Oh, how I wish Christopher Hitchens were around to write about this. I miss his style, his wit, and his wisdom, but alas he died too soon. So here goes.
While in the Carter County Detention Center, Kim Davis, the official who refused to issue marriage licenses due to her Christian belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, said she was prepared to remain in jail where she had been reading her Bible since her incarceration. After spending six days in jail on contempt of court charges, with several Republican presidential hopefuls rushing to defend her controversial stance in the name of religious liberty, Davis was released.
When Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, she based that decision on her religious beliefs. On August 31, in response to the United States Supreme Court’s refusal to grant her stay request, she said: “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.” Davis stated that she experienced a “religious awakening” in 2011, following her mother-in-law’s “dying wish” that she attend church. Since then Davis identifies herself as an Apostolic Christian, a sect that follows a literal interpretation of the Bible. She worships three times a week at the Solid Rock Apostolic Church near Morehead, Kentucky. Following her conversion, Davis let her hair grow long, stopped wearing makeup and jewelry, and began wearing skirts and dresses that fall below the knee, in keeping with Apostolic/Oneness tenets regarding “external holiness” (modesty).
Davis says “God’s Word” instructs her not to issue licenses for gay marriage, even though the law compels her to do so. Presidential contenders, including Senator Ted Cruz and former Governor Mike Huckabee, both Christian fundamentalists, have praised her stance.
But I particularly like what Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey has said: “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”
It is undeniable that the Pentateuch (the Torah), does not like same-sex relations. In the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden, God decrees that a man will be the husband and a woman the wife. (See the second and third chapters of Genesis) In Leviticus 18:22, the text states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” In Leviticus 20:13, it is specified that both parties in male-male sex shall “be put to death.” That seems pretty much like an open-and-shut case, though one might wonder why Davis, Cruz, Huckabee and others of that stripe seek only to deny gays marriage. Why not execute them as God decreed? After all, that is the biblical way!
But here is the rub. Christian theology teaches that the New Testament amends the Old: What happened in the days of the apostles corrects what came long before. In Acts 13:39 are these words: “By this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” I know that Jesus is quoted as saying: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” It is frequently argued that if Jesus did not “destroy” the law, then it must still be binding. Accordingly, such components as the Sabbath-day requirement must be operative still, along with perhaps numerous other elements of the Mosaic Law. This assumption is grounded in a misunderstanding of the words and of the intent of this passage. Jesus did not suggest here that the binding nature of the law of Moses would remain forever in effect. Such a view would contradict everything we learn from the balance of the New Testament. Jesus overturned existing law about sin, about the Sabbath, about the afterlife, and about many other matters. His ministry proclaimed “a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6.) “Letter” in this context means archaic law – that is, the law that Davis, Cruz, and Huckabee want to have applied today.
When conservative Christians justify opposition to gay relations by citing ancient Scripture, by the most amazing of coincidences they do not mention the other stuff there. For instance, the ancient passages that denounce same-sex relations also denounce eating shellfish and trimming one’s beard. So the Christian male with a tattoo on his arm that reads “Mom” who declares that God forbids homosexuality and then puts on his cotton/polyester shirt and shaves before going out for dinner at a Red Lobster Sea Food Restaurant is speaking from both sides of his mouth.
If banning homosexuality is “God’s authority” to a modern Christian, the ritual murder of children ought to be as well because such an act is mandated in Scripture. So why do not today’s Judeo-Christians believe in filicide? For mainstream Jews, some ancient doctrines have been reinterpreted by rabbinical commentary or by civil law; for Christians, premises of ancient Scripture have been amended.
And what does the New Testament say about homosexuality and gay marriage? There is silence on the latter and on the former, there is only one real reference. In Romans 1:26-27, Paul observes the following of idol worshippers: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Christian Fundamentalists prefer translations, such as the God’s Word Bible, that substitute the word “perversion” for “error” in the above quotation from Romans. Yet Many Church-married, monogamous, man-woman, devout Christian couples engage in acts once thought of as perversion. (I will not elaborate here.) Beyond this, Paul frowned on all sexual interaction, including those by men and women married to each other. (I Corinthians 7:29) Paul would love it if all men were single like he; he also told women to remain unmarried. The apostles demonstrated no interest in any form of carnality. While some scholars believe that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, there is no hard evidence to support this belief, and if Jesus experienced erotic longings, the specifics of such desires are lost to history. While the Old Testament is chock-full with lust and rape, by the time the New Testament was written, it was as if sex had gone out of style. Those who beheld Jesus bathed in the glory of the resurrection believed that the long-dreamed of golden age was about to arrive. Sex just did not seem terribly important compared to that.
At any rate, the key word in Romans 1:26-27 is not “perversion,” but “natural.” At present, the science of the question of what a person’s natural sexual preferences are is unsettled, but it tends heavily toward the idea that people are born that way. If we are born with our sexuality, either it is a gift from God or it evolved naturally. And if same-sex attraction is natural, then it is in concord with the New Testament.
In the eight hundred thousand words of the Bible, one can find a verse to support just about anything. Even so, it is disturbing that contemporary Christian conservatives lash out against homosexuality by calling on ancient divine pronouncements of anger, rather than upon Jesus who offered the world unconditional forgiveness.
So what does all this have to do with same-sex marriage and Kim Davis? The general superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International, the largest and most influential Apostolic Pentecostal denomination, issued a statement earlier this year in response to the Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriages. In his statement, he defines God’s plan for marriage as “the union of one man and one woman who make a lifelong commitment,” and encourages Christians to “defend the freedoms of speech, press, association, and religion.”
Believing that marriage is “the union of one man and one woman” must make a reading of Deuteronomy 22:13-30 a little awkward, for that is where marriage is defined as being between a man and a VIRGIN, and that is where the punishment for a non-virgin seeking to be wed is outlined: she is to be “taken out and stoned to death.” Groups such as Apostolic Christians, who constantly cherry-pick the Scriptures to support their own point of view while they tacitly ignore others that do not, embarrass and undermine Christianity as a whole. The words of the Bible are made manifest through acts of love, not through acts of hatred and bigotry. It is that plain. It is that simple.
While I do not share Kim Davis’ understanding of the Bible or of Christianity, all of this may explain the basis for her actions. Having said that, however, I must also say that Kim Davis represents the fear of, the ignorance about, and the prejudice against gay and lesbian people that our society has witnessed, all of which is largely based, I believe, on religion and of a misreading of Scripture.
And, really, what does that have to do with the hopes and aspirations of two women or of two men in the 21st century who love each other and who want to live for and with each other in a blessed partnership of intimacy and faithfulness? To use a biblical text to condemn the legitimate desires of homosexual people is to attempt to perfume a sick homophobia with the sweet aroma of Holy Scripture. On the basis of the Bible, prejudiced people such as Kim Davis have fashioned bitter, hostile, destructive attitudes that have victimized gay and lesbian people through the ages. This means that the Bible has been used to justify the murder, oppression and persecution of those whose only crime, or “sin” if you insist, is that they were born with a sexual orientation different from the majority of society. (In a 2015 Yougov survey of 1,000 adults, 2% of the sample identified as a gay male, 2% as gay female, 4% as bisexual (of either sex), and 89% as heterosexual.) Such a tactic is so blatantly evil, so overtly ignorant, and so violently prejudiced that it should be worthy of nothing but complete and utter condemnation. If that constitutes biblical morality, I want none of it.
When it came to addressing homosexuality, admittedly a contentious issue in many Christian circles, former President Jimmy Carter, a devout Baptist, talked about its historical nature and delved into his views on how civil ceremonies should be treated. He said: “Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things – he never said that gay people should be condemned.”
Another misconception that people like Kim Davis hold is that homosexual people can be cured of their “disease.” Such cures have never worked. A cure can be achieved only if the diagnosis is correct. No cure can be achieved if the diagnosis is wrong. Homosexuality is not a disease. It never has been; it never will be. Sexual orientation is not a lifestyle of choice. It is an expression of one’s being. Homosexuality is not something one does, it is something one is. In the struggle to overcome this prejudice, the Bible has been quoted with regularity to prove that homosexual people are “sinful.” Most of these quotations came from the book of Leviticus. People used that ancient biblical text as a weapon to justify both their prejudice and their hatred.
Homosexuality is not a sin. It never has been; it never will be. None of those who claimed this literal Bible as their authority would ever have gone to a doctor who practiced medicine out of a medical textbook written when the Bible was written. They know that the world changes and that knowledge grows. They certainly have not chosen to abide by any of the other literal mandates from Leviticus. They do not eat kosher food prepared in a kosher kitchen. They do not put to death those who worship a false god. They do not propose the death penalty for those who have sex outside of marriage. They do not treat epilepsy and mental illness as if they result from “demon possession.” On the issue of homosexuality, however, they insist on quoting this ancient text literally whenever it appears to justify their prejudice, give substance to their fears or affirm their ignorance. In the process of doing these things, well-meaning, but uninformed people actually have turned Christianity from being a source of life into being an instrument of oppression and death.
They apparently do not notice that in the gospels there is the universal invitation of Jesus: “Come unto me all you.” He did not say, “some of you.” They do not recognize that the promise of the Christ in John’s Gospel is an abundant life for all. Abundant life never results from rejection and the withholding of love. They seemingly do not listen when they sing the hymn: “Just as I am, O Lamb of God, I come.” Perhaps this essential biblical inclusiveness will finally break through their prejudice, causing their eyes to be opened to the reality that love always enhances life, while hatred and fear never do anything other than to replicate themselves. One can always hope.
Of course, some have seen this inclusiveness more quickly than others. Justice Anthony Kennedy has seen it more quickly than Justice Antonin Scalia, both of whom were Ronald Reagan appointees to the Supreme Court. Some churches have seen it more quickly than others. The United Church of Christ and my own church, the Episcopal Church, have embraced it more quickly than the Southern Baptist Convention, or even the United Methodist Church. Some politicians and other leaders have also seen it more quickly than others. Both President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden as well as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, former Vice-President Dick Cheney and former First Lady Laura Bush have supported it more quickly than Senator Ted Cruz, former Governor Mike Huckabee, former Senator Rick Santorum, and former Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Once the vision became clear to a few, the movement toward acceptance in our society was rapid. Today, homophobia is dying across the world. Maybe not in the Rowan County Courthouse in Kentucky, but in nearly two dozen countries around the world legislation has been introduced allowing gays and lesbians to marry. The majority of these are in Europe and the Americas. Ireland made headlines in May of this year after becoming the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage through a popular vote.
We are walking into a new place in our consciousness. Love is triumphing over fear and hate. We are journeying out of the darkness of prejudice into the light and love of acceptance. So, in the name of God, under the authority of the Supreme Court, and according to the laws of this nation, those whom God has joined together let no one separate.
So please, Kim Davis – and others like her – please read your Bible again, but this time really read it. There is a prayer in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that may help. It goes like this (underlining, mine): “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”