Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Defense of Gay Christians

The U.S. Episcopal Church has just reaffirmed their commitment to ordaining openly gay priests. Thus the Global Anglican Communion moves closer to the ever talked about schism. N.T. Wright, perhaps the most influential living Anglican theologian, wrote a condemnatory op-ed in which he reaffirms the Christian Church’s traditional ban on those engaging in same sex relationships. The whole article is worth reading, but his seems to me the key bit:

“Our supposedly selfish genes crave a variety of sexual possibilities. But Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation).

Paganism ancient and modern has always found this ethic, and this belief, ridiculous and incredible. But the biblical witness is scarcely confined, as the shrill leader in yesterday’s Times suggests, to a few verses in St Paul. Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.”

Before responding to this I should say two things: (1) I’ve been reading N.T. Wright for the past couple of years and I have enormous respect for him and his writings, despite our disagreement over this issue. (2) I am hardly a “good” Christian, so I don’t wish to pronounce to other Christians from a lofty perspective. This being said, I fully affirm the rights of gays and lesbians to participate in every aspect of the Christian church. I realize most Christians disagree with me on this, so I’ll briefly try and explain my thinking.
First of all, Wright ignores the fact that Jesus makes no explicit mention of homosexuality in the gospels. Sure, he has a passage about the importance of marriage and a couple of criticisms of “fornication” but on the whole he seems very uninterested in casting judgments on human sexuality; he has bigger issues to deal with(of course, Bart Ehrman will step in here and tell me that the gospels are embellishments; but he is entitled to his belief and I am entitled to mine). Yes, Saint Paul has some explicit condemnations of same gender eroticism. But Saint Paul is not Jesus; a great theologian and a great Christian; but he is not the Messiah. Doesn’t he also say women shouldn’t be in church unless they cover their heads?

And if we look at Jesus himself, we find him with some shocking things to say about vices the Church seems to tolerate. In the Sermon on the Mount he explicitly condemns violence against enemies. Yet most churches send Chaplains to the US military and have given their blessing to countless wars. Jesus clearly equates divorce with adultery; yet many of the same churches which ban gay participation welcome the participation of divorced persons. Quite simply, it is disingenuous to ban gays out of a gospel ethic while endorsing wars and condoning divorce. I fully believe in military Chaplains and divorced people participating fully in church. I’m shocked that this same grace isn’t extended to gays and lesbians.

For most gays and lesbians, their sexual orientation is intrinsic to their identity. This isn’t a willful rebellion; this is who they are. Wright seems to view human sexuality as a neat programmed package intended for marriage and procreation. Yet in Andrew Sullivan’s book “The Conservative Soul” he makes a powerful argument involving the female clitoris. Why, he asks, should women have an area of sexual stimulation which is unnecessary for procreation? It’s a provocative question to say the least. Why did God make that? Perhaps for the same reason He made gay people. I realize most Christians disagree with me, but I just can’t keep silent on this issue.


azk said...

You raise good points but several questions as well. On what basis are you confident of your understanding of Jesus Christ? We have the testimony of the gospels, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are interpreters just like Paul. On what basis are the gospel writers to be privileged or to be understood as presenting a different consciousness with regards to Jesus Christ? Yes, all authority is given to Jesus, but to trounce Paul is to sever Jesus from the primary vehicle of his authority.

Also, Paul does not have a biological or psychological understanding of the human being and therefore "gay" and "straight" mean nothing to him. What matters to him is the identity derived from narrative, from theology. This includes the narrative of Jesus Christ. We moderns want to see science as somehow revelatory, as if we can discern divine intent because we can locate causes. But in the church we are asked to embrace a symbolic world, to see reality like the gospel of John does. This reality is not biological or psychological, but rather is theological. Pull back the veil of heaven and we see that humans are designated narratively as men and women. It is this reality that we have to make friends with and to let it be the lens through which we understand ourselves. If we do anything else the great cloud of witnesses from the ages that surround us will accuse us of doing mythology instead of theology.

Sarah C. said...

Many people erroneously think that sexual orientation for gays and lesbians is purely a matter of the genitalia. You are right, Bert, that being gay or straight is "intrinsic to your identity." Deny or mistreat that identity by trying to be other than who you are and you do yourself (and others) profound damage.

For me, the paradox and flux of the Trinity presents a model for living in a world without binaries and fixed categories.

"All things counter, original, spare strange/ Whatever is fickle freckled (who knows how?)/ With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle dim/ He fathers forth whose beauty is past change/ Praise him."

Glory be to God for our differences.

Cloudy said...

The New Testament translator J.B. Phillips writes in his book Your God Is Too Small that Jesus in the Gospels is overwhelmingly concerned with love of God and love of fellow human beings, and that what Phillips calls misdirection of the love-energy, while it may result in sin, gets very little attention. Jesus, he claims, is concerned with love being directed outward rather than inward to feed our egos and resentments. By Phillips' reckoning, it would seem that the issue of gay Christians is not important enough to split churches or denominations.

Bert said...

"On what basis are the gospel writers to be privileged or to be understood as presenting a different consciousness with regards to Jesus Christ? Yes, all authority is given to Jesus, but to trounce Paul is to sever Jesus from the primary vehicle of his authority."

I don't pit Paul against Jesus by any means. I think some of Paul's teachings on gender roles are rooted in first century culture; whereas his theological teachings on Jesus are timeless and authoritative.