|Marriage Equality: The Bible and the Believers by Rollin Russell|
July 24, 2015
I was elated, along with millions of other American Christians, at the Supreme court's decision on Marriage Equality. As a 70-something retired protestant pastor, that may seem strange to those Christians who vehemently object to that ruling. I was never strongly opposed to homosexuality or to gay persons, but accepted the conventional wisdom of my younger days: that they were psychologically maladjusted or an unfortunate quirk of nature. My mind changed over the short period of a decade.
The United Church of Christ, in which I served for 40 years, began dealing with this issue in the 1970's. The General Synod, the UCC's national governing body, adopted a Pronouncement in 1975, "Civil Liberties Without Regard to Sexual Orientation." In 1983 the Synod adopted a resolution authorizing the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry if they were fully qualified. In 2005 the Synod adopted a resolution supporting marriage equality. There were numerous resolutions through those years that expressed theological support and pastoral concern for LGBTQ persons and their families.
I participated in each of those Synod meetings and in the process gained a new understanding of the issues and of the LGBTQ people who have suffered painful, thwarting discrimination. I also spent all those years trying to help Christian folks who had grown up with the same assumptions I did about homosexuality understand why our church was taking such positions. These were faithful church members who never dreamed of such developments and could not imagine accepting them. Every conversation was painful, and some were enlightening as those who had open minds and hearts began to see that God's love extends to all people, without exception.
The crux of the matter has always come down to the authority of scripture. The division, to over-simplify, can be seen as: the Bible as the Word of God, versus the Bible as the Words of God. Many denominations, scholars, pastors and Christians have for decades understood the Bible as the testimony of faithful Jews and Christians from the 6th century BCE to the 2nd century of the Christian Era, not actual words of God, dictated and recorded by those witnesses. They are best understood in light of their historical, literary and cultural context. Others have held the view that every word of Scripture is literally inspired, and to think otherwise is apostasy. Their voice has been increasingly loud and is near deafening since the marriage equality ruling, and it comes basically from the spiritual shackles of biblical literalism.
There are six passages that have traditionally been read as condemning homosexuality. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, when read against other references to it, seems to have nothing to do with sexuality at all: Ezekiel writes: "this was the guilt of Sodom, she had pride, excess of food, prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor." [Hmm, . . . is America a modern Sodom?] Isaiah and Jeremiah make similar references, none having to do with homosexuality. There are two such condemnations in Leviticus 18 and 20 where homosexuality is seen as an abomination, but so is eating shell fish and blending different fibers in weaving cloth. Leviticus is a holiness code; its about purity in all things, and is generally ignored by these same Christian literalists.
The condemnations in the Christian scriptures are in the letters of St. Paul and occur in lists which include "murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars . . ." (I Timothy 1). There was no concept of sexual orientation in that era, and Paul was reacting to common practices in the Greco-Roman world, including temple prostitution of all sorts. Many Christians were taught from infancy to adhere to all these admonitions as God's will without regard to their cultural context. It is understandable that they have difficulty stepping away from their traditional views and accepting what seems to them to be the profligate cultural norms of a corrupt social order.
It will take time, but the fundamentalist view of faith, life and society based on biblical literalism is fading. That is why they fight so fiercely. In the meantime, supporters of marriage equality and LGBTQ rights should back off a little, celebrate but don't gloat or ridicule, and trust the steady and inevitable movement toward full equality.
Rollin O. Russell
THOMAS FRIEDMAN, the New York Times columnist, has an idea. That happens to him quite often. One might almost say - too often.