During the past couple of weeks, two arguments have surfaced on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate that are based upon offensive analogies (or “provocative” ones, depending which side you’re on). At the Reformation Project conference in DC, evangelical ethicist David Gushee made an analogy between the Biblically-based, tradition-affirmed anti-Semitism of the pre-Holocaust church and the church’s opposition to homosexuality. Then in response to the Reformation Project, British neo-Calvinist Andrew Wilson wrote a “satire” in which he substituted the arguments for an LGBT-affirming interpretation of scripture with arguments for supporting idolatry. It should be no surprise that I saw a major difference in caliber between the level of discourse offered by Gushee and Wilson, and I’m sure that anti-gay Christians will wave away my analysis as a product of my bias, which is fine. But just in case there are people out there who are genuinely “on the fence” and not locked into complete epistemic closure, I figured I would offer my thoughts.
1) Anti-gayness vs. anti-Semitism
David Gushee opened his speech at the Reformation Project conference with the following paragraph:
I want to talk tonight about a small minority group that was for almost 2000 years the object of a tragically destructive, religiously motivated, contempt on the part of the Church of Jesus Christ.The Church’s teaching about this group was grounded in a number of biblical texts drawn from across the canon of scripture, as they had been interpreted by Christian leaders, and reinforced by centuries of Christian tradition. This destructive pattern of interpreting these texts went back near the origins of Christianity and eventually was very broadly shared by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant strands of Christianity. One could even describe it as a rare point of unity for these warring groups—they could agree on little, but did agree on this. It was hard to find many dissenters to this tradition, as it was grounded in knowledge sources at the very center of Christianity: scripture, tradition, and major church leaders, generation after generation. Everyone just knew that the group that was the object of this negative teaching was well worthy of the church’s rejection and disdain, that this disdain was “biblical,” and that it was attested to by the highest authorities of the Church. Indeed, expressing rejection and disdain for this group became a core part of Christian identity, even Christian piety.
He goes on with a set of descriptions that seem very clearly to apply to queer people, saying that they were sometimes welcomed into Christian fellowship but often as second-class members of the church. Their identity created obstacles for them in terms of pursuing church leadership positions or ordained ministry. It seems obvious that he’s talking about gay people, until he drops the bombshell:
Eventually the centuries-old tradition of disdain for this group, which lay deep in the marrow of western civilization and survived the transition into secular modernity, metastasized into a massive eruption of state-sponsored violence. By the time it was over, 1/3 of all members of this group in the entire world had been murdered. I am one of the scholars who have sadly documented that most Christians stood by doing nothing to help the targeted group.
Then he reveals that he has been talking about the Jews. There are specific verses in the Bible that were used to justify anti-Semitism, such as Matthew 27:25, in which the Jews say to Pilate about crucifying Jesus, “His blood be on us and our children.” In John 8:44, Jesus says to “the Jews” (or “Judeans,” in my personal “revisionist” translation), “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” This latter verse was the basis for the widespread belief that Jews had horns in popular Christian piety for many centuries.
There are two reasons that anti-Semitism is not “self-evident” as a “Biblical” position for Christians today: the Holocaust and dispensationalism. The Holocaust forced Christians to reconsider their anti-Semitism theologically through declarations like Vatican II’s “Nostra Aetate” in which the presence of truth in other world religions was officially acknowledged by the Catholic church. Then, the “end times” theology of dispensationalism coupled with the establishment of Israel as a nation-state caused the Jews to be on “our side” in the “us and them” dichotomy of conservative evangelicalism, at least in the United States. Now shouting down critics of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is a cornerstone of American conservative evangelical popular piety. Muslims have replaced Jews as American conservative evangelicals’ favorite religious scapegoat, and the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Plus, as an added bonus, American conservative evangelicals are able to experience “persecution” vicariously through their solidarity with Israel. So Jews are now “in” with evangelicals (they’re even officially white people now after centuries of not being so), not because anything that the New Testament says about “the Jews” has changed, but because a quiet revisionism has occurred from the way these verses “have always been interpreted.”
David Gushee acknowledges that the analogy between anti-Semitism and anti-gayness has its limits:
I am not claiming that LGBT people have faced genocide.But it is true that it remains physically dangerous to be an LGBT person in many places. I have students from other parts of the world who tell me of routine violence inflicted against sexual minorities in their home countries. We have heard of such violence already this evening. There has been no genocide. Still, we speak of a group of people that even today, even in our country, sometimes hear diatribes, with quotes from scripture, suggesting that they should all be executed by the state. I once was the next guest on a Christian radio show where a preacher had just said that.
In any case, anti-Semitism has at least as many Biblical proof-texts as anti-gayness and actually far more affirmation in the embarrassing diatribes of church fathers throughout the centuries basically up until the Holocaust. So Gushee’s argument is that dismissing new interpretations of the anti-gay clobber texts in the Bible because of how they have “always been interpreted” is no more valid than justifying anti-Semitism based on how anti-Semitic clobber texts had “always been interpreted” before the Holocaust. The fact that the church is mostly not anti-Semitic today is because of “revisionist” interpretations of passages that were used for centuries to rail against the Jews from the pulpit.
2) Affirming gayness vs. affirming idolatry
I’m not sure to what degree Andrew Wilson’s post should be viewed as a response to David Gushee, but it went up immediately after the Reformation Project conference. He starts off by saying:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to worship idols. It’s not that my parents raised me that way, because they didn’t; I was brought up in a loving, secure, Christian home. But from childhood until today, my heart has been drawn to idolatry. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the defining features of my identity has been my desire to put something else – popularity, money, influence, sex, success – in place of God. That’s just who I am. For many years, I was taught that idolatry was sinful. As a good Christian, I fought the desire to commit idolatry, and repented when I got it wrong. But the desire to worship idols never went away. I wanted it to, but it didn’t.
Wilson goes on to parody the “revisionist” arguments for LGBT-inclusive Biblical interpretation by pointing out that the same things could supposedly be said about idolatry:
Jesus had no problem with idolatry. He included everyone, however many gods they worshipped. If we want to be like him, then we should adopt the same inclusive approach. We should also remember that, as we have discovered more about the human brain, we have found out all sorts of things about idolatry that the biblical writers simply did not know. The prophets and apostles knew nothing of cortexes and neurons, and had no idea that some people are pre-wired to commit idolatry, so they never talked about it. But as we have learned more about genetics, neural pathways, hormones and so on, we have come to realise that some tendencies – alcoholism, for example – scientifically result from the way we are made, and therefore cannot be the basis for moral disapproval or condemnation. To disregard the findings of science on this point is like continuing to insist that the world is flat.
Wilson’s “parody” runs into some trouble here. Who has ever argued that a genetic basis for alcoholism means that no one should criticize alcoholics for getting drunk? There’s a difference between saying that something is a disease and not merely a “moral” issue, and calling for a behavior to be approved. For the analogy between alcoholism and homosexuality to work, Wilson needs to show how homosexuality destroys people to the same degree that alcoholism does. Of course, the fact that Wilson’s piece is a lighthearted “satire” not to be taken too “seriously” means that he doesn’t have to defend making an analogy between alcoholism and homosexuality on the mere basis of their alleged genetic foundation.
Wilson continues to “parody” the argument for an LGBT-affirming understanding of scripture by “arguing” that what Paul meant by idolatry is nothing like what idolatry looks like today:
In [Paul’s] world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities – statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone – and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions… In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he is not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves, and women), and it is about time we recognised that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.
Wilson is right that discerning modern idolatry cannot rely upon a literal reading of the Bible alone. It requires an extrapolation of Biblical concepts. Nothing that the Bible literally says can repudiate hanging an American flag in a megachurch sanctuary next to Jesus’ cross as an idol of equal importance. That’s why most Biblical inerrantists in our country have no problem with idolizing the American flag in this manner and get offended when people raise the question of whether the American flag should be elevated as an object of worship in a Christian sanctuary.
So there’s a deep irony in Wilson’s “parody.” In order to understand the problem of idolatry, we cannot make the 1st century manifestations of what idolatry looks like into timeless principles. We have to make arguments based upon underlying principles extrapolated from the Biblical text rather than expecting idolatry to always look like the silver Artemis statues of Acts 17 that the apostle Paul was dealing with. This is precisely where the Biblical argument against homosexuality fails, unless you believe that patriarchal gender roles are God’s permanent will for humanity. Apart from making patriarchal gender norms into an underlying sine qua non of the Christian faith as complementarians like Andrew Wilson do, there are no underlying principles that invalidate homosexuality, only isolated, tenuous proof-texts that can be interpreted differently. In fact, I would say that the onus is on complementarians to prove that their obsession with gender norms is not itself idolatry.
Though many conservative evangelicals argue that acknowledging the existence of sexual orientation is inherently idolatrous, I find Andrew’s glib analogy between queer identity and the human proclivity toward idolatry to be belittling and unjust to queer Christians. Personally, I struggle plenty with various idols. But my struggles are nothing like the agony of discovering your queerness and trying to repress it for years because you believe it’s sinful until you finally receive some kind of assurance that seems to come from God that there is a chaste and holy way to live out your queer identity without spending your life completely alone. It seems profoundly cruel to me to compare this very painful, difficult discernment process to idolatry.
According to a mutual friend, Andrew Wilson experienced some degree of same-sex attraction at some point in his life. Whether or not that’s the case, it doesn’t give him carte blanche to ridicule the queer experience by reducing it to idolatry. If he wants to be taken seriously outside of his echo chamber, he’s going to have to do a lot better than a “parody” that only people who already agree with him will consider brilliant and clever.
Interestingly, Andrew writes in a separate post that when trying to speak persuasively to people of an opposing view on an issue, one should “listen carefully and respectfully to the opposing argument in its strongest form, adjusting your views where necessary” and “seek the unity of the church more than the acceptance of your particular perspective.” He would do well to follow his own advice on the homosexuality issue instead of offering up glib, insulting parodies to entertain his followers.