Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Holiness, justice, and same sex marriage

This is a follow-up to the previous post, where I quoted Walter Brueggemann:
Sinai interpretation goes in two directions: holiness and justice.

The prophetic books:

Later in his survey of the Old Testament, Brueggemann points out that this dual emphasis carries over into the prophetic books. For example, Isaiah elevates justice above piety:
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?"
says the Lord;
"I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats. …
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them. …
Your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause." (Isaiah 1:11-171)
The social justice orientation of the prophets is familiar to us. But Brueggemann points out that the prophet Ezekiel fits into the other category:  he is a "holiness guy".

Ezekiel 8 describes various abominations by which the Temple is desecrated. In reaction, the LORD's glory leaves the temple by stages:
Successive steps are marked in His departure; so slowly and reluctantly does the merciful God leave His house. First He leaves the sanctuary (Ezekiel 9:3); He elevates His throne above the threshold of the house (Ezekiel 10:1); leaving the cherubim He sits on the throne (Ezekiel 10:4); He and the cherubim, after standing for a time at the door of the east gate (where was the exit to the lower court of the people), leave the house altogether (Ezekiel 10:18,19), not to return till Ezekiel 43:2.
(Jamieson Fausset Brown commentary)
Brueggemann comments,
In Ezekiel, it's not Israel that goes into exile, it's God, because God can't stay there.
— i.e., in a polluted Temple.

Thus, on the one hand, there is Isaiah's emphasis on social justice; while on the other hand, there is Ezekiel's emphasis on holiness. This is the same duality Brueggemann pointed out in the previous post, with reference to Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

The Gospels:

The same duality then carries over into the New Testament texts:  in particular, the Gospels. Jesus was primarily concerned about justice whereas the Pharisees were primarily concerned about holiness:
And as [Jesus] reclined at table in [Levi's] house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:15-17)
Here we see that Jesus was inclusive (tax collectors and sinners were welcome to join his community) whereas the Pharisees were exclusive:  they maintained a strict separation from tax collectors and sinners in order to avoid contracting uncleanness.

I maintain that the Pharisees are portrayed in a very unsympathetic light in the Gospels. Christians should not assume that we are given a full, unbiased picture; rather, we are shown the worst side of Pharisaic religion.2

Consider this:  the Pharisees' emphasis on separation and purity has a rich pedigree in the Old Testament and the intertestamental texts. For example:
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. …

[Daniel said to the steward] "Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king's food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see." So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. (Daniel 1:8-16)
There are a series of texts like this one in the Old Testament and the intertestamental literature:  i.e., texts in which people of faith refuse to eat certain foods, or otherwise distinguish themselves from the surrounding pagan community.

Thus the Pharisees were not the "bad guys" they are often characterized as from Christian pulpits. They were trying to be faithful to Israel's holiness tradition, as Orthodox Jews are to this day.

Indeed, the Pharisees tried to uphold priestly standards of purity in their everyday lives per Exodus 19:6, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests."

Jesus took the other path:  the path of justice and inclusiveness. He reached out not only to tax collectors and sinners but to lepers, the demon-possessed, Gentiles, Samaritans, women, and (not least!) the poor.

All such individuals were spurned by the Pharisees. For example, women were assumed to be in a state of continual menstrual impurity. Thus Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 7:36-50 are remarkable texts. On both occasions, Jesus allowed a woman to touch him; in Mark 5, it is explicitly a woman with a flow of blood.

Divorce and homosexuality:

Some "liberal" Christians support homosexual rights on the basis of this social justice tradition in the Gospels. This is an issue that cannot finally be resolved, in my opinion. (Though I personally support same sex marriage and other rights for gays and lesbians.)

On the one hand, we have explicit statements condemning homosexual acts — not from Jesus, but from Paul. Thus it is surely a biblical position to argue, from a holiness standpoint, that homosexual acts are not an acceptable practice.

On the other hand, there is Jesus' radical commitment to social justice and inclusiveness. But let's take a step back, to consider the subject of sexual purity more broadly.

Jesus was at his most conservative on the subject of divorce. Scholars believe that Mark 10 preserves the original form of Jesus' saying on divorce. That is, Jesus did not make any exceptions:  divorce was not permitted even in cases of adultery (contra Matthew's version of the same saying).

Arguably, however, Jesus was not concerned about sexual purity per se. When he prohibited divorce, he may have been responding to the vulnerability of women in that society:  women were economically dependent on their husbands. Thus easy access to divorce ("Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" — Mt. 19:3) was terribly harmful to the interests of women.

Jesus never addressed the subject of homosexuality. The subject presumably wasn't being debated among Jews in that era.

But what would Jesus say if he was facing this issue in contemporary society? One cannot assume that Jesus would have sided with the "holiness" impulse instead of supporting justice, mercy, and inclusiveness. That, in effect, is the stand taken by "liberal" Christians like me, who support rights for homosexuals.

Conclusion:

We might summarize the data like this:

Holiness, separation  Justice, inclusiveness 
Leviticus Deuteronomy
Ezekiel Isaiah
Pharisees Jesus
some Pauline texts other Pauline texts


As you can see, Paul is the wild card here. But I won't attempt to analyze the Pauline texts in this post.

Yes, the table represents a simplification of the data. As I indicated in the previous post, Deuteronomy shows some interest in holiness and Leviticus shows some interest in justice. But in terms of emphasis, the table is accurate.

I know evangelical readers insist that there is no necessary conflict between the holiness and justice traditions. But the split between Judaism and Christianity illustrates the powerful centrifugal forces at work here; so does the more recent divide between evangelical Christianity and "liberal" Christianity.

In the previous post, I maintained that the Church must learn to live with this inescapable tension instead of trying to enforce uniformity. Jamie responded:
How, then, would you propose we deal with the issue of homosexual marriage? Surely you can’t support (respect, tolerate) those who oppose these marriages; that would go against your view that such people are propagating an injustice. …

With gay marriage, there can only be one "right" way. It cannot simultaneously, in the same circumstances, be right both to forbid gay marriage and to embrace it. Nor could God simultaneously both approve of and forbid the practice.
Jamie is right when she asserts that same sex marriage is either right or wrong — it can't be both. However, she is wrong to assume that I cannot respect and tolerate the position of Christians like her, who disagree with my conclusions on the issue.

In my view, we cannot finally be certain of the right answer to many of the vexed questions that roil the Church. To quote Brueggemann once again:
[The Bible] invites us to do an interpretation for now, knowing that we’re going to have to go back to Sinai and do it over again and again and again.

Indeed, I think that figuring out obedience is like having a teenager in the house. Having a teenager means, nothing stays settled. You’ve got to do it all over again.
Sometimes we think a certain issue is settled; but then someone goes back to the scriptures and mounts an argument that we hadn't considered before.

Similarly, a change of social context forces us to reconsider issues that we thought were settled. The exile forced Israel to reconceptualize its theology. Likewise, modernity forces the Church to revisit first principles with a fresh perspective.

Every conclusion we reach is provisional. We must therefore respect and tolerate the convictions of those who think differently than us.


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~~~~~~~~~~~~~
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2After the death of Jesus, the Pharisees became the primary opponents of Christianity. Some of the conflicts of a later era appear to have been inserted into the Gospels anachronistically. For example, John 9:22 — "the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue." Scholars insist that excommunication from the synagogues was not introduced until several decades after the death of Jesus. The point is, these later conflicts colour the presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospels.

11 comments:

49erDweet said...

Good point re: the pharisees. Needs further development, though. Don't we all tend to become "pharisitical" once things are formalized into rules and/or concepts? Isn't it just human nature to not see the forest for the trees?

Ergo, the going back again and again and again to discover what God is trying to tell us NOW seems extremely appropriate.

Thanks for the great post. Now I have to think some more. Dang!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thank you, 49er. That's a very gracious response, given that your theology is much more conservative than mine.

Perhaps I'll post on the Pharisees sometime. My opinion is derived from the work of two scholars: E.P. Sanders (who wants to exonerate the Pharisees of all charges) and a response from J.D.G. Dunn (my favourite New Testament scholar). Dunn allows that Sanders has a point, but insists that the New Testament depiction of the Pharisees is grounded in fact.

The point about Exodus 19:6 is key to understanding where the Pharisees were coming from, and it immediately puts them in a more sympathetic light. At least, I think it does.

Jamie said...

I've heard that same point about the Pharisees before, and I think the point is valid: They weren't as obviously "bad" as you'd think based on a superficial reading of the Gospels.

As to your analysis of Isaiah as emphasizing social justice, I find it odd that the passage you quote actually speaks of purity in connection with the theme of justice:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good;

In fact, from my reading, the theme of purity runs throughout the book of Isaiah.

For instance, the book stresses God's holiness, repeatedly calling him by the title "Holy One of Israel" (see 5:7, among many others). It also speaks repeatedly of the people's sin, which needs to be covered, blotted out, or cleansed--all of which is language associated with purity and holiness (1:18 & 25, 4:4-5, 43:25, 44:22, etc.).

Additionally, in the beginning of chapter 6, Isaiah is confronted by a vision of seraphim proclaiming God's holiness, in response to which Isaiah exclaims about his uncleanness (more language associated with purity and holiness). At the end of the vision, Isaiah's lips are cleansed with fire (fire itself being a strong metaphor for purification).

I'd say, then, that the themes of purity and holiness are rather intricately intertwined with the theme of justice in Isaiah. In fact, Isaiah seems to imply that injustice is impurity, and that right judgment is holiness. I didn't have time to investigate your argument about Ezekiel, but Isaiah, for his part, appears to me quite intent to unite justice and purity, rather than dividing them.

Here we see that Jesus was inclusive (tax collectors and sinners were welcome to join his community) whereas the Pharisees were exclusive: they maintained a strict separation from tax collectors and sinners in order to avoid contracting uncleanness.

Granted, but does this have anything to do with a debate over purity and justice, per se? What Jesus complained about what was not so much the Pharisees' purity, but the fact that they whitewashed the outsides of their tombs and considered that pure.

And while Jesus certainly spoke a lot about justice, he was also pretty big on inner purity. For example, he blessed the "pure in heart" (Mt. 5:8) and tightened the standards for sexual purity to include a prohibition even on lusting (Mt. 5:28). In other words, you can't exactly say that Jesus emphasis on justice corresponded to a movement away from purity; he simply demanded authentic inner purity, rather than merely formulaic or ritual purity.

Thus it is surely a biblical position to argue, from a holiness standpoint, that homosexual acts are not an acceptable practice.

I know people argue against homosexual acts based partly on God's holiness, but I just want to clarify that the argument is not nearly so simple.

On the other hand, there is Jesus' radical commitment to social justice and inclusiveness.

Well, yes, but never to the point of condoning immorality (i.e. harm to self or others).

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jamie:
I don't think you deny that Isaiah emphasizes social justice. Rather, you're emphasizing the converse side, that he also refers to purity.

I'll come back to that in a moment. But first, allow me to dwell a little on the point I was making in the post. Isaiah is indeed deeply concerned about justice.

I quickly surveyed the first 12 chapters. Here are some excerpts:

1:17
Seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.


3:14-15
The Lord will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
"It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?"
declares the Lord God of hosts.


5:7-9
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry!
Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
"Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant."


5:22-23
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!


10:1-2
Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
and that they may make the fatherless their prey!


9:7
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.


11:3-4
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Jamie said...

Isaiah is indeed deeply concerned about justice.

Right. No, I certainly don't deny that.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I trust that I've established the positive half of my thesis: that Isaiah is deeply concerned about justice for the poor, orphans, widows, the innocent, etc.

But you're challenging the negative half of my thesis: my assumption that Isaiah shows little or no concern for purity. For example, you quote from Isaiah 1, "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean."

Let's back up a bit. I could have spent some time explaining the connection between cleanness and worship services in the Temple. Brueggemann makes that point in the earlier post. He says that Leviticus is "all about right worship". Similarly, the Pharisees sought to practise a level of cleanness that was normally reserved for priests — i.e., Temple officiants.

With that in mind, consider Isaiah's message about Temple services, which I quoted in the post:
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?" says the Lord; …
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates."

You need to see that this is a direct attack on the whole Leviticus code. Perhaps, then, Isaiah means something different than Leviticus when he says, "Make yourselves clean".

In my view, Isaiah is deliberately subverting the orthodoxy of his day. The dominant classes said, "We can advance ourselves with no regard for the poor, and then march into the Temple and worship YHWH with clean hands because we follow Leviticus's rules of right worship." Isaiah said (in effect), "Bullshit!"

It's true, Isaiah was concerned about the uncleanness of God's people. But it's also apparent that he defined cleanness differently than they did. He maintained that cleanness comes from social justice, not from obeying the rules of Leviticus.

The application to the debate over homosexuality is reasonably clear. Evangelicals regard homosexuals as morally unclean; and they seek to exclude practising homosexuals from the community.

Maybe that's the right thing to do. I don't claim to know for certain. But I come to a different conclusion, for the reasons I laid out in the post.

Brueggemann was interviewed on the subject of same sex unions here. He comments, "Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said that the arc of history is bent toward justice. And the parallel statement that I want to make is that the arc of the Gospel is bent toward inclusiveness." That's the issue, from a social justice perspective: should practising homosexuals be excluded (a) from marriage and (b) from the Church? Or should those institutions be inclusive of homosexuals?

You mention Mt. 5:28f., "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away."

Brueggemann believes in holiness and in marital fidelity. When liberals support same sex unions and/or marriages, they are clear that they don't mean promiscuity.

Here we might draw a connection to the first commandment. God is "jealous". To be in covenant with YHWH means renouncing dalliances with other gods. Isaiah doesn't challenge that orthodoxy: on the contrary, he condemns Judah for its idol worship along with its injustices to the poor.

Marriage is cast in similar terms: it's an exclusive covenant. And Jesus expands that exclusivity to encompass lust, which is a kind of unfaithfulness of the heart.

But how does that apply to homosexuals in committed relationships, who in fact want to exchange marriage vows? The connection may be obvious and direct in your mind, but it isn't in mine.

Jamie said...

You need to see that this is a direct attack on the whole Leviticus code. Perhaps, then, Isaiah means something different than Leviticus when he says, "Make yourselves clean".

Perhaps, but I'm not sure Isaiah is completely against the Levitical code, for in other places he seems to support it. For example, 56:4-6 reads as follows:

"To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, and choose what pleases me, and hold fast my covenant, to them I will give in my house and within my walls a memorial....Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath and holds fast my covenant; even those I will bring to my holy mountain.... Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar."

Here he upholds the sabbaths and the "covenant," and suggests that when offered in a right spirit the burnt offerings and sacrifices are acceptable. Furthermore, in 43:22-24, God complains that Israel has failed to bring their sacrifices and offerings. So I do not think Isaiah is militating against the Levitical code and its emphasis on holiness.

That said, I wholly agree with you that Isaiah's complaints were against those who thought could attain purity and holiness because of their strict obedience to the Levitical code, nevermind the fact that they were propagating an unjust social system. Isaiah is clear that things don't work that way. As I said in my first comment, Isaiah seems to imply that injustice is impurity, and that right judgment is holiness.

So my main argument here is not that Isaiah was not emphasizing justice; my complaint is about your continued argument that justice and holiness are in some sense contradictory and irreconcilable. Isaiah, I think, would disagree with you.

Re my mention of Mt. 5:28 on lust and adultery: I wasn't citing this verse as an argument against homosexual unions (not sure if that was clear or not). I only cited it as evidence that Jesus' emphasis on social justice was not at the expense of (inner) purity. Jesus did not exactly buck the Levitical code; he, like Isaiah, simply called people on their hypocrisy.

On the issue of homosexual unions and social justice: If I thought that there were truly no inherent harm in homosexual unions, I would support them with you, on the grounds of justice. Social justice, however, should never involve supporting something socially (not to mention physically) harmful. This is why we disagree on the issue of homosexuality: you don't think there is any inherent harm in homosexual relationships, whereas I do.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

My complaint is about your continued argument that justice and holiness are in some sense contradictory and irreconcilable. Isaiah, I think, would disagree with you.

I haven't gone quite so far as to say they are contradictory and irreconcilable. In fact, I conceded in an earlier post that it may be a matter of "tension" rather than "contradiction".

Ultimately, it becomes an issue when the Church must decide how to practice its faith. Holiness sets us moving in one direction; justice, in the other.

Holiness sets us moving toward separation / exclusion, as illustrated by the conduct of the Pharisees. Not coincidentally, it's also illustrated in Leviticus:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel, saying, 'If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed.'" (12:1-4)

"She shall not come into the sancturary" — i.e., she shall be kept separate from holy things, places, and people.

Likewise with lepers ("He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp." — 13:46), people with discharges of one sort or another ("Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst." — 15:31), incest, homosexuality, and adultery ("Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants." — 18:24f.).

Holiness sets us in motion toward separation / exclusion. Justice sets us in motion toward inclusion. This is what Jesus modelled for us: for example, with lepers and women, both of whom he touched, contrary to the teaching of Leviticus.

As Dan put it in an earlier comment, Jesus acted as if uncleanness is not contagious; rather, he reversed the principle by acting as if (his) cleanness was contagious. Whatever unclean thing he touched became clean.

It may be true that these things can be reconciled in some abstract realm. But in everyday life, we are sometimes forced to choose. To me, and other "liberals", Jesus sets an example of choosing inclusion, not exclusion. As Brueggemann put it, "the arc of the Gospel is bent toward inclusiveness."

I don't expect to persuade you on this point. But I wonder: can you accept that it is legitimate for me to read the scriptures this way? Or is it an unchristian reading of the text, in your opinion?

One more comment. You think homosexual relationships are harmful: how, I might ask? If you could persuade me on that point, I would consider changing my position. But I have yet to hear anything like a coherent argument to that effect, though many people make that claim.

Jamie said...

I haven't gone quite so far as to say they are contradictory and irreconcilable. In fact, I conceded in an earlier post that it may be a matter of "tension" rather than "contradiction".

I had in mind this comment (of yours) on your previous post:

"Second, I think we can disagree on how to characterize these two thrusts of scripture. Do they constitute a “tension” in scripture (ultimately reconcilable, at least in the mind of God) or a “contradiction” in scripture (ultimately irreconcilable)? I come down on one side of that debate; you two come down on the other side of it."

I assumed you were counting yourself among those who saw the two views as being contradictory and irreconcilable. But if that's not really your position, then I won't balk at you referring to a "tension," which I agree does exist to some extent.

About your argument that holiness/purity leads to separation and exclusion: I suppose that is true, especially when you talk about lepers and people with discharges, etc. But keep that in context: A lot of those rules are very valid health principles. When Leviticus refers to "unclean" people, we're talking a very literal uncleanness.

You say Jesus touched them, which is true. But Jesus can touch a leper without getting leprosy; the rest of us can't. I don't know that it would have been wise to abandon "purity" and incorporate the lepers into the community on the grounds of "justice."

As for prohibitions on incest, adultery, and homosexuality, those are all major social ills. They might not necessarily make a person unclean in the same way that leprosy did, but they would ruin a community nonetheless.

In other words, this is not a matter of justice vs. purity; this is a matter of purity being the just thing to do, and a matter of justice requiring that people keep themselves pure. There's no indication of an artificial emphasis on arbitrary "purity" and "holiness" that results in injustice.

So while I agree that there may be a tension between holiness and justice, I hate to see you pitting Levitical purity against social justice. It's not necessarily a matter of choosing one or the other; it's a matter of seeing how the two principles have to work together.

I don't know that we really disagree on this, though. Maybe it's just a matter of semantics.

I don't expect to persuade you on this point. But I wonder: can you accept that it is legitimate for me to read the scriptures this way? Or is it an unchristian reading of the text, in your opinion?

Well, my disagreement with you on this point isn't prompting me to question the authenticity of your faith. But that doesn't mean I necessarily agree that your approach is legitimate. If you put the texts into conflict with each other, no, I don't think that's a legitimate "Christian" reading (because you would be destroying Christianity from within). On the other hand, is it legitimate to point out two different emphases in the text? Yes, I think that's perfectly reasonable.

One more comment. You think homosexual relationships are harmful: how, I might ask? If you could persuade me on that point, I would consider changing my position. But I have yet to hear anything like a coherent argument to that effect, though many people make that claim.

I make no claims to having a well-developed argument on this point, largely because I haven't studied it enough. I'm hesitant to throw out ideas that I'm still working through, but since you asked, I'll do it anyway.

The social harm, I think, arises from an undermining of family/marriage, both because homosexual relationships don't produce children (and can't, and aren't intended to), and because homosexual relationships (especially between men) tend to be highly unstable, and because both of these factors influence how couples and society in general view the family and marriage and the purpose of both.

Then, there are the physical harms of homosexuality, such as the fact that active homosexuals have significantly shorter lifespans than the rest of the population.

Beyond that, I can only point out that homosexual sexual relationships just don't "work" biologically, which implies that sex wasn't originally intended to occur between members of the same sex. Of course, that line of thinking only makes sense if you accept that there was a Creator who actually had any intentions in the matter. But if you do accept that premise, then it seems obvious that deviating from God's intended plan would have negative results.

Finally, the whole idea of homosexuality seems to undermine the significance of having two genders. In parenting, for example, is it really true that a child doesn't need a parent of each gender? Does it really make no difference what sex the parent is? Somehow, and I can't really define how this is, but that idea seems to devalue the uniquenesses and significance of each sex. That implication seems obviously detrimental.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jamie:

Thank you for persisting in dialogue with me despite my unorthodox positions. I want you to know that I sincerely appreciate it. Not only for personal reasons (I'm relieved that you don't reject me) but for the purposes of public discourse: I believe that wisdom and truth typically emerge via dialogue between people of opposing views.

I assumed you were counting yourself among those who saw the two views as being contradictory and irreconcilable.

Yes, I do consider these two impulses, toward holiness and justice, to be contrary if not outright contradictory. As I explained in my previous comment, the issue emerges at the level of practice: holiness and justice set us moving in contrary directions, which ultimately forces us to choose between divergent options.

On the other hand, I concede that the two themes may be reconcilable in some abstract realm: e.g., in the mind of God. I certainly accept that others like yourself see no ultimate contradiction between them.

More than that, I agree with you that the Church must aim to be both holy and just. But on my view, it's impossible to fulfill that ideal, even though we must surely try. "Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect" — Mt. 5:48.

You say Jesus touched them, which is true. But Jesus can touch a leper without getting leprosy; the rest of us can't.

I'm unwilling to draw any such distinction between Jesus and ourselves. "Follow me" is Jesus' demand; "imitate me as I imitate Christ" (1Co. 11:1) is Paul's articulation of it. Therefore we're mandated to practice inclusiveness.

Homosexual relationships (especially between men) tend to be highly unstable.

I'm not going to respond to your comments on homosexuals point by point. I'm willing to let your case stand mostly unchallenged, though I'm unpersuaded.

I will offer only a few comments, in reply to the above statement. Let me suggest three things that we ought to bear in mind.

First, that dynamic (instability) may be, in part, the result of excluding homosexual relationships from the institution of marriage. That is, homosexual relationships have operated outside the law and outside of social norms precisely because we have consigned them to that place. Legalizing same sex marriage may have the effect of co-opting homosexuals into broader social norms. For that reason, some homosexuals oppose same sex marriage — they are afraid that the gay community will begin to adopt heterosexual mores.

Second, the dynamic you mention is of course a stereotype. I don't doubt that it's true in many cases. But there's a gay couple living two houses away from me who have been together for many years. Every evening, after dinner, they go for a walk together; they are the very picture of domesticity. In my view, it is unjust to exclude that couple (and others like them) from the institution of marriage, no matter how many couples of the other sort there may be. I doubt the other sort would choose to marry anyway, in most cases.

Third, it goes without saying that heterosexual relationships are not stable either in the modern era. Even among Christians, divorce is about as commonplace as among non-Christian heterosexuals.

This is of course a huge problem for pastors, who are well aware of Jesus' emphatic prohibition of divorce and remarriage. Most churches, rightly or wrongly, have adapted to modernity by accepting divorce and remarriage for heterosexuals. But then they get on their moral high horse and refuse to make a similar adaptation to modernity by allowing homosexuals into the community. Maybe they're right to enforce that boundary. But at the very least, Christians are in no position to throw stones at homosexuals for the instability of their relationships.

If you put the texts into conflict with each other, no, I don't think that's a legitimate "Christian" reading (because you would be destroying Christianity from within).

It saddens me that you take that position. As I have explained before, I don't put texts in opposition to each other. They simply are in opposition, and I accept the fact: whereas others twist themselves into exegetical pretzels trying to deny it.

In this post, I have demonstrated very clearly that the holiness impulse leads to separation while justice leads to inclusion. It is a historical fact that various splits — between Jesus and the Pharisees, between Christianity and Judaism, and between liberals and conservatives — those splits resulted from the divergent paths of holiness and justice.

I don't put the principles in opposition, they simply are. Holiness and justice are, in practice, a fork in the road. Mere mortals can't hold them together in perfect equilibrium: inevitably, we must privilege either one or the other.

I don't believe it damages Christianity to recognize the facts for what they are. If it does, God help us, because this is only one of many such tensions / contradictions in scripture.

Indeed, I could argue that it is conservatives who put Christianity at risk by maintaining fictions about the Bible. Attempting to maintain those fictions does tremendous harm: take a look at deConversion.com to see how many people have abandoned the faith when they became disillusioned with fundamentalism. And many thousands of American Christians will be disillusioned in this way, because fundamentalism doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

I believe I am in the same position as the prophets of Israel. They "attacked" the religious institutions of their era: not because they were anti-Israel, but because they were pro Israel. Sometimes the truest friend is the one who tells you that you're making a terrible mistake.

It hurts me when I am accused, indirectly, of attempting to destroy Christianity from within. I would prefer that we just accept each other as we are. Who knows where our positions will come out, decades from now, given how hard we both wrestle with these issues?

Jamie said...

I'm unwilling to draw any such distinction between Jesus and ourselves. "Follow me" is Jesus' demand; "imitate me as I imitate Christ" (1Co. 11:1) is Paul's articulation of it. Therefore we're mandated to practice inclusiveness.

I get your drift, but it would be foolish to include anybody and everybody in the community at any given moment.

I mean, should we be inclusive of those with TB and bird flu and the ebola virus and let them, say, infect all the rest of us? Or is it better to exclude them (temporarily)? I'd argue for quarantining on the principle of justice, not holiness. In some cases, separation improves daily physical life (as it did for the whole community of Israel)--which is precisely the aim of social justice initiatives, is it not?

Same goes for something like adultery or divorce: the Christian community shouldn't be condoning either of these. They harm both individuals and society, so they ought to be opposed on the grounds of justice. Again, when principles like these were adopted in the OT, they improved people's lives (especially women's lives) at a tangible level.

I almost get the idea that your conception of "holiness" (at least in the OT) means an arbitrary principle of separation and purity, a principle that is not founded in reason. Hence homosexuals would be excluded from Israel because they weren't "pure," even though the distinction is purely artificial and not based on rational grounds. But I don't think that is an accurate understanding of holiness. Holiness is not the practice of some arbitrary purity, even if some people did (and do) distort it in that way.

Further, social justice does not involve embracing anybody and everybody without distinction. Jesus might have spent his days with tax collectors and women and the "low life," but he did not condone "unholiness." By telling people to "follow me," he suggested that they needed to leave their former lives behind--and people like Zachaeus clearly got this implication.

So...I guess I fail to understand where in practice the impulse to justice led Jesus or Isaiah or any other biblical figure to choose against holiness, and I fail to understand where in practice the impulse to holiness led Leviticus or Ezekiel to choose against justice. The only sense in which justice would mean choosing against holiness is if the holiness is an arbitrary holiness, in which case it is not true holiness.

Lest you think I am totally against your point, though, I accept that what you're saying about the contrary principles is true in some sense. It's like the principle of "love" as opposed to "discipline" in parenting. Could you say that the two are "opposed"? Yes, because parents wrestle with when to just embrace their kids and when to discipline them. But I would disagree with you if you insisted that the two are actually contradictory.

First, that dynamic (instability) may be, in part, the result of excluding homosexual relationships from the institution of marriage.

I am aware of this argument, and I am aware that neither of us really have solid proof for our argument here. But two thoughts:

First, is it not true that homosexual men themselves say that fidelity to one partner is very difficult, if not almost impossible?

And second, regardless of the reason for the instability in such relationships, what is it going to do to the institution of marriage and people's conceptions of it to incorporate a multitude of relationships that are so unstable? Maybe the reason for the instability is indeed that homosexuals are excluded from marriage. But even so, how do you know that if marriage is suddenly opened to them, they will become more stable? How do you know that they won't have the effect of making marriage more unstable than it already is?

In my view, it is unjust to exclude that couple (and others like them) from the institution of marriage, no matter how many couples of the other sort there may be. I doubt the other sort would choose to marry anyway, in most cases.

I'll have to find some of the articles/studies I've read on this question; I can't think of them at the moment. But I have read at least two articles making the case that a fair contingent of "unstable" homosexuals would choose to marry (either for the legal benefits or because they want to subvert heterosexual marriage) when they have no intention of living up to the ideal of marriage.

Now it's true that the divorce rate in Christian communities is awfully high. But because we have already undermined marriage in one way, should we also start undermining it in others?

One more small note here: I remain a little bit unclear about my own views, but my unwillingness to embrace homosexuality at this point is based more on what you would call social justice than on what you are terming holiness. So from my own perspective, I don't see this as a conflict between the impulse to purity and the impulse to justice. My argument has nothing to do with "purity," per se; it rests wholly on my concern that gay marriage will hurt marriages, families, and society at large.

It saddens me that you take that position. As I have explained before, I don't put texts in opposition to each other. They simply are in opposition, and I accept the fact: whereas others twist themselves into exegetical pretzels trying to deny it.

In case this wasn't clear, I didn't say that you actually were putting the texts in opposition to each other; I only said that IF you were, I didn't think it was legitimate (like I wouldn't think it legitimate if you said that love and discipline were opposed).

But perhaps this is a good illustration of how I see the principles of holiness and justice working together: I happen to think you're wrong about saying the two principles contradict in practice, and I won't affirm you in your reading. But am I trying to disfellowship you over that? Of course not.

Actually, I think you're going to be the one to disfellowship me if I don't quit leaving such horrendously long comments on your blog. ;-)