10 Things I Don’t Know About Christianity

The other day, a commenter on Alison Bechdel’s website called my attention to this list by Jim Rigby, as it appeared on Patheos:

I thanked that commenter, the redoubtable “NLC,” and added this remark:

Hanging out with mellow progressives like Episcopalians and Quakers it’s tempting to forget or understate the sheer bloody-mindedness that so often thrives under the sign of the cross.

As for the focus of the “Ten Things” on the Bible, one thing I think the Bible makes crystal clear about homosexuality is that homosexuality wasn’t a particularly controversial topic when the Bible was taking shape. The Bible is hundreds and hundreds of pages long, and the antigay crowd can find only six brief verses in the whole thing that support their position at all explicitly.

What’s more, most of those six verses are actually about something else, and none of them contemplate anything like the same-sex relationships that exist in today’s world.

Sure, the tone of the six snippets make it clear that same-sex sex was not well-regarded in those days, and neither the law nor the prophets nor anything in the Christian scriptures pushes back against that hostility. But so what? None of those writings push back against slavery or any of a number of other institutions familiar in those centuries, but Christians nowadays seem confident that they have disassociated their religion from those things, and in fact often propose it as a bulwark against them. I fully expect the Christians of the 22nd century to be united in a smug sense of superiority over the homophobes of that day, just as their counterparts now are quick to cite the Christian Abolitionists of the 19th century.

The more I think about it, the more I find to disagree with in the “10 Things.”  For instance:

1. “If Jesus did not mention a subject, it cannot be essential to his teachings.”  This line is problematic in several ways.  First, when Mr Rigby writes “If Jesus did not mention a subject,” I take it he means us to read “If a subject is not mentioned in the sayings of Jesus as reported in the canonical Gospels.”  This is not an unusual way of speaking for Christians, but it does suggest a reduction of the Jesus from the living presence whom they claim to be active in today’s world to a merely literary character, a figure in certain familiar texts.  I’d think they might want to avoid that sort of reduction.

Now, as it happens, Jesus makes some pretty harsh anti-sex remarks in the canonical Gospels, for example in Matthew 19:1-12 and 5:27-32.  Those passages clearly restrict the realm within which sexual activity is tolerable as marriage, and set the bounds of what constitutes an acceptable marriage much more narrowly than did the customs prevailing at the time.  To be sure, Jesus often follows the prophets by finding a way to be simultaneously more rigorist and more easygoing than his contemporaries.  But looking at these particular passages, I see only rigorism:

19 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Matthew 19:1-12, New International Version


27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[a] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[b] 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 5:27-32, New International Version

I’m not saying that it is impossible for a faithful Christian to read these and other passages as something other than a declaration that sex is tolerable only within a narrowly defined version of heterosexual marriage, but achieving that reading is going to take some work.  It certainly isn’t something that can be hand-waved out of existence.

Moreover, let’s revisit the whole sentence.  “If Jesus did not mention a subject, it cannot be essential to his teachings.”  Why ever not?  Silences can speak volumes.  Jesus grew up in an area undergoing an economic boom as fish caught in the Galilee were beginning to be salted and shipped around the rapidly integrating Roman world.  You’d never know this from the Gospels; there isn’t even a reference in there to Sepphoris, modern-day Tzippori, a bustling Hellenistic city a few miles from Nazareth, where any Galilean family involved in the building trades would probably have made a great portion of their living in the first century.  If none of the sayings of Jesus or accounts of his travels that the evangelists saw fit to record include mention Sepphoris or the international trade in salted fish, that omission gives us an entirely different range of possible interpretations of his remarks about rich and poor than we would have if we were reading a text in which social mobility and economic reorganization were topics of discussion.

Also, there were a number of revolts against Roman rule in the years before Jesus was born, and several more in between Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels.  During his life, the prospect of revolt must have been on people’s minds from time to time.  The fact that the evangelists give us nothing at all from Jesus about these revolts is another eloquent silence, one that has of course been a major theme of New Testament studies since antiquity.

As with the phrasing of the first half of the sentence, so I think the second half of the sentence “If Jesus did not mention a subject, it cannot be essential to his teachings,” reveals Mr Rigby’s religious formation as a fundamentalist Protestant.  What are “his teachings”?  “His teachings” are the teachings Jesus has for us, for modern-day people who encounter him as a character in the New Testament.  The audiences to whom he spoke in the first century, the people for whose use the Gospels were originally composed, the lived experience of the communities that have striven to follow Jesus for the last two millennia, these all disappear in this conception of Jesus’ “teaching” as something that happens inside the head of a person reading a book.  I’m not opposed to Protestantism, may yet wind up as a Protestant myself, but clearly this ultra-individualist account of the mission of one who called people to live for one another’s sake cannot be the whole story.

2. “You are not being persecuted when prevented from persecuting others.”  I’d certainly agree with that statement, but I don’t think it settles anything.  Many in the West have rallied to the support of Pussy Riot, calling the prison sentences they drew for disrupting a service in a Moscow cathedral in 2012 an example of persecution.  The Russian Orthodox Church has invoked the history of the Soviet era to cast Pussy Riot as practitioners of persecution.

Considering the power that the church wields in today’s Russia as against the position of these five women, it may seem a bit far-fetched to think that Pussy Riot is persecuting Orthodoxy.  But imagine a somewhat different scenario.  What if a progressive church were ordaining a female bishop, and five young men burst in and seized the spotlight with a punk act named after slang terms for male genitalia?  Perhaps the church would be a rich and well-connected one, let’s say the Episcopal Church, in which both former Presidents Bush were baptized and confirmed and which is in fact led by a female bishop.  Would the church be persecuting the members of this hypothetical punk act, let’s call it the Dick Insurrection, if it were to ask the courts to hand down a harsh penalty in their case?  Or would the fact that our society at large still privileges men in many ways, regardless of who the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is, mean that Dick Insurrection was bringing that privilege with it into the confrontation and thereby acting as an agent of persecution?  In the case of Pussy Riot, many in Russia saw Pussy Riot not only as a recrudescence of Soviet era anti-religious measures, but also as agents of a neo-imperial, hypercapitalist world order that is deeply hostile to Russia in general and to the Russian Orthodox Church in particular.  The Russian Orthodox Church is no more at an advantage against global capitalism than the Episcopalians are at an advantage against against patriarchy.

What, then, are we to make of the statement “You are not being persecuted when prevented from persecuting others.”  It sounds to me like another way of saying, “You are not being persecuted, and you have no business objecting to what others are doing.”  To whom do we imagine ourselves addressing that remark, and how do we imagine them reacting?  I can imagine myself saying that to someone afraid that legal recognition of same-sex marriage will somehow compromise a church’s tradition of heterosexual-only marriage, and I can imagine feeling smug satisfaction if that person were to sputter with astonishment at my incisiveness.  But of course that isn’t how such a person is likely to react in reality.  In fact, people have a disconcerting habit of viewing themselves differently than we view them, and of viewing us differently than we view themselves.  So the likeliest response to a snappy putdown like that is another putdown, perhaps an even snappier one.  That’s certainly a likelier result than anything that will represent a changing of anyone’s mind.

If not as a general principle, can we at least apply “You are not being persecuted when prevented from persecuting others” as a rule in church discourse concerning homosexuality?  Again, I would have to say no.  Words don’t define themselves.  If we create spaces for same-sexers that exclude transgender people, are we persecuting those transgender people?  If we fail to create such spaces, are we persecuting lesbians who need penis-free zones to develop their social identities?  I’m not on either side of this debate, but mentioning it should suffice to show that the word “persecution” does not define itself.

3. “Truth isn’t like wine that gets better with age. It’s more like manna you must recognize wherever you are and whoever you are with.”  Let me repeat, I am not opposed to Protestantism.  I see a great appeal in the idea that the Bible has a special place among the products of Christian experience, and that reading it can lead believers to reform and correct Christian institutions that have gone astray.  So the idea of a reader of the Bible having a sudden realization, identifying it as an eternal truth, and feeling an obligation to take immediate action based on that truth does not repel me in any way.

At the same time I grant that such an event is possible and that the recognition of its possibility is a strength of Protestantism, I must also point out that I am a grown man.  As such, it has been impossible for me not to recognize that almost every nontrivial truth is very much like wine that gets better with age.  I am frankly mystified that Mr Rigby expresses himself in this way, since Jesus himself used the image of wine to make the point that people relate to particular truths in different ways at different times (Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:21-22, and Luke 5:33-39; cf also the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 47.)  If I were inclined to be uncharitable, I might suggest that perhaps Mr Rigby was writing in the afternoon after having had a few too many glasses of good old wine for lunch.  Though of course I would never actually make such a joke about so pious a man as Mr Rigby.

4. “You cannot call it ‘special rights’ when someone asks for the same rights you have.”  This one is a bit dated, I suspect.  I haven’t heard the phrase “special rights” since the controversy surrounding Colorado’s “Amendment 2,” a 1992 referendum that excluded sexual minorities from protection under that state’s anti-discrimination statutes.

Even if the phrase were still in use, I don’t see that it would belong on this list.  Granted that the legal system in the USA is supposed to strive to treat everyone equally in various ways, in practice that often means that particular groups are accorded special rights.  So, in the USA from 1920-1933, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and other churches were allowed to buy wine for sacramental use, the sale of wine generally was prohibited under the Volstead Act.  That was a special right, and many members of those churches saw no absurdity in opposing efforts to transform it into a general right of all persons to buy alcoholic beverages.  Considering that in so populous a country as Pakistan wine is still illegal for most of the population but legal for Christians, this example is more up-to-date than are objections to the rhetoric of the Amendment 2 campaign.

Moreover, while those of us who support gender-neutral marriage may say that we are calling for same-sexers to enjoy the same rights that opposite sex couples take for granted, opponents simply do not agree with that.  They see same-sex unions as profoundly different than opposite-sex ones, and see society’s interest in them as different.  They may be wrong to see it that way, but repeating lines like “the same rights you have” ever so many times will not convince them that they are wrong.  It will only show them that we don’t care about their opinions.  Which maybe we shouldn’t, but it doesn’t seem very healthy to invoke Jesus when you are telling people that you don’t care about them.

5. “It is no longer your personal religious view if you’re bothering someone else.”  Some years ago, I read a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper about a controversial plan to rename a local street in honor of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Junior.  The letter writer said that he opposed the plan because ot was controversial.  He gave it as his understanding that Dr King’s approach was to pursue his goals “without making any disturbance.”  I stared at this slack-jawed in amazement.  Evidently this person must have thought that Dr King’s career was an enormous, titanic failure, considering that he spent most of his adult life generating disturbances on a spectacular scale.

“If you’re bothering someone else.”  “If you’re BOTHERING someone else.”  Not bullying, terrorizing, intimidating, cheating, deceiving, injuring, harassing, microaggressing against, but BOTHERING someone else.  And not necessarily someone against whom you have an advantage, or to whom you owe deference.  No, anyone else at all.

As I’ve mentioned, my wife is a Quaker.  When asked about people whose example inspired her to join the Society of Friends, she usually brings up people who have got themselves arrested on various charges related to the Quakers’ antiwar, antiracist, and other radical political activism.  For someone like her, I doubt that a view could be called religious at all if it didn’t bother someone.

6. “Marriage is a civil ceremony, which means it’s a civil right.”  Again, this isn’t going to impress anyone who isn’t already convinced that same-sex unions and opposite-sex unions are basically the same thing.  You might as well become a libertarian and argue that minimum wage laws violate the civil right to work for less than minimum wage.  If a person doesn’t believe that working for less than minimum wage is comparable to working for more, then you are not going to convince that person that any such right is worth defending.

That is not to deny that you can win people over by comparing the freedom struggles of same-sexers and other sexual minorities to those of racial minorities.  But you do have to spell out the connection.  If you talk about violence directed at same-sexers, discrimination in employment, exclusion from neighborhoods, disownment by families, etc, people will see the similarities.  But to jump over that and immediately start using the language of the freedom struggle- “civil rights”-  is to invite the suspicion that one is not very deeply engaged with the realities of that struggle.

7. “If how someone stimulates the pubic nerve has become the needle to your moral compass, you are the one who is lost.”  I am sure that Mr Rigby does not really see, in any sexual relationship, a set of actions that can be reduced to “how someone stimulates the pubic nerve.”  If he did, he would not be much of a friend to gay people, or to anyone else.  Sex acts redefine relationships, they redefine lives, and to treat them as simple bodily functions is to deny the humanity of the people who engage in them.  Wesley Hill, who is a conservative theologian and a gay dude, recently made some remarks to this effect when some guy who is famous for reasons I don’t fully understand spoke about male homosexuality in similarly reductive physical terms:

I won’t quote [hunting equipment manufacturer-turned-TV personality Phil] Robertson’s remarks in full here—they’re easy to look up—but suffice it to say that he implies that if gay men could only open their eyes, it would dawn on them how myopic they’ve been. “I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.” The conclusion to draw from this comment, as Katelyn Beaty noted earlier today on Twitter, is “that gay men should just wake up to how awesome women’s body parts are.”

But, of course, that’s just not how sexuality works.

When I was in my early twenties and just beginning to allow myself to face up to my sexuality, I remember a wise pastor friend telling me that anyone with an Augustinian anthropology—for those playing at home, that’s a dim view of natural human ability to be virtuous and an uber-high view of God’s slow-moving, unpredictable grace—should have no time for the notion that gay people (or anyone else!) “choose” whom they’ll be attracted to. That seems obvious to me now, after years of thinking about these things, but at the time, hearing him say that felt like a revelation. A weight was lifted. Someone understood!

No one who takes seriously the mysteries of human nature and all the ways our hearts are opaque, even to ourselves, would say that embracing a Christian view of marriage and sexuality could ever be a matter of saying, “Gee, Phil, I’d never thought of it that way before, thanks!”

And making that point is also a matter of speaking up for Christian orthodoxy in the public square.

Mr Rigby’s shortcoming is not his alone.  For the last couple of centuries, educated Westerners have had a significant problem taking sex seriously.  The very phrase “sexual morality” is now a source of unease.  Often enlightened Westerners try to laugh off the whole idea of sex as a way of changing the subject.  But sex is so important a part of life that a worldview which does not take it seriously cannot itself be serious.  If the West is to reengage with sex in a mature way, it will be because the freedom struggles of sexual minorities will have made it unthinkable for anyone to describe sex as “how someone stimulates the pubic nerve.”

8. “To condemn homosexuality, you must use parts of the Bible you don’t yourself obey. Anyone who obeyed every part of Leviticus would rightly be put in prison.”  As we have seen, if you want to use the Bible to condemn virtually any kind of sex at all you don’t have to go beyond the words of Jesus as reported in the canonical Gospels. Seriously, I love the guy, but he is not much fun about anything from the waist down.

Putting this aside, let us remember that Mr Rigby’s post is titled “10 Things I Wish the Church Knew About Homosexuality.”  By “the Church,” I assume he includes people like Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, and others among the great majority of Christians who do not accept the doctrine that the text of the Bible is our one and only source for information about God’s will.  If he does, then you don’t have to cite much of the Bible at all beyond the usual six snippets.  As I said in my comment from Dykes to Watch Out For quoted above, they suffice to show that same-sex sex was unpopular when the Bible was taking shape, and that nowhere did the writers of the Bible take it upon themselves to challenge that unpopularity.  That Biblical seal of disapproval may be no heavier than the seal of disapproval placed by the six verses which condemn all systems of weights and measures other than the traditional one of ancient Israel, but coupled with the consistent reinforcement and expansion  Christian communities since those days have given it one would have to say that the tradition of the Church weighs very heavily against a favorable view of same-sex sex.  A Protestant like Mr Rigby can say that this tradition is subject to challenge, and can find an approach to the Bible that will support that challenge, and I’ll be glad to cheer him on.  But by no means does the whole of Leviticus or the whole of Deuteronomy come in every time a Christian refers to some text in one of them.

9. “If we do not do the right thing in our day, our grandchildren will look at us with same embarrassment we look at racist grandparents.”  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.  To repeat what I said at Dykes to Watch Out For, “I fully expect the Christians of the 22nd century to be united in a smug sense of superiority over the homophobes of that day, just as their counterparts now are quick to cite the Christian Abolitionists of the 19th century.”  If you long for that smug sense of superiority, there are any number of places where such an attitude is already predominant.  So you can get a head start on your smuggening if you like.

But why would you want to do that?  It strikes me that Christianity and progressivism have a dysfunctional relationship.  Sincere followers of each have a tendency to oscillate between, on the one hand, a fairly nauseating degree of self-satisfaction in the rightness of their ideas, and on the other hand an equally nauseating and equally narcissistic degree of self-loathing when they succumb to the fear that they will never be able to live up to the behavior those ideas call for.  Put the two traditions side by side, and they feed off each other, prompting an endless competition in which self-satisfaction vies with self-satisfaction, self-loathing vies with self-loathing.  Much of the uselessness of white anti-racism is a byproduct of this competition.  If we don’t find a way to short-circuit the loop that produces this narcissism-a-thon, progressives and Christians will not only keep self-absorbed white guilt going forever, they will add a self-absorbed straight guilt to it.  If that meant that white people would disappear from public life altogether, it might give everyone else a chance to get on with their business unencumbered by them. but I suspect it just means that whites will get even needier for attention and validation than they already are.

10. “When Jesus forbade judging, that included you.”  Though apparently it did not include Mr Rigby, since the previous nine items include so many putdowns and, in the case of #9, an explicit threat of estrangement from one’s family.

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