Thursday, June 22, 2006

On God and Gays

[Co-written with Mindy from St. John's]

St. John's Episcopal Church in Olympia recently experienced the blessings of standing with our gay brothers and sisters.

At Capitol City Pride Day on June 17, the Rev. Canon David James, rector of the church, and several parishioners gathered at the church's booth in Sylvester Park to offer blessings to all who stopped by, as well as information on Integrity, the Episcopal Church's ministry with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Those church members who participated later talked about how they felt people's tiredness, hurt and stress fall away, if only for a moment or two. Reactions from the blessed ranged from tears to drawn-out sighs of relief, knowing that they were among Christians who didn't judge them and who carried a message of God's unconditional love for all.

Some people might be shocked at the fact that a Christian church would openly and freely bless gays. In spite of the Gospels, in which the central message is God’s love for us, the most common stories we hear that involve the words “God” and “gay” also involve Fred Phelps, who picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay victim of a hate crime. Or Pat Robertson, who blamed Hurricane Katrina, the attacks of September 11th, and the Iraqi insurgency all on the sexual orientation of Ellen Degeneres. Robertson was even quoted as saying, “America is waiting for her to apologize for the death and destruction that her sexual deviance has brought onto this great nation.”

Armed with their Bibles, conservative Christians are waging a crusade against gays all across America. They are fighting to stop anti-discrimination laws, to stop gay marriage, and to defend good ol’ fashioned “family values”. Interestingly, their Bibles won’t serve them well in this crusade. This is because the bible has nothing at all to say about homosexuality!

In spite of this, there are a number of passages that conservatives use to try and justify their views. I’ll go through them one by one.

“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”-

Many people refer to the opening chapters of Genesis as a suggestion that heterosexuality is the only natural form of sexuality. This is flawed logic. Genesis pairs Adam and Eve, but does not condemn homosexual relationships. The Adam and Eve story is silent on the matter.

Sodom & Gomorrah-

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used to condemn gays. In this story, God tells Abraham that he has condemned these cities for their wickedness. God sends two angels in to test the city. Lot invites them home, and the townspeople try to attack them. The nature of the attack can probably be assumed to be sexual in nature. The angels save Lot and his family, who are sent out of town while God burns the city.

Hospitality to strangers was one of the most important values of old times. The desert is harsh and dangerous; to withhold your hand from strangers could have spelled death for them. The sin of Sodom was hard-heartedness. And the scriptures refer to this numerous times. The book of Ezekiel (16:48-49) condemns the behavior of Sodom: “Fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hands of the poor and the needy.” Jesus, in Matthew 10:14-15, instructs his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Maybe we should rethink how Olympia treats its homeless.) In all the references to Sodom throughout the bible, homosexuality is not mentioned once.

The Holiness Codes of Leviticus-

Leviticus 18:22 reads: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is the clearest the bible gets on homosexuality. It ONLY refers to male-male sexual partnerships.

There are a number of things to note about this. First, there are two sets of codes in the Old Testament. The first set regards ethics or morals. We see these in the Ten Commandments. The second are the “Holiness Codes”, which are a set of social norms for Jews of ancient times.

The Holiness Codes were designed to separate the nation of Israel from the Canaanite peoples; it is a set of nationalistic rules. They may have had their place at the time. The Israelites were in foreign land and their religion was inseparable from their way of life. Maintaining their faith depended on maintaining their identity as a nation. Though the nationalistic norms may have been necessary to them, they are certainly not binding on Christians. It should also be understood that the Holiness Codes had nothing to do with morals. They included the kosher laws, how to sew garments, and a lot of stuff that amounted to: “Don’t mix your peas with your mashed potatoes.” They set religious purity standards, not a code of ethics.

The passage from Leviticus was just one of the Holiness Codes. It was not a moral commandment. It was intended to prevent Jews from participating in Canaanite practices, which included the exploitation of male prostitutes in the Canaanite temples.

Romans 1:26-27, Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1-10 -

One of the rather beautiful aspects of the Gospel message is the union it promotes among people, even people of very different backgrounds. Jesus first challenged nationalistic separations through his willingness to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman. Later, while preaching love of neighbor, Jesus is asked, “Who is our neighbor?” To this He replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus teaches that differences in nationality and culture are not to be a barrier to love.

In his letters, Paul writes in the same thread. Division and acrimony had arisen within the Church; the Gentile Christians were not being circumcised and were violating kosher laws. As a result, many Jewish Christians refused to eat or otherwise commune with the Gentiles. In an attempt to breed tolerance, Paul writes to the Roman Christians a long, and now famous, argument that salvation is not gained by strict adherence to outward religious codes such as circumcision and kosher guidelines. Salvation comes by faith, a faith shared by Jewish and Gentile Christians alike.

The passage used by some to condemn gays is near the beginning of this letter of Paul to the Romans. Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by wickedness suppress the truth. …though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking… Therefore God gave them up to the lust of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves… Their women exchanged customary intercourse for uncustomary, and in the same way also the men…”(Romans 1: 18-27)

Paul here is criticizing the Roman pagans for idolatry. Following the sin of idolatry, they made themselves more important than God (“they did not honor him as God”), and concurrently made themselves more important than their neighbors. Therefore God gave them over to impurity, and following after their idolatrous fashion, they “were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, [and] malice.” (Romans 1:29)

There are a couple important things to note here. First, Paul’s criticism of the Romans is a hook for the Jewish Christians. The first sentence of the next chapter reads, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others…” He turns the argument of idolatry against the Jewish Christians! Apparently they were in error when they placed their personal customs at a higher priority than Christian communion.

Secondly, this passage does NOT refer to monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships. Paul is criticizing idolatry, and the selfish, lustful, and gluttonous behaviors that accompany idolatry. The excesses of ancient Rome are remembered to this day. You may have heard stories of “vomitoriums” built to enable the gluttony of a people gone mad with power. The stories you may not have heard are those of the pre-pubescent boys sold into slavery as male prostitutes. Sexual exploitation at the time was highly prevalent and horrific. The Church stood against it then as it does now.

Paul was not talking about loving, long term homosexual relationships. He was criticizing debauchery and sexual exploitation. These are hardly the words to describe the love that two people feel for one another when they wish to be married.

In Corinthians and Timothy, Paul gives a couple brief lists of the sins of “wrongdoers”. “Sodomites” are mentioned, but here he is talking about male prostitutes, not homosexual relationships. He also, again, criticizes at length the sins of idolatry and sexual exploitation.

Conservatives, when debating gay marriage, often like to throw around the terms “unnatural”, “unclean”, and “abomination”. Yet, for all their quoting of Paul, it is Paul who refutes them when he writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (Romans 14:14)

There are a great number of homosexuals who are now striving to be allowed to marry. They courageously wage their campaign for marriage on the battlefields of the courts and legislatures of the land. Marriage is a holy sacrament. It teaches us, through our spouse’s love, the love that God holds for us. It also teaches us, through our love for our spouse, how to love God.

By condemning gays as “unclean”, conservatives make themselves vulnerable to Paul’s accusation of idolatry. They would allow personal customs and preferences to stand in the way of the revelation of God’s love through marriage.

By offering blessings to gays, and even on occasion to gay marriages, the Episcopal Church is indeed breaking from traditional norms. But the Scriptures (especially the New Testament) were never intended to be normative in effect; rather they were intended to be transformative.

Our common faith is one of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The central message of the Gospel is God’s undying love for us. The central command of the Gospel is that we are to love one another as God loves us. It is high time we stop telling gays that God hates them.

Here is what Fr. James wrote to Integrity about St. John's "Blessing Chair":

"That morning, as I was getting ready to go to the parade it occurred to me as a straight priest, how unsafe the church has been, and is being to this day, to LGBT folk. So, I went into the church and got one of our 'Bishop's chairs' and took it to the booth. I made a sign that designated the chair as the 'Blessing Chair.'

"Throughout the course of the day people would come by and ask 'what's a blessing chair?' Our response was 'the Episcopal Church in Olympia wants to let you know how much God loves you, just as you are.' One passerby called it the 'the Episcopal Church and God doesn't hate you booth.' We offered the opportunity for anyone, gay or straight, to sit in the chair have at least five of us lay hands on them, anoint them with oil and pray God's blessing upon them telling them how much God loves them.”

Just imagine, after years of “faith” based persecution, and after being alienated from the faith community you were raised in, being welcomed back with open arms and a blessing. Imagine being told, for the first time, that Jesus and His Church don’t hate you. This is Christ’s message made personal.

The behaviors of us Christians have been extraordinarily hurtful to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. In spite of this, many of them still love the Church. They have often shown a more Christ-like patience for us than we could muster for them. It is time for repentance and reconciliation.

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