The Abominable Shellfish

The Abominable Shellfish July 16, 2004

Why some Christians hate gays but love bacon

The third book of the Bible, Leviticus, has some wonderful passages. The Jubilee laws outlined in chapter 25, for example, provide an inspiring vision of liberty and justice for all. The 10th verse of this chapter even supplied the inscription for the Liberty Bell: "proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

The Jubilee laws and the ideals they embody, unfortunately, are nearly wholly neglected and forgotten. Most of the book of Leviticus is similarly neglected.

Yet some passages live on, their teachings still regarded as unwavering and binding.

One such passage is Lev. 20:13, which says (in the King James Version), "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination."

That passage is frequently cited by the spokesmen of the religious right to explain why they're so adamantly opposed to allowing homosexuals to enjoy full civil rights here in America.

The thing is, though, that the book of Leviticus condemns a lot of things as "abominations." The 11th chapter is overflowing with abominations. For example, from verses 10-12:

And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

The folks over on the religious right cite Leviticus as evidence that homosexuals are an unclean "abomination," yet they have no problem eating at Red Lobster. What gives?

Since many observers have noted this apparent inconsistency (see, for example, I figured I would wade in to try to explain why it is that so many contemporary Christians reject gays while embracing shellfish.

To understand why God is no longer considered a hater of shrimp you have to flip ahead to the Acts of the Apostles, the good doctor's account of the early days of the Christian church.

Acts chapter 10 finds the apostle Peter on a rooftop in Joppa, praying at noon before heading down to lunch.

The impulsive former fisherman has grown into a genuine leader in the early church. At Pentecost, he preached the gospel to people from every corner of the Roman Empire and he is slowly appreciating that this new community is supposed to transcend any ethnic or cultural boundaries. But the goyim still seem to bug him a bit. Especially the Romans.

So God gives him a vision. Peter falls into a trance and sees a vision of a giant tablecloth descending from heaven. The tablecloth is covered with honeybaked hams, cheesesteaks, crab cakes, calamari and lobster.

"Eat up, Peter," a voice tells him

"Surely not, Lord!" Peter says. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

"Don't call anything unclean that God has made clean," the voice says. "And try the angels on horseback, they're like butter."

This happens three times.

This is generally regarded as an instance in which a New Testament passage seems to set aside a prohibition from the Old Testament. And that's why our friends on the religious right do not feel compelled to eat kosher and do not consider shellfish to be "an abomination."

Fair enough, but there's something else going on in this story. The main point of Peter's rooftop epiphany has nothing to do with diet. The main point of this vision had to do with the people who were about to knock on Peter's door.

Peter is about to meet Cornelius. Cornelius is a gentile. Worse than that, he is a Roman. Worse than that, he is a Roman centurion. Cornelius is about as kosher as a bacon double cheeseburger.

But give Peter credit — he understood the vision. "Don't call anything unclean that God has made clean." Don't call anyone unclean that God has made clean.

Peter does not treat Cornelius as an unclean outsider. He travels to the centurion's house, where he says, "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean."

Peter gets it. In this new community that God is building, this church, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. No one is excluded as unclean.

This is the unsubtle point that Luke is hammering home for his gentile friend Theophilus. The surrounding chapters of Acts read like a hyper-P.C. after-school special on celebrating diversity. The church embraces Jews and gentiles, Roman soldiers and slaves, men and women, Africans, Greeks and even a token white European.

In our fondness for Easter ham, we Christians have fervently clung to the surface-level meaning of Peter's vision. But we haven't been as enthusiastic about embracing the larger, more important lesson God was teaching him there on the rooftop. When the "unclean" outsiders knock on our doors, we don't like inviting them in.

That, in a nutshell, is why some Christians happily dismiss one "abomination" while still behaving abominably out of allegiance to another.

(Oh, and what about Leviticus' Jubilee laws? Those were never set aside by anything in the New Testament, but Christians no longer treat them as authoritative because, um … well, because money is pretty and shiny and let's us buy nice things.)

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  • Oh, then what is their chrisitan basis for rejecting beastiality and incest? Does it also apply to homosexuality?

    That’s what this comes down to. You can ignore one line out of Leviticus, and I submit that you still have a basis in christianity for rejecting incest and beastiality. I equally submit that if you ignore the odd isolated contextless prooftext, you are not left with a christianity that calls for homophobia.

  • Ryan Smith

    The Christian basis for rejecting bestiality and incest is firstly that they’re condemned in the Scriptures, and secondly that the sum total of Church thought and practice from then until now interprets and acts on those Scriptures with that condemnation as the proper interpretation thereof. You can say all you want about ‘love’, but what that word (or those 4 words, in Greek) mean, how they apply etc. in Christianity is not understood except through a thorough understanding of Scripture and the tradition surrounding it.
    You can ignore the lines in Leviticus that condemn homosexuality and still have a basis for condemning homosexuality because Paul re-condemns it in Romans. You can decide to ignore that verse too (for no reason other than it suits your political ends to do so, mind), and still have a Christian basis for rejecting incest and bestiality because you can simply choose to continue being arbitrary and accept the verses in Leviticus that condemn such.
    Or hell, you can choose to ignore every word the Bible says and just believe whatever you want, and reject incest and bestiality because they ‘seem yucky’ to you, and at least be right about that one thing because you’re still milking the benefits of being raised in a Christian culture that taught you what seems yucky and what doesn’t.
    Anyway, what you’re calling homophobia – which is just a pejorative, mind, for people that have a different political view than you do – is absolutely called for according to the Scriptures, you have ceased even bothering to argue that such is not the case, and I’m not really interested in a discussion on how we can distort Christianity by ignoring whatever bits we don’t like. Fred made it seem like he was doing something a little more rational than that, that’s what I stopped by to interact with, nobody is even defending his (poor) argument anymore, so I suspect this will be my last reply here.

  • I am not a political issue, thanks. “A different political view” doesn’t quite encompass the efforts of people to denigrate my status to one of “potential murder victim who no one will mourn because groups like Family Research Council have spent the last few decades arguing that people like me literally worship pedophilia.”