Better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian (Joey’s story)

Enlight1

Today I’m featuring a guest post from my friend Jessy Briton Hamilton, about his friend Joey and his experience being shunned by the church for his sexual orientation. 

Shortly after reading Joey’s story, I saw Julie Rodgers’ post describing her experience of rejection. It astounds me that some traditionalists were not more supportive of Julie, if what they say about holding their convictions with love is really true. As a celibate gay Christian, she’s played by their rules. She’s done everything they ask. Yet her experience at the hands the church has forced her to ask some difficult questions:

The fire I’ve come under (publicly and privately) as I’ve sought to live into the traditional ethic causes me to question whether this is about genuinely held beliefs or straight up homophobia. I say this with nothing but sadness: the kind of discrimination my friends and I have experienced as celibate gays makes me lean toward the latter.

Neither Julie nor Joey deserve to be treated this way by the church. Their stories should be a wake-up call, prompting all of us—affirming or otherwise—to pause and reflect.

So to my non-affirming friends: Are you sure you’re not at all guilty of the “straight-up homophobia” that Joey, Julie, and others have experienced? In other words, are you as loving as you think you are?

And to my affirming friends: Is it good enough to declare our churches “open and affirming”? Or to feature a rainbow-themed avatar on our Facebook pages? What are we doing to actively serve LGBTQ members of our churches and communities?

With that, here is Joey’s story, as told by Jessy…

—//—

Chillicothe is a small piece of 1955 trapped in Ohio’s forgotten Appalachian hills, at the place along the Scioto River where the rapids of poverty swell and begin to rage toward the Kentucky border. Typical of small Midwestern towns from Youngstown to Nowhere, Kansas, it’s the kind of place most people are proud to be from… but wouldn’t want to live.

Joey is an exception, embracing the raw experience of rural life, while most of his peers have already punched their tickets to Chicago, Columbus, or some other city that looks like every other city to a small-town boy. The 19-year-old college freshman studying agricultural science at the local branch campus of Ohio University has lived in these parts all the days of his life. He winces at the thought of severing his bond with the soil from which he came, but knows at the back of his pretty little head that economic factors may someday take him far from this sleepy Rust Belt ghost town.

Joey talks to me with dizzying excitement about any topic that comes to mind: cherry vanilla ice cream, his dream of someday buying back the family farm from the corporate agribusiness that pulled the deed out from under his grandfather, and his hope for a family of his own—a husband and 2.5 little Joeys, all working on the farm, of course. We talk about the president, fruity drinks with miniature umbrellas his friends want him to try, and his fear of being caught if he does. Joey talks and I mostly listen. Ultimately, I don’t care what we talk about—I’m just happy Joey is alive to wrestle with which pop star to rock out to on the way to class, or which teenage indiscretion he should or shouldn’t experience tonight.

Joey and I first met on a smartphone chat application that uses GPS technology to tell gay and bisexual men where other gay and bisexual men using the app are located. It was two weeks after his failed attempt to overdose on a cocktail of pink and yellow pills that his short profile statement caught my attention: “No longer Christian. HMU.”

One of the ministries I engage in involves the utilization of smartphone apps to find the Joeys of the world—younger LGBTs from Christian backgrounds at risk for suicide. My message to them is simple: God loves you, there is nothing wrong with you, so let’s chat. There are a sea of them, but only one of me.

My experience with Joey, and countless others has taught me that many LGBTs go through a series of stages in the evolution or disintegration of their faith. The church through spiritual violence has traditionally played the role of hastening the destruction of faith among LGBTs, as those who ultimately arrive at a crisis of faith are confronted with the reality that a fixed-facet of their being—their sexual orientation or gender identity—is said to be at odds with nature and contrary to God’s will. This crisis of faith is resolved by one of three methods:

1. LGBTs with the emotional ability, and a deep well of spiritual resources will initiate a life-long journey to unlearn the internalized homophobia inherited during their early spiritual formation.

Having undertaken the hard work of untangling God’s love from the cruel words and deeds of God’s people, they will arrive at mature spiritual conclusions, acknowledging their status as a child of God, made in his image. A personal theology that allows them to live both a life of faith and a life of integrity evolves over time. In my experience, this rarely happens the first go-round. Ideally though, this is the direction faith communities steer LGBTs. At best, however, many spiritual and lay leaders simply ignore the crisis of faith. Others unwittingly lead LGBTs to resolve the crisis via options 2 and 3.

2. LGBTs who cannot find it in their experience to separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but know that sexuality is a fixed facet, unchangeable and good—will reach the conclusion that the existence of a loving God and their own existence are mutually exclusive.  

God simply does not exist—or if he does, he is unworthy of worship. In my experience, most LGBTs initially resolve the crisis of faith this way.

3. Those who cannot separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but have bought the lie that their sexuality is sinful and changeable—will make several attempts at becoming that which they cannot.  

After several failures to conform to heteronormative expectations, they will either return to pursue options 1 or 2, remain in a state of perpetual spiritual torment, or having exhausted all known options, attempt to end their lives.

After a series of twisted events that began with reading an article on his denomination’s latest public rejection of LGBT’s, followed by a conversation with his fundamentalist pastor, Joey decided suicide was the only option that remained.  This was the latest episode in a never-ending nightmare of spiritual violence aimed at Joey from the people who claimed to love him.  He couldn’t see any other way—it was preferable to be dead than to be gay.

Fortunately, Joey’s attempt to take his life failed. His mother found him lying a pool of his own vomit (it’s common for the body of those who overdose to reject the attempt), and he was taken to the hospital, where he eventually became conscious.

Today, in an effort to save his very life, Joey has resolved his crisis of faith with option 2: “No longer Christian. HMU.” He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there may be other ways of approaching God that include living a life of integrity as an openly gay man. He asked this week what I thought of his choice to give up on Christianity as he understands it. While I hope that someday Joey will reconcile his sexuality with his faith, until he has the resources and support to do that, it’s better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian.

There are too many Joeys. And only one me.

What is your faith community doing to identify the Joeys in your midst, to help them to navigate their crises of faith and arrive at a place where they truly know the love of their Creator?

Jessy Briton Hamilton lives in Denver, Colorado, and does consulting work with faith communities through his firm, Solutions by J. Briton. He attends St. John’s Cathedral, Denver.

Photo: Chillicothe by Ohio Redevelopment Projects on Flickr

#ERLC2014 and the pursuit of truth

B0-SgxeCAAAiv2W.jpg-large

Last week’s Southern Baptist conference on homosexuality did not include any pro-gay speakers.

There were some who identified as “ex-gay” or “celibate”—though it should be noted not all of them prefer this terminology. As for “Side A” Christians, Justin Lee was there. Matthew Vines was there. But neither were given stage time.

In some respects, this is not a big deal. The lack of gay-friendly at a Baptist conference on sexuality is about as surprising as a Baptist conference on sexuality. It’s their right to invite the speakers they want. But it reveals something interesting about conversations like these—on both sides:

They’re not always about finding the truth as much as they are an exercise in confirmation bias.

When it’s truth we’re after, we’re called to seek out voices that don’t necessarily align with ours. We shouldn’t just listen to those who regurgitate what we already believe. Conservatives shouldn’t just watch Fox News, and liberals shouldn’t just watch MSNBC. We should gather information from a variety of sources and perspectives. We should listen to all sides. We should guard against an attitude that says, “We already have the truth.” We should remember that all of us get it wrong at least some of the time.

And if we want to understand an issue that affects one group in particular? We should listen to that group.

If you want to know what it’s like to be black in America, listen to black voices.

If you want to know about gender disparity in the workplace, listen to your female colleagues.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a gay person of faith (celibate or otherwise)—if you want to understand what gay Christians experience when they set foot in a church—listen to their voices. Listening does not necessitate agreement, but it does require a posture of humility, a desire to understand.

Of course, this runs both ways. Earlier this year, Patheos hosted an online chat discussing Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian. They didn’t include anyone representing the traditional perspective. Why not invite someone like Preston Sprinkle, who has shown a willingness to engage in debate without delegitimizing the faith of those he disagrees with? (To be fair, it’s possible some were invited but declined.)

Patheos and the ERLC have every right to invite who they want to their conversations on sexuality. Not every event has to give equal time to contrarian viewpoints.

But we all know this is part of a larger trend in how we consume information that ends up shaping our worldviews.

Most of us listen predominantly (or exclusively) to voices that tell us what we already want to hear—voices that soothe our nagging doubts, voices that whisper away any notion that we might be wrong or might not have all the facts, voices that reassure us we don’t have to go in search of the truth because we already have the truth. We’re so afraid that if we listen to other voices, someone will ask a question we can’t answer. 

Much of the current debate boils down to who we think is on the “right side of history.” My question is, how will  we even know if we’re on the side of history—or the right side of truth—if we never even listen to someone with a different view of it?

Photo credit: Eric Teetsel on Twitter

John MacArthur’s advice for parents of gay children

John MacArthur has some advice for Christian parents whose children come out of the closet: shun them.

To quote from his video:

If that adult child professes Christ, claims to be a Christian, then that becomes an issue for confrontation of the sternest and strongest kind, because that falls into Matthew 18. That’s a sin for which you go to that person. If the person doesn’t repent and turn, you take two or three witnesses and confront again. If there’s still no repentance, you tell the church, and the church pursues. And if there’s still no repentance, then there’s a public putting out of the church of that person who professes to be a Christian. That’s how you deal with that.

You have to alienate them. You have to separate them… You isolate them. You don’t have a meal with them. You separate yourself from them. You turn them over to Satan, as it were, as Scripture says.

MacArthur calls this a Matthew 18 issue, referring to the passage where Jesus tells his disciples how to deal with sin. So let’s take another look at this text.

MacArthur’s translation of choice, the NKJV, says, “If your brother sins against you.” Granted, not all manuscripts include these qualifying words. But the context—including the mention of “two or three witnesses,” evoking courtroom imagery—indicates a situation where one person has injured the other.

There’s even less ambiguity in the parallel passage, Luke 17:

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

Matthew 18 isn’t about just any alleged sin. It’s about what you should do if another member of the church wrongs you personally. Even if being gay is a sin, how would my child be sinning against me personally by coming out to me? This isn’t about me. It’s about them and their identity. They haven’t done anything to me. I suppose someone might want to argue that they’ve sinned against me by letting me down as a parent. But how I respond is my choice. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever come out of the closet because they wanted to hurt their parents.

Matthew 18 is not a license for indiscriminate shunning. Whatever camp you’re in—affirming, non-affirming, or just confused—we should all agree this is a shamefully selective misuse of the Bible. We can do better.

If your son or daughter comes out to you, don’t follow MacArthur’s advice. Please don’t. For the sake of your child. Their life could literally depend on it. When parents reject their kids for being gay, it can send them on a downward spiral from which there may be no coming back.

  • Their risk of depression goes up.
  • They’re more likely to engage in substance abuse and unprotected sex.
  • They’re SIGNIFICANTLY more likely to attempt suicide.

Of course, maybe that’s what MacArthur thinks it means to “hand them over to Satan.” (Pro tip: it’s not.)

If you want much, much better advice on how to respond, read Benjamin Moberg’s piece. It’s beautifully written from the vantage point of personal experience. And yes, it has something for you—whether you’re open and affirming or whether you maintain a traditional sexual ethic.

Your kid’s life and well being could hang in the balance.

—//—

Postscript: My friend Nathan makes another good point about MacArthur’s misuse of Matthew 18. Jesus is addressing the church, not families. In fact, Matthew 18 is the only time the word ekklesia, translated “assembly” or “church,” appears in the Gospels. Even if a church were to decide that a person’s sexuality was a “Matthew 18 issue”—and that’s something a great many churches, affirming and non-affirming, would dispute—it has no bearing on how a parent should treat their son or daughter for coming out. What MacArthur is advocating is wrong, and it’s based on a careless reading of Matthew 18. As Nathan put it yesterday, “No church, whatever their position on this is, has the right to tell you to alienate, shun and un-invite your own children from the dining table they grew up eating at.” MacArthur should know better. We all should.

A posthumous letter to Fred Phelps

B2P32aUIMAAEjs6

I remember the first time I found you online. It was 1997. Your website had more clip art then. I had spent the summer in DC, working for an anti-gay lobby — one that some regard as a hate group.

You were always there to make us feel better about ourselves. We could publish all the fear-inducing propaganda we wanted. But as long as we didn’t actually put the words “God hates fags” on our materials, we weren’t as bad as you. We could always count on Westboro Baptist Church to make us look kind and loving by comparison.

I thought of you that summer when I wrote my booklet. I even wrote this last bit just to prove we weren’t like you:

When confronted with fallen man’s sexuality, we must always return to the biblical norm. We must always do so out of love for our fellow man.

We wanted many of the same things as you. But where you were motivated by hate, we were driven by love… at least that’s what we told ourselves. You were the speck of dust I conveniently used to ignore the plank in my own eye.

In hindsight, the impact of our rhetoric was perhaps more insidious because we masqueraded as loving. You didn’t bother with pretense. You didn’t feign compassion while suggesting, as we did, that gays are latent child predators who deserve to be locked up.

The reason it felt so good to despise you was because it kept me from facing the darkness that lurked in my own heart.

A decade later, I saw you again, this time on a BBC documentary. By 2008, I was not the same person who wrote that booklet in 1997. You only made a brief appearance in The Most Hated Family in America, but it was enough to convince me that all that hate was more than just a ploy for attention. “This is somebody who was addicted to rage and anger,” one filmmaker said about you.

Now you’re gone. If I’m honest, I don’t want you in the kingdom of God. I don’t want you to find mercy and forgiveness. I want you to feel the weight of all the hurt you caused.

And that worries me, because it means I don’t want God to be as merciful as he wants to be. I don’t want him to leave the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. Not in this case.

It also means I’m more like you than I care to admit. You always made it clear that you didn’t give a rip whether anyone had a change of heart because of your protests. When someone asked if you ever pray for the salvation of those you condemn, you bellowed, “Of course not!” You were happy to watch souls burn. You were convinced God had already preselected you and a handful of others for salvation. And you despised anyone who hoped God might cast his love a bit wider.

If I cheer for your damnation, then I am no different from you. I won’t make that mistake. Not anymore. I want a merciful God. I want a God who sees no one as beyond rescuing, not even from their own hatred.

So I will pray for your repose, Fred Phelps. I pray that perpetual light shines on you. I don’t know if we get a second chance after death, but if we do, I pray that yours will be to discover a God who is infinitely more loving than you dared to imagine. I still pray you’ll feel the weight of all the hurt you caused, but that you will find forgiveness and mercy for it, too. Because I need that just as much as you do.

8091936114_dae73e240b_z

Maybe love is the best reason to rethink your convictions

14697904421_e643eecb54_k

Not that long ago, a friend came out of the closet to me. At first, I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew it wasn’t my place to express an opinion on the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships, especially when I wasn’t even sure what I believed about that anymore.

What I did know was that I cared about my friend. I owed it to her—and to myself—to reconsider what I had always assumed by default to be true, to make sure I’d thought this through, listened to the other side, considered all possibilities. That’s something I’d never really done before.

In the end, what motivated my decision to reconsider wasn’t some big epiphany. It was a friend.

—//—

Recently, when Facebook announced it was offering 51 additional gender identities for people to choose from, conservative pundits reacted with predictable outrage. But even some of us who aren’t as conservative were probably tempted to roll our eyes at the news.

Then a friend on Facebook started using one of the 51 new options. Suddenly it didn’t seem like PC sensitivity run amok. To my friend, the new options meant safety. Validation. Reassurance they were OK even if they didn’t fit neatly into one of the binary categories that were previously available.

Photo by ChodHound on Flickr

I’m not saying all of this is simple. Figuring out what you believe isn’t always an easy task. But our first (and perhaps only) response to someone who is gay or who identifies according to a gender category we’ve never heard of… well, let me suggest that part IS simple.

If our first impulse is anything other than to love, embrace, and accept the other person as they are, then we have missed the boat.  

You might say I’m being overly simplistic. You might argue this kind of acceptance only encourages people down a destructive path.

Set aside for a moment the question of whether loving someone of the same gender or identifying as “non-binary” on Facebook causes actual harm to anyone. That’s a debatable assumption at best. The real problem with any other response is that you start to see issues instead of people. You begin treating loved ones as problems to be solved, instead of divine image-bearers who were made to be cherished.

I’m done viewing others as problems that need to be fixed.

—//—

If you want to know where treating people as problems gets you, just look at the situation in Uganda.

AFP, Isaac Kasamani

Uganda’s president just signed a bill to solve the “problem” of homosexuality in his country. The law makes homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment in some cases. It requires citizens to denounce anyone they suspect of being gay.

One Ugandan newspaper wasted no time complying with that last provision, by publishing a list of the “200 top homos.” The last time a paper did this in Uganda, names and addresses were run under the headline “Hang Them.” A gay rights campaigner was bludgeoned to death.

Defending the bill, Uganda’s minister for ethics and integrity Simon Lokodo described gays as “beasts of the forest.” To him, homosexuality is a disease to be cured. Lokodo even suggested that heterosexual child rape is preferable to consensual sex between two male adults.

This is where we end up when we start viewing members of the LGBT community—or anyone else, for that matter—as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved.

—//—

I used to scoff at those who started questioning long-held beliefs, simply because they knew someone who was gay. My wife started asking these questions long before I did, because many of her friends were gay. And to be honest, I looked down on her for it. I used to think the strength of your convictions was measured by your willingness to hold them no matter what the fallout, no matter how much hurt they inflicted.

Then I remembered that “love does no harm to a neighbor.” I remembered that the first thing we should see in another person is the divine imprint, the image of God staring back at us.

If we don’t start here, then there’s no way to get it right, no matter what our beliefs may be.

Maybe caring about a friend is one of the best reasons you could have to reevaluate your convictions.

[Photo credits: Bhupinder Nayyar on FlickrSpencer E Holtaway, ChodHound on Flickr, Isaac Kasamani/AFP]

So there was a forum in Grand Rapids…

lz granderson tweet

So there was a forum in Grand Rapids last night on being gay and Christian.

Keep in mind this is a city where you can barely throw a stick without hitting a church. Or a Christian publisher.

With just two nights to go, only a dozen or so people had registered. But last night, Wealthy Street Theatre was packed.

wealthy streetThe presentations were good. Some were really good. And sure, some parts could have been better. (Twenty minutes probably isn’t enough to meaningfully address all six “clobber texts” in the Bible.)

But what mattered more than the presentations were the people who made them.

A respected psychologist.

The son of a famous pastor.

A card-carrying member of the Christian Reformed Church.

A woman who described herself as representing the black Southern Pentecostal lesbian community.

All of them gay. All of them Christian. All of them saying, “Yes, it can be both.”

And people showed up. Most were ready to listen, judging by their demeanor during the presentations and the Q&A that followed.

Sure, 500 people is a tiny fraction of the local population. Heck, it’s a tiny fraction of the local Christian population. (This is Grand Rapids, remember.)

But it’s a start.

I suspect that most Christians have never truly examined their convictions on this issue. Most of us have inherited our beliefs and assumptions without ever really questioning them. Most of us have taken someone else’s word for it that there’s only one way to interpret the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality — assuming it addresses the subject at all. (Side note: when someone tells you there’s only one way to interpret a 2,000 year-old text, be suspicious.)

But I think all that is starting to change, as the safe, sanitized worlds we’ve built for ourselves begin to collapse…

As “LGBT” ceases to be a distant concept for most of us…

As people we know and love — sons, daughters, uncles, parents, friends — come out of the closet.

We owe them more than an unexamined theology of condemnation.

We owe it to them to not just cling to our inherited beliefs and assumptions by default.

We owe it to them to “test everything” — including our own convictions, prejudices, and assumptions.

We owe it to them to hold on to what is good.

All I can say is, I saw a lot that was good in Wealthy Street Theater last night.

About Leviticus 18…

Leviticus may be foreign territory for most Christians, but we’ve all heard Leviticus 18:22 (and its sister passage, Leviticus 20:13). This is one of a handful of “clobber texts” used to argue that homosexuality is unacceptable.

For many, Leviticus 18:22 is one of the most straightforward condemnations of homosexual activity in the Bible. But hang on a minute. Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t just sit there by itself. It has a context that shapes its meaning, as I was reminded while reading the whole book recently.

Many of us have assumed there’s only one way to interpret this text. But what if we’re wrong?

I can think of three options for interpreting/applying Leviticus 18:22 today.

Option #1: The conduct described in Leviticus 18 is universally prohibited because it violates the “natural order” of things.

On the surface, this view has a lot going for it. It’s the traditional view. It’s how most Christians through time have understood Leviticus 18. (It’s also how I read this text for most of my life.)

We can all agree (I hope) that at least most of the behaviors described in Leviticus 18 are unhealthy. There are 17 “do not’s” in this chapter, including the one about a man sleeping with another man. Twelve of the 17 “do not’s” deal with incest. One involves sex with animals (18:23).

But Leviticus 18 isn’t always clear-cut. What, for example, do you do with the command about “sexual relations during [a woman’s] monthly period” (18:19)? Leviticus forbids that too. Most Christians I know don’t think we’re obligated to keep this law today. And it certainly isn’t something we’d put in the same category as, say, an old man molesting his grandchild (18:10).

Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage provides a good example of the typical evangelical approach to passages like Leviticus 18:19. Driscoll argues there’s a difference between Leviticus’ ceremonial laws (which deal with “the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, cleanness, and so forth”) and its moral laws. The latter are repeated in the New Testament and are still binding; the former applied only to Israel and are no longer in force. Driscoll puts the prohibition against sleeping with a menstruating woman into the “ceremonial law” category and says it’s “no longer binding on us.” But he considers everything else in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition against a man sleeping with another man, as moral (and therefore binding) law.

And that’s the problem with Driscoll’s approach. He makes a special exception for one verse in Leviticus 18 (the one most likely to affect him, conveniently enough) while insisting the others still apply. He acts as if Leviticus needs our help sorting its laws into meaningful categories. He and most evangelicals treat Leviticus as if it were a random assortment of laws, given without rhyme or reason — a jumble of ceremonial, civil, and moral laws listed in no particular order.

This approach ignores the inherent literary structure of Leviticus and imposes artificial categories on its content. So we miss what should be painfully obvious: Leviticus 18 is a single unit of content. Its beginning and end are clearly indicated. The laws here are grouped together for a reason. (More on that later.) In other words, Leviticus makes no distinction between sex during a woman’s period and the other activities prohibited in chapter 18.

All of them are described as “detestable practices” or abominations (Hebrew, toh-ey-vah), which Israel is to avoid at all costs. Leviticus 20 goes even further, calling for any man who sleeps with his wife during her monthly period to be “cut off from their people.” (The term translated “cut off” can also mean annihilate, kill, or amputate. In other words, more than just a slap on the wrist.)

But this is where Leviticus gets confusing (even more so than usual). Because just a few chapters earlier, sex during a woman’s period is characterized as a minor infraction, resulting in a man being ritually unclean for a week.

So which is it? Cut off from the community entirely? Or briefly excluded from ceremonial worship? Make up your mind, Leviticus!

The point is, almost all of us are selective about which regulations in Leviticus 18 we view as universally binding. Unfortunately, the categories we use to distinguish between “binding” and “non-binding” don’t take into consideration the content and structure of the book itself.

For the sake of consistency (if nothing else), we should either accept all the prohibitions in this chapter or concede that option #1 isn’t as persuasive as it first seemed.

Option #2: Leviticus 18 is addressing the issue of sexual conduct within the context of worship.

To start, let’s look at the larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts of Leviticus 18.

First, the larger context. Leviticus 18 is part of a book whose name means “pertaining to the Levites,” i.e. the Israelite priestly clan. Leviticus was Israel’s liturgical playbook. It dealt primarily with matters pertaining to worship: sacrifices, ritual cleanness, holiness, and the practice of redeeming property. Its chief purpose was to help Israel distinguish between what was holy and what was common as it related to worship, so they could avoid “defiling [God’s] dwelling place.”

Now zoom in a little closer. Leviticus 18 is surrounded by prohibitions concerning idolatry. Chapter 17 includes laws against sacrificing animals outside the tabernacle and against eating blood — both of which were pagan practices. Chapter 19 also addresses a number of pagan practices, including making idols, divination, and ritual self-mutilation.

So the larger context of Leviticus 18 suggests it has something to do with worship. The surrounding context narrows the focus to idolatry. Both are indications that Leviticus 18 might not be making a broad statement about human sexuality.

Now look at the immediate context. Notice how chapter 18 begins:

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” ’

Next, notice how Leviticus 18 ends:

‘ “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” ’

The prohibitions in Leviticus 18 are introduced with a warning for Israel not to imitate its former neighbors (the Egyptians) or its new ones (the Canaanites). The behaviors listed here are called toh-ey-vah in Hebrew (“detestable things” or “abominations”), a term used to describe that which is prohibited in worship. To do as Egypt and Canaan did was to become taw-may — that is, “defiled” or “ritually unclean.” In other words, unfit for worship. 

The larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts all indicate that Leviticus 18 is addressing matters of worship. In other words, the prohibitions are dealing with various forms of ritual sex.

Ritual sex was common among many ancient religious traditions. Temples across the ancient Near East employed (or enslaved) both male and female prostitutes (which explains why Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar was able to pass herself off as a “shrine prostitute” in Genesis).

If there’s any doubt Leviticus 18 is addressing religious practice, notice how it brings up another form of idolatry, child sacrifice, smack in the middle of all these sexual prohibitions:

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek [a Canaanite deity], for you must not profane the name of your God.

The message of Leviticus 18 is that pagan practices like ritual sex and child sacrifice have no place in Israelite worship. The Egyptians and Canaanites may have done these things when they worshipped their gods, but this was not how Yahweh was to be worshiped.

Option #3: Leviticus 18 is dealing with predatory sexual behavior.

Another view (not incompatible with option #2) is that Leviticus 18 forbids predatory sexual activity.

Like most of Leviticus, the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are addressed to adult males. And for good reason. In the ancient Near Eastern family hierarchy, adult males always outranked females. Women were inferior, second-class. They were property. Even in the Old Testament law, women were valued less than their male counterparts, literally. For the purpose of making a sacred vow, for example, Leviticus set the value of men and women as follows:

  • Men (20-60 years old): 50 shekels of silver
  • Women (20-60 years old): 30 shekels of silver

(Remember what I wrote about Leviticus not being an easy book to like?)

Most of the prohibited sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 are incestuous in nature. But there’s another common thread connecting them all: each prohibited act involves an imbalance of power.

Sex in the ancient Near East was often a way of asserting dominance over someone else. That’s what was going on in the story of Sodom. That’s what was going on when Reuben slept with his father’s concubine; he was presumptuously asserting his power over the rest of the family as the firstborn son.

Predatory behavior is also in view in Leviticus’ prohibition against male homosexual activity (female homosexual activity is never mentioned in the Old Testament):

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

The phrase “as one does with a woman” is key. It emphasizes the passive, weaker role played by one of the two men. Which is exactly what you’d have if, as suggested by option #2, Leviticus 18:22 is describing an act of ritual sex in which one of the two members is a temple prostitute (and most likely a slave). In this case, the act becomes very predatory indeed. It was about one man brutally asserting his dominance over another, reducing him to the much lower status (in that culture) of a woman.

Every single act prohibited in Leviticus 18, whatever else it may be, can be understood as predatory — one person wrongly asserting their dominance over another.

One advantage of this view is that it helps explain Leviticus 18 in light of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” found in the very next chapter. Jesus, like many Jews of his day, insisted that this was one of the two greatest commands in all of Scripture (the other being “love the Lord your God”).

Every other command — all 611 of them — had to be interpreted in light of these two. Everything else was subordinate to “love God” and “love your neighbor.”

When understood as prohibitions against predatory sexual behavior, the commands in Leviticus 18 make perfect sense as an application of “love your neighbor.” In other words, do not prey on the vulnerable or the weak. Do not take advantage of your neighbor, sexually or otherwise.

These are the three ways I can think of to interpret Leviticus 18. What options do you see for understanding this text?

If Leviticus 18 is a prohibition against ritual, predatory sex, then what it doesn’t address is a committed, equal relationship between two males or two females. It seems that Leviticus 18:22 can only be used as arsenal in the debate over homosexuality when it’s pulled out of its cultural, literary, and religious context.

Of course, much is made of the fact that Leviticus calls a man “lying with another man” a “defiling” and “detestable” act. But take note of what else was considered “defiling,” “detestable,” or the antithesis of “holy,” according to Leviticus:

  • Eating “unclean” animals, including pork, rabbit, and shellfish
  • Eating raw or rare meat
  • Cross-breeding animals
  • Wearing mixed fabrics
  • Cutting the hair at the sides of your head
  • Clipping the edges off your beard
  • Anyone with a skin disease
  • Anyone who was disfigured in any way — the blind, hunchbacks, dwarfs, eunuchs, etc. — and thus prohibited from serving God

Today, we don’t exclude people with physical impairments from serving in the church. We don’t call someone “unholy” for trimming their sideburns. Most of us don’t see anything defiling or detestable about eating pork or ordering our steak medium rare. We wouldn’t ostracize someone with eczema or write them off as “defiled.”

What if our reading of Leviticus is too selective? What if Leviticus has nothing to offer when it comes to the contemporary debate over sexual identity?

Soulforce comes to Cornerstone (more thoughts)

This is what I think was missing from Cornerstone’s response to the recent Soulforce visit.

Hospitality.

Let me illustrate what I mean. When I was in Turkey a couple years ago, we visited places that few Americans have heard of, much less traveled to. Towns where poverty is the norm, Islam is the only religion, and women wear head coverings and ankle-length dresses.

How did the people in these towns reacted when they met a large group of Westerners who, by their standards, were ridiculously wealthy, immodestly dressed, and hopelessly apostate?

Hostility? Suspicion? Ambivalence?

One woman we met began cutting sprigs of rosemary from the bushes in front of her house, giving them to each of us. A 12-year-old boy scoured his family’s already-harvested vineyard till he found a cluster of grapes (one of the few missed by the harvesters) to offer us.

A woman who had not yet harvested her grapes ran to her vineyard and came back with enough for all 50 of us—she handed us about a fifth of her total harvest that day. Another family saw us hiking up the mountain on the outskirts of town. When we returned, they met us with fruit and freshly baked bread.

We were strangers. Outsiders. Infidels, even. Yet they treated us like one of their own—and better. Why? Because that’s what you do in a hospitality culture. If anyone—even your enemy—arrives on your doorstep, you welcome them into your home. They have come under your protection, and you’re responsible for whatever happens to them while they’re under your roof.

This is the culture of hospitality we encounter in the Bible. It was simply taken for granted that when a stranger came to town, regardless of who they were or where they came from, you made sure they were taken care of. Towns that didn’t? Well, they had a history of getting burnt to a crisp.

The true measure of our love for Christ is not how we treat our friends, but how we treat those we normally think of as our enemies. Let’s all stop thinking of them as enemies and start seeing them first as human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

Soulforce comes to Cornerstone

The other day I got a letter from Cornerstone University, informing me that a pro-gay religious group called Soulforce was planning a campus visit and explaining how the school planned to respond.

Cards on the table… I graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (which is part of Cornerstone) five years ago. I happen to share their belief that human sexuality is a gift from God, meant to be expressed between a man and woman in a monogamous, covenant relationship.

I also believe the second greatest command in all of scripture is to “love your neighbor” (which Jesus said is like the greatest command, to love God)—and that our “neighbor,” as defined by Jesus, is the very person we are most likely to fear, hate, resent, etc. After all, that’s how Jesus’ audience viewed the Samaritan, the hero of Jesus’ most famous parable.

So what should an evangelical university do when the gay community pays a visit?

In the letter, Cornerstone described Soulforce as a group “whose purpose is to undermine and destroy the biblical values we affirm.” Cornerstone noted that decision to say no to Soulforce’s visit was based on a distinction between “how we may respond to a person… versus how we may respond to an organization.”

When two Soulforce members showed up anyway (after giving the university advance notice), they were arrested for trespassing. According to Cornerstone’s president, Soulforce is “not really interested in dialogue; they want media visuals. They want to be seen being arrested. They like being portrayed as victims.”

The incident raises three questions for me:

1) Do we have the right to attribute motive to those we disagree with? It’s one thing to say that someone’s beliefs and behaviors contradict our understanding of the Bible. But when we accuse someone of deliberately undermining biblical values, have we crossed a line? Have we begun to judge hearts and minds? Isn’t that God’s prerogative alone? Are we violating Jesus’ command to “judge not, lest [we] be judged”?

2) Is it possible to separate our response to an organization from our response to a person? Can we give the cold shoulder to a group like Soulforce and still love—I mean really love, not just tolerate—those who belong to Soulforce?

3) Is it fair to say that Soulforce is more interested in theatrics than dialogue? Perhaps they are, but then how do we explain the apparently healthy dialogue that has taken place at schools like Seattle Pacific (not far from where I live) and Calvin College (just down the street from Cornerstone)? These schools that found a way to welcome Soulforce without necessarily compromising their evangelical convictions.