Reading our prejudices into the bible

The last time I wrote about same-sex relations, and in particular the C4M petition I tried to remain neutral in relation on attitudes to same-sex relations in general, for that post my views on the matter were irrelevant.

In this post I shall address more closely my feelings on the matter.  In fact…

I do not think same-sex relationships or practices are wrong.  I do not think that heterosexual relationships are the only way God intended for couples to exist.

Now I’ve gone on record with my opinion on the matter.  You can all hold me to it if you want.

One of the common objections I experience to my view is that “But, but … but, the bible says they are wrong”.  And it is to this that we now turn our attention.

Yes, there are a few verses, in both the Old and New Testament that come out against same-sex relationships/practices.  I could go through and explain how in each circumstance I do not think they categorically condemn anything, but I don’t want to get into that game of proof-text tag.  Instead I want to look at the wider issue of why it is that people use the defense “But the bible says so” and some inherent flaws with this.

Firstly, living our lives by the authority of the bible, I believe, is a good thing.  So trying to work out what the bible says is a good thing, and using it to justify our opinions, in principle is a good thing.  But it also leads us into tricky water.  The bible is not monolithic or straight-forward.  It is multifaceted and contains many different opinions, even on the same matter.  Rachel Held Evans has been blogging about this issue too, (why not check out her series) and often concludes that there is not “a biblical view” on a subject, but a range of them.  This is inevitable for a Canon that is a collection of texts that have been written over such a long period, by some many authors in different cultures.  What qualifies them as Canonical, and what gives them authority. however, is their inspiration by the Spirit.

Given this what defines our understanding of “what the bible says” must be us.  We all share the same scriptures but reach different conclusions, so the thing that determines that, has to be us.  We all read different things into the text.  I read liberal and Arminian   values into texts, others read conservative and charismatic messages into the text.
Why do some people think  the bible is against gays, bisexuals, etc?  Because they are against gays, bisexuals etc?  They read their own prejudices into the text.

And it isn’t just in how they interpret verses, because if it was some verses might be inescapable, it is how we deal with the scriptures as a whole.  We are all guilty of selective reading.  I tend not to mention verses that talk about God pre-destining people.  Those who use the bible to suggest homo-sexuality and/or bisexuality are wrong do exactly the same, they give greater priority to the “anti-gay” verses and claim it as a biblical mandate.

There are 5 instructions in the NT to greet one another with a kiss (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12,  1 Thes 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14) and yet those who tell me that my views on sexuality are unbiblical have never kissed me when we’ve met.

For the sake of ease, let us focus on one book to further illustrate this point.  1 Corinthians works well.  The following verses are all taken from this one letter, of Paul to the church in Corinth.

Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (4:5)
I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. (5:3)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (6:9-10)
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. (7:8)
Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,  (11:14)
All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (16:20)

A command against judging, but an admission the author judges, commands against homosexuality, a command against marrying, a condemnation of men with long hair and an instruction to kiss each other.

People often take objection to same-sex relations and trot out this verse in their support, very few people have sincerely objected to the length of my hair (which now sits just above my shoulders) based on that verse, no-one has told me that I should be celibate, but they have said my non-hetero friends should be and no-one has greeted me with a kiss. Their reading of even this one book (and don’t get me onto slaves elsewhere) is selective.  Because we all read selectively.

The question then must be “why?”.  It is necessary for us to consider what leads to this selective reading over any other.  A suggest a number of reasons.

Generational
A bit of me feels uncomfortable writing this blog-post, I know a number of people whom I love and respect deeply disagree with me on the matter.  I am wary of sounding too overly-critical, for example I have written, and then deleted the word homophobic a number of times [I stand by my decision that it is an unhelpful label in this particular branch of the discussion].  Many of the people I hold in high regard are older than me.  I think in some cases, the prejudice comes from their generation.  As they grew up opposition to LGBT was the norm, to some extent they are unaware of their prejudice and the hurt they cause, and it is that upbringing and societal influence that affects their readings of these texts.  It fits with everything else they have been told, so they accept it.

Faith Tradition
There are plenty of churches that actively preach against same sex relationship and preach ardently on the virtues of marriage, how it is a God-given ideal for society and family life.  There are, therefore members of those traditions who have been conditioned to read the passages condemning same-sex relationships favourably, without much thought to their own conscience.  They have seen no need to question the verse because their is a clear teaching on it from their church.
There are, of course, the majority of people who have read the passages and heard their church’s teaching on the matter and have knowingly accepted or rejected it.  Making our own decisions on these matters is always favourable.

Wider Society
Wider society is better now than it was before at accepting orientations that aren’t straight, as valid and normal, or as no different to straight orientations, but there is still a horrifically long way to go.  The stats in my previous blog highlight that in a very painful way.   This does not help, it possibly tips the reader towards thinking that condemnations of same-sex relationships are acceptable, or normal, and therefore limits the critical thought that goes into the texts.  Again, this is not always the case.

Upbringing
This merges all of the above, church, society, parental attitudes etc all affect our reading of the scriptures.  If we are brought up in homes where heterosexuality is favoured, or where same-sex relationships are seen as wrong this can affect our reading.

Personal Conviction
So far it may sound as if I believe that anyone who opposes same-sex relationships has been conned or hoodwinked into the position.  This is far from the case.  The majority of my adversaries in this matter, most of whom are very close friends hold their views because of a personal conviction in the validity of principle.  As much as I bitterly disagree with these people I cannot help but respect that they have reached a conclusion based on their weighing of the evidence and which sits well with their conscience, much as I have.

However, when we boil it down, personally I do not think the bible condemns same-sex relationships, and people will have to do better than “because the bible says so” as their reasoning.  By all means disagree with me, but have a better argument than a prejudiced selective reading of our authoritative scriptures.

“Which then turned into a quiet word … til it was a battle-cry!”

[warning: I discuss homophobia, homophobic bullying, self-harm and suicide in this post]

My good friend also blogs, and quite thought-provokingly too over at http://charlieswhispers.wordpress.com/ and yesterday she posted her thoughts on “Why she won’t be signing the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ Petition”.  She’s the first blogger that I follow who has ventured thoughts on the subject, and I think she is very brave, because her thoughts seem to be contrary to most of her Christian peers.  Her position and blog post have sparked much discussion both at the blog and in other virtual spaces.  During those discussions I have seen a perennial line of thought expressed, one that is not only applicable to same-sex marriage but is part of a wider discussion on how Christians should interact with the world around them.  It is to this general line of thought, as opposed to specific views about same-sex marriage that I dedicate this post, because there are a number of critiques that need to be made.  But first, some basic starting points.

1) I speak entirely for myself,
2) My views are not necessarily the views of my Church
3) This is not meant as a personal attack on particular person or people
4) This is not just about same-sex marriage but a wider world-view, although it shall be considered through this lens.
5) There are better forums than the comments of this blog for us to thrash out Christian perspectives on human sexuality.
6) the following discussion is mainly constructed in the hypothetical and don’t represent my views on human sexuality.

So, a number of Christians, in a variety of situations have suggested that Christians should petition the government because “The bible provides guidelines for the best way for society to live, irrespective of a member’s religious convictions”.  A less controversial version of this might be “the bible says “do not murder”, not murdering is good for society, so Christians should make sure this biblical principle is upheld in society”.  A slightly more lilkely appeal (given EVERYONE dislikes murder) could go along the lines of “God commands a Sabbath be kept, a day of rest is good for everyone, Christians should lobby for keeping a day free” (we did, to some extent we lost, but I’m OK with that), and a current manifestation is “The bible says same-sex relationships are bad. They are not part of God’s ideal society, so it is right that Christians speak out against them”.

I shall leave my whining about the utter arrogance of enforcing our moral standards onto someone, without their say so, “for their own good” asside for now; it won’t get us anywhere.

I will start with an assumption.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, these people are right and that God doesn’t think same-sex relationships have a place in society, let’s assume they’re sinful and that we should resist them.  At this point we run into big, big issues.

It is, to some extent, OK to expect Christians to accept this, and to “resist their sinful urges”.  If you genuinely believe that a same-sex relationship or anything else for that matter is harmful then by all means pray that you are not tempted by it, or that the evil act doesn’t happen; pray that murderers stop, the sabbath is respected and homosexual and bisexual urges cease. [NB: personally I find people praying that gay/bi people “turn straight” to be repugnant, but we’re engaging in a little hypothetical construct, bear with me].  A Christian may well expect the Holy Spirit to assist them as the seek for righteousness, just as they’d expect divine assistance in an attempt to stop gossiping or lying etc.  That’s great, it might even work, but here comes the snag.

How do we expect non-Christians to be transformed into morally-acceptable citizens?  They are unlikely to ask the Holy Spirit for help!  And so we set a standard for them “because it is best” or “for their own good” which in many ways they are never going to be able to achieve.  Unless we believe the Holy Spirit is going to drag them away from their sexuality / sinfulness kicking and screaming.  If so, I think we need to reconsider our view of God.  So we are left with an almost unachievable goal, but what of reality?

This for me is the really convincing bit, as much as such people would love to live in their entirelty hetero eutopia, in the mean time members of the LGB (the stats I have do not deal with transphobia) community are going through a living hell.

  •  Stats from 2007 say that that majority (65%) of LGB young people experience homophobic bullying.
  • 17% of those young people have received death threats.

LET ME SAY THAT AGAIN BEFORE CONTINUING.  17% OF THE VICTIMS ON HOMOPHOBIC BULLYING HAVE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS

  • Statistically gays and lesbian pupils are more likely to be bullied than their hetero counterparts.
  • 13% of young victims of homophobic are threatened with a weapon
  • 30% of young victims of homophobic bullying have their property vandalised or stolen
  • 41% of young victims of homophobic bullying experience physical assault
  • over 70% of young people are verbally insulted about their sexuality of a frequent basis, for example being called a “poof”, “queer”, “bender” or “rugmuncher”
  • 30% of lesbian and gay pupils report that adults have been responsible for incidents of homophobic bullying
  • 50% of LGB adults who had been bullied at school considered self-harm or suicide according to 2000 data
  • 30% of LGB adults who had been bulled at school tried to take their life on more than one occasion

[Stats taken from the Stonewall report, summarised here: http://www.stonewall.org.uk/education_for_all/research/1731.asp]

LGB young people are enduring horrific abuse whilst some Christians dream of the perfect moral society, which these young people have no place in.  Surely there is something wrong here, something woefully wrong which I believe the Church to be complicit in.  The stats are harrowing, but I suppose not enough, if we warp my hypothetical situation enough, we could say IF all the LGB people changed sexual orientation in line with God’s will then homophobic bullying would cease.  twisted brutal logic, but logically sound never the less.

But this draws me back to my biggest issue with this line of thought. Enforcing Christian morality on non-Christians is doomed.  Christians may respond earnestly to the call for sanctification; the call to keep purifying their lives by the work of the Holy Spirit.  I fail to see how the same standard can be reasonably expected on non-believers.  This for me is the greatest problem with applying Christian ethics across the board.

So it started with a quiet word; Charlie’s whispering, and now this is my battle-cry, let’s put a stop to this. Ultimately let’s stop with this “God’s rules are for everyone and for the good of society” because they’re just going to hurt people.  Secondly let’s see if we can’t get some of the numbers in those stats a bit lower.  If you like petitions, sign the counter-petition at c4em.org.uk, if you don’t be inspired by this: