I will be in a challenging position next week. Over the next few weeks I will once again be visiting Kenya, working on building cooperation with local churches there so that they can do their own work and fulfil their own spiritual calling better. This will inevitably involve extended discussions of the core ethical teachings of Christianity, and that in turn is rather likely to come back to the matter of toleration for and even full acceptance of homosexuality in (post-)Christian western cultures. My perspective is inevitably going to be very different from theirs, and I want to carefully consider how to approach the issue in a way that opens fresh perspectives for them without scandalizing them or frightening them away.
For some of my more secularized friends the phrase “fulfil their spiritual calling” may be rather scary sounding, so let me try to partially unpack what that means to me. I believe that the strongest teaching Jesus gave to his followers regarding the difference between those who are on God’s Kingdom’s side and those who are functionally in opposition to God’s Kingdom is in the end of Matthew chapter 25. (The connection between this teaching and the two parables which preface it is an interesting sermon unto itself, but we’ll leave that for another time.) In short, in the last 16 verses of this chapter — which is where Jesus comes the closest to talking about heaven and hell in the sort of terms that evangelicals and Catholics are most familiar with — the factors which distinguish those bound for heaven and those bound for hell are simply their efforts to care for those lacking food, drink, shelter, clothing, medical care and companionship. Nothing there about doctrinal purity; just a strict emphasis on showing God’s love to others in practical terms. That is what I believe churches in Africa in particular are spiritually called to do. Many of them do it quite well; others miss the mark by a considerable distance.
Meanwhile, for myself and other western Christians who take Jesus’ message seriously, finding partners who can help us help others is an extremely important part of following the Lord’s teaching. In the case of finding ways to help those in Africa with the six sorts of needs Jesus talks about, the options are essentially of four sorts: 1) supporting the work of local governments, 2) establishing or patronizing successful businesses there which work with responsible local partners (Fair Trade produce, etc.) 3) giving direct assistance by way of trustworthy secular non-governmental organizations, or 4) giving direct assistance by way of faith-based organizations (churches). Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, and all of them have their fair share of con-men involved. In simple terms though, those who are acting out of a sense of responsibility to a higher power do, on average, the most efficient work in terms of channeling the practical aid they receive to those who need it most. More human suffering is eliminated per dollar donated through church groups than through any of the other three channels.
But besides basic dishonesty and greed being found in churches as well, when it comes to the process of helping others, church leaders are also among the most poorly educated and most naïve of partners there at times. Also it is sometimes difficult for them to see a connection between providing practical aid and preaching the message of the Bible as they basically understand it. And like western Christians, African church leaders also have a tendency at times to believe that their prejudices and cultural traditions represent God’s will for mankind. Thus part of what I am trying to do on these African adventures is to build a sort of educational network to help keep church leaders there honest and responsible to each other, and to help them build a greater practical understanding of how the gospel message can be understood and applied in ways that make us more like the “sheep” than the “goats” in Matthew 25.
There are strict atheists who don’t believe that Christianity really does any humanitarian good, and there are Christians who believe that convincing as many as possible to swear allegiance to their brand of belief is more important than humanitarian work per se. I believe both are wrong, but I don’t want to take the bandwidth here to argue against those positions. If you disagree with my premises as stated above all I can say for now is that I wish you the best of luck in finding your own purpose in life elsewhere, and goodbye for now. Meanwhile, back to the challenge stated at the beginning: dealing with the questions of homosexual rights and gay marriage in the context of this mission.
Let me state a few things from the outset regarding this issue. First of all I happen to have friends –– good friends in fact –– on both sides of this issue, for whom the whole idea of calling their convictions into question even is highly offensive. Those on both sides are thus just going to have to bear with me; or otherwise walk off in disgust and stick to your respective safe social circles where no one contradicts your views on this highly polarized issue. Second, Kenya, and equatorial Africa in general, has a series of very different cultures than our own when it comes to sexuality, gender roles, family ties and social acceptability in all of these areas. Europeans have, over the past few centuries in particular, frequently tried to step in and “repair” Africans’ “primitive” social structures in these regards. Some of these interventions have been more justifiable than others. As it is, Kenyan culture and the ancient Jewish culture of the Bible are probably far closer to each other than either culture is to that of the modern west. This necessitates a certain caution and humility on the part of any and all of us who wish to try to help there in any sense. Third, this relates to profound questions regarding the basic essence and purpose of sexuality, and how that in turn relates to spirituality, in ways that I can barely scratch the surface of here and in ways that could be very difficult to speak about to essentially uneducated African churchmen. Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, I can easily anticipate critics of my ideas here from the conservative side saying that by raising questions about what these leaders are dogmatically motivated to fight against in the name of Christ, I could be seriously damaging their motivation and effectiveness as Christian leaders (and in the same regard some aggressive atheists might hope I will limit the effective spread of the Christian message in this sense). To these people I say that, as powerful as hatred and dogmatic false certainty are as motivational tools, in the long run they do more harm than good, and the Christian message will go forward stronger and healthier without them. Your perspective may differ, but I’m sticking to my convictions on that one.
So let me start the actual discussion of the matter with a premise from my own personal philosophy: The most ultimately fulfilling forms of human pursuits are those which give us a sense of either confidence or connection or both. The most satisfied and fulfilled people are those who are convinced that they are good at what they do and that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The point of religion and/or spirituality –– including the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus came to proclaim and enact –– is to enable people to find these forms of satisfaction in life in deeper ways. If a person’s or a group’s faith isn’t working in these regards, then it isn’t working, period. But that being said, there are always difficulties involved in choosing what sorts of things to base our confidence on; and there are limits as to how deeply we can love which sorts of people without driving ourselves crazy, literally. Loving everyone, completely, would involve making all of their problems and conflicts in life part of my own life, and none of us have that sort of capacity. Thus religion provides us with standards by which we can have some idea of what to expect of ourselves, what we can justifiably feel proud of or confident about, what we can justifiably expect of others behavior-wise, and what sorts of abusive and destructive behaviors we should stand up against.
So there are good practical reasons for having doctrinal standards in general, and those of the Christian tradition have stood the test of time fairly well, but there are still good reasons to think critically about how important those standards have become to us as ends unto themselves, rather than as means enabling us to better love God completely and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There are a number of good reasons to frame the question in these terms, but the simplest might be in terms of telling the story of King David.
David had a pretty adventurous life, in which he “bent the rules” on plenty of occasions. One particular occasion which stands out is in 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 22, where David is on the run from crazy King Saul. In making his get-away he stops off in the town of Nob to talk to the priest there and get supplies. David flat out lies to the priest, saying he is on an urgent secret mission for the king, and he then takes as basic food the bread which has already been ceremonially dedicated and set aside for only priests to eat. While he was there he also saw a character he didn’t particularly trust, a foreigner named Doeg, but he didn’t actually say anything about his suspicions or warn the priest that if he was caught helping him he could be in big trouble with Saul. And as it happened, this foreigner did go and tell Saul that the priest of Nob had been helping David. Saul went ape poop crazy about this, and when he wanted the priest and his extended family massacred in a revenge killing, and none of his regular soldiers were willing to do it, this same Doeg took care of the bloody deed for him. One kid from the priest’s family did manage to escape with his life though, and he ran to tell David about the matter. David basically told the kid, “It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’ll protect you.”
Skip forward to the Gospels. One of the tales which is told in each of the synoptic gospels is how Jesus responded when the Pharisees tried to bust him for breaking some of the more trivial rules regarding manual labor on the Sabbath day. Jesus and his disciples were picking heads of ripe grain, rolling them between their palms to get the kernels out, and snacking on them. From the Pharisee’s perspective this was clearly “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response was to first of all remind them of the story from 1 Samuel 21: “David was not blamed for bending the rules; why should you condemn my friends and I for a far more trivial infraction?” (Mark 2:23-26, for one telling.)
But then going back to the Old Testament history of the matter, David was never actually condemned for this rather questionable move on his part, nor for the vast majority of his careless, selfish or bloodthirsty maneuvers during his life. In fact, when David’s descendants turn out to be a batch of first class idiots, over and over again we read that in spite of their misadventures, “for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah” (e.g. 2 Kings 8:9). And in particular there was only one event in his life for which David was morally censured by the Old Testament historians: “the case of Uriah the Hittite.” We’ll come back to that one. The point is that strict observation of the rules was not the thing that made David, or Jesus, so important. Loving God completely and caring for those around them continuously (or nearly continuously in David’s case) was what set their lives apart. The rest, from their perspectives, was details.
So how does this relate to the Bible’s, or Christianity’s, rules about sex? Touchy subject, but I sort of have to tackle it here. Basically it is recognized that sexual release is something that all healthy people want, perhaps even need, but that letting that go unrestrained can cause all sorts of problems. The spread of disease was not actually mentioned by the Biblical writers, but it is an obvious related issue. More important to the ancient Jews was the matter of keeping their bloodlines going. In essence sex, from the Old Testament legal perspective, was supposed to be used for that procreative purpose and that purpose alone. Stated briefly, that made a lot of sense for its time, but it doesn’t really work so well these days.
Going through this rather quickly, there are three essential problems with maintaining that procreation only standard for sex today:
1) It relates to a scientifically outdated perspective coming from Aristotle that there are complete “souls” contained in a man’s sperm, and that these souls need to be respected and only released in places where they can grow into complete human beings. We now know that sperm contains no complete patterns for people, making its sacredness as such more questionable.
2) Maximizing human populations is, for many reasons, not a particularly wise or even moral strategy these days: It leads to millions of children ending up in pain and suffering, and strains the resources of the environments in which these clans try to sustain themselves. And then,
3) There are many valuable things about sex as a bonding experience between the couple who share this experience with each other, whether or not they are hoping to make babies in the process, that religion would be foolish to belittle as such.
So with these things in mind, how should sex be regulated and restricted so as to enable the greatest benefit in terms of enabling people to feel good about themselves and connect with each other in positive ways; yet without spreading diseases, without abusively using each other’s bodies for otherwise meaningless sexual satisfaction, without making excessive numbers of babies who are doomed to suffer hunger and neglect, and especially without cheapening the meaning of sex as a way in which two people can become part of each other in the deepest sense?
To be honest, we really don’t have any new set of rules that perfectly answer all the complicated questions involved in balancing the harms and benefits of different aspects of human sexuality. In every society we still have problems of rape, STDs, children in crises from physical and emotional neglect, and couples in crises with issues of jealousy, possessiveness, sexual frustrations and unfaithfulness in their relationships. It would be perhaps a bit naïve to say that there was a time or place where people didn’t have these problems, but it would be even more naïve to believe that we are getting closer to ideal moral solutions to them. The main issue is that within churches and communities we need to remain honest regarding the challenges we are dealing with here, and we keep trying to share our “best practices” with each other when it comes to confronting these issues, without attacking those who fail to meet our standards for purity in the process. (One exception is that those whose sexual carelessness and cruelty seriously damages the lives of others –– rapists, child abusers, reckless sexual adventurers breaking promises to committed spouses, and the like –– thoroughly deserve to be condemned for these practices. These are not matters of lacking ritual purity; they are matters of selfish cruelty.)
All that being said, the perfect ideal which the vast majority of people have in mind regarding their sexuality –– which has been remarkably standard for the majority in most human cultures throughout human history –– is for each of us to be able to find some healthy partner of the opposite sex, who shares a desire for the two of you to share life with each other. This should theoretically involve completely satisfying each other’s sexual desires so neither feels a need to look elsewhere for such satisfaction, and in this process the two of you would parent a manageable number of children together, each of whom feels completely wanted and each of whom can aspire to someday having for him- or herself the same sort of wonderful relationship that you have with your spouse. Those are the primary aspects of our ideals for sex and marriage; the rest is details.
Sadly in real life things hardly ever work out that way, so in hundreds of little ways we need to work out how to deal with situations where key aspects of this ideal break down on us. What are we going to accept as “close enough” to be acknowledged as a socially acceptable pair bond, with an assumed private sexual practice involved? How do we regard those who have children outside of the context of a legally committed sexual relationship? What are acceptable grounds for dissolving such a bond between two people? Who will we allow to raise children that are not born into an ideally functioning family unit? In what ways can we allow these sorts of compromises without further weakening the standing of the generalized ideal within the society?
In practice these are issues that each couple, each church, each local community, each ethnic traditional culture, and each level of civil government needs to work out for itself. The bases for deciding which “non-ideal” practices are acceptable and which aren’t really isn’t something that God has carved in stone and given a simple, eternal blueprint for mankind. Those who are looking for simple, absolutely certain answers to moral questions, particularly regarding sexuality, face continuous disappointment in reading the Bible. What we do have there is a guiding pair of ideals –– to love God and to love each other –– and a complex, immanently human set of stories and guidelines for realizing those ideals. We need to acknowledge that our societal rules are very much a work in process in this regard.
Part of this challenge is for churches to work out their own systems for stabilizing family relationships within their community of faith. In doing this sometimes they need to set stricter standards than the rest of society regarding how close to their religious ideals for marriage a couple has to be before the church is willing to formally acknowledge their relationship as legitimate –– in other words, to marry them. It is part of freedom of religion in most countries that churches are allowed to make such decisions for themselves. If someone has been divorced and remarried five or six times, the church is not required to conduct a new wedding ceremony for them, or to acknowledge their remarriage as “accepted by God”. Likewise religious communities are not forced to ceremonially accept mixed marriages, where someone from their community chooses to take a spouse from outside of that community. Sometimes these decisions are made purely on the basis of prejudice, but often they are made in good faith as an attempt to keep their system for reinforcing family life as viable as possible.
So then we come to the question of what to do about that minority within our communities whose sexual attraction is primarily to those of the same sex. Can we somehow “cure” them so that they can fit in with the standard ideal for sexuality as a basis for, and restricted to, the process of building a family with someone of the opposite sex? Can we just require them to live without sex for their entire life and leave it at that? Should we consider this orientation to be a form of sexual irresponsibility on their part and punish them for having such desires? Frankly religious communities have tried all three of these approaches, and many imaginative combinations thereof, with rather problematic results: Some are “successfully cured”. Others are driven to suicide. And then we find a broad continuum of results in between these two extremes.
What has been historically changing over the course of my lifetime is that same-sex attraction is no longer treated as an illness by medical and social work professionals, and from there the process of accepting those who experience such attractions as “normal” members of western societies has been moving forward relatively rapidly. Now last week the United States as joined a number of other countries in which same-sex couples who wish to have their personally committed homosexual relationships legally recognized as marriages have the right to be married, and to have their marriages legally recognized as such wherever in the country they happen to go.
In different cultures –– particularly those where the “proper roles” of men and women are very much separated and distinguished from each other –– this sort of development creates an especially painful crisis: for a man to sexually “play the role of a woman,” or visa-versa, messes up their whole perspective on how life is supposed to work. For a society to fully accept such a private sexual practice as normal is just too mind-blowing for them. This seems to be particularly true in many parts of Africa.
To my African brothers and sisters who are particularly bothered by this issue I would like to stress the following:
- Churches are not being required to sacramentally accept homosexual marriages as unions “joined together by God”. Any given church can still choose whether it will see whether such unions are close enough to what family is intended to be to offer their blessing. What they cannot do is legally refuse to acknowledge these people as full members of the secular society, having the same legal rights based on commitment to each other that “traditional married couples” have. Churches are still allowed to preach against homosexuality as much as they are allowed to preach against divorce, but when it goes as far as encouraging attacks against those who are divorced or gay, that becomes a different matter, regarding which what was wrong before is still wrong now.
- In spite of what some evangelists or radical Muslims may try to tell you, recent natural disasters are not the result of people in those areas getting too free with their sex lives. That isn’t how God works. I have my own perspective on what motivates some people to preach those sorts of things, but that’s for another time.
- Gender roles are changing, and that really has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is still true that in many African villages that women still must eat separately from men, after they have finished serving the men. Such practices are not seen as “normal” in western society, even if they are quite in line with how things were done in Jesus’ time. Trying to prevent these things from changing, or trying to change them back to the way they were in the times of our forefathers, is really not going to do any good. The roles of women and the roles of men are getting closer to each other all the time as a function of education being available to both boys and girls, and modern technology that is used in the workplace being just as easily operable for men and women. Blaming homosexuals for the way these things are changing, and the uncertainty these changes may cause in family life, is certainly unjustified.
- Again I must stress that rather than reacting with hate against things we find sinful or distasteful, the emphasis of the Christian message needs to be on building our capacities to love God and each other. The balance here is that part of loving each other is preventing people from doing things to harm themselves and each other, and that would include matters related to sexuality. But whatever we may agree or disagree about in terms of the details of what constitutes “harm” here, we need to keep the premise of learning to better love God and each other in mind when addressing the issue.
Beyond that I’m not going to tell people what they have to believe on this matter. It is a very complicated and culturally relative thing, and it is not my job to tell them how to organize their societies in terms of gender roles. I will continue to preach the Twin Commandment of Love, and I will continue to do what I can to improve education equally for girls and boys, and to improve access to technological means of improving productivity there for both women and men, but I will leave it up to the people themselves to work out the implications of these things for family life. After all, it’s not as though I’ve proven that I have that whole business figured out for myself…
But I promised that I’d come back to the case of Uriah the Hittite. Perhaps you know the story already. One of David’s main commanders, who happened to be a foreigner in Israel, had a particularly hot wife named Bathsheba… But before going any further with the story (which you can read for yourself in 2 Samuel 11), let me toss in a speculative detail to the reading that might put it in a different light: what if Uriah was actually gay?
It is not unknown for attractive women to feel most comfortable with gay men, who are not so overwhelmed by their attractiveness and thus find it easier to talk to them as people. It is also not unknown for gay men of the ancient world to have taken wives for themselves as matters of keeping up “normal” social appearances. For a Hittite immigrant to ancient Israel and a convert to the religion of Israel, keeping up appearances would have been particularly important. Then we have the fact that Bathsheba was being a bit of an exhibitionist, washing nude on her roof below the castle, in the spring when the armies had gone off to fight but the king was known to have stayed home. She had just finished with her period, reminding her once again that her husband wasn’t about to get her pregnant any time soon, so…
David gets all excited, has her brought up to the castle, spends a night with her, accidentally gets her pregnant, and then has to figure out what to do about it. He does everything in his power to get Uriah down to the house and into bed with his wife soon enough so that he’d think the child was his, but none of it works. Even stoned drunk, with an engraved invitation from his commander and chief to go spend some conjugal time with the Mrs., Uriah feels more inclined to go be with the guys in the barracks. What does that tell you?
So then David does the one thing that, of all of the crazy things he had done in his life, God gets angry with him about: he has Uriah killed. He puts matters in the hands of Joab, a real Machiavellian sleaze if ever there was one. He lets Joab know, subtly, that Uriah should die in battle. They were in the process of starving out an enemy city, but Joab has a sudden change in strategy: he sends Uriah’s unit up against the main fortifications so as to rattle their defenses a bit. Strategically it was a bone-headed move, but Joab told the messenger, “If the king gets pissed about this just tell him, ‘Uriah died in the attack,’ and that should cool him off.” So it went. So God became displeased. Of all of David’s misadventures, that was the one where he actually intentionally betrayed someone loyal to him; someone who perhaps happened to be gay, with that playing a role in why the king had him killed.
The point: hating and attacking people because of their sexual inclinations is not something we can excuse as being in any way part of “God’s work”. Thus however you need to work out your system for making families stronger, scapegoating and attacking gays as a source of the problem is not an acceptable way of doing things. Chew on that for a bit.
Sorry for rambling on for so long!