Sunday, August 17, 2014

Homosexuality & The Bible II

Galatians 3:28
My last post looked mostly at what the Bible had to say about homosexuality to heterosexual people  (and I guess also to those in denial): do not judge, instead live in the freedom of God's grace for yourself, and allow others to do the same. The only part really aimed directly at any gay readers was the last paragraph, where I quoted Jonny Freeman.

I had a few reasons for doing this: preaching from the outside isn't necessarily helpful; there is a heterosexual majority, so it applies to more people; and, actually, what the Bible says about homosexuality to those who are not is a lot more obvious than its message to those who are (sorry, horrible sentence/clause structure there ... made worse by this bracketed section ;) ).

But ... there is real confusion about what the Bible does and doesn't say, and there is a lot of propaganda by various interest groups. So, with a view to providing information for people to make their own choices:-

I'll start by saying that the standard passages quoted on the subject (the ones I looked at last time, from Leviticus, 1 Corinthians and Romans) are not a great deal of use really. The reason is that their application is seriously ambiguous: Leviticus could easily be about one heterosexual man using another in situations where there are no available women (looking after herds, on patrol, whatever); Romans is most likely about the sexual licentiousness and corruption encouraged by Nero and his predecessors (Roman orgies and all that); and 1 Corinthians' malakoi and arsenokoitai are so uncertain in meaning as to be mirrors in which commentators can see their own prejudices reflected back.

I've been trying to research the 1 Cor. terms above in my big book of Greek words and there is surprisingly little there. It seems that malakoi can mean soft things, or weak things or people, or sick people, or people being punished by God. Arsenokoitai doesn't seem to be a proper Greek word at all, but a compound -apparently created created by Paul himself - of arsen (male) and koite (bed). Except that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament which Paul appears to have used) 'bed' can just mean a place to sleep, or it can mean 'marriage bed', or an animal's den, or a sheepfold, or a sick bed, or ejaculation, or a prostitute's bed, or an idol's shrine - you can maybe start to see why translating a Biblical text is as much art as science. There is one of Paul's lists in Romans 13:13 which explicitly links koite with aselgia, gluttony and sexual excess - as in Roman orgies (again).

A long, geeky paragraph just to say that this particular passage is no help in discerning God's view of homosexuality.

The other passage often quoted is from Genesis 2:
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Jesus quoted this in the context of marriage (and divorce) whilst Paul quoted it in the context of prostitution (probably cultic, temple prostitutes).

The passage is often used in the argument about gay marriage to say that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but that requires some extra assumptions. The main assumption needed is that the Bible says everything that is good, so anything not mentioned in the Bible is evil. There are groups who never ride in cars, or wear artificial fibres, or eat non-Mediterranean foods, but they are few ... and, of course, they also don't read Internet blogs or comment on social media or write in newspapers. For most of us, a better approach is to start from what the Bible says and to apply it to the modern world, by extrapolation, analogy, and the application of basic principles - like loving your neighbour, or being faithful to God.

The immediate Biblical context for the quote is earlier in Genesis 2 where God says:
 "It is not good for the man to be alone."
So you have a choice with Genesis 2. You can say that is just about God giving women to men because mankind is better in relationship than alone. Or you can say that people are meant to function in relationship and in community, so God gives us the marriage relationship as a special form of unity, as illustrated by the (most common) example of a man and a woman.

There is nothing in Genesis 2 to say that marriage must only apply to heterosexual marriage, but there is equally nothing to say that it definitely does also apply to homosexual one too. Read, think, pray, and choose ... and take responsibility for your choice.

A passage about marriage which churches rarely seem to take seriously is in 1 Corinthians:
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.
There is an argument that same-sex relationships must be chaste, whilst opposite-sex relationships can culminate in marriage. That is a really Pharisaic loading of burdens onto others by those who are not prepared to carry them themselves, it seems to me. Nevertheless, chastity is a perfectly honourable lifestyle for those with same-sex sexual attraction; just as it is an honourable lifestyle for those with opposite-sex sexual attraction.

But Paul continues that for those who cannot live with this, then it is "better to marry than to burn with passion". It is possible to argue that this only applies to those attracted to the opposite sex, but it is a more natural argument that it applies to all who would otherwise be tempted to promiscuity and extra-marital sex.

Which brings us to idolatry and 'fornication', a word used in old Bible versions to translate porneia, which literally means prostitution or using prostitutes. As used by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament it has particular reference to Hosea's wife, thus to extreme unfaithfulness and to idolatry. Modern translations usually go for the meaningless cop-out of 'sexual immorality'. In the second half of chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians you get:
The body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.  Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!  Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
From later context it seems Paul is talking about Temple prostitutes here - ie idolatrous sex.

For me, this is the key point about any form of sexual relationship for a Christian, straight or gay: is it idolatrous, or is it in the context of a faithful walk with God?

There are people for whom that means a life of chastity, and there are people for whom it is married life, or at least the closest equivalent to marriage allowed by law in their locality. Faithfulness and community are key elements for most of us, whether married or single.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Homosexuality & The Bible


After Christian songwriter Vicky Beeching proclaimed in an interview in The Independent, on Thursday, "I'm gay. God loves me just the way I am", there was the expected kerfuffle in conservative Evangelical circles. Channel 4 News interviewed Beeching and US hardliner Scott Lively together, highlighting the problems.

The way Beeching (like many others) has been treated over the years is clear abuse and religious belief is no excuse for that - although do note that such abuse happens at least as much outside churches as inside, even in the US.

One common thread is the claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Clearly many who make this claim neither know nor care what the Bible says, but hopefully there are some who do care. So maybe a little clarification would be helpful.

There are three main passages that tend to be quoted about homosexuality, although only one, in Romans, is relevant to females:-

The first, rather depressingly, is from the ancient book of Leviticus:
Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.
I say 'rather depressingly' because Leviticus is right at the heart of the Torah, the Jewish Law. If there is one thing that a conservative evangelical ought to know it is that Jesus died to set us free from the Jewish Law, to live instead under God's grace.

Some evangelical traditions undermine that by saying that the Torah contains ceremonial laws, which are not binding on Christians, like circumcision, and moral laws which are. This is pure human tradition and directly contradicts both Jesus - who said that Torah is not to be reduced, not by so much as one jot or one tittle as the old translation puts it (Matthew 5:18) - and Paul - who wrote that those who rely on the Law must do everything written in the Law or be under a curse (Galatians 3:10). There is a choice for 'Biblical Christians': either try to follow the rules of the Jewish Law, and be condemned by it, or live in the freedom of God's grace, without putting millstones around people's necks or heavy burdens on their shoulders.

Vicky Beeching mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in her interview, but the Bible is explicit, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, that the sin of Sodom was social injustice:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
The second often quoted 'passage' is rather a series of passages: Paul's lists. Typical is the following from his first letter to the Corinthian church (in the ESV translation):
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.
There is actually a translation issue here in that 'men who practise homosexuality' attempts to translate two different slang terms of uncertain meaning: roughly 'male bedders'  and 'softies'. Merging two list items into one is poor translation anyway, but anyone using this passage should be aware that the one of the terms was apparently invented by Paul, without clarification, and the other was used in different ways in Greek writings - including softies as young men who have not had an older male lover - and a general reference to male homosexuality is as much assumption as scripture.
[The above paragraph was edited 17/08/14, after some more research]

However, the main point is that these are very general lists, not just about sex. In particular they should be taken in conjunction with Jesus' warning about lust being equivalent to adultery, and anger to murder. Take the lists as a whole and we are all included; none of us are entitled to entry into the kingdom of God ... we all depend on God's grace not our own worthiness. So anyone using these lists to condemn someone else, for sexuality say, is condemning themselves. As Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."

Which brings us to the final passage, for now, in many ways the biggie - also the only one which mentions female homosexuality - from Paul's letter to the Romans:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
I must admit I do find this one irritating. It is well known that context is important, and the verses above are a small part of quite a long, structured passage, whose conclusion is:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practise the very same things. ... Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgement will be revealed.
The Bible is absolutely clear: passing judgement on other people for their sexuality is to condemn oneself, not them. We can twist and turn and make excuses, but the point is clear. It is not homosexuality which condemns but legalism and judging others. Live in the freedom of God's grace for yourself, and allow others to do the same.

Finally, a thought from journalist Jonny Freeman, on Huffington Post:
If you're reading this and you believe you're gay, and you have a faith, do not feel ashamed. Life's for living, embrace who you are. The acceptance is growing, and one day, at last, it won't be such a big talking point.
Amen to that.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Change From Within Or Make A Stand?

Baroness Warsi has resigned from the British government today, saying that its position with regard to Gaza and Israel is "morally indefensible".

Inevitably the government, in the form of George Osborne, promptly tried to rubbish her, calling it an "unnecessary decision". The implication, argued on local radio, is that she should have remained where she had influence and could have made a difference, rather than resigning on principle.

It is, I think, a good question: when should one stay put, in order  to change things from the inside, theoretically from a position of influence, and when should one make a stand, pull out, and speak freely.

In a cabinet as wealthy, elitist, and white, as the current UK cabinet, I do have to wonder how much influence Baroness Warsi actually had. Committees, which essentially is what the cabinet is, have their own tried and trusted ways of keeping dissident voices in their place.

I watched an interview with Baroness Warsi on Channel4 News today and was impressed by her steadiness and firmness. It was clear that she has spent several weeks trying to get the UK government to engage more robustly with Israel, and was getting nowhere. As she put it, "George Osborne is a very good friend of the Israeli government".

It seems to me that the Israeli government has several 'very good friends' in high places in western governments and media, leading to a great deal of distortion in reporting and commentary. It is a pity that George Osborne, in particular, cannot be bothered to spread his friendship more to those suffering from poverty and disability within these British Isles.

In the case of Baroness Warsi, I do believe that she made the right decision. She seems to have tried to make a difference from within, not been able to achieve enough, and has therefore followed her conscience and resigned.

As a general rule though, I do also believe that you have to do things that way round. If some community or organisation is worth being a part of, then you have to be willing to work with the people within it, to make your points and to listen to other views.

Most communities and organisations which are worthwhile inevitably fall short of their own ideals - because they are composed of fallible human beings trying to work together. To pull out of something worthwhile because you do not get your own way over something has to be a last resort - what I term "the nuclear option". In other words, you do everything in your power to avoid it, but it is always there in reserve. If something is being done which is fundamentally inconsistent with what you believe to be right and true then you have to act with integrity and decency.

The impression I got today is that Baroness Warsi is a person of integrity and decency and I hope she is able to find other outlets for her talents now she has left government (at least the ministerial part of it).

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Trevor Huddleston, Makhalipile, Human Being

Life itself and all that goes with it - all the glory of it, all the power of it - every many splendid thing is a free gift from the God who made us.
Trevor Huddleston
Just occasionally somebody comes along who epitomises Christ at work in a troubled world. From 1943 to 1998 one such man was Trevor Huddleston.

There was a wonderful tribute on a recent Channel 4 News from trumpeter Hugh Masekela, which says more than I ever could:

Desmond Tutu said:
"The biggest defining moment in my life was when I saw Trevor Huddleston and I was maybe nine or so. I didn't know it was Trevor Huddleston, but I saw this tall, white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother who was a domestic worker.

I didn't know then that it would have affected me so much, but it was something that was really - it blew your mind that a white man would doff his hat. And subsequently I discovered, of course, that this was quite consistent with his theology that every person is of significance, of infinite value, because they are created in the image of God.

And the passion with which he opposed apartheid and any other injustice is something that I sought then to emulate."
Often it is the small unthinking things we do which best reflect Jesus to other people.

God bless Africa, God bless Africa,
Guard her children, guide her leaders.
God bless Africa, God bless Africa,
God bless Africa and bring her peace.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Justice And Peace Together

I added a comment to a recent post yesterday, which I want to expand on a little. It seems to me that there is a really difficult tension between Jesus' call to "love your enemies" and "do good to those who hate you" on the one hand, and God's call to "act justly" and "love mercy" on the other, or even Paul's call to "stand firm against the schemes of the evil one".

On one occasion Jesus was confronted with a bullying synagogue leader:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Jesus unambiguously stood up for the bullied woman and against the religious leaders. He did so publicly and vehemently: "You hypocrites!" So the deference to leadership and the 'niceness' taught by many churches (especially by their leaderships, oddly) is clearly unfaithful to Jesus' example and to the clear teaching of the Bible.

Church leaders are there to serve the people who make up the local church, and that local church is there to serve Jesus in their local community. Many churches, of all sorts of traditions, seem to get this backwards. It is essential for the proper functioning of a church that its leadership is fully, and publicly, accountable to Jesus through its congregation. This means that keeping things secret from the congregation is anathema, and that confidentiality must be seen as being a part of good communication, not opposed to it.

With hindsight I wonder if Caversham Baptist Church could have avoided a lot of pain, or at least made sure it had some purpose, by coming together behind such principles. Other churches in Caversham have had similar problems, one at least as severe. The trouble is that local churches don't seem to be that good at coming together with purpose; possibly because of a lack of clear vision and direction. If you are all busy working to a clear, agreed and common goal, then a lot of the nonsense can be left behind.

Which brings me to Israel and Gaza. If everybody there passively stopped the shelling and the missiles and the shooting, the result would be neither justice nor peace. Gaza would still be under siege, there would still be Palestinians rotting without trial in Israeli jails, and both sides would continue living in fear and hatred of the other.

Not that the killing and wanton destruction is in any way helpful, but stopping them without changing the situation just stores up more killing and more hatred for the future. A ceasefire is good if and only if it is also an opportunity to seek justice and resolution.

There are peacemakers in Israel and Palestine: Christians, Muslims and Jews who come together to learn about one another and to explore ways to live peacefully together.

If enough of the haters become sickened by their hatred, and by the legacy they are passing on to their children, then maybe there could be a foundation for spreading peace and trust, bit by bit. It happened in Northern Ireland and South Africa - haters are still there but the momentum has passed from them to those who would make peace. This creates windows of opportunity to find just solutions to the causes of conflict, and to negotiate the inevitable bumps in the road.

When people stand together to do what is right, for justice and peace, then often they need to take the first steps, to show that progress is possible. That requires showing love for enemies and doing good to opponents. This works best, in my view, if they place their primary trust in God, through Jesus, rather than in politicians and other human leaders.

So much hatred is based on fear and fear-mongering; Jesus died and rose again to show that we can overcome fear, and focus on life and love. May churches, families and nations do so, and may the energy and resources put into creating conflict be turned to building peace, justice and a better world for all.