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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The “Freedom of Religion” Disguise

It amazes me how some people who call themselves “Christian” can use certain methods to perform  un-Christian acts under the guise of “freedom of religion.”  Surely, you know what I’m talking about.  Yes, the Indiana law on Religious Freedom would be a good guess on your part.  Here is the perfect example of “Christians” using freedom of religion as a pretext for discriminating against a certain group of people who, they say, are not practicing Christianity, or more correctly, are sinning against God’s will.  There is so much wrong with this attitude and this action, that it is difficult to know where to start. 

So, let’s start where they presumably start:  with the assumption that homosexuality is a sin and is prohibited by the Bible.  

Behind this “belief” lie two incredible and unacceptable assumptions:

a.That homosexuality is a behavior that is learned as opposed to it being an ‘orientation’ that is built into the genes, making that orientation something that is intrinsic or imbedded perhaps at conception or during fetal development.  In other words, it is seen by ultra right-wing Christians as a choice made that can be changed or modified, as opposed to being in-born or part of the make-up of the person who is LBGT.  The original assumption of learned behavior misses the point that if God created all things, including mankind and womankind, then the ‘blame’ for homosexuality should be placed squarely upon Him! You can’t proclaim God the Creator of everything, and then disavow part of His creation.  And in stark contrast to those who condemn and malign others using scripture to back their stance, there is that quite startling scripture passage that proclaims that He will redeem his whole creation. 

John 11:37-39: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I shall not turn away; because I have come from heaven , not to do my own will, but to do the will of the one who sent me. Now the will of him who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, and that I should raise it up on the last day.”

 

b. That the Bible is right about everything, because the Bible is the Word of God, and therefore must be taken literally, forming the basis of all our beliefs and actions.

Please excuse me if I cringe at this preposterous assumption.  In my estimation, it is the worst of the faults of Christianity to aver something that denies the very essence of what God wills which is a freedom of choice, decision-making and intellectual curiosity  that He himself created.  In other words the insinuation that the Bible is the Word of God implies that God has written every word, or dictated every word written or that one must take everything on faith and not on experience or fact.  Again, if God did not want us to be critical, to be rational, to be inquisitive, to use our intellects, then He would not have created us as He did.  In other words, by claiming infallibility for the Bible as the Word of God, certain Christians have denied the existence of free will,  and the necessity of faith being built upon revelation, not fiction. 

Faith is not the unquestioning acceptance of the improvable or the unfathomable.  That might be better known as acquiescence.  Faith is built, not on the lack of facts or the unbelievable but on God’s actions in nature, history, individual lives; in families, communities and nations.  In other words, faith is not a form of blindness to what we sense and know, it is rather the personal trust and acceptance of the fact that God is alive and active in the people and events that make up our personal history and the history of our world.  That is what the Bible is – a record written by imperfect writers of what God was doing in their lives and in their history.  It is not a story mainly of human activity but of God’s continuing creation and redemption of the human body, mind and spirit in the context of everyday lives.  This is God’s story told from a human perspective, and although imperfect in several respects, its writers try hard to disclose what they perceive God to be doing to lead us to a life built on a love that gives rather than takes; on forgiveness, charity, and mutual responsibility for each other.

And let us be clear:  if the Bible is to be taken literally as the Word of God, then in many books of the Bible, and in many of the stories told, God turns out to be petty  and mean .  But it gets worse – this God of the ancient Hebrew tribes is often portrayed as a vengeful God or as an unjust God or as an unfair God, or as a God who annihilates nations.  So does one take such  passages literally?  I hope not. 

 

What literalists too often do is to quote scripture without context or background, using the scripture passage as the unquestionable Word of God.  But often the context and the background are where the truth lies hidden and unrevealed.  Many of the biblical passages in the Old Testament that are often used as “proof” that homosexuality is contrary to the Word of God, fail to put those passages in the context of the Canaanite religion of Baal and his consort Ashtart.  This nature religion was often a temptation to the sons and daughters of Israel, and was, in both beliefs and practices, excoriated by the leaders of Israel. 

Here’s the background:  the historian(s) of Deuteronomy attempted to emphasize the central truth that Israel’s solidarity and vitality, actual existence, depended on a fierce and exclusive loyalty to Yahweh (remember the Law: ‘thou shalt have no other gods but me’).  They were trying to warn the followers of Yahweh that when they weakened their covenant with their God by following other gods they weakened the nation which then became like prey to their enemies in the region.  In that ancient period of the melting pot culture of the Fertile Crescent, Israel would have been lost had it not been for their loyalty to their own religion and destiny under Yahweh.

Not only did this religion of the powerful forces of fertility exist in the land of Canaan, but it was prevalent in other forms throughout the Fertile Crescent region, including Babylonia where the Tammuz cult dramatized the relations between the god Tammuz and the goddess Ishtar.  Likewise, in Egypt the Isis cult was based on the worship of the fertility god Osiris and the female counterpart Isis.  The cults not only shared similarities but probably even borrowed beliefs and practices from each other out of their common concern for the all-important relationship of man to nature.  Some of that commonality is portrayed in ancient tablets like those found on the coast of northern Syria at Ras Shamra in 1929 (near the ancient site of the Canaanite city of Ugarit). One of the “commonalities” included sexual rituals involving both female and male prostitutes.  In Baalism, sex was elevated to the realm of the divine.  The gods were seen as fertile and sexual in nature and were worshipped in sexual or erotic rites.  The purpose of their religious beliefs and practices was to preserve and enhance the fertility upon which men and women were dependent for their survival.

And here’s a key to understanding this religion:  they believed that the sexual union of the God Baal and his consort, Ashstart, actually influenced the fertility that was needed.  It was believed that human pairs in the temple could, by imitating the actions of Baal and Ashtart, actually bring forth the divine fertilizing power from such a union.  This kind of magic, known as sympathetic or initiative magic rests on an assumption that when men imitate the action of gods, there is a power released to bring that action about (much like the “rainmaker” who, by pouring water from a tree thereby induces the fertility gods to end a drought). 

“There must be no sacred prostitute among the daughters of Israel, and no sacred prostitute among the sons of Israel.”  This passage from verse 18 of chapter 23 of Deuteronomy is at the heart of the context and experience of Baalism and of the attempt of Israel’s religious leaders to keep the sons and daughters of Israel from straying into the ritual abominations (in their eyes) of that religion.  This is the context for the harsh words about homosexuality in the Old Testament.  A case can be made that it was not homosexuality per se that was being vilified, but rather, it was the religious rituals and beliefs involving sacred prostitutes that might draw vulnerable young people away from the religion and service of their Yahweh, the God of Israel.

 
It is important to note that the ancient Israelites, having come into the land of Canaan from Egypt as a nomadic people, were somewhat unfamiliar with the ways of agriculture.  It is not totally surprising then that they turned to the gods of the land for help.  In fact, it was a tendency for the two faiths to coalesce in popular worship.  We know from archeological finds that in the outlying rural regions of Israel, Israelite homes had figurines of the goddess of fertility, Ashtart.  Not only that, but Israeli parents began naming their children after Baal, one of the more famous of those being Gideon, who was actually named Jerub-baal.  Even Saul and David, kings of Israel, had children who were given names derived from Baal.  This fusion of religions at the level of the individuals and families of the Canaanites and Israelites went on from almost the moment that the tribes of Israel set foot in the land of Canaan.  And it was this syncretism that the leaders of the people, some known as “judges” others as prophets, and some as kings or priests, came to recognize the threat to the very existence of their religion and to their “nation.”  In fact, in II Kings, chapters 22 & 23, we find King Josiah destroying houses of male prostitutes that had been established within the Temple of Yahweh.  Time and again, the more discerning leaders of Israel echoed the words of Joshua at Shechem: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  There could be no compromise.  In every sphere of Israel’s life,  a compromise or capitulation or accommodation with a nature religion meant the breaking of the covenant with Yahweh as His servants, His people, His nation.   While Baal religion taught men to control gods, Israel’s faith stressed serving God in gratitude for his benevolence and in response to the task which he lays upon his people.  In all things, his will is sovereign.” (much of the background cited came from Understanding the Old Testament by Anderson)
 
However, there is no getting around the fact that there are biblical quotes that do condemn the practice of homosexual relations.  They are not numerous, but they do exist:

Leviticus 18:22 -– “You must not lie with a man as with a woman.  This is a hateful thing.”
Leviticus 20:14 – “The man who lies with a man in the way as with a woman: they have done a hateful thing together; they must die; their blood shall be upon their own heads.” 

But, what is the context for this clearly articulated commandment or judgment?   One must not miss the contextual words of 18: 26-30:
    “But you must keep my laws and customs, you must not do any of these hateful things…For all these things were done by the people who inhabited this land before you, and the land became unclean.   Keep to my rules; do not observe the hateful practices that were observed before you came, then you will not be made unclean by them.  I am Yahweh your God.”
Even here, where homosexuality is roundly condemned, it is not in the context of the behaviors alone or the supposed inappropriateness of the nature of homosexuality, but in that same context of the conflict between the religious beliefs and practices of the Canaanites and of the Israelites.  It is condemned because it was a part of Baalism’s religious practices, and thus could command the indulgence of Israelis, and bring about “uncleanness” or separation from their own religious practices, breaking the covenant with the one God, Yahweh.  It is, once again, the conflict between religious practices and beliefs that is at issue, not necessarily the behaviors or nature of homosexuality.  

In the New Testament it is Paul who condemns sodomites and sex perversion in I Tim. 1:10 (as does Jude in chapter 7.) 


I Tim 1:10 – “for those who are immoral with women or with boys and with men…”  The context being the goodness of the Law and the fact that laws are written not for the good but for the bad.  But the larger context is contained in the earlier introductory verses for Paul is here warning against some people who are false doctors of the Law, spreading interpretations that are not furthering the designs of the old religion or the tenets of the Christian faith.  Once again, we are confronted with conflict between religious beliefs and practices.  It is rarely, if ever, that the condemnation is of people for who they are, it is always condemnation of behaviors, of practices, of actions that belie the faith, the calling, the mission of the people of God, whether Yahwist  or Christian.  It is still in the New Testament a condemnation of behaviors associated with non-believers or idolaters who worship false gods and of interpreters who present false teaching.  That is a distinction that is not often made by those literalists who condemn homosexuals and homosexuality.


Finally, nowhere in the New Testament does a writer put same-sex denunciations into the mouth of Jesus.  New Testament writers are much more concerned with Jesus’ origin, his nature, his mission, and his life, death and resurrection.   The groups Jesus does condemn are mainly the religious leaders of his day, who were most likely the same type of literalists, who, in his time, believed in the letter of the Law of Moses, rather than proclaiming the love of God for his people and the forgiveness of God in their actions toward others.  The Sadducees and the Pharisees came in for some harsh words for their hypocrisy and their rigidity that often treated people as secondary to observances of the “jot and tittle” of the Law.  Just one quote put in Jesus’ mouth will illustrate the point.

Luke 11: 37-46:  “He had just finished speaking when a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home.  He went in and sat at the table.  The Pharisee saw this and was surprised that he had not first washed before the meal.  But the Lord said to him, ‘Oh, you Pharisees!  You clean the outside of cup and plate, while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness.  Fools! Did not he who made the outside, make the inside too?  Instead, give alms from what you have and then everything will be clean for you.  But alas for you Pharisees!  You who pay the tithe of mint and rue and all sorts of garden herbs and overlook justice and the love of God!  These you should have practiced, without leaving the others undone.  Alas for you Pharisees who like taking the seats of honor in the synagogues and being greeted obsequiously in the market squares!  Alas for you, for you are like the unmarked tombs that men walk on without knowing it!  A lawyer (scribe) then spoke up.  ‘Master,’ he said. ‘when you speak like this, you insult us too.’  ‘Alas for you lawyers also, he replied, ‘because you load on men burdens that are unendurable, burdens that you yourselves do not move a finger to lift’.”


Thus, we return to the present evangelical and doctrinaire fervor disguised to condemn and ex-communicate, as it were, those who are homosexual in sexual orientation. The literal quotation of books of the Bible is akin to an exclusionary attitude and action which is out of step with the overwhelmingly predominant messages of those books. God acts in history to call all of His people to become participants in His love, grace and power, and to bring that loving and inclusive spirit to all peoples.  A rigid literal quotation or reading of the biblical books is neither appropriate nor edifying.  Christianity is not a religion of a Book; it is a religion of the Spirit of God active in history; in the lives of men and women (no matter what their sexual orientation might be!).  Many evangelical literalists find other interpretations of Christianity uncomfortable because, like the Pharisees and scribes, they like everything to be rigid, uniform, and unequivocal as they find written in the Word of God, the Bible.   But Christianity is not a set of rules or a system of belief wrapped up in a Book.  It is an unfinished story of Creation and Redemption, playing out in individual lives and in the history of nations and groups.  It is a story of the faithfulness of God to his creation and of His invitation to all to join Him in His mission: to bring all people into a harmony, fulfillment and peace that transcends what we now know.  His Realm (or Kingdom) is available right now where one lives and breathes, but no one can be excluded or condemned or ignored because that is not our business, no matter what scripture is quoted as false proof.  It is God’s realm that we enter and our task is to absorb His grace so that we can be dedicated devotees of His mission.  When churches, denominations, pastors, priests and ministers and individual Christians forget whose realm it is, whose Mission it is, whose Creation and Redemption it is, and whose Spirit reigns, that is when the religion itself and its adherents become contributors to the human problem in all its ramifications, and less a part of God’s solution and Mission. 

 
I end today’s posting with an apology to those who expected something more political, and can only plead that this exegesis of passages and exposition of religious philosophy is important in a time when Right-wing fanatics are using biblical verses to condemn people and attempting to use their political power to put their interpretation of Christianity into the political and social realm of our religion-neutral democracy.  The political consequences of their brand of religiosity is an attack upon not only our basic democratic principles, but an attack as well on the inclusionary mission of their Creator. We must be wary of both their political and religious philosophy because they are so intertwined that the one not only affects the other, it infects both with the poisonous substance of exclusion, discrimination and condemnation.  So, above all, let us realize that the Fight with the Right is on both the religious and the political fronts!  To allow their interpretation of either government or religion to prevail in our times is an invitation to disaster and destruction of democratic and religious/moral values of justice, equality, inclusion, interdependence and mutual responsibility for each other.