardly translates to a moral exemplar against which all other expressions may be considered “alternative” if not immoral. The uncritical presumption of the majority that its experience is somehow normative for everyone – including G-d – is little more than a potentially destructive expression of group narcissism.

I believe that the G-d of all creation calls human beings to more than that. One of the primary reasons I continue to follow Jesus –despite the many limitations of the church which has developed over 2000 years in his name – is the recognition in his life and example of the ability and courage to employ post-conventional moral reasoning, even in the face of certain death. Such reasoning by definition recognizes the imperative to transcend tribal prejudices, a need, which if taken seriously, could readily transform the world. Jesus was willing to die an excruciating death (quite literally) for this way of being human which evinces the divine. And it is that example which causes me, like the centurion in Luke’s Gospel, to say, “Surely, this man was the son of G-d.”

Thank you.

I thank you for your comment, Anonymous. You have prompted me to think, something I always see as a gift. It is my hope that these comments will return that favor.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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