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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Homosexuality and the Bible. Response to Dan Savage and Sam Harris

David Horne. Hoosier. Eagle Scout. Second grade teacher.  Gay  man and Gay rights activist. Devout Christian.

The photo, above, is of my friend David Horne. David was a Hoosier, an Eagle Scout, a second grade teacher, my fellow activist for Gay rights, and my fellow Christian.

David died at age 25. I talk about David in Save Send Delete.

I thought about David last night.

***

Saturday, April 28, a facebook friend posted a link to a Breitbart story about Dan Savage, a celebrity author, addressing high school students at a conference. Savage, looking and acting very Big Brother as he looms over and sneers at the high school students from his giant video screen, refers to the Bible as "bullshit" and advises the high school students to learn to "ignore" it. Savage quotes Sam Harris, a New Atheist who famously suggested that persons of faith should be killed for what they believe: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Some high school students walk out of Savage's talk. Savage mocks them as "pansy ass."

***

Watching this video, I remembered a man I met only once but have never forgotten, a Catholic priest in Slovakia who was tortured by atheists for being a Catholic. I remembered secret Christians I met in Nepal who were imprisoned for the crime of being Christian.

I woke up this morning to headlines: sixteen killed in church in Nigeria.

Indeed, a recent study shows that members of the Christian church are the most persecuted in the world.

My liberal facebook friends, very sensitive to human rights abuses, never post about church bombings in Nigeria or Egypt, about Christians tortured and imprisoned for their beliefs.

I wonder if one of the reasons for leftist insensitivity to oppression of Christians is because ubiquitous, unquestioned hate speech against the Judeo-Christian tradition helps to desensitize otherwise sensitive people.

Would Dan Savage be invited to tell high school students that the Koran is bullshit? The Vedas? The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Mabinogion?

No. We all know he would not.

***

Dan Savage protests homophobia.

I protest homophobia.

I'm a Christian.

***

I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to attend Indiana University.

Bloomington is in the Midwest. I had lived on the coasts: the New York metro area, and the San Francisco Bay area.

I encountered homophobia in Bloomington.

I had never encountered serious homophobia before.

I became an activist for Gay Rights.

I am not gay. I have no immediate family members who are gay.

I became an activist for Gay Rights because I am a Christian. My teacher said this to me: "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me."

My teacher told me that the Good Samaritan was to be my role model.

I attended every PFLAG meeting I could make it to. I marched, organized, carried signs, broadcast essays, and published in the local press.

Our PFLAG meetings were often held in local Christian churches. One of our most active members was a Protestant clergyman. Most attendees were themselves Christian.

One of my publications, "Homosexuality and the Bible," is below.

If Dan Savage were correct, and the Bible were "bullshit" that we best ignore, I would not have done anything for Gay Rights.

Dan Savage is wrong. My friend, David Horne, a devout Christian, a Gay Rights activist, and a Gay man, knew that.

Homosexuality and The Bible
The Bloomington Voice
The Weekly Newspaper of South Central Indiana VI:23 (July 3, 1997): 4

Public debate on gender is frequently saturated with voices claiming the Bible as basis for political resistance to civil rights for homosexuals. Policy-makers may conclude that all constituents of faith demand public hostility to homosexuals. To spiritual seekers it may seem that the Judeo-Christian tradition was founded on and is obsessed with such hostility. This essay outlines one heterosexual Christian’s reading of scripture to understand anti-gay discrimination as profoundly contrary to the spirit and truth of the Bible.

Opponents of civil rights for homosexuals typically cite three Biblical passages understood to condemn homosexuality, and then declare that these three passages should direct public policy. Putting aside this tactic’s violation of the principle of the separation of church and state, this Christian finds two flaws in it: it is anti-Biblical, and, it is belied by the religious practices of the homophobes themselves.

The cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not a traffic signal, nor is it a Marine drill sergeant. God did not choose to direct this tradition with the kind of stimulus that requires blind obedience. Our guide, rather, is a lengthy book, which must be studied and discussed as books are studied and discussed.

One can no more abstract one sentence from the Bible and understand it in isolation than one can abstract one sentence from War and Peace or any other complex work. This approach is folly on a Swiftian scale. It does great disservice to the Bible. Shaving, wearing of mixed fabrics, intercropping -- isolated Bible verses can be found to condemn all. Menstruation is “abomination,” the same word used to describe homogenital acts. Couples intimate during menstruation are condemned to exile. Verses can be found to support human sacrifice, the veiling of women, the genital mutilation of corpses, the exile of victims of skin disease, absolute communism under pain of death, slavery, racism, the blood guilt of Jews, and consumption of poison as proof of marital fidelity or Christian faith. Unless and until the homophobes follow all these verses literally, they demonstrate their own argument as without merit.

Given that isolated Bible verses can be found to support any number of heinous or exotic policies, one might be tempted to jettison the Bible and dismiss Jews and Christians as primitive lunatics. This Christian feels no such temptation. Rather, logic demands that each idiosyncratic interpretation and application of Scripture answer for itself. So-called Fundamentalists must announce why they promulgate verses condemning homogenital acts as central; those of us who do not must provide our criteria.

This Christian would offer two supports for her rejection of homophobia as a Biblically supportable position. One, the Bible itself offers a check to literalism. The Bible, to this Christian, is true; it is just not true in the way the homophobes need it to be. Too, advances in knowledge demand that we engage with the Bible, testing everything we read in it against what it is and what we have come to learn since it was set down.

Selection of one verse as foundation for public policy applies a literalist concept of “truth” that is anti-Biblical, secular, and anachronistic. And it is sin. Fundamentalists apply to the Bible the approach to words that evolved after the invention of texts like package instructions, legal documents, and science experiments. Such texts, and the mindset that produced them, altered how people processed words. Fundamentalists now -- sinfully, foolishly, unsuccessfully -- apply that secular approach to sacred words that were once heard in a very different way.

A Native American, testifying in a trial, was adjured to tell the truth. He hesitated and said, “I don’t know if I can tell you the truth. I can only tell you what I know.” Paul encapsulated the concept this way: “We know in part and we prophesy in part...We see as in a glass, darkly.” Folk cultures tacitly accept that truth, like the oral canon, has versions and variants. The Bible, from the secular, anachronistic standpoint adopted by homophobes, “lies” beginning in Genesis, which offers two different versions of the creation story. Berkeley folklore scholar Alan Dundes has demonstrated that every major Biblical passage, from basic prayers like Judaism’s “Hear, oh Israel” and Christianity’s “Our Father,” to historical accounts like that of Jesus’ death, is recorded in at least two differing versions. The folk concept of truth that allows for such variation is not antiquated; post-Heisenberg physics and postmodern philosophy support it.

The check the Bible offers to self-serving applications of literalist concepts of “truth” is a strong condemnation (Mat 26:61; Mark 14:58; John 2:20). Further, in Matthew 23, Jesus literally damns righteous hypocrites who, like modern homophobes, attempt to assassinate the immortal spirit of God’s word while denying the Kingdom of Heaven to those who do not measure up to the dead letter of the law.

Argumentation, rather than blind obedience, is the model offered by Biblical heroes. Abraham, Mary, and Jesus are but prominent examples of the Biblical model of debating the absolute commandments of God. Abraham changes God’s mind about the number of good men that can redeem a town; Mary defies Jesus’ resistance and nags him into performing his first miracle. Jesus openly disobeyed tenants of the meticulous and rigid law. When asked directly, Jesus selected some commandments as being worthy to follow, to the exclusion of others (Mat. 19:18-22). Jesus explained that the law was made for man, not the other way around. The law’s test and proof was love of God and love of others (Mark 2: 27; Mat. 22:35-40). Love, in Jesus’ radical approach, was to be granted even to those his contemporaries had been trained to hate because of accidents of birth (Luke 10, 25-37). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus depicted a despised minority group member as superior to a priest and a high caste Levite. It is the Samaritan who obeys the spirit of the law, and rescues a brutalized stranger. Application of the tenets of this parable to homophobia exposes homophobia as anti-Biblical.

In any case, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. The word is never used. Three passages condemn male homogenital acts performed a part of gang rape, temple prostitution, or idolatry. These verses are few, especially when compared to the Biblical torrent of words lambasting greed, gluttony, and power without conscience. Lesbianism is never mentioned in the Old Testament. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality or homogenital acts. Bible scholars argue that the reason the Bible does not address homosexuality as such is that homosexuality was not fully understood by the ancients.

The three passages repeatedly cited by homophobes need to be understood in context. For example, homophobes cite the Sodom story as evidence of Biblical condemnation of homosexuals. The Bible, in fact, reports the sins of Sodom as pride, gluttony, ease, and greed (Ezekiel 16:49). An illuminating version of the Sodom story appears in Judges. There the predatory gang, mistakenly identified by modern homophobes as homosexuals, rapes a woman sacrificed to protect her male companions (Judges 19:22-26). Clearly, gang rape, rather than homosexuality, was these men’s crime.

The Bible does record extraordinary love between members of the same gender. Perhaps the most poignant love vow in world literature was spoken by Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:16, 17). Jonathan risked and sacrificed incalculably for David, with whom he exchanged numerous love vows, and whom he loved as he loved his own life (1 Samuel 20, 17). When Jonathan died, David said, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

Study reveals that the Bible is not the gay bashing handbook so-called Fundamentalists would like to pretend it to be. The Bible’s text erodes the Fundamentalist position; the kind of document the Bible is erodes their position even further. Jesuit Walter J. Ong, Eric Havelock, and other scholars of oral cultures tell us that folk literature served as encyclopedia. In the absence of libraries and computers, sacred scripture, memorized by tribe members, had to encapsulate every byte of data deemed important to the tribe. Modern Christians dismiss much of such data found in the Bible as simply inaccurate. No Christian physician would tell his patient, as the Bible does, to cure illness by drinking alcohol (Timothy 5:23). No contemporary preacher calls for the incarceration and torture of Stephen Hawking, although Galileo once suffered such a fate under the church because his findings contradicted the Biblical concept of the solar system.

The Bible is not the contemporary Christian’s physician’s Desk Reference -- hydrocortisone works better for eczema than forcing the itchy to muss their hair, dwell apart, and shout, “Unclean!” The Bible is not our political system -- we can rejoice that we no longer practice the slavery so vigorously defended by Paul. Christian historians seeking the truth of Jesus’ life must juggle competing and contradictory versions of his genealogy in Mathew and Luke; versions that, it is openly acknowledged, were written to appeal to special interest groups. The Bible as databank of secular knowledge has lost ground. To ask the Bible to teach us about aspects of human sexuality that were deeply misunderstood in ancient times is to torture the book, to force it to perform tasks it cannot do.

Sister Wendy Beckett has pointed out that art starts at the top; that today’s art may be different from the cave paintings of Lascaux, but it is no better. Spiritual writing, too, starts at the top. Nothing written today surpasses the spiritual classics. The Bible remains an inspiration for modern Christians and Jews, and that inspiration is found in words like, “Love God; love your neighbor as yourself; that is the law and the prophets.” To reject such words because of the politicized application of their neighbors is to unnecessarily impoverish ourselves, to surrender to the forces of oppression and cruelty, and to lie to ourselves about our birthright.

It is not enough to claim the Bible; one must also live it. In The Good Book, Reverend Peter J. Gomes describes how so-called Christian rhetoric directed against homosexuals makes fertile the ground for brutal beatings and, yes, even religion inspired murder. The Bible’s overall message, the Bible’s repeated warnings against a crafty, self serving literalism, adjure Christians and Jews to speak up and out when scripture is prostituted to serve homophobic campaigns of violence and hate.

***

The Dan Savage video can be viewed here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Suicide, Catholicism, and Atheism

"The Suicide" by Edouard Manet. Source.

"Save Send Delete" is a hard book to pigeonhole. It's been compared to "Griffin and Sabine," "84 Charring Cross Road," "Eat Pray Love" "Life of Pi" and C. S. Lewis' work.

Marketers ask who my audience is. "Intelligent people who like to laugh and who aren't put off by the occasional dirty word and who want the big answers or at least the big questions."

"Save Send Delete" is really a long conversation between two people: a devout Catholic (me) and a celebrity atheist (Anonymous – but he jokes that he wants to play himself in the movie version.)

One of the big questions that the Catholic and the Anonymous Atheist discuss is suicide.

People are so steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its values – like a fish, they don't realize that they are in water.

In fact, though, there are value systems in which suicide, and, indeed, infanticide – killing your own children – make sense. In some value systems, they are required. In Ancient Sparta, for just one example, deformed or weak infants were left to die. Suicide in Japan is seen very differently than in the West.

But we are in water – we are surrounded by Judeo-Christian values. And so we automatically assume that suicide is a tragedy. We make this assumption whether we are Christian or Jewish or not. We do so because of the values of our culture, a culture based on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

What if the New Atheists had their way? What if we eliminated the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its influence on our values? Would the New Atheists be able to offer any intellectually coherent argument against suicide?

When I was writing "Save Send Delete," I asked that question on an internet discussion board for atheists. The question aroused some anger – sometimes I wonder if you can say anything to a New Atheist without arousing some anger.

But no one was able to offer a response. If material reality is all there is – if the only reality is what we can hear, smell, see, touch, taste – if there is nothing unseen by us – if there is no God, no soul, no afterlife – if the Judeo-Christian tradition is wrong and there is no hell, no heaven, no eternal consequence for every choice we make, every action we perform – what argument is there against ending an unhappy life? None, maybe. I'm asking, here.

For Catholics, of course, suicide is a huge taboo. I remember a priest mentioning, during a sermon I heard in my childhood, that suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground. This sent a chill through me. For a sin to be so heinous that the sinner's dead flesh could not even be allowed contact with something as common as dirt, no contact with soil that had been blessed by a Catholic priest – shudder. That solemnly flamboyant sacramental rejection struck me as the worst kind of exclusion a human being might ever experience.

The Catholic rejection of suicide is consistent with what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called the "seamless garment." Catholicism supports the life of each individual. Abortion, suicide, euthanasia, unjust war and the death penalty are all big no-nos in the "seamless garment" school of Catholic thought.

I thought about this debate while reading the New York Times on Sunday. There were two prominent articles about suicide.

"Increasingly, Suicide by 'Economic Crisis' Is a Symptom of the Downturn in Europe" talked about an "alarming spike in suicide rates" among men in Europe killing themselves because of the economic crisis there.

A 53 year old Italian man, Antonio Tamiozzo, hanged himself in his warehouse after debtors reneged on their debts. Giovanni Schiavon, 59, a contractor, shot himself after contemplating Christmas firings of workers. "Sorry, I cannot take it anymore," his note said. A 77 year old retiree shot himself outside the Greek Parliament on April 4.

In Greece, the suicide rate among men has increased 24 percent from 2007 to 2009. In Ireland, suicides among men rose 16 percent. In Italy, suicides increased 52 percent. In Veneto, Italy, thirty small business people have committed suicide in the past three years for reasons related to work. One Irish businessman considered suicide after a banker said to him, "Save the sob story. We want our money. If that means taking your family home, we'll do it." The man did not kill himself; rather, he went on to found a group to help struggling businessmen.

The Times attributed the spate of suicides in Veneto, Italy, to a lessening of the centrality of Catholicism in people's lives. "Work became the religion here, and over time it has weakened the family, because if all you do is work, work, work, you have little else to fall on when work fails." Caritas, a Catholic charity, is trying to help businesspeople cope. In Ireland, a Catholic church in Clonmel offered a three-day seminar, "Suicide in Recessionary Times."

The second article on suicide in Sunday's New York Times was "A Veteran's Death, the Nation's Shame" by Nicholas D. Kristof.

This article about military suicides contained truly shocking numbers: "For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands…Veterans kill themselves at the rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year – more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined…For men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide."

Kristof focused on one suicide, Ryan Yurchison. Kristof asked his mother, Cheryl DeBow, why she was allowing him, Kristof, to draw national attention to her son's suicide. "He was willing to sacrifice his life for his country," she said. "And he did, just in a different way, without the glory."

I'm guessing that anyone reading this post feels, as I did, sad when I read of these suicides among businessmen in Europe and veterans in the US. Our reaction is based on the assumption that each individual human life has value. We could have a very different reaction. We could say, Well, these men have failed, and it is good that they have ended their lives. In many cultures, that would be the "normal" response.