Sunday, January 26, 2014

John Corvino, What's Wrong with Homosexuality?: "God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It"

Last July, I mentioned that I had gotten a copy of John Corvino's book What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), and would perhaps share some thoughts about the book once I had read it. I've now found a stint of uninterrupted time to focus on reading the book, and thought I'd share my response to it by highlighting passages that grabbed my attention. And then I'll share some concluding reflections on the book as a whole.

In his chapter on the biblical arguments commonly mounted against acceptance of homosexuality and gay folks, Corvino notes the curious disjunction between how many people approach the biblical material regarding slavery, and how they approach the handful of passages that they imagine to condemn homosexuality. As he notes, the testimony of the Jewish and Christian scriptures about slavery is clear: it was an acceptable practice for the communities that composed both sets of scriptures.

Almost all Christians (and Jews) today have concluded that, though the scriptures accept slavery as a morally permissible practice, slavery is, in fact, immoral. The scriptures were simply wrong in endorsing slavery. 

Strangely enough, though, many Christians cannot make that same turn when it comes to the far slimmer set of passages (the ones approving of slavery are much more abundant) that they imagine to be condemnations of homosexuality. And among many Christians who are intent on 1) finding every word of the bible inerrant, and/or 2) condemning homosexuality at all cost, many dodges have developed to try to skirt around the biblical testimony about slavery. These include claims that slavery wasn't precisely slavery in the cultures in which the bible was written; that God permitted slavery due to the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites (and, one assumes, of the early Christians); that the practice of manumitting slaves in the Jubilee year mitigated slavery in Judaism, etc.

In response to these dodges, Corvino writes,

When all that [i.e., the interpretive maneuvers some people use to deny that the bible endorses slavery] fails, believers will make a plea for looking at the larger message of the Bible, especially the Gospels, and not drawing conclusions about slavery based on a handful of texts yanked out of their historical context. To which I respond . . . Amen. Precisely. But if it’s wrong to do that with the slavery passages, why is it okay to do that with the homosexuality passages? Why not, instead, emphasize the Gospel message of love, kindness, and humility in approaching both issues? As I’ve often said, if the religious right’s volume on the "love thy neighbor" message were even half as loud as its volume on the "no gay sex" message, the world would be a much better place (45).

And I agree wholeheartedly--both with the proposal to weigh all the moral teachings of Christian churches against the overwhelming emphasis on love, kindness, and humility in the gospels, and that the world would be a much better place if more Christians spoke about (and embodied) the fundamental message of the gospels to love our neighbors, and stopped treating gay human beings as if they are less than fully human.

I also agree with Corvino on the following point:

Some fundamentalists claim that without the Bible, one can have no secure foundation for moral claims. It seems to that me quite the reverse is true: Without an independent moral sense, one can have no confidence that a given text is God’s word (47).

And as I listen to Corvino on the biblical testimony about homosexuality--but is it more than anything at all testimony to the primacy of love, mercy, and justice?--I notice the interesting interchange at the Commonweal blog site in the past several days, regarding the story of the firing of Mark Zmuda by Eastside Catholic high school in suburban Seattle. Commonweal's doyenne Margaret O'Brien Steinfels wonders if it's simply time for Eastside (and Catholic schools in general?) to throw in the towel.

Because of his same sex marriage, Zmuda cannot fully be part of our Catholic community; but we don't insist that all our employees be fully part of that community . . . .

And he then goes on to reiterate that what "we" believe about marriage and sexuality forbids a "strong acceptance" of people like Zmuda, which would "affirm Zmuda as a full member of the school's Catholic community."

i wouldn''t say that "Zmuda cannot fully be part of our Catholic community." We don't say that about divorced and remarried (without annulment) Catholics we see at Church each Sunday. The Church teaches that they (and Mr Zmuda, and anyone else) shouldn't receive Communion if they are conscious of being in mortal sin, but it still recognizes them as members of the Catholic community, with the same obligations to attend Mass, etc. and the same dignity as children of God. 

And as I read this exchange, I wonder how on earth "we" have ever gotten to the point that, as a Catholic community, "we" could even begin to imagine that the option of refusing to affirm some members of the community as full members of the community is in any shape, form, or fashion Catholic. Especially, as John Hayes rightly notes, when we apply our moral teachings in such a grossly discriminatory fashion that some Catholics who are clearly violating the church's sexual teachings (e.g., married couples using contraception, anyone masturbating, heterosexual couples living together without marrying, divorced people remarrying) are entirely acceptable in our communities, while other Catholics (e.g., openly gay couples) must beg for acceptance.

I'm baffled by the imagination that the option of exclusion represents "real" Catholicism, and that those who so casually propose treating a whole group of their fellow Catholics as if they simply aren't there and don't count deserve to represent themselves as arbiters of Catholic identity. And that's to say, I'm baffled that people who imagine they represent the Catholic faith in a way that permits them to decide who's "we" and who's "they" seem not to see that the most fundamental mark of Christian faith is to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God--and to welcome everyone to the community designated as catholic.

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