The World Vision dust-up and schools’ statements of faith

Anyone been following the World Vision kerfuffle this week?

On Monday Richard Stearns, the President of Christian aid organization World Vision U.S., apparently apropos of nothing, announced that the organization would allow itself to employ Christians in legal same-sex marriages (at least in its U.S. offices). The decision, he said, emanated from the organization’s desire to pursue Christian unity in helping the world’s poor over taking any particular stand on a divisive issue.

Predictably, Christians all over America, especially those from the more socially conservative Pentecostal and Evangelical churches from whom World Vision draws much of its support, took up arms. A few came to World Vision’s defense (including this article by Rachel Held Evans, which was the first I read of any of this business), but most slammed Stearns and World Vision for compromising the gospel, for sacrificing truth for some dream of unity, or for other such sins–you know, the standard accusations Christians in one group level against Christians in another group who are willing to work with people Christians in the first group don’t want to work with. (Billy Graham faced similar accusations, early in his career, from Fundamentalist churches who were happy to support his crusades until he made clear that he was willing to share a podium with Catholics and liberal Protestants.) Today, Stearns and World Vision announced that they were reversing the decision.

There are arguments to be made on both sides, certainly. There are plenty of faithful Christians who believe World Vision’s decision on Monday was the right thing to do, or at least a step in the right direction, and there are plenty of faithful Christians who believe World Vision’s reversal of that decision on Wednesday was the right call.

But today I want to focus less on World Vision’s actions than on Christians’ reactions.

First, while noone else quite matches its reputation for scope and effectiveness, World Vision isn’t the only game in town. Christians who want to support international aid and relief efforts, sponsor children and communities, and otherwise participate in work similar to World Vision’s do have other options. Both World Vision’s detractors and its defenders would do well to remember this point. Calls to stop supporting World Vision should be followed immediately by suggestions of other worthy organizations to support instead. Likewise, accusations that World Vision’s detractors would rather let children starve than support them through that organization should be tempered by the recognition that many (though probably not all) who pull their support from World Vision will direct it to another organization also doing good work, and by the recognition that World Vision’s policy change may–or may not–attract new support that offsets what was lost.

Second, and more importantly, this whole incident highlights a disturbing overemphasis on issues pertaining to homosexuality in American churches today, an assumption that a particular set of beliefs concerning the acceptability or unacceptability of homosexual behavior is a core part of the gospel message. Here’s Evans:

I have to ask: Since when? Since when has the reality that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again ever been threatened by two men committing their lives to one another? Since when have the historic Christian creeds, recognized for centuries as the theological articulation of Orthodoxy, included a word about the issue of gay marriage? Since when have my gay and lesbian friends—many of whom are committed Christians—ever kept me from loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself? Since when has a single interpretation of the biblical passages in question here been deemed the only one faithful Christians can have? [Emphasis in original.]

On this point I agree very much with Evans, although to her last question I would add, “And to whom has God given the final authority to deem it so?”, since there are plenty of Christians with differing ideas who seem to think their deeming is the correct one.

A few years ago I was considering the possibility of trying to teach history at a Christian high school somewhere, so I started checking out various schools to see what kinds of things they required of their teachers. Nearly every school had a statement of faith which it required all its faculty to sign. Fair enough; parents who want to send their kids to a religiously-affiliated school are quite reasonable to expect that the teachers who will be filling their children’s heads with knowledge will do so in a manner consistent with the family’s and the school’s professed faith. And, much as I expected, there were some statements that I could sign in good conscience and some that, for a variety of reasons, I could not.

But what disturbed me most about those statements of faith was the astonishingly large percentage of them that included a line about the wrongness of homosexuality or the rightness of traditional heterosexual marriage. And what disturbed me about those lines was not so much the position the schools were taking on homosexuality, which was more or less the position I’d expect most of those schools to take. What disturbed me was that so many schools had decided that that one issue was so important that it belonged in the statement of faith at all.

Affirming the Trinity? Yes. The saving work of Jesus on the cross? Sure. The Resurrection? Absolutely. The authority of the Bible? Maybe, maybe not, depending on how you’re asking me to interpret the text. (You’ll notice I said there were a variety of reasons I couldn’t sign some of the statements of faith; a line insisting on six-day creationism was one of them.)

The definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and the sinfulness of same-sex romantic relationships? Um, sorry, how is that central enough to Christianity to even be on this list?

See, most of those statements of faith didn’t include a word about race issues, about poverty and economic justice (a topic Jesus himself addressed a lot more than sexual orientation), about violence on large scales and small, or about a host of other social issues. No, the one social issue they mentioned was homosexuality, and specifically the wrongness thereof. Is that issue–and only that issue–really so close to the heart of the gospel, the core of the Christian faith, that it belongs in a school’s statement of faith? Or anyone’s?

Well … no. Not anyone’s I’d be willing to work for, anyway.

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The argument of procreation: also pretty problematic

In my last post I pointed out an oft-unnoticed flaw in one of the arguments Christians sometimes use to support the belief that homosexual sex is sinful. While I’m at it, here’s another argument Christians sometimes use to the same end, and a reason that argument is also highly suspect.

The argument in question today runs roughly as follows:
1. God’s primary–or perhaps only–intended purpose for human sexual activity is procreation.
2. Therefore the only acceptable forms of sexual activity are those that can potentially result in the fertilization of an egg by a sperm.
3. Therefore the only acceptable sexual activity is between one woman and one man. If two women have sex, there are eggs but no sperm, and if two men have sex, there are sperm but no eggs, so in either case procreation cannot happen.

This argument comes up especially frequently in debates over same-sex marriage, and is generally cited by those who want to argue that marriage should be restricted to couples who are capable of having children (or who would be capable of having children if all their procreative organs were functioning properly; advocates for this position usually ignore the plight of couples wherein one or both partners is infertile). But quite apart from any other reasons you or I may have for disagreeing with this argument, it holds a few implications that many people, even those who believe homosexual sex is wrong, would still find untenable.

By the logic of this argument, if the only acceptable forms of sexual activity are those that can potentially lead to the procreation of children, then not only homosexual sex but also all of the following are also inherently sinful:
— Heterosexual sex that does not include coitus
— Heterosexual sex in which the woman is past menopause
— Heterosexual sex in which either partner is known to be infertile
— Heterosexual sex at any stage in the woman’s menstrual cycle at which conception is impossible
— Heterosexual sex with birth-control pills, condoms, or other contraceptives

At this point, some Christians might sputter in protest and point out that heterosexual sex in which the woman is past menopause is clearly not sinful, if the example of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 is any indication. Fair enough–but God specifically told them that he was going to give them descendants, which is not something he says to the vast majority of post-menopausal women; Abraham and Sarah are a special exception to the norm. Logic demands that a post-menopausal woman remain celibate (unless God specifically tells her otherwise), or else that the sex-is-only-for-procreation argument is rubbish.

Along similar lines, Christians will sometimes use the story of Onan in Genesis 38:8-10 to argue against masturbation and other non-coital forms of sexual activity. Onan’s brother Er had died without a son, so Onan’s responsibility was to have sex with Er’s widow Tamar so that the firstborn son could be an heir for Er. Onan had sex with Tamar but pulled out, in order that a child would not be conceived, and as punishment God struck Onan dead.

But the use of this story to argue against non-coital forms of sexual activity overlooks the reason Onan was supposed to have sex with Tamar in the first place, which was to conceive a child who could be Er’s heir. Onan knew full well that, legally, the child would not be his–and he also knew that Er’s property would revert to him (that is, to Onan himself) if Er didn’t have a son. Thus the reason Onan incurred God’s wrath was not that he engaged in an unacceptable form of sexual activity but that, for selfish reasons, he refused to fulfill his legal and moral obligation to his deceased brother. Christians who think masturbation, oral sex, or other non-coital forms of sexual activity are sinful may still be able to build a case, but they’ll have to look elsewhere for their arguments; the story of Onan presents a pretty flimsy one.

As for the two arguments against homosexual activity that I’ve discussed in yesterday’s and today’s posts, the position those arguments are meant to support may be right or it may be wrong–and there are plenty of people, even Christians, on either side–but those arguments are too severely flawed to keep using. Let’s all agree to knock it off, shall we?

On sexuality, human incompleteness, and ribs

In my last post I used the occasion of Fred Phelps’ death to comment on our tendency as Christians to use “Love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric to define our positions on certain kinds of sins and those who commit them, but then to forget to actually see the people who are doing the things we don’t like. I neglected to mention that this particular failing is not limited to Christians who are opposed to homosexuality, though they’re the ones most likely to use the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” line; I’ve heard plenty of people write off racists as unworthy of human consideration because of their racism, for example. That’s not really my point today, but maybe I’ll write a post about it eventually.

No, my point today has to do with an implication–which I hope is not intentional on anyone’s part–of an argument some Christians use to support their opposition to homosexual activity.

The argument is rooted in the account of the creation of the first man and woman, found in Genesis 2. Briefly, the story is that God creates the man out of clay, then takes one of the man’s ribs and makes the woman from it. As Genesis 2:24 explains, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). This “becoming one flesh” is generally understood to refer to the sexual union.

Now, plenty of Christians take the Genesis account of creation literally, and plenty take it allegorically or in some other figurative manner. I’ve heard this argument used by people in both camps, though, so I’m addressing anybody who uses it.

The argument itself runs like this:
1. God made woman out of a part of man.
2. Therefore, man without woman is like a man with a rib missing, and woman without man is like a rib without the rest of the person.
3. In the “becoming one flesh” of the sexual union, a man-without-a-rib is physically united with a rib-without-a-man, forming a complete person.
4. But (3) is only true in heterosexual sex. When two men have sex with each other, the union is between two men-without-ribs, and when two women have sex with each other, the union is between two ribs-without-men. Either way, the result of homosexual sex–or, for that matter, sexual activity involving more than two persons, regardless of their sexes–is not a complete person but some unnatural monstrosity. (Christians don’t usually phrase it that way, but that more or less captures what they’re thinking.)
5. Therefore, the only form of sexual union that makes people complete, as God created us to be, is sex between one man and one woman. And since the Bible makes clear here and elsewhere that God intends marriage as the only proper context for sexual union, the one man and one woman had better be each other’s spouses.

Quite apart from any other reasons you or I may have for disagreeing with this argument, one of the reasons I’m convinced it does not accurately reflect God’s creational intent for us is what it implies about singleness.

See, the argument only works by positing that a man who has not become one flesh with a woman or a woman who has not become one flesh with a man is incomplete. But that means that, so long as I remain unmarried (assuming I follow the no-sex-with-anyone-you’re-not-married-to rule), I remain short a rib. I remain incomplete. And the only way for me to rectify that problem is to marry a woman and become one flesh with her.

Now, I’m plenty eager to do just that, when the time is right and the relationship is right. But am I less than fully human in the meantime? And what of men and women who remain single by choice or out of some necessity–are they doomed to a life of incompleteness?

By the logic of the argument outlined above, the answer to both these questions is yes.

Through much of its history, the Church, at least in the West, has vaunted the celibate life as “perfect” and denigrated the married life as merely “permitted.” But, thanks in part to its embrace of certain ideologies concerning sex, many contemporary Western churches have swung the other way, and are now putting far too much pressure on the single members of their congregation to marry. Pressure and haste are hardly ingredients for stable, happy marriages, but huge numbers of Christian twenty- and thirty-somethings are nonetheless desperate to find partners and tie the knot as soon as they possibly can. There are other reasons for this pressure as well, but it’s hard not to think that one significant factor is the knowledge, drummed into them over the years, that to be single is to be incomplete, less than whole, less than fully human.

That’s something I’m not willing to say about any human person.

What Fred Phelps’ death makes me think of

To anyone who’s been keeping track, yes, in keeping with my Lenten project, I was due to post yesterday. A combination of some disappointing news and the need that news created to have a beer with a buddy of mine scuttled the blogging plan. Not that I’ve been terribly rigorous with it in the first place, but hey.

(Also, if that’s you, I’m happy you’re reading my blog, but you might want to find a more worthy hobby than tracking the regularity of my posting. Might I suggest learning an instrument, taking a drawing class, or finally reading that book that’s been on your shelf for six years?)

Anyway, in the spirit of commenting on current events for a change, Fred Phelps, founder of the small but infamous Westboro Baptist Church and notorious spewer of anti-homosexual vitriol, died on Wednesday.

As many problems as I had with the guy’s message and his tactics, I can’t say his death makes me happy as such; he was a human being, after all, however little the rest of us might like to admit that fact. I can’t exactly say I’m crushed with grief, either, though; the world doesn’t really need anyone perpetuating a message of hate the way he and his followers did. (Incidentally, Phelps’ death doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the Westboro folks will get any quieter or more loving, so I’m not assuming we’ve heard the last of them.) If anything, I might hope and pray that, sometime before his death, Phelps repented of the hate and judgmentalism he had spent so many years spreading. Whether he actually did is, of course, between him and God now.

But there’s a point I want to make about the way Christians, especially American Protestants of a more conservative or evangelical bent, think about homosexuality. Certainly an awful lot of us reject the hate and judgment spewed by the Westboro crowd. Whatever any given Christian may think about same-sex attraction, same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, and same-sex marriages and unions–and there’s plenty of debate about these things, even among evangelicals, despite media portrayals to the contrary–most Christians agree that hating people runs contrary to the message of Jesus.

The refrain often heard among Christians opposed to homosexuality is that we are to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” That is, Christians are meant to oppose actions which are sinful, evil, morally wrong, and/or contrary to the precepts laid out in the Bible, but at the same time to welcome, embrace, serve, and care for the people who do those actions.

Whatever one may think of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” the distinction is often lost on outside observers. One reason, I suspect, is a legacy of the identity politics adopted in the 1980s and 1990s by some advocates for the LGBTQ community. Some folks identified so strongly with their sexual orientation or sexual preference that they effectively erased any distinction between what they do and who they are. What I do is so entwined with who I am, the logic goes, that if you hate what I do, you do hate me; loving me requires loving and accepting what I do. And the media attention given to people who spoke this way cemented the association, so that even today a great many Americans assume that loving (or hating) a person’s actions must be part and parcel of loving (or hating) the person.

But another reason, and for my purposes today a far more important reason, lies in the attitudes of Christians themselves–ourselves, I should say, since, although I’m trying to stop thinking this way, sometimes I still fail. The problem is that, when we look at a person whom we identify with a certain kind of sin (usually but not always one or another sexual sin), too often all we see is the sin. We tell ourselves that we love the person and it’s only the sin that we hate, but it’s awfully hard to love people whom you don’t see even when you’re looking right at them. And it’s also hard to convince people that you’re distinguishing between who a person is and what a person does when all you see, and consequently all you react to, is what the person does.

Now, as I say, there are Christians who fall along a whole spectrum of viewpoints about same-sex attraction, homosexual activity, same-sex unions, and other issues related to sex and sexuality. As though to illustrate precisely this point, a few years ago a group of Christians at a gay pride parade in Chicago took a very different approach from that of the nearby protesters by apologizing to the gay community for their harsh, judgmental treatment. And I’m not trying to settle the discussion today, or even stake out a position in it. What I’m trying to say is that, whatever you may think about issues of sexual attraction, sexual activity, or sexual identity–and, for that matter, whatever you may think about people who disagree with you on those issues–“Love thy neighbor” still applies. And loving thy neighbor requires seeing thy neighbor, even if thou must first train thyself to look.

It’s that sort of training that has allowed me to see, among other things, that no matter how objectionable, even evil, I may have found his actions, Fred Phelps was still a human being.