Sex & Money, part 3

Sex & Money, part 3 June 11, 2010

I worked myself into a bind on the question of usury and interest because I was reading the Bible wrong. I was approaching it wrong, asking the wrong questions and therefore coming away with the wrong answers.

"What does the rulebook say about this?" I asked. And then, having asked that question in that way, I found that the rulebook offered a set of rules. Those rules seemed clear and strict, and they seemed to forbid the very good work that I thought God was calling me to do.

There was the Berean Savings and Loan extending credit to the Baptist Deliverance Tabernacle so that it could expand its Bethany Housing initiative. A storefront thrift enabling a storefront church to make affordable, decent housing available to more of its elderly members. That is good and righteous and holy, but by treating the Bible as a rulebook, all I could see was usury upon usury, an abomination.

I didn't like that conclusion, but I couldn't see any way of escaping it. The trap I had set for myself was partly semantic, as that word "escaping" implies. Trying to escape or evade or explain away what I believed to be the rules mandated by holy scripture couldn't be permitted. Viewing my dilemma that way simply invoked the same familiar accusatory evangelical phrases still being repeated ad nauseum by the Guardians of the Authority of Scripture in their e-mails castigating me these days for challenging their condemnation of homosexuality. Escaping the rules is against the rules.

My conundrum was not unique — not to me and not to the question of usury. The same dilemma arises whenever we treat the Bible as a rulebook. That's an approach that guarantees — that manufactures — conflicts between text and reason, text and experience, text and reality, text and context.

And such conflicts always produce perverse choices. In my case it was the perverse choice between, on the one hand, the evident goodness of the work being done by South Shore and Grameen and a hundred real-world incarnations of the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan and, on the other hand, the biblical prohibition against usury. In someone else's case it might involve the perverse choice between some devotion to a list of rules gleaned from Paul's epistles and the near constant warning in those same epistles against compiling such lists of rules.*

I've been describing this as an evangelical Christian dilemma because that's who I am and where I'm coming from. But this is a human failing, not a peculiarly evangelical one. We all have this tendency and temptation to approach whatever we regard as holy writ as though we were paralegals, compiling citations and precedents for a moral indictment of other people. Every religion or ethical framework ever known has had some variation of the Golden Rule, and the adherents of every such system have at some point been tempted to regard that imperative as insufficient and inadequate, seeking and finding additional rules until those rules eventually come to conflict with and supersede that central principle.

"Love is the fulfillment of the law," the Bible says. When love is perceived as a violation of the law, something has gone horribly amiss. When the rulebook is telling you that more affordable, decent housing for seniors is wrong, then something is wrong with the way you're reading the rulebook.

Starting, probably, with the fact that it's not supposed to be a rulebook.

Reading the Bible as a rulebook can be as ethically misleading an approach as reading the Bible as a scientific textbook is a scientifically misleading one. Both readings — both mis-readings — create conflicts between text and context and between the map of the text and the terrain of the world.

American evangelicalism today is distorted by the growing chasm between its reading of the map and the reality of the terrain. Having invested its identity in the notion that the map is "infallible," it is forced to side with that map in every such imagined conflict with the terrain.** Thus we have things like young-earth creationism and "ex-gay" ministries, both of which are based on the denial of stubbornly actual actuality. These reality-denying positions have come to dominate evangelical Christianity because reality tends to reassert itself rather vigorously until it is acknowledged. You can't just deny reality once and then move on, you have to do it constantly.

"Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows," someone once said. And it was that harsh refusal-to-go-away-when-inconvenient aspect of reality that helped save me from my self-induced biblical quandary over interest. I didn't decide to dismiss or disregard the biblical rules, but chose, rather, to pay them the respect of reading them better — of reading them in such away that they did not conflict with love as the fulfillment of the law, that did not suggest that there was some commandment greater than this, that did not imply that the fruit of the spirit was against the rules.

I chose, in other words, to stop looking for ways in which I could concoct conflicts between the map of the text and the terrain of the world, and instead chose to look for ways in which the map could guide me through that terrain.

What does all that ancient teaching about interest and usury have to teach me in this world of market economies, electronic currency and credit scores? The terrain is vastly changed, but the old maps drawn by Moses and Nehemiah (and, for that matter, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas) still provide direction. The old rules embodied principles that still apply. Those principles tell me that money can and ought to be put to work to empower and liberate the poor, never to exploit or entrap them. When interest works to do the former, it is a Good Thing — a righteous thing, the fulfillment of the law and a sweet-smelling incense in the nostrils of God. When it works to do the latter, it is evil — not because it contradicts the rules of my proof-texts, but because it exploits and entraps and enslaves.

I first used this map/terrain analogy in an earlier post on the very same subjects we're discussing here. Three years later, I'm not sure I can improve on what I wrote then, so allow me to quote from that earlier post:

The charging of interest, when properly harnessed, can be a powerful engine for growth and prosperity, creating incentives for investment that makes possible many good things which would otherwise be impossible. The recognition of this fact, over the centuries, led to an evolution of our interpretation of the prohibition against usury. It ceased to mean the charging of any interest … and came to mean, instead, the charging of "excessive" interest. We began to reinterpret the evident meaning of the text in an effort to reconcile it with what we were learning about the world and how it works. The prohibition against usury remains in recognition of the principle contained in the text, a principle we continue to honor despite the sometimes laughably elastic application of that weasel-word excessive.

This argument can be challenged as mere "rationalization," in the psychological sense, an after-the-fact attempt at self-justification by a religious tradition whose adherents had become wealthy and worldly. But I would counter that in the non-psychological sense, rationalization is, well, rational. The application of reason is reasonable and necessary, and I find the reinterpretation of the prohibition against interest to be a reasonable step.

This reasonable step is regarded as noncontroversial when the matter involved is our own money. When the matter involved is someone else's sexuality, however, such a reasonable step is regarded as
extremely controversial.

And that controversial step is what I am advocating here. I want to rationalize American evangelicals' understanding of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. By that I mean I want to spare them from irrational readings of the map that cannot be reconciled with the terrain of reality. If your reading of the Bible leads you to assert that homosexuality is a choice when it is not, then you're reading it wrong. If your reading of the Bible leads you to claim that "ex-gay ministries" are effective, rather than delusional and abusive, then you're reading it wrong. If your reading of the Bible leads you to claim that the happiness of a loving, committed same-sex relationship is an intrinsically, irredeemably abhorrent thing, then you're reading it wrong. And if your reading of the Bible leads you to tell someone else that their desire for that kind of relationship means that they are dirty and wicked and evil, then … well, then you're just being a jerk, really.

I'm not asking you to throw away the map. I'm asking you to read it in such a way that it doesn't force you to pretend the terrain is something it is not and never will be. Pretending will not make it so.

But the biggest problem with this evangelical reading of the map is not the ways in which it creates supposed conflicts with the terrain. The biggest problem with this way of reading the map is that it forces the map to contradict itself. It forces them to read the text as though it did not say "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean." It requires a reading of the text that, like my own misreading of the rules on usury, leads to a place where love becomes a violation of the law. And that's not a good place.

The response, I'm sure, is that I'm engaging in wishful thinking.*** The GAS chamber will tell me that I'm engaging in that other kind of rationalizing — the psychological kind in which I'm trying to create justifications after the fact for my preferred position. Trying to justify my preference for ignoring clear rules through the pretext of some love-ethic trump card. But I'm not doing that. I'm not going to attempt any such justification any more than Jesus did, inviting — then commanding — his disciples to follow him.

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets," Jesus said. "I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished."

That's in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a long discussion on how those thorny rules are even thornier than the most devout rule-follower has ever imagined. And as soon as he finished that sermon, Jesus went right back to obliterating rules left and right, violating way more than just jots and tittles.

The law was very clear, the rules were unambiguous: Some people are clean and others are unclean. And the clean people must have nothing to do with the unclean ones.

So what did Jesus do? Jesus sought out and embraced unclean people like that list of rules was a scavenger hunt. Women? Check. Gentiles? Check. Gentile women? Double check. Samaritans, menstrual women, lepers, madmen, the lame, the blind, the dead? Checkity check check check.

Ah, the GAS cloud says, but when Jesus touched the unclean lepers it was only to heal them — to make the unclean clean. So if we are to reach out to unclean homosexuals, it must therefore only be to make them heterosexual and therefore healed and clean.

True enough for lepers, I suppose. But how exactly does that apply to women and to gentiles? Jesus met the woman at the well and she went away just as Samaritan and female as she was before. When Peter finally, belatedly, learned this lesson — "God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean" — he never suggested that Cornelius needed to stop being a Roman centurion. The lesson was not that unclean Cornelius could be made clean, but rather that gentile Cornelius was not unclean.

Paul was also rather rudely adamant on this point and the GAS company might want to read what he had to say about it. (When an apostle's response to your argument is to say, "Yeah? Well why don't you just go cut your dick off, OK?" then you might want to rethink your point.)

The main GAS-eous justification for Jesus' enthusiastically flagrant rule-breaking involves an elaborate distinction between two different kinds of law. See, there's the ceremonial law, which is just, you know, ceremonial. Stuff like all those rules about clean and unclean, and eating kosher, and sacrifices and circumcision and all that. And then there's the real law, the law that's still the law.

This is an interesting response and I don't think it's entirely wrong, but it presents several difficulties for the noble GASes. First it raises the question as to whether their view of homosexuals as intrinsically unclean due to their gender might not be regarded as much more likely to fall in the nonbinding ceremonial category (in which case, checkmate). More troubling is that Jesus himself never cited such a distinction as an explanation for his rule-breaking — "Woman, thy touching the fringe of my garment — a ceremonial zizith I weareth for no apparent reason — hath rendered me unclean, but this counteth not for it is merely ceremonial." Never said that. Nor did he limit himself to only breaking little "ceremonial" rules. He also broke some big ones — like keeping the sabbath, which is in the Top 10.

That one got him in trouble, and his explanation for it got him in even more trouble: "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath."

And that right there is your rule for rules. The rules were made for humankind, and not humankind for the rules. That's a rule that both helps us navigate the terrain of the world, and helps us navigate the map itself. That's the lodestone that helps us make sure we're reading it correctly. First rule of map-reading: Which way is north?

And reading it correctly doesn't mean tossing it aside. I'm not talking about the anarchically antinomian straw-man imagined by the GAS pumps. A sabbath made for humankind is still a sabbath.

Our economics and our sexuality must be guided by ethics, but it has to be an ethics that makes sense — an ethics that can guide us through the terrain of this world. We can find such an ethics in the map of the Bible, but not if we turn to it as a rulebook and especially not if we turn to it as a rulebook for other people. That approach will yield only a list of rules we don't fully understand, rules that require us to pretend the terrain of the world is something other than what it really is.

Earlier I compared the dominant evangelical approach to ethics to the miserably shameful evangelical approach to science. I think our ethics — particularly when it comes to money and sex — has followed the same pattern as our reaction to 20th-century science. Confusion, perceived conflict, denial, retreat.

As a result evangelicals don't really have an ethic for sexuality — only a list of rules based primarily on legal contexts and categories. Like my proof-texts forbidding usury, those rules don't provide much useful guidance through the terrain of this world. So let's use the brains God gave us: What are the principles embodied in those rules and the reasons for them? What direction do those principles provide and in what direction do they lead? What does it mean that sexual ethics are made for humankind and not humankind for sexual ethics?

And above all, can we answer all those quest
ions in a way that doesn't lead us to contradict the Golden Rule and to
ignore the more excellent way?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Paul's catalogues of Do's and Don'ts are always always always embedded in a larger argument about the freedom and salvation that comes from grace, rather than from such rules. Such lists are not provided to clarify the rules against gossips or gays or kitten-burners, but to clarify the argument against the pre-eminence of rules.

Those lists are the flip-side to Paul's other rhetorical approach to the same point — his "boasting" passages. "Rules? You want to talk about rules?" Paul says in boasting-mode. "I followed more rules than you ever imagined, buddy. You can't compete with me when it comes to rules — I was a frickin' Pharisee, I know from rules. But it's not about that …"

Conversations with those who are upset with me for not condemning homosexuality invariably come down to the claim that Paul's epistles give strict rules on the subject. "Rules, rules, rules," Paul says in response. "When I was a child, I thought as a child. But you know what? I grew up. Let me show you a more excellent way …"

** The early 20th-century fundamentalists who first proposed this principle of "infallibility" did not, to their credit, make the same mistake their descendants have made of pretending that all perceived conflicts between the map and the terrain must be due to a flaw in one or the other. They recognized the presence and the agency of third actor in the equation — the most variable and fallible one — the reader. Thus they taught that if science clearly demonstrates something that contradicts your reading of the Bible, then your reading of the Bible must be wrong.

That possibility seems to have been forgotten by the modern-day Guardians of the Authority of Scripture who are always gassing on about the "infallibility" of the text in a way that arrogates to themselves this same infallibility as readers of that text. They can't seem to imagine that the supposed conflict may not be the fault of either the map or the terrain, but that the problem might be they're holding the darned thing upside-down.

*** I've been told exactly that in those exact words — "wishful thinking." That word "wishful" is revealing, I think. Explore that. Why is it wishful — a thing to be wished for, a desirable, desirous, praiseworthy thing? Quench not that spirit of wishfulness.

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