Friday, November 28, 2008

What About Homosexuality? Part 3

There are a number of studies in the areas of anthropology, psychology and medical science that suggest the normalcy of homosexuality, in both genetics and the history of human societies. The scientific studies seem to be in continuous debate, but the anthropological studies have many levels of history on their side. It appears that homosexuality has always been present in human societies. For various reasons, people with homosexual inclinations were often marginalized, sometimes for antagonistic reasons and other times because such behavior does not add new members to the tribe or village through procreation.

In western culture today, the need to add new human beings to societies is less of a concern than it might have been in history past. Yet, homosexual people and communities are still often marginalized, at least because they remain a small minority of most populations.

The tension and paradox then, must deepen. I follow Jesus, who is shown in my Scriptures to have reached out to the marginalized and declared that the kingdom of God had come to such as these. Jesus reached out to all kind of people on the margins of his particular society and was personally marginalized to the place of execution when his own countrymen demanded his death.

The people I have know who claim a homosexual inclination have not been sexual predators or abusers (that I know of). They are not people who woke up one day and decided to take a walk on the wild side with members of their own gender. They claim a drive within them that they do not control. Some claim that drive has been evident since they were children. Most of the homosexual people I have known have also shared with me stories of deep relational pain, sexual abuse and neglect. These confessions make them like others I know and love who do not claim to be homosexuals. 

Defining homosexual persons as immoral en masse requires me to assume that those persons have made a conscious and willing choice to pursue such behavior when they were not compelled to do so, as a deliberate act of transgression against the rules of God. But I do not believe that homosexual persons can be so easily dismissed. If so, then I must dismiss myself and all others on planet earth.

No matter the cause of homosexuality--a normal, genetic variation from heterosexuality or an expression of sexual deviance arising out of deep relationship brokenness--I have to ground my relationships with homosexual persons the same way I must ground my relationships with heterosexual persons: As co-humans, made in the image of God. As such, I am compelled to point them to Jesus, that their lives might be transformed by the Spirit of God just as my life must be transformed.

In addition, no matter my opinion on the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality, I must still go to them and to others who are needy and hurting, and serve them in the name of Jesus.5 That is at the heart of the true Christian vocation. Our vocation is not to rain condemnation on anyone, but rather to both proclaim and demonstrate the present reality of the kingdom of God.6 

5 See the article by the well-known British atheist Roy Hattersley, "Faith Does Breed Charity." Accessed 11/23/08.

6 Dr. Ray S. Anderson deals with this question in a more comprehensive way at

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What About Homosexuality? Part 2

The question about homosexuality is linked more to the issue of morality than to that of fitness. Is homosexuality wrong in that it runs counter to a moral standard? In order to think about this, I have to explore in what ways homosexuality might be framed in a category of morality.

1. Sexual practices that are predatory or forced upon an unwilling person would be considered, generally, immoral. If homosexual behaviors are acted out in such a way, most societies would consider them immoral. However, most societies would consider heterosexual activity immoral as well, if acted out under the same circumstances.

2. Sexual practices that use another person without regard for that person's well-being or dignity, even if by mutual consent, would be considered by many to be dehumanizing at the least. Again, that would apply to both homosexual and heterosexual behavior.

3. Obsessive sexual behavior (sometimes labeled "sexual addiction") of any nature is generally considered aberrant (note the recent celebrities whose treatment for sexual addiction has made the popular press).

I suspect that the question moves beyond even these categories and into the realm of the transcendent. In other words, is there a higher moral law that is breached when a person claims to have an innate attraction to people of the same gender?

The three Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have within their scriptures prohibitions against homosexual behavior (Islam is probably the strictest in this regard, with capital punishment as a legal consequence in certain middle-eastern nations). This is not to say that all adherents of these faith traditions denounce homosexuality, but rather that their sacred texts do not support such sexual behavior.

So, as a Christian, a former pastor and now a theological educator, what do I think? Again, my thinking on this subject cannot be purely objective--I bring my own history, learning and biases into the analysis.

1. I am heterosexual. I do not desire a sexual relationship with another man. It is not a matter of choice--I simply have no inclination in that direction. It is, therefore, difficult for me to understand that inclination in others since it has not been my experience.

2. I was raised in an era when homosexuality was considered aberrant behavior by the psychological community2 and immoral behavior by most religious groups. The possibility of the acceptance of homosexuality as normative has some significant imprinting to challenge, as it probably does for many boomers and their ancestors.

3. I have had (and have) relationships with co-workers, business associates, and friends (both inside and outside our common faith communities) who were or are homosexual. Only one of those persons would be characterized as sexually aggressive toward others, myself included. The rest I have considered as valued relationships.

For me, this creates a paradox. On the one hand I have sacred texts that I deeply value which speak against homosexuality3; on the other, I have texts in those same Scriptures that call me to love all people--those who are like me and for me, but also those different from me and even antagonistic toward me.4  I combine this tension with friendship and love I have shared with homosexual people in my life and I find abstraction to be an impossibility.


2In 1973, homosexuality was moved from DSM-II's category of mental issness and into the category of sexual disturbance., accessed 11/23/08.

3Even if all the texts of the Old and New Testaments that specifically refer to homosexuality were eliminated as culturally obsolete, the Bible would still teach that the image of God is reflected in men or women individually, but also in the relationship between a man and a woman in the bond of marriage (see Genesis 2).

4See Jesus' words about the completeness and perfection of God's love in human relationships in Matthew 5:43-38.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What About Homosexuality? Part 1

I have been asked recently to give my opinion on homosexuality: Is it wrong? What I can offer is only an opinion, and as such it will be flawed and in need of correction. Nevertheless, I will offer it. 

I must begin by confessing a lack of so-called objectivity. As the scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi claimed, there is no possibility of pure objectivity when it comes to the way human beings analyze the things of the world. Even the most learned scientist brings her own worldview and material expectations to the microscope.1

I also lack objectivity because there have been people in my life who tell me that homosexuality is the proper category for their sexual orientation. These people have not been in my life in a casual way--they are people I have loved and valued as friends. It will be impossible for me to approach this topic abstractly, theoretically, philosophically or theologically without seeing the faces of the friends I have known.

The question on the table, again: Is homosexuality wrong? I am a Christian, I have been a pastor and I now work in the field of theological education, so the question behind the question is likely about what I believe God, the Bible, church tradition, etc., claim about homosexuality.

To attempt to address this complex question, I have to start by turning back and asking: What do we mean by wrong? There are at least two ways to approach that question.

1.  Something can be deemed wrong because it is incorrect or misplaced. Chili powder is the wrong seasoning for lemonade. "Five" is the wrong answer to "What is the sum of two plus two?"

2. Something can be deemed wrong because it violates a moral or ethical standard within a communal system, like a nation, a state, a city, a religious community, and so on. In this sense, wrong is determined by a standard that transcends, or is above and outside, human preferences. Murder is considered wrong because most human communities place a high value on human life, for a variety of reasons. Diverting funds from a charity into the pockets of the charity's executives is considered wrong because the act violates a trust and puts the declared recipients of the charity's gifts at risk.

I sat in a public high school classroom a few years ago as a group of honors students discussed the issue of same-sex marriage. The opinions differed as the group worked through their questions and thought process. More than one student suggested that homosexuality presented a problem because of the "lock and key." Suspecting I knew what they meant, I inquired further. The claim was that they found homosexuality to be puzzling because, to put it crudely, the parts didn't seem to fit. For these students there was something wrong anatomically. They understood that males and females had sexual organs that were designed (by God, by evolutionary processes, and so on) to have intercourse which had the potential to foster reproduction. One organ was a giver and the other a receiver, with particular reproductive (and pleasurable) results.

These students were claiming that homosexuality was wrong because of the incongruity of the sexual organs. In this sense wrong would be akin to being different. It would be an issue of fitness.

But the question at hand is linked more to the issue of morality than to that of fitness.


1. Michael Polanyi sets the stage for his argument by claiming ". . . that complete objectivity as usually attributted to the exact sciences is a delusion and is in fact a fast ideal" (p. 18). He states later, ". . . Personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims to establish contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality. Of this responsibility we cannot divest ourselves by setting up objective criteria of verifiability . . . For we live in it as in the garment of our own skin" (p. 64). Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is Marriage a "Right"?

People on both sides of the same-sex marriage issues (very big in California right now) argue from the position of individual rights. Pro-same-sex people seem to rely quite heavily on what they claim is a constitutional right to do the things that an individual wants to do--like get married.

I was thinking about this issue a few days ago and I recalled two things that occurred in my life in 1972 (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) that had to do with my so-called rights.

In 1972 I was 19 (I turned 20 in September). I was a voting-age citizen of the United States and the bearer of all rights therein. In the Spring of that year I received a letter that began with the word, "Greetings!" It was my draft notice. I learned very quickly that my right to do what I wanted had been suspended. I did not have the right to refuse that summons to serve in the military (as it turned out, I joined the Navy and served four years). Yes, the summons to compulsory military service came with the privilege of being a citizen, but my rights to individual freedom had to be suspended for that to happen.

The second thing that happened that year is that I got engaged. Emily and I made a verbal commitment to each other and it was affirmed by our community and families. We had the "right" to just move in together (which we did not), but getting married turned out to be different. In 1972, three things had to happen for us in order to get married: (1) We had to get blood tests. Presumably we would have been refused a marriage license if something suspect was shown in the test results; (2) I had to get my parent's written permission. In 1972, a woman could marry at 18, but a man had to be 21 (probably a wise recognition of the disparity between maturity levels). I could get married at 20, but my parents had to give me a letter (which they did); (3) A recognized official (clergy, officer of the court, etc.) had to preside over a marriage ceremony, religious or otherwise.

For us, marriage was not really a right--it was a request we made to the state of California that could be denied under certain circumstances. People, for example, who are already married cannot get married to another person--the permission will not be granted. 

In 1972, two people of the same sex could not receive permission to marry. But since that time, other restrictions to the permission process have been lifted: Blood tests are no longer required; people may marry at age 18 (both male and female). Some sort of ceremony by an authorized person is still required, however. It is still a granting of permission and the conferring of legal recognition.

When people get married, I don't think they are exercising a right. It is the receiving of recognition by the larger community (in our case, the state of California) that this relationship qualifies for the protections offered by the legalities of marriage, including ownership of property, rights to income, inheritance, structures for offspring, etc. In an important way, marriage has always been an institution that protects the couple, but also serves the community.

I think the argument about rights in same-sex marriage is misplaced. Perhaps the proponents should talk about how (1) they believe same-sex as a limiter should be simply removed from the list, just as blood tests and parental permission have been; (2) they believe that same-sex marriage, in a recognition by the state, serves the larger community.

Christians should look at the issue a little differently, I believe. For us, marriage is also not about rights. Marriage is about a covenant relationship that is characterized by faithfulness--to God, to each other, and to our community. Marriage is not simply a contract that is characterized by rights. We also believe that marriage is a spiritual and theological reality--it is a reflection of the image of God (we get this from Genesis chapters 1-2 in the Bible). More on this topic later.

If marriage is only about rights, then there can be a lot of movement to remove more and more limiters from those rights: Change the legal age of adulthood from 18 to 10. That would allow a 40-year-old man to marry an 11-year-old girl--it would be his right to do so. Change the requirement that marriage be monogamous--people could have the right to marry as many people as desired. If marriage is only about rights, then that right should be exercised as anyone sees fit. If not, then there must be discrimination afoot.

The argument regarding the rights of marriage is painful because it is misplaced. If there is an argument, at least from the legal side, then it needs to framed differently. 

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fires in California

Yesterday, upon discovering that Santa Barbara was burning, my co-worker J-Bird and I quickly relocated a group of our students up there who had planned to meet for a church history class right next to the heavy burn area.

This morning I discovered that the sky above my neighborhood was filled with smoke. It seems that major fires are burning (out-of-control) in the areas surrounding my city. The sky is dark enough that the light-sensitive lamps in people's yards are flickering on. The sun is an eerie, dull red disk high in the afternoon sky. Ash is falling everywhere.

My wife left this morning to visit her mother 35 miles to the northeast in a hospital where she was admitted last night. Her mother is 85 years old and her situation appears grave. Both major freeways that my wife would take home are closed because of wildfires. Across the street, my neighbors Kate and Tony are waiting for Kate's mother, who is living with them, to slip away. The hospice people thought she would pass away on Thursday, but she still lingers.

This is turning out to be quite a week. It is interesting how global issues lose their attraction when your local world is in turmoil. It causes me to stop and remember that, at its essence, life is much more about people than it is about issues. And we all live together in a very dangerous world where our only real hope is to trust in God and put our lives into his hands.

"You are a hiding-place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance." (Psalm 32:7)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Post-Election Reflection

Now that the dust of the election is beginning to settle, it seems good to me to think about how we, as followers of Jesus, respond to the results. Two thoughts come to mind:

1. If your candidate was not elected, will we pray for our new president and trust God for the welfare of the nation? There are radio talk shows that make a fortune out of attacking presidential administrations that they do not prefer. Is that a place for us? I think not.

2. In California, Proposition 8 passed (51%), seeking to ban gay marriage in the state. The question we must now ask is: Who is my neighbor? Is a gay or lesbian person my neighbor? What does Jesus have to say about our love to the neighbor?

Proposition 8 has resulted in more accusations of hatred (which is a significant ramp-up of the term intolerance) toward its proponents than any issue in my memory. Even though the issue might be important, it is a sad irony that the word hatred would be linked to the Christian community (Mormons are probably taking the biggest hit on this one). Historically, Christians have been accused of being atheists, cannibals, and any number of strange labels. In most cases, these labels were not true.

May the label of hatred also be found to be untrue about us.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Acting Like a Christian in an Election Year, part 6

There is good counsel for us in Jeremiah 29:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

This text was apparently written to the Jewish exiles living under the dominance of the Babylonian empire. As exiles, they are still called to live their lives and to pray for the welfare of the larger culture.

We can probably imagine how difficult forced exile would be. The people are taken from their land by a powerful military force and relocated to a place and culture not their own. Over time they adapt and learn how to live in the new culture, all the while striving to keep the memory of their identity alive. Walter Bruggemann, commenting on the song of Moses in Exodus 15, says that the community of ancient Israel . . . "gathered around the memories, knows that it is defined by and is at the disposal of a God who as yet is unco-opted and uncontained by the empire." (The Prophetic Imagination, Augsburg Press, 2001, p. 19)

Aren't we glad that we in USAmerica are not in exile? But we are. As followers of Jesus, as the people of God, we will always live in the shadow of a dominant culture. We may not feel a sense of oppression here, but we do live in a dominant culture that is driven by consumerism (which is the strongest fueler of our domestic economy), militarism and the demand for personal rights. When we forget that we are called to live in the alternative reality of the kingdom of God, then we become exiles without memory. We find ourselves serving a god that has indeed been co-opted and contained by the empire. We end up worshipping a god that is wrapped in the nation's flag.

The idea that we Christians in the USA are a people in exile might seem odd to some. But we are a people (according to St. Paul in Romans 11) grafted into the life of Israel. The Israel into which we are grafted is an Israel in exile (at the time of Paul's writing, the exile was under the dominance of Rome). By our very essence, we are a people in exile, both theologically and existentially.

To recognize that we are a people in exile is not a call to despise the nation. But it is, I believe, a call to speak prophetically and with wisdom into the life of the nation by first of all speaking into the life of the church. The church needs memories--not sentimental memories of the various denominational traditions, but instead memories of the story that God has been writing throughout human history. The story is not national but global and eternal. It is a story of both salvation and mission. It is the story into which our lives are being written. It is the story of the exiles impacting the dominant culture just as yeast permeates bread dough.

Today is election day in the USA. Some may vote out of fear, party loyalty, anger, or the desire for power. By contrast, perhaps the votes cast by followers of Jesus could be given as prayers--prayers for the welfare of the nation, that we might find welfare.

If you are a USAmerican citizen, then I encourage you to vote today. But remember who you are.