Sex & Money, part 2

Sex & Money, part 2 June 3, 2010

When you greet a stranger look at his shoes
Keep your money in your shoes …

A few times a week I get an e-mail or a drive-by comment from someone very upset that I'm defending or advocating for a position they regard as contrary to the Bible. This happens often. Regularly. Constantly.

Yet as often as it happens, none of my accusers has ever been angry that I seem to be "glibly dismissive" of the clear biblical teaching of Luke 3:11. No one has ever suggested on the basis of this Bible verse that I am a fraudulent sham and an enemy of the true faith. Nor have they ever suggested that my failure to heed and revere it's clear instruction constitutes an attack against the sacred "authority of the scriptures."

And that's odd, because I would seem to be vulnerable on this point.

"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none," the Bible says in Luke 3:11. And I have a lot more than just two coats. I have a closet full of coats, jackets, suits, shirts, dress pants, jeans, sweaters and nearly a dozen different pairs of shoes. My wardrobe would seem to be a sinful extravagance that's biblically indefensible.*

And it's worse than that. I'm also actively trying to lure others into this lifestyle of selfish superfluity. I have over the years recommended or urged the readers of this blog to acquire all sorts of things beyond what they need — the Louis & Ella box set, a USB turntable, Diamond Cut jeans, No Sweat chucks, the complete DVD collection of The Wire and dozens and dozens of books. I'm even wantonly displaying advertising here — messages explicitly designed and intended to seduce readers into further acts of acquisitive superfluity.

Now it's true that the person speaking in Luke 3:11 is John the Baptist — an ascetic who wore a hair-shirt and lived on locusts and wild honey. In general, John the Baptist's teachings on diet and dress aren't regarded as authoritative.

But it's not just bug-eating John who gives us this teaching. Variations of his statement can be found throughout the entire Bible, in the law and the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles. This is a unified, unambiguous, relentlessly repeated commandment not just of John but of Moses, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter … of everybody, really.

We're not talking about just a handful of scattered verses — not just a few obscure texts plucked from the lists of Leviticus and one or two Pauline tangents. This is a major, dominant theme of the entire Bible: Whoever has more than they need must give to whoever has less than they need.

And yet as I said, despite regularly receiving angry condemnations for the ways in which I supposedly deny "the authority of the scriptures," I have never even once been challenged on the matter of my personal superfluity or my advertising and enticement urging others to acquire.

None of my interlocutors has ever accused me of flippantly disregarding Luke 3, or Matthew 6, or Amos, or 2 Corinthians 8 — even though my lifestyle is clearly and wholly incompatible with what those texts have to say. I have never received a single question from these Guardians of Biblical Truth as to how I manage to reconcile my lifestyle with the vast multitude of scripture passages condemning it as sin. My supposedly conservative inquisitors have never challenged me on this point or accused me of promoting a "liberal" approach to the Bible that hand-waves away the clear mandates taught in the more than 2,000 verses dealing with wealth, possessions and the poor.

Instead, they're mainly just upset about the Gay Thing.

That's odd. Because the Bible doesn't actually have a whole lot to say about homosexuality. The sum total of all it says on that subject is just a tiny fraction of what the Bible has to say about sex in general and even all that put together is, at most, a minor sub-theme.

Think of it this way: Picture a seesaw. Take all of the passages you can find in the Bible that might possibly be construed as condemning homosexuality and gently place them on one seat of the seesaw. Now take all of the passages and parables and sermons and stories in the Bible that deal with wealth, possessions and the poor and drop them onto the other seat.

That seesaw just became a catapult, launching that little collection of verses on homosexuality high into the air.

The popular emphasis on biblical teaching on homosexuality distorts and inverts the emphasis of the text itself. When my e-mail accusers cite the Bible, or when it is cited by the loudest of the evangelical advocacy groups, they're almost always talking about sex, usually gay sex, and almost never talking about wealth, possessions or the poor. They've allowed the tiny fraction of the minor sub-theme to eclipse the importance of the major theme discussed throughout the text itself. That's backwards. That's contrary to what the actual book says.

I'm being too polite here. I need to state this more vigorously because I need to put it in a way that will make my accusers fruitfully angry. So let me try this:

The Bible is not a book about homosexuality and it will not allow itself to be treated as a book about homosexuality. Nor is the Bible a book about sex. But the Bible is, in fact, very much a book about wealth, possessions and the poor. That is not the central theme, but it is a massively important theme that pervades every portion of the book. If you don't agree with that then I don't know what it is that you've been reading, but it surely wasn't a Bible.

Did that work? That last sentence was deliberately confrontational and accusatory — did it make you angry? Because I want you to get angry. I want you to become so angry that you won't rest until you prove me wrong.

So please do that. Prove me wrong. Go for it. Take all that anger and angrily go back to your Bible. Open it at random or start at the beginning and channel all that anger into a determined search to prove that wealth, possessions and the poor is not a major theme of the entire book and that the Bible does not contain anything like 2,000 verses on the subject. Get angry and don't stop until you've proved, conclusively, that this isn't an overwhelming, obsessive theme in the Bible.**

Please note that I'm not suggesting that count-the-verses is a smart or literate or spiritually mature approach to the Bible. Just because there are hundreds of times as many verses on wealth, possessions and the poor as there are on or near the subject of homosexuality doesn't mean we can simply ignore the smaller collection of passages. But it certainly shouldn't mean we can simply ignore the much larger theme, either.

And that's my problem here with my accusers. They pay vehement attention to the smaller subtopic while they seem to completely ignore the tsunami of teaching on the larger theme. They seem to ignore even the fact that they're ignoring it.

Even this does not prove that my accusers are wrong to treat the gay verses the way they treat them. It could be that they are correct in their interpretation and application of these few verses while they are incorrect in their interpretation and non-application of the multitude of scriptures on WP&tP. If that were the case, then my more consistent approach would be no great virtue. I would be consistently wrong while they were at least partly, if inconsistently, right. (I don't think that is the case, mind you, and I'll discuss why in part 3. But I want to acknowledge that such a situation is logically possible, at least in theory.)

My accusers' inconsistency, though, does raise some urgent questions. What is the basis for this discrepancy? What is their explanation for it (if they have one)?
What is the rationale for applying one standard to one tiny subs
et of Bible verses while applying a completely different standard to a vastly larger set of passages? How do they justify treating the few verses they see as condemning homosexuality as strict, inviolable and "authoritative" while simultaneously treating a dominant theme of the whole of scripture as vague, nonbinding and disposable?

Or, put less charitably, why do they insist on the strictest and harshest application of rules governing other people's genitals while blithely refusing to apply any rules governing their stuff? (Including, for example, the rule that says there's really no such thing as "their" stuff.)

This inconsistency creates the unpleasant suspicion that they are simply people who happen to enjoy having lots of stuff but who don't happen to enjoy gay sex and who have, therefore, conveniently decided to read the Bible in such a way that it blesses the former and damns the latter. There's a strong aroma here of the old speck-and-beam hypocrisy. That sort of self-serving manipulation of the text seems irreconcilable with their insistence that they are acting as the guardians of "the authority of the scriptures."

Let me address my accusers directly. Be warned: If you come to me as a Guardian of Biblical Authority, demanding to know why I do not join you in biblically condemning homosexuals, I will before answering you look at your shoes.

Are they practical and well-worn? Are they your only pair?

They had better be. Because unless your shoes provide evidence of the reckless generosity unambiguously commanded throughout that same Bible you insist must be used to condemn our GLBT neighbors, then I'm not sure you really understand — or much care about — the "authority of the scriptures." Unless you exhibit a personal poverty commensurate with the chastity you insist from others, then I don't believe that you believe what you're saying.

Show me an American willing to abstain from luxury and indulgence and that person earns my attention. Show me a straight person expecting to be commended for abstaining from gay sex and that person earns only my pity. (That's not an achievement, that's a tautology.)

The Bible is not a Rulebook for Other People. If you're going to insist on treating it as a rulebook, then you're going to have to pay attention to the rules that apply to you as well as to the rules that apply to others. I'd suggest starting with this rule: Don't treat the Bible as a rulebook.

But now I'm getting ahead of myself. We'll save that thought for part 3.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Devotees of the King James Version will note that this verse, in that translation, says "two tunics." Due to a misspent youth in theater, I also have two tunics. Actual tunics. One is from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Reuben — and "Canaan Days" was a show-stopper thankyouverymuch) and one from the Jafar costume I wore to dozens of children's events before we got that cease-and-desist letter from Disney's lawyers. That costume was awesome, but of course Jafar isn't about the costume — he's all about the scowl, the voice and the eyebrow thing.

** I don't know why anger is so peculiarly effective at this, but it works. We Americans have this uncanny knack for reading the Bible without ever even seeing all that it has to say about money, wealth, possessions, property and the poor. It's a remarkable kind of cultural blindspot and really a pretty amazing trick. It's like reading everything Tolkien ever wrote but somehow missing all the business about hobbits and elves.

But somehow an angry defiance — "Oh, yeah, well I'll prove that the Bible doesn't say any such thing!" — often works to allow us to read the Bible with new eyes. I spent a decade working for Ron Sider and I saw this happen countless times in response to his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. People who were merely offended by that book wrote him off as some kind of hippie-commie socialist. But those who were infuriated by that book set out to prove him wrong and, a few months later, came back to buy additional copies to give to their friends and pastors.

Heads up — Plink. Plinkplinkplink.



(That was the sound of those verses on homosexuality finally hitting the ground after getting launched off the seesaw.)

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  • hapax

    FWIW, Tonio, I’ve had to read lots and lots and lots of religious / philosophical discussions of sex, mostly in the Christian tradition, but also in the Muslim and Jewish tradition (for comparison purposes) and the classical philosophies that underpin it.
    While it is a very very complicated and tangled topic, with all sorts of issues about children and duty and misogyny and basic squick involved, if I had to tease out a single root cause for the taboo against non-procreational sex, I’d pick out the perceived lack of control.
    Remember, for most of human history, things that are “natural” are BAD. Tamed animals give you food and service; wild animals will kill you. The ocean, the sky, the weather are your enemies and must be placated. Wilderness and wood are dangerous and hostile; cultivated land provides food, but is still unpredictable and filled with poverty and ignorance; cities, inside walls, are where safety and plenty and leisured culture are to be found. And so on.
    The writings I refer to that speak of sex as sinful, irrational, “dirty”, alway eventually come around to the perception that the sexual desire is a incredibly powerful natural power that is out of our control, often opposed to our wills, and devastating in its consequences. (It’s no accident that goddesses of “love” were usually also goddesses of war.) Restricting sexual expression to its “rational function” (usually the procreation of children, although others are occasionally allowed) is seen as the equivalent of taming the beast, building the city walls, and harnessing the power of the wind and the river.

  • Hapax: I think you’re right on the history here.
    Which makes it somewhat ironic that most of the anti-sex, or at least anti-contraception and probably anti-gay, arguments have ended up being at least partially on the grounds that whatever-it-is ain’t natural.

  • Tonio

    the perception that the sexual desire is a incredibly powerful natural power that is out of our control, often opposed to our wills

    I’ve heard that many times, but it doesn’t jibe with my own personal experience. I’ve never had the experience of that desire fighting against my will. The only times I felt “out of control” in that regard were when my body put me in embarrassing situations in my teen years, but that was merely a physiological thing. (I hope that isn’t TMI.) If someone has the desire and there isn’t someone who has a reciprocating desire, I don’t understand why the person wouldn’t just let the feeling pass and move on.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    It’s probably partly cultural, Tonio. Western society has (particularly in Canada/US) contradictory phenomena going on where on the one hand people try to stress sexual responsibility, but on the other hand, many images in advertising (and for that matter, pornography) can make people feel like they need to be having MORE sex to be cool.
    So… uh yeah. *shrug*
    The strategically placed notebook thing was a rather helpful feature of my high school existence, I’ll say. But beyond that not so much.

  • Jeff

    [[Thing about birth control from the male side is that the male gametes get produced in quantities along the lines of “a million every couple of minutes”, so shutting that down requires a pretty extreme and frequently irreversible action.]]
    Yeah, but you have a narrow hole they come out of. Devising a “Top Kill” shouldn’t be that hard.
    [[It’s no accident that goddesses of “love” were usually also goddesses of war.]]
    Examples? Not Greek/Roman (Aphrodite/Athena) or German/Norse (Freyja or Sjöfn/Hel or Rindr)

  • Caravelle

    Ross :

    Thing about birth control from the male side is that the male gametes get produced in quantities along the lines of “a million every couple of minutes”, so shutting that down requires a pretty extreme and frequently irreversible action.

    To expand, it’s not really the amount of sperm that’s the problem, it’s the “every couple of minutes” bit. The female body has circumstances where it naturally stops producing ova, all you need to do is to make sure the natural inhibitors are always in place. But sperm production just doesn’t have an “off” switch like that.

  • Tonio

    The strategically placed notebook thing was a rather helpful feature of my high school existence, I’ll say. But beyond that not so much.

    Yes. What Hapax describes sounds like a mentality of “Dammit, I gotta get laid now!” which sounds like internal pressure rather than external.

  • Caravelle

    Kit Whitfield :

    You’d have to go back into pre-history, I bet. Sex is one of those things that all societies try to control to some extent; it’s also something that people usually have strong feelings about, some of which are negative – and sometimes the negative feelings belong to those who carry moral authority. When that happens, you get a taboo – or alternatively, one person’s taboo becomes more widely accepted. So ultimately I’d guess the recoil probably created the taboo, but we’d be looking at the dark undercurrents of human nature that people aren’t generally open about, and going back many, many generations … and even then, there might be an element of chicken-and-egg.

    I read that some of it might simply come from the fact that sex is a legitimately risky activity, what with sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy and all. And that this squared somewhat with the way feelings of disgust tend to correlate with how likely something is to spread disease.

  • hapax

    @Jeff: Aphrodite was occasionally a battle goddess (remember how her most frequent lover is Ares), Athena was definitely one (also had fertility roots, despite the virgin propaganda — look at the Erechtheus myth and how it evolved)
    Freyja was definitely a battle goddess and patroness of warriors.
    And then there’s Hathor, who is explicitly Drunk Sekhmet; Brigid; Inanna; Parvati, in her aspect as Kali; Oya; Anahit; Annan; possibly the Morrigan through her association with cattle fertility; and don’t start me on Astarte.
    That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m missing a lot.

  • hapax

    @Tonio: The perceived “loss of control” is not so much the urgency of unfulfilled sexual desire (although the literature is crammed with examples of both men and women acting stupidly to pursue their passions), but more the nature of the actual sexual act.
    YMMV, of course, but “controlled”, “rational”, “tamed”, “self-disciplined”, etc. are not adjectives as usually associated with the throes of passion as “frenzied”, “wild”, “loss of self”, and the like.

  • Bryan Feir

    Getting back to shoe/clothing woes:
    Generally I get by all right, having a relatively normal male body type, though I did just have to get an XL T-shirt because the L wouldn’t have fit across my shoulders. That’s far more a ‘weird company sizing’ issue than a ‘me’ issue, though.
    On the other hand, one year back in high school, I got measured for light dress shoes and the clerk told me a size that seemed off, then leaned over and whispered something to my mother.
    I asked her what that was about afterward, and apparently the only shoe they had that fit me at the time was actually a women’s shoe size. The clerk was worried I would react badly, and so whispered that bit to her. Me, I didn’t care; I was just happy to have black dress shoes that fit comfortably.

  • Lee Ratner

    Hapax: Your theory on why human societies have attempted to control sexuality is very persuasive, especially your theory about “loss of control.” The ancient Greeks and Romans were very much concerned about loss of control, its why Dionysius was often contrasted with Apollo. Dionysius was considered to be the personification of out of control passion and wild behavior while Apollo was disciplined and in control of himself. The other reason why society wanted to control sexuality is of course property. Heterosexual sex can lead to pregnancy and when inherited property was important, property owners generally wanted their property to go to their children and not somebody else’s kids. Since most property owners were men, the best way to ensure this was to ensure that women lost their virginity after the wedding ceremony. Naturally, among people where inherited property was not important than there was a lesser attempt to control sexuality.

  • Jeff

    [[Aphrodite was occasionally a battle goddess (remember how her most frequent lover is Ares), Athena was definitely one (also had fertility roots, despite the virgin propaganda — look at the Erechtheus myth and how it evolved)]]
    I know Athena was a battle-goddess (her relation to Perseus and Ulysses are shining examples, if the story of her being born in armor wasn’t enough). I’ve never heard of Aphrodite as a battle goddess, her shaking up with Ares was more a rejection of Hephaestus in the stories I remember.
    [[Freyja was definitely a battle goddess and patroness of warriors.]]
    I tried to find the goddess associated with the Valkyries — I couldn’t rmember if it was Freyja or not and didn’t search far enough. (Knowing the Norse, I had a feeling it might have been. If ever there was a culture that would make the goddess of beauty and goddess of battle the same, it would be them.)
    Per Wiki (I know, I know, but it’s the closest thing to a library I have), Kali and Parvati are both devis but they’re fairly different aspects of the “devine feminine”, just as Brahma and Shiva are different aspects of the “devine masculine”.
    I welcome further elucidation.

  • Henry’s Cat

    Thank you for this intelligent and decent post. I am a British atheist. In the UK, much of what we hear about American Christianity involves right-wing extremists. This is probably because such people tend to shout the loudest, and because it makes good TV.
    Your post, and blog, remind me that there is still decency in American Christianity, and that it is not just the thin cover for extremist views bordering on fascism that certain dangerous preachers would like it to become. Seen from a non-religious point of view, Christ’s great achievement was to propose a society based on friendliness and brotherhood, much as I understand that America itself is meant to be. Long may it stay so. Good work sir.

  • Lonespark

    Freya isn’t specifically associated with Valkyries, but she is associated with death and somewhat more circumstantially with battle.

  • Restricting sexual expression to its “rational function” (usually the procreation of children, although others are occasionally allowed) is seen as the equivalent of taming the beast, building the city walls, and harnessing the power of the wind and the river.
    Which interesting theory might also account for all the ‘breaking in’ and ‘taming’ and even ‘ploughing’ metaphors that sexist culture has enjoyed using about men having sex with women. Classical writers could be pretty explicit in their belief that women were more animalistic than men. Under those conditions, sex – during which, in a patriarchal era, a man imposes his physical strength on a woman with or without her consent and very possibly creates a state of pregnancy which will drastically decrease her independence – is likewise the act of turning a wild animal to your service.

  • Rondy

    Luke 3:11 is about John’s answered that “the man who has a food should share of what he have and the man who been shared by will do the same if he had”. Well its just my own understanding on the verse.