John 18:29: So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The religious leaders replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”
Pilate might be remembered better in history if he had stuck to his principles on this. Jesus wasn’t a criminal, and didn’t belong in Pilate’s court. But Pilate made himself the servant of religious leaders wishing to punish sin, and that was the beginning of his downfall as a servant of Rome, and Roman civilization.
In the wake of the Orlando terrorist attack, a report from 2013 began to circulate of a Muslim teacher calling for homosexuals to be killed. Just as quickly reports began to circulate of a Christian pastor calling for the same thing, although the pastor nuanced this by saying it shouldn’t be done by individuals. In fairness classical Islamic law is equally clear that individuals have neither the right nor responsibility to act as judge or executioner. And in both cases these men were reporting what their scriptures teach.
All three of the major monotheistic faiths in the west have both in their authoritative teaching, and in practice, prescribed the death penalty for homosexual behavior. It is ridiculous for the followers of one religion to boast of their moral superiority in this regard. Or to say that their religion somehow supports contemporary Western civilization values while other religions do not.
It is true that some modern interpretations of religious tradition in all three religions maintain that earlier prohibitions of homosexuality were misguided, and even more so punishment for homosexual behavior. But up until today these progressive schools of interpretation are minority reports, and in the case of Islam are virtually a fringe report, although that may be changing.
No, the reality is that the majority, even the large majority of Christians, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews regard homosexual behavior as a grievous sin against God’s order. One may wish and hope and believe that this will change, but that seems a long way off.
The reason that gay marriage is legal in the US, and indeed much of the West, isn’t because some superior religious teaching emerged. It is because the foundations of our contemporary Western civilization rest on the idea of individual equality and human rights. Our civilization denies (rightfully in my view) that God or God’s self-appointed representatives have any rights beyond those given them as individual citizens. Which pretty much leaves out God altogether – no doubt to God’s relief. (Can you imagine God, from the standpoint of perfect holiness, choosing between the candidates in a humanly arranged election?)
And so the real question to ask of all the followers of these religions is not what they regard as a sin (meaning behavior that God forbids in scripture), but what they believe is the role of civil authorities in punishing sin. And I’ll offer this opinion. It is unacceptable in civilized nations for the civil authorities to engage in punishing sin, any sin. The only acceptable task of the civil authorities is punishing crimes: meaning those things that the society as a whole has indicated through its democratic institutions are a threat to society and thus criminal.
It happens that some criminal activity will be more or less the same as what religious people regard as sinful activity. But at least in the West more and more things that religious people regard as sins are not regarded by society as crimes. To the extent that religious teachers and religious communities cannot understand or accept the difference between sin and crime then their voices should rightly be regarded as inimical to civilized political discourse. Not excluded, because our civil society believes in freedom of speech and freedom to engage in the democratic process for all citizens. But certainly regarded by thinking and patriotic citizens as deeply problematic.
There is one other thing that needs to be noted in the wake of Orlando. If a religious teacher or preacher, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish continually preaches from a scriptural tradition that both condemns homosexuality and demands that homosexuals be executed, can that teacher or preacher really expect that those who are listening will not be moved to cause harm? If from the pulpit a preacher tells people that God condemns homosexuals and wishes them dead can his listeners seriously believe that someone won’t be moved to kill on God’s behalf? If an imam continually preaches that homosexuality is undermining the foundations of society and destroying the lives of children and adults can his congregation members seriously believe all those listening will just nod their heads and then go home and do nothing but wait four years to vote for another conservative candidate? Utter hypocrisy.
A pastor cannot seriously preach that God hates people’s behavior but we should love the people. An imam cannot seriously preach that some people are destroying our society but that we should love them and leave them alone to continue that destruction. A priest can’t whip up the crowd with his rhetoric and then tell them to go home and chill out watching an episode of Modern Family. It isn’t just the odd Westborough Baptist church, or overzealous imam, or radical rabbi who is to blame when violence breaks out against LGBTQ persons. It is whole networks of religious institutions that perpetuate the hatred of gay persons and transgendered people that provides a continual incitement to beat up, maim, and kill.
The same can be said, of course, about preaching regarding ethnic minorities, immigrants, or any other social group. If religious teachers or politicians are publicly naming such groups as a threat to our society and civilization, then they are responsible in some degree for any violence exercised against members of that group. Freedom of speech is not freedom of moral responsibility for the consequences of words preached and taught.
Our American society stands at a crossroad. We either guarantee and value the lives of every inhabitant of our land, following the ancient Biblical teaching to Israel regarding the alien and sojourner in the land, or we descend into barbarism. It is our choice to whom we will listen, and whom we will follow.