Friday, March 28, 2008

What Moral Law? Sally Kern's Troubled Theology


There has been a lot of chatter online about Oklahoma Rep. Sally Kern’s diatribe against LGBT (queer) people, but very little discussion about the claims that she makes. Most commentators are content to simply let Kern’s wing-nuttery speak for itself. That’s a problem. Academics and intellectuals are too quick to dismiss this kind of right-wing rhetoric as “not worth a response.” Views like Kern’s need to be broken down and confronted in ways that lay people can understand because they are part of an ideological pole of attraction that can pull the political ideas of the population in a certain direction. While most people may not accept many of Kern’s views, the right-wing theological program she espouses can still negatively influence the formation of the public’s political consciousness.

Here, I am going to be addressing some of the theological arguments Kern raises on the Oklahoma City cable access program Flashpoint. Some of the online responses to Kern’s appearance on this program criticized openly gay UCC pastor, Scott Jones, who appeared on the program opposite Kern, for even giving Kern’s theological arguments the time of day. That too is a mistake.

Christian theological imagery is part of the symbolic, meaning-making universe of many, many people. Appeals to biblical imagery, because the Bible is such a part of our culture, have a major impact—even, possibly, on a subconscious level. At the same time, there is a real tension—even a fundamental incompatibility—between the values of the Bible, which reflect the worldviews of ancient civilizations, and modern values of democracy and universal human rights. I believe that most people are aware of this tension, even if this awareness is in the back of their minds. And I want to bring these tensions and incompatibilities to the forefront in an attempt to prompt critical reflection on Christian theology.

There is also something politically significant in Kern’s appeals to the Bible. A refusal to admit that the Bible often represents the values of pre-modern societies allows her to appeal to these highly reactionary sentiments when she wants to—all the while claiming that this is just her religious belief. This is about more than just gay rights; it is about legitimating authoritarian worldviews in a democratic society by using the Bible. This tactic of promoting authoritarian ideas through appeals to the Bible has been used by conservative Christians in the United States for a long time, and it was most obvious in debates about slavery in the US.

So, before delving into the specifics of Kern’s theology, let’s get some things clear. We do live in a society that values independence over conformity to arbitrary customs and traditions. We live in a culture that values the individual, democracy, and freedom—even if we rarely put those values into practice. I say this lest there be any confusion: This is 2008, not the first millennium BCE—the period when the Hebrew Bible was written—nor, is it the first and second centuries CE—when the New Testament was written.

To suggest that the values of a ancient West Asian monarchy (i.e. ancient Israel) or texts written in an imperial Roman dictatorship (i.e. the New Testament) should be simply applied to a modern, post-industrial society is absurd and dangerous. Too many people have suffered and died because literalists refused to leave ancient customs and assumptions in the ancient world. But it is no surprise that right-wing bigots like Sally Kern would want to preserve as many values from authoritarian, hierarchical societies as possible.

Kern’s Theology

In response to Kirk Humphreys’ reference to Leviticus 18:22’s prohibition against some form of male-male sexual activity, Rev. Scott Jones the openly gay pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC in Oklahoma City tried to point out that this prohibition appears next to passages that condemn weaving together two types of fabric before he was interrupted by the obnoxious Kern. Jones’ instincts were right and I wish he had a chance to follow his argument through. It is important to bring up biblical mores that strike modern people as bizarre to emphasize the fact that biblical moral priorities and assumptions were radically different from ours.

The biblical material does not see same-sex relationships as an expression of romantic feelings for people of the same-sex. It often has a very specific context in mind when it deals with same-sex activity. Levitical law prohibits a specific act between two males and not “homosexuality” in general and Paul sees same-sex relationships through the lens of Jewish polemics against Gentiles (Rom. 1).

Much of the Torah, as Kern was quick to point out, wishes to make a distinction between Israelites and the “Canaanites” that live in the land. Whether or not the text actually represents a historical situation (it probably doesn’t) is beside the point. The operative ideology of much of the biblical text is extreme xenophobia towards outsiders and its purity laws reinforce a biblical rhetoric of ethnic “othering.”

But xenophobia would be a flimsy moral foundation to base objections to homosexuality on, so Kern tries to weasel her way out of it with a distinction between “ceremonial” and “moral” law in ancient Israel:

“…In God’s Word there’s different kinds of law. There’s his moral law, there’s his civil law and there’s his ceremonial law. God was establishing his chosen people and for his chosen people he wanted them to be separate and different from the other nations he was sending them out into. And so he had ceremonial and civil law for them to set them apart, okay? God’s moral law applies to everyone…Jesus set us free from law, okay, he set us free from the cultural law—the ceremonial law, excuse me—and the civil law; he never set us free from the moral law…”

This argument has been made in a variety of fashions by fundamentalist Christians embarrassed by rules and customs in the Bible that collide with modern values. This way they can dismiss practices of the Israelites we find abhorrent today (slavery, genocide, sexism, xenophobia) as “ceremonial” and “cultural.” But is it really that clear cut? Perhaps there is a distinction between “moral” and “ceremonial” law in the Torah, but if there is someone would have to articulate criteria by which to determine the difference between a “moral” and “ceremonial” law.

This is harder than it looks because for many biblical authors (such as H) ceremonial purity is also moral imperative (you know, the “be holy as I am holy” stuff—Lev. 19:2). In Lev. 19, what many would consider “moral” laws appear alongside what many would consider “cultural” laws. By what basis would one determine what is “cultural” and what is “ceremonial”? By what basis do Christians say that Lev. 18:22 (which supposedly condemns “homosexuality”) is part of the “moral law” whereas other passages in the Torah are merely “ceremonial” or “cultural?” The distinction between “moral” and “ceremonial” law is actually a modern assessment of biblical material. No one has been able to satisfactorily articulate concrete, consistent criteria for determining the difference between an “ethical” or “moral” law and a “ceremonial” or “cultural” law—they just assume the distinctions exist.

What gets interpreted as ceremonial versus moral law is actually a reflection of conservative Christian political and social ideology. If someone wanted to make a distinction between “moral” and “civil” law, a good case could be made that the activity prohibited in Lev. 18:22 (whatever it is) is actually part of the “cultural” laws. After all, as many commentators have pointed out, the passage prohibiting uncovering a woman’s genitalia during her menstrual cycle is in the same section as Lev. 18:22. And yet, few Christians argue that this is a “moral law” (n.b.: orthodox Jews do follow this law). The prohibited man-on-man activity in Lev. 18:22 is also singled out as to‘ebah (abomination), a term often tied to what many Christians consider “ceremonial” and “cultural” laws (Deut. 14:3) as well as “moral” laws. Yet in Lev. 18:17 incest (or uncovering the nakedness of one’s own “flesh”) is singled out as zimmah (wickedness) and Lev. 18:23 refers to bestiality to as tebel (perversion)—more unambiguously “moral” terms. Why, then, couldn’t someone interpret Lev. 18:22 as part of the so-called “ceremonial” law? Because Sally Kern and people who agree with her believe that homosexuality is immoral and then make the passage part of the “moral” law.

The only clearly stated motives and priorities that informed the rules expressed in the Torah are ethnic distinctiveness and purity and pollution--and this ideology applies to all the laws. Of course, this ideological background also informs laws that we do not find reprehensible and with which we would agree. Nevertheless, the alien assumptions of the biblical text force modern theologians to be extremely suspicious of the moral laws contained therein. The biblical laws with which we agree, we agree with for wholly different reasons. We agree with the sentiments of Lev. 19:18b (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”) because a feeling of reciprocity fits with the values of a democratic society that upholds individual and universal human rights and freedoms. We find Lev. 19:20, a law basically allowing masters to have sexual access to their slaves reprehensible because it flies in the face of such values.

The same interpretative problems of the Hebrew Bible plague the New Testament as well. Like the Hebrew Bible, the moral prescriptions of the New Testament are informed by different values than ours. And like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament contains passages which alert modern interpreters to be suspicious of its moral prescriptions—such as its infamous verses supporting slavery and women’s subordination.

Also similarly, instead of an arbitrary distinction between “ceremonial” and “moral” law, an irresponsible distinction between “cultural” and “moral” laws arise in discussions of New Testament ethics with conservative Christians declaring that some extremely embarrassing passages are merely “cultural” (i.e. the ones about slavery and women’s subordination) and insisting that other passages lay down eternal moral laws (especially the ones about “homosexuality”).

It may come as a shock to some fundamentalists, but the Bible rarely actually announces: “Oh, by the way, this was just a cultural prescription!” Most moral prescriptions in the New Testament make appeals to God, God’s will, and God’s order in some way—even the problematic ones. When Eph. 6:6 tells slaves to submit to their masters, it appeals to the “will of the Lord.” In my opinion 1 Cor 11:13-15 is the most embarrassing passage in the New Testament for conservative Christians (besides Romans 13) because it clearly shows that Paul’s views of “nature” and gender roles are radically different from ours:

Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a shameful to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering…

When Paul says here that women should have a physical symbol, such as long hair or a head covering, of their subordinate status to men, he makes appeals to “nature” and actually says that long hair “shames” men (the same word used to describe the “shameful passions” of “homosexuality” in Rom. 1:26!). Considering that Paul thinks nature should tell people the proper length of their hair (an absolutely risible idea to a modern person), I think that we can safely say that when Paul says that same-sex activity is “against nature” he is operating from problematic assumptions about gender and “nature”.

So here’s the bottom line: Until conservative Christians can articulate a clear and consistent way to determine what is “cultural” and what is “moral,” we can rightly say that they are just scheming to make the Bible fit their political and social ideologies.

Gay-affirming denominations have always argued that we should read Scripture by prioritizing the prophetic values of “justice” and “compassion” because these values more closely reflect our modern concerns for individual human rights and democracy. Conservatives use the pejorative expression “picking and choosing” to describe this necessary practice of prioritizing certain biblical themes and values above others, which all Christians do to some extent. But to me, this beats going into interpretative contortions, like conservative Christians do, to arbitrarily make some passages “cultural” and “ceremonial,” when they cannot clarify their criteria for doing so. The difference between progressive Christians and conservative Christians is that progressives are honest about the volatile, contentious nature of biblical interpretation while conservatives dogmatically cling to the idea that they never prioritize and emphasize certain passages at the expense of others.

Appendix: Sodom and Gomorrah

“…And the proof that God has moral judgment against the sin of homosexuality as well as rape, incest…um…is that he did condemn and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality…”

I had a hard time figuring out what Kern was trying to say here, but I suspect she is trying to say that because, in the biblical narrative, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah takes place before the Torah was given, that God must have a moral (not “ceremonial”) objection to homosexuality. This, of course, assumes that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for the “sin of homosexuality”—something that most modern scholars deny. And anyway, there are numerous customs and traditions promoted and condemned in the patriarchal narratives (see the Onan “levirate marriage” incident, for instance—Gen. 38:8-10) that are not considered normative today.

No one denies that the mob that confronts Lot actually wants to have sex with the male angels (Gen. 19:5), but the “hospitality” angle is emphasized by modern interpreters because this story is actually about the sexual violation or rape of strangers, not “homosexuality.” Even if the hospitality were not an issue, Kern would be off-base by conflating rape and “homosexuality.”

But hospitality is obviously a major issue in this story because Lot explicitly says to the mob, after offering his daughters as a substitute: “Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof (lit: they have come under the shade of my rafter)” (19:8). No other explication of the wrongness of the crowd’s behavior is stated in Gen 19 except this one. Also, Lot offers the crowd his own daughters. You have to go through backflips to say that strong social taboos about hospitality are not at play here if a man is willing to incur major economic loss by offering his own virgin daughters to be gang raped!

Judges 19, a brutal story similar to the Sodom and Gomorrah episode, also makes it clear that the crime of the Sodomites is sexual violation of a stranger, only this time the mob violates the stranger’s concubine. And this text is more explicit than Gen. 19 in using the language of rape and sexual abuse. Here, an Ephraimite staying in the Benjaminite town of Gibeah tells a crowd who wants to have sex with his Levite guest, “do not do this evil thing because he has come to my house” (19:23). Instead the man offers the mob his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to “abuse” or “rape” (the verb here is ‘nh, a verb also used many times to describe oppression in a social-justice sense). The man then seized the Levite’s concubine and threw her to the crowd, which then rapes her all night, showing that the issue here is not just sex but sex that involves oppression (‘nh—cf. Judg. 20:5). Afterwards the Levite, whose concubine was violated, calls an assembly of the Israelites who then go to war against the Benjaminites for the crime that happened in their city.[1]

Yet, anti-gay Christians think it’s just ridiculous for people to interpret the passage as a condemnation of inhospitality—as if Gen. 19:8 said, “Do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof and by the way, they’re men too.” Where is the evidence that the text is concerned with sex with the “wrong gender”? And would Kern and other conservative Christians deny that there are not other biblical passages that imply that social injustice and inhospitality are sins of Sodom and Gomorrah (Ezek 16:49-50; Matt. 10:11-15; Luke 10:8-12)? If not, then the interpretation of Sodom’s sin as a sin of inhospitality is a very reasonable theological interpretation.

Kern mentioned the late first/early second century New Testament book of Jude as a reason to interpret the Sodom and Gomorrah story as a condemnation of “homosexuality.” I personally have a problem with using a late first/early second century Christian text to interpret Genesis 19 but since Kern brought up Jude, we might as well address it.

Jude 7 indeed says that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah engaged in “great sexual immorality” and “went after sarkos heteras (‘strange/other flesh’).” But does this necessarily mean same-sex activity?

The background of Jude 7 is Jewish Pseudepigrapha, extrabiblical Jewish literature written during the Hellenistic period about characters and events in the Hebrew Bible. One of those books was 1 Enoch, a book probably cited by Jude (14-15). Most of 1 Enoch tells the story of the Watchers (angelic beings) who come to earth and impregnate human women (see Gen. 6:1-4 for material 1 Enoch is interpreting). So, with this background in mind, Jude 6-7 says:

And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great Day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued sarkos heteras, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

In other words, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were like these derelict angelic beings. The “strange flesh” is probably a reference to the fact that the people of those infamous cities tried to have sex with angels—after 1 Enoch discusses angels who cross the boundary between human and heavenly being. While we could infer that a late first/early second century text, influenced by Hellenistic Judaism, may have had same-sex relations in mind when it talked about the “sexual immorality” of Sodom and Gomorrah, we need not interpret Jude 7 in that way. I personally believe that Jude 7 refers to sexuality that transgresses boundaries—of which gender could be one. However, theologically speaking, most inter-biblical interpretations of Gen. 19 suggest that Sodom and Gomorrah’s crime is related to inhospitality and social injustice. Why not interpret Jude 7 in that way as well? The boundary transgression of Sodom was not simply metaphysical (human-on-angel) but also crossed a social boundary concerning hospitality.

The inability to accept the idea that inhospitality was so offensive that they saw it as a reason to destroy a city is once again reflective of the inability of conservative Christians to let an ancient text reflect ancient values. But hospitality was, in fact, a major theme as the texts themselves show. Conservative Christians cannot accept this fact even when there are clear textual clues that this is what the story is talking about. So much for letting the Bible “speak for itself”.

[1] The Israelites then decimate the Benjaminites and put the entire city of Gibeah to the sword. The text does not say what happened to the Ephraimite man who seems to have committed a major blunder by offering the concubine of his Levite guest to the crowd. We should note that unlike Lot, who escapes the conflagrations in Sodom, the text does not suggest that this man was spared.