Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Christian Right's Preoccupation with Homosexuality: Straining the Gnat and Swallowing the Camel

Yesterday, I wrote (here),

Many of us find the political and moral positions of our brothers and sisters of the Catholic right morally repugnant precisely because of our commitment to Catholic moral teaching about economic and social justice and war and peace. As Cocozzelli rightly notes, “A strong case can be made that these icons of the Catholic Right are using abortion and LGBT rights as wedge issues primarily to elect laissez-faire economic conservatives.”

I continue thinking about that observation in light of a recent editorial in the official journal of the Church of Scotland, Life and Work (here, H/T Clerical Whispers). I cited this editorial in response to a perceptive comment a reader made about my posting two days ago re: Americans for Truth’s attack on 17-year old James Neiley (here).

The reader, Jimmy Mac, is responding to an email that Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, sent me when I expressed support for James Neiley as he is being attacked by adults who identify themselves as moral exemplars and people of faith. Mr. LaBarbera invites me to repent, because I am on some unspecified “dangerous path.” He also suggests that I read the gospel of John to set myself on the path of repentance.

In response to that invitation, Jimmy Mac notes that the scriptures are a rich source of invitations to repentance of all kinds, including the invitation to cease making covenants with death, as well as to stop making lies our refuge and falsehood our hiding place (Isaiah 28:15).

My reply to Jimmy Mac’s posting notes that neither the gospel of John nor the three other canonical gospels ever mentions a word about homosexuality. The central moral preoccupation of some Christians today is not even mentioned at all in the gospels, which speak instead, over and over, of love and justice and the need to lift up the downtrodden.

Then I note,

And, as a recent editorial in the Church of Scotland's official journal Life and Work states, "Every student of the Bible is a selective literalist. Those who swear by the anti-homosexual laws in the Book of Leviticus wouldn't publicly advocate slavery or stoning women taken in adultery.

They presumably no longer accept biblical teaching on sexual matters such as polygamy and sex with slaves.

And yet there are many who continue to be bound by a few biblical verses – none of them in the Gospels – about homosexuality, nowadays understood as a matter of genetics rather than lifestyle."

And so back to what I said yesterday—that many Catholics find the positions of the Catholic right on issues like homosexuality morally repugnant precisely because of their commitment to Catholic moral teaching, with its strong emphasis on social and economic justice as overriding concerns of the moral life. The religious and political right have been adroit about (and, with the complicity of the mainstream media, successful at) depicting the struggle for clarity about the gay issue within the churches as a struggle between truth and relativism, between thoroughgoing fidelity to scripture and church teaching and selective appropriation of the fundamentals of Christian faith and life.

This stark black-white morality play pitting truth against relativism deliberately misses the point. As the Life and Work editorial notes, it is impossible to take the entire bible literally. This is an impossible thing to do because the scriptures are complex, multi-layered, and multivalent. What they approve here, they condemn there. When we take the entire text literally, we end up endorsing mutually exclusive positions on any number of moral issues including how women should be treated, what should be done to adulterers, whether slavery is legitimate, and how to deal with witches.

Those today who zero in on a handful of ambiguous verses that they take to condemn homosexuality often spectacularly ignore the shining thread that runs all through the Judaeo-Christian scriptures: the persistent and entirely unambiguous call to believers to embody practical compassion and justice in everything we do. To ground an anti-gay ethic on scripture is inevitably to pick and choose some among many texts in a wide, rich canon of biblical books, often while ignoring what is absolutely central to the Judaeo-Christian tradition..

The question facing the churches today is not the bible or chaos, truth or relativism. It is the question of applying in preaching, interpretation of scripture and tradition, and the everyday Christian life what is central and most important to scripture and church teaching. There is a hierarchy of truths at the heart of the Christian life, and that hierarchy is not focused—in any shape, form, or fashion—on the question of homosexuality.

It is focused, instead, on the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus and on the call to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as a disciple. And it is clearly focused on doing justice and loving tenderly as one walks that way of discipleship—not on demeaning, excluding, and using one’s brother and sister as objects in political battles that are ultimately about something entirely different than what we claim to be fighting about.