December 28, 2004
The silence of the Lamb

I'm having a slow afternoon at work, so I thought I'd comment on something from a while back. Before I left Lee posted this angry sermon by an Episcopal minister. I don't want to get into these intra-Anglican disputes again, but I was thinking about this line while I was out:

In the book, Jesus never said one word about homosexuality. It probably never even crossed his mind.

I've heard this stated before, usually by people who, like this pastor, are in favor of gay rights. But it always struck me as weird logic. First of all, we don't know about 99% of what Jesus said, given the brevity of the Gospels, so we can't really state affirmatively what he didn't say.

But suppose it's true, and Jesus never spoke of or even thought about homosexuality. What does that mean? Apparently, that he didn't have a problem with a society that officially punished sodomy with death. Whatever his own opinion, he didn't see the attitudes toward homosexuality in Jewish society as being unjust enough to speak out against. Given his affirmations of Mosaic law at various points, it's not surprising that Jewish Christians assumed that laws that he did not specifically criticize should be left intact.

But what about Gentiles who aren't subject to Jewish law? I think that the difference between Jesus and modern Christians gay-rights advocates may have less to do with homosexuality per se than with a general attitude towards marriage. I think it's safe to say that Jesus did not think, as Andrew Sullivan and others do, that a person has an inalienable right to sleep with and marry the person of his or her choice, and to violate it is a grave injustice. I say this not just because of his failure to criticize the exclusive heterosexuality of marriage, but also his failure to criticize the then-widespread practice of arranged marriage. Homosexuals had no expectation then of marrying for love, but heterosexuals often didn't either. It was not until the twentieth century that romantic love became, as one historian put it, "the birthright of all nice people."

I think the broad social principle that Jesus was tacitly affirming was that marriage was a decision of the family and community, and not just the two people getting hitched. In a kin-based society a wedding connected two families, and the whole town had to live with the results, so naturally they all felt they should have some say in it. As I've said before, the church challenged the kin system, but it seems to have basically assumed the family's place in being interested in the sex lives of its members. Paul, on more than one occasion, advises people to get married in order to channel their sexual desire; at one point, he recommends young widows get married so they'll be gainfully employed and stay out of trouble. It's all numbingly unromantic, but it was not a romantic era.

The difficulty in transplanting that model to today is that it's a lot less clear what the community's interest is, or even what the relevant community is. Over at Marriage Debate, Jonathan Rauch has been making a rather Pauline argument that marriage channels lust into commitment and responsibility. But this only works if you marry someone you're actually attracted to, so therefore homosexuals should be able to marry someone of their own sex. On the other hand, Eve and Maggie Gallagher have been arguing that the community's interest in marriage is strictly in propagation, so the rules should be designed around creating an optimal environment for childraising.

At the same time, both sides are assuming a very large interested community -- the whole nation or even the whole world. However, we (like Jesus in the Roman Empire) live in a world with highly varied local attitudes, and this is itself causing a lot of the trouble both in the nation and in the Anglican Communion. Is what's good for San Francisco really the same as what's good for Uganda? That is, does an overcrowded post-industrial metropolis face the same issues of sex and reproduction as a rural society with few social services and a high infant mortality rate? I don't think they do, so even if they didn't disagree about the sinfulness of homosexuality, I expect they'd have radically different ideas about the purpose of marriage.

Yet the mass media is also making the world smaller; or perhaps more accurately, it's turning far-off peoples into weird neighbors that you don't understand but can't avoid. Apparently one reason Anglicans in Africa got so upset about the gay bishop was that word of this distant event reached their Muslim countrymen and created conflicts. Thus, following Peter's advice to obey the laws and be socially beyond reproach becomes nearly impossible when you've basically got two sets of neighbors to impress: one on the ground around you, the other in the global village.

What, then, of the unity of the church? It does not look good at this point. But the silence of Jesus on the subject of how one chooses a mate implies, at least, that our salvation doesn't depend on it.

Posted by Camassia at December 28, 2004 03:13 PM | TrackBack

Hi Camassia -

I agree with you that the implications of what Jesus did not say about homosexuality are few (or different). In fact, it's really more of sloppy sloganeering that both sides employ in this "discussion". That said, I always understood the point to be far less ambitious than the preacher here seems to suggest. I.e., the emphasis and outrage over homosexuality seems to be greatly out of proportion to more important matters of the Christian faith using as an example the fact that, as far as we know, Jesus did not devote his ministry to preaching against homosexuals.

Anyway, this just seems to be another frustrating example of someone's rhetorical device (bumper sticker fodder?) being turned into a central argument without much thought. There are better thoughts and arguments. Thanks for yours.

Posted by: Robert on December 29, 2004 07:52 AM

The point about San Francisco and Uganda is quite well-taken. Your post reminds me of question I have heard asked by many Mennonites: what greater questions are we all
(left and right) colluding to avoid by focusing on homosexuality?

Posted by: Hugo on December 29, 2004 10:52 AM

Great post. Really.

I was thinking about Kenys and the issue of homosexuality. Can we say AIDS? Extramarital sex of any sort is quite possibly a death sentence. Homosexual intercourse may be a death sentence in that country as well. Smoe may say "wear a condom" but they are a little hard to come by there. It is simply not that simple.

The Kenyan bishop may think that homosexuality id "gross" but his real concerns may be other than his sense of decorum.

So, yeah, the questions are very different. But here is a possible counterpoint. How much good does it do us to look for the meaning behind the text? IS ther one that is of Paul's design and not our own? Can we discern it?

Posted by: AngloBaptist on December 30, 2004 02:42 PM

I've grown so weary of this.

We have made most central to our unity and our sense of purpose and our personal and corporate faith as Christians the concern over the living out of homosexuality, even when that living out is done with a great deal of conscience and soul-searching (far more than most heterosexual Christians must do) as loving same-sex couples who display fruits of the spirit as much if not more than opposite sex couples blessed by church and state. We've made an idol of sexuality in our culture, and a lot of blame falls on our Churches and appointed leaders.

It's time to get our priorities in order: daily folks go hungry, are without clean water, and basic shelter, are without medicinal care. When I see bishops meeting in great halls to discuss how our unity is splintered over these concerns, perhaps I'll give them another listen. Until then, let our unity based on the backs of others dissolve as far as I'm concerned. Such unity based on domination and limiting voices is not unity in the Spirit anyway. As the bumper sticker says, "God save me from your people."

Posted by: *Christopher on December 31, 2004 01:57 PM


It is not the traditionalists who have made "the living out of homosexuality" central. It is the progressives who have demanded that the Church change its teaching and practice, and have made the living out of homosexuality an issue.

What is central to traditionalists is not homosexuality, but the authority of Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition. When I hear progressives confess that authority and make their case based on it, I'll begin to take it seriously.

Posted by: Chris Jones on January 2, 2005 05:14 PM

We've made an idol of sexuality in our culture, and a lot of blame falls on our Churches and appointed leaders.

Is it the churches who have made sexuality the primary way to sell everything from soap to computers? Have churches created an environment amenable to 1.5 million abortions a year? I think churches are simply reacting to the erection of sexuality as an idol. As Malcolm Muggeride wrote, "Sex is the mysticism of a materialist society".

Posted by: TSO on January 2, 2005 05:21 PM

Camassia: Fantastic post! You've made a lot of my thinking settle into a few spots instead of being all over this issue.

The problems seem to center (I think) on the labels that we attach to the ways that we think the other person thinks.

Screwtape is never happier than when he can get otherwise-believers to yap at each others' heels with name-calling. So I'm stopping it. And the little-c churches and denominations are really only our agents, if we believe in the priesthood of the baptized? Since I can't afford to pay for my own priest, I sidle up next to one that's close and forgive the remaining distance.

In HIm,

Posted by: Jim on January 3, 2005 05:45 PM

Chris Jones -- We progressives have made "the living out of homosexuality" an issue because some of the churches' current teaching consigns a whole group of people to perpetual loneliness and misery, and does so in the name of Jesus Christ. In fact, some of the churches' current teaching professes that homosexuality is a disorder or even a disease that can be healed (the Southern Baptist Convention is among them), and they often encourage homosexuals to seek psychotherapy that would repress homosexuality (which often does not work, leaving the homosexual feeling desperate and worthless; when it does work, it also results in negative mental and emotional health).

We have made this an issue because it is making us miserable, and Jesus was not about misery, despite the so-called authority of the Scriptures (which were not even written yet in the early Church) and the lamentable Apostolic Tradition which was authored by celibate men who were themselves disordered (I'm thinking of St. Augustine and his pseudo-Gnostic hatred of the flesh). The Apostolic Tradition is not so complicated that the average person can't know and accept it; the Apostolic Tradition is Love, because the Apostolic Tradition is God, and God is Love. Everything else, while wrapping itself in the skirts of Apostolic Tradition, is hogwash.

We will not subject ourselves to the "Apostolic Tradition" anymore just because a bunch of celibate, usually old, usually totally unaware of what's really going on in the world around them, men who call themselves successors to the apostles but act nothing like them, tell us to. We are finished with that. And if this causes a rift in Church unity, then perhaps the rift should happen. After all, while Jesus wanted unity for his Church, he also pointed out several times that he was not necessarily "a uniter, not a divider" in the words of our Idiot-in-Chief.

Posted by: Nathan on January 4, 2005 09:41 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?