Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gay Marriage Debate and Ownership of the Scriptures

Who owns holy stories? That’s a question I want to ask as I tell the story of Cuauhtlatoatzin and Guadalupe. It’s a question that has to be asked now, as the Newsweek article on the bible and gay marriage ( or Jon Stewart’s interview with Mike Huckabee ( reveal sharp battle lines in our culture regarding the ownership of the holy stories of Judaeo-Christian scripture.

That’s where the discussion is now, with regard to gay human beings and the scriptures. It has moved on—quite some time ago, in fact—from questions about whether the bible “approves” or “disapproves” of homosexuality, or about the precise meaning of the tiny handful of texts that gay bashers mull obsessively as they try to mill a molehill of biblical ambiguity into a mountain of homophobia.

This is, in fact, why the Newsweek article is provoking such controversy. It points out how far we have moved, as a culture and as people of faith, away from the need to justify the existence of gay persons and towards full cultural (if not full ecclesial) inclusion. It takes for granted what has become obvious: the scriptures do not condemn homosexuality; they do not condemn gay marriage. They do not dictate a one man-one woman model for marriage.

What they do clearly, instead, is tell us to love: to live practical compassion. To avoid hate. The vast weight of scriptural testimony about who God is and what God calls people to do is on the side of love and not hate. On the side of welcoming, including, according full humanity and full personhood to gay human beings. Not on the side of gay bashing.

Gay bashers in clerical outfits (of all varieties) know this. This is why they have shifted their attack on gay people from select scripture verses to what Mike Huckabee astonishingly defines as the “anatomical” case for the normativity of heterosexual marriage in his interview with Jon Stewart. Rev. Huckabee’s contention is that the normativity of male-female marriage is written “anatomically” into nature itself, in the body parts of men and women.

These simplistic biological claims (which our longstanding practice of marrying heterosexual couples who cannot and will not procreate subvert) are attempts to shift the conversation, to divert attention from the fact that 1) there is not a strong basis at all in scripture for the hateful animus many people of faith continue to wish to nourish towards gay persons; and 2) there is a strong scriptural basis for an opposite approach to gay human beings, one that prioritizes love over hate. Gay bashers like Rev. Huckabee want to shift the conversation, because they recognize that the real issue at stake now is the question of who owns our holy stories.

And who has the right to interpret them. To interpret them for the rest of us. To shut the rest of us up, when we disagree with the “official” interpretation.

In my view, the most radical way to contest the claim of straight (well, straight-posing) males (of both genders) to exclusive ownership of the bible and its interpretation is for us to do the opposite, when we are told to listen. We need to begin to read and interpret with a vengeance. We need to put the shoe on the other foot, with those who claim exclusive ownership of the holy stories: to make it impossible for them not to listen to us, rather than vice versa. We need to assert our right to hear something radically different in the scriptures, by reading them, speaking forth what they say to us, and forming communities of alternative discourse around readings of the holy stories that enliven us as marginalized folks.

Nothing so disrupts and subverts the fictive claim to ownership of the scriptures by the big men and big women of the world as our stolid persistence in claiming the holy stories as our birthright, as well. The stories belong to us, too. They may belong to us in a deeper sense, in fact, than to those at the top, because a great deal of what the scriptures say is opaque to those at the top but crystal-clear to those at the bottom.

In the final analysis, those who entertain the illusion that they own the scriptures do not do a very thorough job of reading them, of struggling with all that they have to say. This is the case because the lives of those with privilege are hardly conducive to struggle or to nuance. Not to existential and spiritual struggle and nuance, and it is that kind of struggle that is necessary if we want to hear holy stories at a depth level. As long as what we own or our illusion of power over others allows us to imagine that we are shielded from the struggles that are the common lot of most people in the world, we cannot hear what holy stories try to speak to us.

Those at the bottom recognize more clearly than those at the top that, properly approached, hearing holy stories requires anguish and struggle. Those at the bottom know that holy stories and holy books can never be owned, certainly not in the official (and officious) way in which the big men and big women at the top think they own God’s word. Holy stories and holy books claim us, instead. We spend our lives trying to come to terms with the terrifying, life-altering, marvelous recognitions they open to us—with the God to whom they point, who can never be shut up in a book or controlled or owned, even by the powerful of the earth.

It is time for gay believers to stop trying to convince the Huckabees of the world that the scriptures “endorse” or “approve” or “include” gay human beings. It is time for us, instead, simply and boldly to claim our right to read and interpret the holy stories of our religious traditions. On our own terms.

It is time to demonstrate that the official readings of many of our churches and the men (of both genders) who rule us are just beside the point. They make little difference to anyone’s life, not at any level that counts, those official readings. They are as empty, as glib, as superficial, as the men producing those readings—as incapable of offering us spiritual direction as the men (of both genders) spouting nonsense about the only possible way to interpret the bible that they believe they own.

Nothing is more subversive than just living, when one is denied the right to live—living large when you are told to subsist on a crust of bread and a rind of cheese; living confidently when you are told to live apologetically. Nothing may end up healing our culture so pocked with biblical nonsense, in this nation with the soul of a church, more than for those who recognize the nonsense for what it is and who are as much heirs of the holy stories as the big men and big women of the world, to wrest control of the holy stories from those who “own” them.

And to begin reading them with new eyes, with sight sharpened by the experience of exclusion and privation. And to form new communities of faith, centered on alternative discourse, around these new readings of the ancient stories that form our religious heritage.