Friday, July 13, 2007

"Love the sinner, hate the sin" and other myths of the anti-gay campaigns

A few days ago, USA Today's opinion page printed a piece by a Lutheran about the problem of gay clergy in modern Protestant churches. America's Evangelical Lutheran church recently expelled a gay minister who wished to marry his partner. The Episcopal church in America has confirmed an openly gay bishop, and the worldwide Anglican church responded with an ultimatum: defrock him, or the Episcopals would no longer be an arm of the Anglican church.

Today, several letters appeared on the opinion page in response to the piece. Two were lengthy pieces condemning the writer as theologically misguided, and one was a shorter piece in support. To be empirical, my version of Microsoft Word informs me there were exactly 607 words in the letters against the article, and 96 words in the letter in favor.

USA Today's editorial choice here is curious. Were they trying to proportionally reflect the volume of mail received on each side of the debate, or are they expressing tacit agreement with the dissenters? Either way, one sentence in one of the condemning letters caught my eye: "Luther would condemn the behavior of gays while still loving them. He'd love the sinner and hate the sin."

The problem is that in the case of gay rights, I'm not convinced this cute little sentence makes any sense. "Love the sinner and hate the sin" sounds nice, but what exactly does it mean? Is it possible to love gay people while denying them legislation to protect them from hate crimes? At what point does love include the provision of basic rights?

It has always been my opinion that professions of love are worthless without actions to back them up, but many of today's Christians seem unwilling to take any actions that might show love for the queer community as people, by giving them rights that are afforded to other groups as a matter of course. It's hypocrisy that Christians believe people practicing other religions are living in sin, but jump to embrace hate crimes legislation that protects religious beliefs, even the 'sinful' ones. If one group of 'sinners' deserves protection (even if it's for the selfish reason that Christians are protected from religiously motivated persecution under those same laws), then why not this other group of 'sinners'? Christians defend legislation that allows other religions to practice in peace, because they feel such legislation might one day protect them. They don't feel the same threat in relation to the queer cause (naturally, what good Christian needs to worry their personal rights might get trampled if they decide they're gay? Good Christians just aren't gay, so of course the possibility is remote. It's a likelihood that seems more distant than religious persecution). The worst kind of "not my backyard, so it's not my problem" mentality prevents queers from being afforded the same rights as all other people.

'Love' is a soundbyte that packs a punch with many people. The problem is that for love to have teeth, it also must pack a set of obligations. Morality in action is a system of duties attached to beliefs, and the belief of love comes with certain duties to insure the well-being of the loved as much as possible. One cannot claim to love while depriving someone of basic safety and self-respect, or willingly permitting others to do likewise. It seems natural to me that in order to truly claim to love someone, you should as a matter of course desire for them a better quality of life, and hope they are afforded all the same rights and privileges that you yourself are afforded. In the case of gay people, it's hypocritical to claim to love them on one hand while withdrawing basic protections and liberties on the other.

Many Christians grew up with pastors feeding them the soundbyte of "love the sinner, hate the sin". The problem is that in the case of gay rights, it's not clear the two are distinct, and the modern church all-too-often errs on the side of hate.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Today's News of the Religious Weird

Today, a Hindu man was scheduled to give the morning invocation for the Senate Chamber. It is in fact the first time that a Hindu prayer has been given in the Senate, and the man who gave it has also given prayers in his state chambers of congress (he's from Nevada).

The chamber was interrupted when three Christian protesters invaded and began shouting slurs. The morning's presiding officer (a Pennsylvania Democrat) ordered them thrown out of course, but their behavior was shameful and cast a pall on the morning that should have been a small celebration of religious freedom in our country. An anti-abortion group has since claimed credit in a press release (check out the group's website, linked from the press release. It pushes the boundaries on comically nuts).

EDIT: The blogosphere's response has generally been eyerolling, but I thought John Scalzi's piece "Jesus Says: Don't Be A Dick" was particularly good.

Subversive Scriptures: Romans 9:10-21

10Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls she was told, "The older will serve the younger." 13Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

19One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' " 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

Let's recap: before Jacob and Esau were born, before they had a chance to sin, God declared that he hated Esau, and loved Jacob. In the case of the Pharaoh that refused to allow Moses to leave Egypt, God actively 'harden[ed] those whom he want[ed] to harden' so that Pharaoh would spoil Moses's plans, and then punished the whole of Egypt each time Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites leave. Pharaoh's sole purpose, actually, was to exist so that Egypt might be punished for his folly. All so that God's glory could be shown to the Israelites. The firstborn son of every Egyptian house died because of Pharaoh's decision not to let the Israelites leave his country, and here God claims that the decision was a result of God hardening Pharaoh's heart.

Ironically, this scripture fits amiably with the hawkish stances on war that many Christian denominations have taken. Who cares about collateral casualties so long as the glory of God is shown to his people? As long as the chosen ones are all right, there's no need to keep track of Iraqi casualties.

Any way you take it, Paul's writing here has difficult implications for the Christian faith. Is god the kind of God that would actually create a person solely for the purpose of punishing a nation for that person's decisions? Would he actively harden Pharaoh's heart against Moses, then take out his wrath on the children of a nation? Read literally, the answer here is yes.

Read more charitably, one might say that Paul was simply pointing out that God knew the result of Pharaoh's confrontation with Moses before the confrontation occurred. It would on this reading be all right for God to say that he has loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were born, because God knew in advance which he would love and which he would hate.

I think that this is a rather disingenuous reading, because it ignored the bits about God 'loving whom he would love and hardening whom he would harden'. Those are fairly active statements, not statements of God's knowledge, but statements of God's direct action.

Another disturbing implication of this passage is to point out that God doesn't actually love everyone. God is not an all-charitable being. God knows in advance whether you will be one of his people, and if you are not, then you can become collateral damage for the sake of his people. If you are not among the chosen, then in fact God does not love and value you, but may hate you (and has even before you were born!). The Bible has numerous examples of what has happened to civilizations or cities or people that God has hated. Most of them end bloodily.

I am not claiming that these interpretations are the correct ones. I am, however, pointing out that they are not unreasonable extrapolations. It's all there in the text, in a little passage that no one really talks much about. I've never seen a pastor preach on it. Frankly, I think most pastors are either unaware of it or are ignoring it because of the implications. This isn't the theology that a pastor would want a church full of prospective Christians to hear.

It contradicts a lot of modern soundbytes, and several major doctrines of various modern denominations. This is subversive scripture at its best.

Subversive Scriptures Index Post

How many people have actually read and considered the whole of the Bible? The answer, unsurprisingly, is 'not many'. Even many pastors have not read the whole Bible critically and analyzed the importance of its scriptures. We see verses about love in Sunday School, but we don't see the verses about slavery, or about god's power to harden the hearts of those people whom he has not chosen.

The truth is, if a number of Christians would read the Bible completely (and think carefully about what it says), today's religions might look very different than they currently do. In the spirit of reminding myself (and others) that sometimes the Bible is not a warm and fuzzy book of Jesus-loves-us-all, I'm starting a list of disturbing scriptures from the Bible. This will probably be updated on a rolling basis as I find more verses that fit onto this list.

I hope that this list raises questions in its readers. Is it actually good or right to believe that the Bible is infallible? Was the Bible authored solely by god, or by men who were divinely inspired? What things in the Bible should be interpreted at face value, and which are the results of a culture that no longer applies to or interacts with our own? What is the meaning of faith, in the face of scriptures about God's divine will? Don't read this as a list of scriptures posted solely for their controversial nature, but as a list of scriptures that, if taken seriously, project a very different view of God than the one commonly taught in all Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations.

The truth is, no Christian believes completely in the whole of the Bible. These are the verses that get ignored.

I will post these under the tag 'subversive scriptures', but this post will serve as an index of all the Subversive Scriptures series. Scriptures without links are planned for future posts, and the links will be updated as those posts are forthcoming.

God's Nature / God's Will

Social Issues
  • Colossians 3:21
  • Peter 2:18
  • Romans 13
  • Leviticus 18:22
  • Leviticus 20:13
  • Romans 1:26-271
  • Corinthians 6:9-101
  • Timothy 1:9-10
  • Genesis 29:18-27
  • Ruth 4:10
  • Matthew 19:1-12

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Culture wars: science vs religion, again.

The American political landscape of late has been saddening, littered with scandals and corruption investigations on both sides of the aisle. Several days ago, the former surgeon general gave a landmark statement to Congress about the current Administration's attempts to suppress scientific research into promising stem-cell discoveries for political reasons. Tomorrow, the Senate will begin hearings on a new surgeon general, Dr. James Holsinger.

Today, the NYT ran an editorial about the prospective surgeon general. It describes his position as part of the church judicial council for the United Methodist Church, and details his views on gay people and the church. As part of that council, Holsinger supported a minister who refused to allow a gay man to join his church, and argued that a lesbian minister should be removed because homosexuality was incompatible with church doctrine. Holsinger argues that he was merely interpreting church doctrine, and that these issues had nothing to do with his own personal views. Tellingly, however, other council members opposed his stances, and bishops in the church later even rejected one decision. Holsinger also authored a 'scientific' white paper for a church committee, entitled 'Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality'. Supposedly it was a medical review, but its conclusions that gay sex was anatomically abnormal and could lead to rectal injuries and STDs seem more like propaganda than reasoned science. What about the many, many heterosexual couples engaging in anal intercourse? What about the STDs transmitted through 'normal' vaginal intercourse? No mention of these sexual hazards were considered in the paper's findings. Our prospective surgeon general apparently (at least at the time) considered gay people as diseased and abnormal. Comforting.

This is the man who will represent the nation's 6000+ doctors in the coming years on any number of health issues, and whose decisions will have guiding influence in the direction of medicine to come. This is the position that the current administration has hobbled into an ideological puppet. The person put into this post will be one of the warriors on the forefront of the battle between science and religious culture, so it's important that Congress think carefully before installing a bigot.

Ironically, these hearings come as the American Psychological Association makes the final preparations for a series of meetings about the potential harms of ex-gay conversion 'therapies'. The Southern Baptist Convention has joined with Focus on the Family (Surprised? Anyone? Didn't think so.) to complain that the APA isn't listening to gays whose religious beliefs are against their gay lifestyles. The task force is expected to propose a ban on these so-called 'reparative therapies', and the Convention isn't happy. The problem is apparently that the task force is determined to look at the best science on these 'therapies' instead of listening to religious leaders who would present metaphysics in the face of numerical evidence.

The battle between science and organized religion is being waged on a number of fronts in the next few weeks. The soundbytes of 'speak the truth in love to homosexuals' will be tossed around liberally by religious leaders. The dryer, less catchy soundbytes of numerical evidence will be tossed around by scientists. The problem in these culture wars is that truth, as far as human-kind can determine it, has long been arbitrated by the findings of scientific investigation. Here's one thing I can guarantee Focus on the Family won't talk much about: if the numbers that the APA provides actually do represent the truth, then where, exactly, is the love?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On the purpose of this blog...

My decision to begin this blog is rooted in a deep frustration with the current state of christianity in general, and the Southern Baptist Convention in particular. I have been christian for years, but have recently found myself disagreeing more and more frequently with the 'soundbytes' produced by various christian organizations.

There is a lot of hypocrisy in the Southern Baptist church, and this blog will take a look at some of the more egregious examples, both theological and practical.