Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Religious proponents of gay marriage routinely ignore or twist the major arguments in Scripture and philosophy against homosexual practice."

"The cover story by Religion Editor Lisa Miller in the Dec. 15, 2008 issue of Newsweek, wholeheartedly endorsed by Managing Editor Jon Meacham, is a perfect case in point."

Prof. Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Dec. 10, 2008,
© 2008 Robert A. J. Gagnon
For a PDF file click here

As its cover story for the Dec. 15, 2008 issue, the editors of Newsweek offer readers a hopelessly distorted and one-sided propaganda piece on “gay marriage” entitled “Our Mutual Joy.” The 2800-word article is by Lisa Miller, religion editor and author of the “Belief Watch” column for the magazine (her academic credential is a B.A. in English at Oberlin College). She claims that Scripture actually provides strong support for validating homosexual unions and no valid opposition to “committed” homosexual practice. She quotes from scholars such as Neil Elliott and “the great Bible scholar” Walter Brueggemann, who are strongly supportive of “gay marriage.”
There is not the slightest effort on Miller’s part to think critically about her own line or reasoning. The lone voice that she cites against homosexual practice is not from a scholar but from a certain Rev. Richard Hunter, a United Methodist minister who offered a short comment for a “roundtable” discussion sponsored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the thousand pages or so that I have written on the subject over the past decade Miller cites not a word, including my critique of Elliott’s untenable claim that Paul in Romans 1:24-27 was thinking only of the exploitative homosexual intercourse practiced by depraved emperors like Nero and Caligula; and my critique (pp. 11-12) of “Brueggemann’s” use of Gal 3:28 (“there is [in Christ] no ‘male and female’”) as support for homosexual unions (my critique is directed at Prof. Stacy Johnson of Princeton Seminary but it applies equally to Brueggemann’s claim).
Miller’s article reminds me of the equally distorted (but thankfully much shorter) op-ed article put out in The New York Times four years ago by Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof (“God and Sex,” Oct. 23, 2004). My response to Kristof, “‘God and Sex’ or ‘Pants on Fire’?”, showed how bad that piece was. My response to Miller will do the same. This essay has three primary components: a discussion of Scripture apart from the witness of Jesus; a discussion of Jesus’ witness; and concluding thoughts, which takes in also Meacham’s “Editor’s Desk” column.

The Witness of Scripture apart from Jesus
Miller’s strategy is to argue three things: first, that the image of marriage in Scripture is so alien to anything that would be acceptable to us today that we should run as fast as we can from any appeal to Scripture against “gay marriage”; second, that Scripture has little if anything to say against caring homosexual relationships; and, third, that Scripture contains “universal truths” (concerning “what the Bible teaches about love” and family) that are serviceable for promoting “gay marriage.” In a statement that can only be regarded as delusional in the extreme, Miller arrogantly declares as if she were some sort of expert on the subject: “Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.”
To arrive at her ideological objective Miller makes a number of bad moves. She exaggerates discontinuity and downplays continuity between marriage values in Scripture and our own values. She engages in a distorted form of analogical reasoning that elevates distant analogies like slavery and haircuts over close analogies, with far more points of correspondence, like adult-committed incest. She shows little or no understanding of the historical and literary contexts of the texts that she treats. She ignores just about every major argument against the positions that she espouses. And she extrapolates, from certain “universal truths” in Scripture, illogical conclusions that would have appalled the scriptural authors, like assuming that generic love is a sufficient prerequisite for sexual relationships.
A Strong Male-Female Prerequisite throughout Scripture
A male-female prerequisite is powerfully evident throughout the pages of Scripture. Every biblical narrative, law, proverb, exhortation, metaphor, and poetry that has anything to do with sexual relations presupposes such a prerequisite. Even the male-dominated society of ancient Israel imaged itself as Yahweh’s wife so as to avoid any connotation of a marriage between members of the same sex (an image replicated in the New Testament as regards Christ and his bride, the church). There are plenty of laws in the Old Testament delimiting acceptable and unacceptable sexual relationships between a man and a woman. Never is there any attempt to make such a distinction for same-sex sexual relationships, for the obvious reason that no homosexual relationships are deemed acceptable.
Miller makes much of the fact that the Bible condemns homosexual practice only in “a handful of passages,” while neglecting a number of relevant texts: the narratives of Sodom and of the Levite at Gibeah; the texts from Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History dealing with cultic figures known to play the female role in sex with men (the qedeshim); the interpretation of the Sodom story in Ezekiel, Jude, and 2 Peter; Jesus’ discussion of marriage in Mark 10 (parallel in Matthew 19); and Paul’s mention of “men who lie with a male” in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 (for a discussion of why these texts indict homosexual practice per se go here, pp. 46-50, 56-57, 72-73).
What of Miller’s argument based on frequency of explicit mention? Bestiality is mentioned even less in the Bible than homosexual practice and incest gets only comparable treatment, yet who would be so foolish as to argue that Jews and Christians in antiquity would have regarded sex with an animal or sex with one’s mother as inconsequential offenses? Infrequency of mention is often an indicator that the matter in question is foundational rather than insignificant. You don’t have to talk a lot about something that most everyone agrees with and that few persons, if any, violate.

Scripture’s male-female prerequisite for marriage and its attendant rejection of homosexual behavior is pervasive throughout both Testaments of Scripture (i.e. it is everywhere presumed in sexual discussions even when not explicitly mentioned); it is absolute (i.e. no exceptions are ever given, unlike even incest and polyamory); it is strongly proscribed (i.e. every mention of it in Scripture indicates that it is regarded as a foundational violation of sexual ethics); and it is countercultural (i.e. we know of no other culture in the ancient Near East or Greco-Roman Mediterranean basin more consistently and strongly opposed to homosexual practice). If this doesn’t qualify as a core value in sexual ethics in Scripture, there is no such thing as a core value in any religious or philosophical tradition.

The Implication of the Creation Texts for a Male-Female Prerequisite
The creation text in Genesis 2:21-24 pictures woman as coming from the undifferentiated human’s “side” (probably a better translation than “rib”), emphasizing that man and woman may (re)unite as “one flesh” because out of one flesh they emerged. The text states four times that the woman was “taken from” the “human” (adam, thereafter referred to as an ish or man), underscoring that woman, not another man, is the missing sexual “complement” or “counterpart” to man (so the Hebrew term negdo, which stresses both human similarity, “corresponding to him,” and sexual difference, “opposite him”). Within the story line may (re)unite into “one flesh” precisely because together they reconstitute a sexual whole. This is a different kind of story from the traditional Mesopotamian story of the creation of woman in Atra-hasis where seven human males and seven human females are formed separately from a mixture of clay and the flesh and blood of a slaughtered god.

To be sure, the story in Genesis 2:21-24 involves images of transcendent realities that do not have to be taken literally in all details. Nevertheless, the story beautifully conveys the point that man and woman are each other’s sexual complement, ordained by God for sexual pairing if sexual relations are to be had (see my discussion here, pp. 8-11). Referring to Alan Segal, professor of early Judaism at Barnard University, Miller claims that Genesis 2:21-24 could not contain any negative implications for polygamy because the text “was written by people for whom polygamy was the way of the world” and is part of a Bible “written by men and not handed down in its leather bindings by God.” Most people in the synagogues and churches recognize that the latter description is a false antithesis, that Scripture, while having a human element is not merely the compilation of human ideas. Moreover, in writing about an ideal beginning, it would not at all be unusual for an author to reflect on the fact that “the way of the world” is not necessarily God’s perfect will.

As we shall see, this was certainly Jesus’ understanding of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He understood the deep logic of these texts—the fact that God created two sexes out of one flesh and conceived of them as a sexual pair “male and female”—as indicating the self-contained sexual wholeness of the two-in-one union. He predicated his view of marital twoness, along with its incompatibility with both concurrent and serial polygamy, on the very twoness of the sexes ordained by God at creation. Paul, in his two main indictments of homosexual practice (Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9), clearly echoed the same two creation texts stressed by Jesus as normative for sexual ethics.

Miller also dismisses any negative implications for “gay marriage” in Genesis 1:27-28, where “male and female” are spoken of as a sexual pair (compare Genesis 5:2; 6:19; 7:3, 9, 16) and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” “The Bible authors could never have imagined the brave new world of international adoption and assisted reproductive technology—and besides, heterosexuals who are infertile or past the age of reproducing get married all the time.” Her argument misses the point. The author of Genesis 1:27-28 would not have viewed an infertile male-female union with the abhorrence associated in ancient Israel toward a man-male union. Male-female complementarity exists independently of whether any procreation actually takes place.

Miller’s argument is comparable to reducing the argument against adult-committed incest to the increased likelihood of birth defects. The inherent biological incapacity for two men or two women to reproduce, like the higher incidence of birth defects in the offspring of an incestuous union, is the symptom of a root problem: too much structural sameness or likeness among the participants in the sexual union.

While not reducing “the image of God” to being “male and female,” the author of Genesis 1:27 indicates that God’s image and human sexual differentiation and pairing are uniquely integrated: “And God created the human in his image, in the image of God he created it [or: him], male and female he created them.” As Nahum Sarna notes in the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Genesis, “No such sexual differentiation is [explicitly] noted in regard to animals. Human sexuality is of a wholly different order from that of the beast…. Its proper regulation is subsumed under the category of the holy, whereas sexual perversion is viewed with abhorrence as an affront to human dignity and as a desecration of the divine image in man.” An attempt at uniting sexually two males or two females would threaten to mar the image of God stamped on humans as complementary sexual beings.

Paul’s indictment of homosexual practice and view of marriage
In Romans 1:24-27 Paul portrayed homosexual practice as “sexually impure,” “unnatural,” and “indecent” or “shameful” behavior that “dishonors” the participants. How does it dishonor the participants? The logic of a male-female sexual bond is that the two primary sexual halves are united into a single sexual whole. But the logic of homosexual unions is that two half-males or two half-females unite sexually to form a whole person of the same sex, whereas the true missing sexual element of a man is a woman and vice versa. It is, at one and the same time, sexual narcissism and sexual self-deception. One may be in need of structural affirmation as a male or female, but not structural supplementation.
1. Was Paul’s indictment of homosexual practice limited to violent forms?
Miller tries out the argument that Paul’s remarks against homosexual practice in Romans 1:24-27 were directed only at certain exploitative (“violent”) forms of homosexual practice (citing Neil Elliott). This argument won’t work, for many reasons (online readers can see a more extended discussion not only in my critique of Elliott posted several years ago here, but also in my more recent discussions here [pp. 5-10], here [pp. 12-18], here [pp. 3-15], here [pp. 62-85], and here [pp. 206-65]).

First, in Romans 1:23-27 Paul intentionally echoed Genesis 1:26-27, making eight points of correspondence, in the same tripartite structure, between the two sets of texts (humans/image/likeness, birds/cattle/reptiles, male/female). In establishing this link to Genesis 1:26-27, Paul was rejecting homosexual practice not in the first instance because of how well or badly it was done in the Greco-Roman milieu but rather because it was a violation of the male-female prerequisite for sexual relations ordained by the Creator at creation. Moreover, Paul contended, it was a violation that should be obvious even to Gentiles without the Jewish Scriptures since God had given obvious clues to male-female complementarity in the anatomical, physiological, and psychological makeup of “male and female.”

This brings us to the second point: the kind of nature argument that Paul employs in Romans 1:18-27 isn’t conducive to a distinction between exploitative and nonexploitative forms of homosexual practice. According to Paul in Romans 1:19-20, “the knowable aspect of God is visible [or: apparent] to them [i.e. Gentiles] because…. ever since the creation of the world his invisible qualities are clearly seen, being mentally apprehended by means of the things made” (1:19-20). Such a nature argument in the first-century milieu is hardly surprising. As Thomas K. Hubbard notes in his magisterial sourcebook of texts pertaining to Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: “Basic to the heterosexual position [in the first few centuries A.D.] is the characteristic Stoic appeal to the providence of Nature, which has matched and fitted the sexes to each other” (p. 444).

Third, the way Paul words the indictment in Rom 1:27—“males, having left behind the natural use of the female, were inflamed with their yearning for one another”—precludes a limitation to coercive relationships.

Fourth, there is plenty of evidence from the Greco-Roman milieu, both for the conception and for the existence, of loving homosexual relationships, including semi-official “marriages” between men and between women. Moreover, we know of some Greco-Roman moralists who acknowledged the existence of loving homosexual relationships while rejecting even these as unnatural (indeed, we can trace this idea back to Plato’s Laws). And it should go without saying that Jewish writers in Paul’s day and beyond rejected all forms of homosexual activity. For example, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus stated the obvious to his Roman readers: “The law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman…. But it abhors the intercourse of males with males” (Against Apion 2.199). It is hardly surprising, then, that even Louis Crompton, a homosexual scholar, acknowledges in his massive work, Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard University Press) this point. “However well-intentioned,” the interpretation that

Paul’s words were not directed at “bona fide” homosexuals in committed relationships…. seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian.

Fifth, Paul’s indictment of lesbianism in Romans 1:26 further confirms that his indictment of homosexual practice is absolute, since female homosexuality in antiquity was not primarily known, or criticized, for the exploitative practices of sex with slaves, prostitutes, or children. And there can be little doubt that Paul was indicting female homosexuality, as evidenced by: (1) the parallelism of the language of 1:26 (“females exchanged the natural use”) and 1:27 (“likewise also the males leaving behind the natural use of the female”); (2) the fact that in antiquity lesbian intercourse was the form of female intercourse most commonly labeled “contrary to nature” and paired with male homosexual practice; (3) the fact of nearly universal male opposition to lesbianism in antiquity, even by men engaged in homosexual practice; and (4) the fact that lesbian intercourse was the dominant interpretation of Romans 1:26 in the patristic period.

Miller is full of mistakes on the issue of lesbianism. She claims: “Sex between women has never, even in biblical times, raised as much ire” as male homosexual practice. In the Greco-Roman milieu it generally raised more ire; it was thus a less debatable point and could be taken for granted that it was wrong (as lesbian New Testament scholar Bernadette Brooten notes in her book Love between Women). Miller adds: “In its entry on ‘Homosexual Practices,’ the Anchor Bible Dictionary [sic—ABD has no such entry; Miller must be referring to the entry “Sex”] notes that nowhere in the Bible do its authors refer to sex between women.” The last time I checked, Romans 1:26 was part of the Bible. The author of the entry, T. Frymer-Kensky, was speaking only about the Old Testament, not about the New Testament, much less about Jews in the Second Temple Period and beyond. Miller cites Frymer-Kensky’s reason for the lack of an explicit prohibition of lesbianism in Israelite law: "possibly because it did not result in true physical 'union' (by male entry)." Yet it is just as likely that it went unmentioned simply because in the tightly-controlled, male-dominated societies of the ancient Near East lesbian activity by women was virtually impossible or at least, to judge from the dearth of texts on the subject in the ancient Near East, virtually unknown by males.

In short, there is no realistic possibility that Paul’s indictment of homosexual practice—or, for that matter, the indictment by any Jew in antiquity of such behavior—was limited to certain exploitative, “violent” homosexual acts.

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