Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Paradox of Today's Christianity.

One of the greatest paradoxes of today's Christianity is that of two topics that get Christians all worked up in America and increasingly in France (here) these days, namely abortion and same-sex marriage/homosexuality, neither is mentioned by Jesus Christ himself.
He said plenty, however, about love, helping the poor, or against wealthy possessions; his compassion extending to those excluded by society, not just the poor, but also women, children, lepers, prostitutes or tax collectors.
This paradox is all the greater that it is not as if our society had stopped excluding people and manufacturing poverty, and if nothing else, the current economic crisis is a good reminder that there is plenty to feel indignant about in our world other than homosexuality or abortion.
Condemnation of homosexuality, which is seen as a sin by most Christians, and abortion do not come out of thin air of course. On this day of worship, this seems like a good topic to discuss.

Homosexuality and Same-sex Marriage :
There are very few references to homosexuality in the bible, but those that exist have been understood as strongly condemning it. But it is in fact slightly more complicated.

The Old Testament laws clearly condemn homosexuality (Levetivus 18:22) but they also condemn adultery, or brides that are not virgin (Deut. 22:13-21) or sexual intercourse for married couple during a woman's period (Lev. 18:19) to death (by stoning). Clearly, we do not live under the same laws.
As for the passage in Sodom and Gomorrah, from which sodomy comes, it is not about homosexuality, but against sexual immorality and perversion, and against gang rape (i.e. the rape of the angels sent to retrieve Lot).

As for the New Testament, there are very few references and those condemn not homosexual relationships but "lust" and "unnatural relations" (which some scholars understand as homosexual acts committed by heterosexuals, such as temple prostitution or pederasty, which were commonly practiced back then). Roman 1:26-27 for instance is consistent with Paul's condemnation of the worship of Pagan gods from earlier in the chapter.

Then there is the highly controversial question of variation in translation - anyone who has studied tow languages knows how difficult it is to translate a concept from one culture to another.
There are not words in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for "homosexual" or "homosexuality". There is debate among Greek scholars as to the meaning of arsenokoitai, which has been often translated as 'homosexuals' but is unusual. a word like malaokois which is often translated by "effeminate boy" becomes "male prostitute" in the New Revised Standard version (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10). (see here or here). This is all up to scholars, of course, but we should remember that there is controversy there at least.

Even if we don't want to bother getting into complicated theological and linguistic debates, what is clear is that what the bible condemns consistently is not sexual relationships but sexual behaviors that desecrate the body (the Temple of the Holy Spirit) such as prostitution, or religious and orgiastic sex. In other words, it condemns acts that objectify people and turn them into mere tools of pleasure, and thus deny their humanity. It is consistent with its general condemnation of "godless, wicked, idol worshippers." This is no more the case of homosexuals than it is the case of heterosexuals. Behavior and not sexual orientation is what the bible is about. Of course, 2000 years ago, there was no concept of 'sexual orientation', (Some even argue that David and Jonathan's friendship could have been more than just platonic). In any case, people dealt with what they knew then, just as we deal with what we know now.)

Finally, it seems enough to me that Jesus himself, who was constantly with 12 other men, never once mentioned homosexuality. Had it been a major issue, you'd think he would have made it pretty clear.

By opposing same-sex marriage, evangelical and catholic leaders have inverted christian values - if anything, they should support it fully as it provide more stability to homosexuals who are seeking to have a family.
As to the question of children, not only is there no evidence that being raised by homosexual couples has an impact at all, but it is a moot question since it is already the case of thousands of them. Should we not give them the legal safety net that other children have?

Abortion :
The Bible never mentions abortion even though there were common even then (herbal abortifacients such as pennyroyal and silphium were used among other 'methods' in Ancient Times, see here).  Interestingly, Exodus 21 distinguishes the killing of a "person" (punished by death) and the killing of a fetus (punished by fine). On the other hand, there are references that suggest that human life begins before birth (even if as to when is not specified) in Gen. 25:22, Luke 1:41 and Psalm 139:13.
If you start looking at pictures of fetus formation and read about it, you can easily see that of course it is a human being before birth. It is hard to tell when this begins, but let's say, for the the sake of argument, that it starts at conception. Believing that life is most important is something I subscribe to as a Christian and as such I should be against abortion. In theory I am, but in practice I am not.
I think this is an issue that needs a bit of reality check and a pragmatic approach, especially if we take life as utterly important. Because a fetus is in a woman's womb, there will always be a way for women who really want an abortion (and in certain cases, such as rape or incest, you can easily see why) to have one. It would be helpful to look at the consequences of making abortion illegal: it would a return to back alley abortions. Then the risk would be to lose not only the fetus, but the mother as well, especially because it would be an opportunity for unlicensed hacks to make a profit. It would also widen the gap between the poor and those who can afford to pay for medical assistance.
It seems to me that the consequences on life loss would be worse, if one is only to take life as a criteria. It seems like more logical to wish abortions be performed in safe environments where those women, often in desperate situations, can also be given alternatives (such as adoption) as well as counseling. In addition, it might be also as important to support sex education, including contraceptive methods, instead of "abstinence only" (see here).  Teaching kids about sex does not mean one encourages them to have sex, but as a teacher myself, I know that kids are greatly misinformed and knowledge never hurts.

These two issues have become the obsession of many Christian activists and church leaders. In France, one can deplore the lack of biblical culture, including among Catholics, and the highly hierarchical workings of the church. In the United States, the church is too often a social place where initial bias is re-enforced by people with similar culture, race and social backgrounds, where verses are learned like mantras and where bible study groups serve to re-inforce the dominant view. With a few notable exceptions, questioning the  consensus can be really hard and it is unfortunate that so often feel-goodism and self-righteousness prevail over genuine theological debates. There's hope, however, and I find comfort in reading Brian D. McLaren or Gregory Boyd, or this young gutsy minister, Ryan Bauers.


Anonymous said...

A well-argumented position.
One remark : couldn't you add euthanasia to abortion and same-sex marriage, as topical subjects christians do not agree with ? I wonder if the debate about euthanasia is as important in USA as in France.


Jerome VG said...

Thanks for your kind words and your suggestion. It doesn't seem to me that euthanasia is much talked about in the United States, or even in France for that matter. At least, it is not a legal issue or up to the vote in the U.S. as far as I know. I must also admit that this is a topic I haven't taken the time to get my mind around it. I have cowardly been avoiding thinking about it altogether. If you have good thoughts, feel free to share and I'll be glad to publish them in a post. I'm always open for guests.