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We are all Sodomites

Anyone who has ever refused hospitality to a stranger – to someone who is different, odd, peculiar, “not us” – is guilty of sodomy (Genesis 19). Anyone who has ever refused to care for widows and orphans or practiced economic injustice is also guilty of sodomy (Ezekiel 16:49).

Everyone is guilty of sodomy just by virtue of belonging to a nation that oppresses immigrants or won’t provide food and health care to single mothers or is just by being human (treating “outsiders” with suspicion seems wired into our collective DNA).

We, all of us, are sodomites and stand in need of repentance and forgiveness.

The Bible seems pretty clear on all this, but you’d never know it from listening to most religious talk radio or watching televangelists. “Sodomy,” in both popular religious culture and in our courts of law, means something quite different from what Biblical writers understood it to mean (here’s a hint: today it usually means that nasty thing gay men supposedly do all the time).

I was prompted to write about this by some Facebook exchanges over the publication of the book Out of a Far Country, by Christopher Yuan. This autobiographical book recounts Yuan’s journey through drug addiction, lots of sex, an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, and his return to Christian faith – a return that helped him to heal and become an ambassador for leaving the “gay lifestyle.” That lifestyle, presumably, is marked by, well, drug addiction, lots of sex, and HIV/AIDS.

But this is not a review, nor a critique of Yuan’s book (which I have not read). I am much more concerned about those who seem eager to use – the better word is exploit – Yuan’s story and his book for a socio-religious agenda to “cure” or “heal” gay and lesbian people.

I applaud Yuan for taking steps to recover from drug addiction, finding reconciliation with his family, and living into a healthier way of life. I am, however, offended by those who are using that story to paint (yet again) a deeply distorted picture of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Yuan’s story is emblematic of LGBT people in just about the same way that Las Vegas brothels and wedding chapels are emblematic of heterosexual people. In both cases, the reductionism and stereotyping are not only disingenuous; they are dangerous, harmful, and deadly.

Consider Jamey Rodemeyer, yet another gay teenage suicide to add to the appallingly long list of how “strangers” are treated in our society. Jamey even made an “It Gets Better” video! (You can read about that tragedy here, but I don’t recommend it if your heart is easily broken.) The religious and cultural exploitation of Yuan’s story is just as responsible for Rodemeyer’s suicide as the citizens of Sodom were responsible for the kind of inhospitality worthy of divine retribution. We are all sodomites.

I was on a panel with Yuan back in 2006 during the SoulForce Equality Ride event held at my alma mater, Wheaton College (read my reflections about that event here). The college put Yuan on center stage as evidence of both the destructiveness of “homosexuality” and the possibility for “healing” it. That Wheaton would do so indicates a severe lapse in that school’s critical thinking faculties from which, at one time, I learned a great deal.

But Wheaton’s posture indicates much more as well – the school is guilty of sodomy.

Imagine declaring this: drug dealing and violent crime in urban neighborhoods clearly indicates the inherent evils of the African-American lifestyle. Wheaton (and I should hope many other religious institutions) would reject that claim as racist. Yet Yuan’s story is fair game for exploitation, to deploy it like a religious product for discrimination, exclusion, bigotry, and inhospitality.

With more than fifty years of biblical scholarship overwhelmingly rejecting the idea that Scripture condemns LGBT people, Christian communities are the ones who stand judged and in need of repentance and forgiveness for their sin of sodomy toward LGBT people.

(When I started this blog, I vowed not to deal at all with biblical apologetics concerning LGBT people. That is so twentieth century and the argument should be long since over. Of course, it’s not. To summarize some of the reasons why that argument should be over, I’ve written a short essay on contemporary biblical scholarship on this issue, “Biblical Sexuality and Gender,” which you can find here or on this site here.)

The Destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah

Christian communities should take the sin of sodomy quite seriously indeed, just as Jesus did. As far as we know, Jesus said absolutely nothing about LGBT people. But he did say something about sodomy. As he sent out his disciples to proclaim the gospel and do the work of ministry, Jesus issued a warning. Any town that does not extend a hospitable welcome to those disciples will suffer a worse fate than Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15).

Christian followers of Jesus ought to renew our commitment to the spiritual practice of hospitality, especially since all of us are sodomites. Christ, have mercy.

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Behold, the Lamb of God

Troy Davis may have been innocent, but that’s not what makes his execution this past Wednesday night morally outrageous. Capital punishment itself is a disgrace in any society that thinks of itself as “civilized,” and even more so for a society that claims Christianity as a dominant influence.

I won’t rehearse here the well-worn arguments as to why capital punishment qualifies as: a) morally suspect if not ethically abhorrent; and b) an ineffectual deterrent to crime. (If you’re unconvinced about either point, I recommend spending some time here.)

Rather than only moral and practical problems, capital punishment should raise profound theological questions for Christians. Those questions begin by remembering that Jesus was unjustly accused of capital crimes and executed by the Roman Empire.

Many Christians, however, tend to skip over that socio-political reality and reflect instead on the doctrine of atonement, or why Jesus “had” to die as the “Lamb of God” for the sins of the world.

Many self-identified liberal or progressive Christians reject entirely that kind of doctrinal overlay on the crucifixion of Jesus. But we might still find some peculiar bits in that doctrinal history worth considering today (and that history is quite diverse) and how it might still speak effectively to our situation today – including the appalling practice of capital punishment in the United States.

Here I’ll mention just two among the many points to ponder for a peculiar faith today:

The first point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?

One response to that question, and a profound one, has emerged from the work of Rene Girard, a 20th century French historian and philosopher. And that work has prompted a great deal of insightful theological reflection on the role of violent scapegoating in the formation of any human community. James Alison’s theological work is the best example of this (and it’s rather complex, so go pour yourself some coffee, sit in a comfy chair, and read more about that here).

The shorthand (and thus inadequate) version of Girard/Alison is just this: human societies pour out their inherent violence on representative figures – the “scapegoat” – who bear the brunt of what would otherwise be uncontainable social chaos. Without scapegoats, there would be no “society” at all.

The Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus (the divine scapegoat) thus offers the possibility of finding a way out of this endless cycle of violence. How that is so requires much more space than a blog to describe. But even naming that possibility, it seems to me, can shed some much needed light on the mechanism of scapegoating in the practice of capital punishment.

And the second point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?

Yes, that’s the same point as the first one. But it admits more than one response. Another response comes from an intriguing theologian, Robert Neville, who teaches at Boston University; I am also privileged to count him among my friends.

Bob’s theological work is amazingly broad and deep at the same time, yet I keep rereading one of his many books, Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement. In that book, Bob devotes a chapter to the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God,” and more particularly as the lamb who was slain.

I can’t possibly describe fairly Bob’s profound insights here (any more than I could Girard’s or Alison’s above), but I will offer this: We will never appreciate the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God” until we acknowledge our collective “blood guilt.”

As Bob acknowledges, modern western people recoil at the idea of “collective” anything let alone something that sounds as barbaric as “blood guilt.” Yet Bob persuaded me. Consider just two among a host of examples.

First, if you have ever taken a train across the U.S., you did so thanks to the indentured servitude and some deaths of Chinese immigrant laborers, who built the railroad.

Second, if you are in any way benefiting from contemporary American industry, technology, and agriculture, you are indebted to the institution of African slavery on the American continent.

No further examples are necessary – if you’re reading this blog, you are drenched in blood-guilt. How can you bear it? What will erase it, if anything? Can you even stand to think about it? Most of us can’t, so we don’t. But the guilt persists.

Bob then suggests ways that the symbol of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God might address our collective blood-guilt, which I can’t summarize adequately here (I’m working on a way to do that!).

All of this matters as for the peculiar faith Christians claim to adopt and especially when we consider and (I hope) mourn the execution of Troy Davis. He is just one among far too many scapegoats in contemporary US society. Troy Davis is just one among far too many instances of our collective blood-guilt as human beings. Questions of innocence, guilt, evidence, and due process are actually irrelevant. What matters is why any society would collectively kill someone.

Christian people should not do so. Period.

So, why are human beings so blood thirsty? The sad answer is this: We are human. The good news in response is this: the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God who was slain might yet transform violent human culture into a culture of life. If so, then Christians might actually find a compelling if not a peculiar way to talk about salvation and redemption.

For the sake of all those still on death row in this country, may it be so.

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The Truly Arduous Task

The early twentieth century French writer Andre Gide once observed, “To free oneself is nothing; the truly arduous task is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

That truly arduous task took a significant turn 224 years ago today when some intrepid pioneers in Philadelphia adopted these words and the articles that followed them:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

On this anniversary (an official holiday!), I’m tempted to parse each of those highly-charged clauses and phrases in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, but I’m particularly struck by the second one: “to form a more perfect Union.”

That laudable goal has been repeatedly tested in American history, especially when it seems at odds with the seventh phrase, “the Blessings of Liberty.”

The Tea Party end of today’s political spectrum has exacerbated that tension between union and liberty in rather stark terms. Some of them apparently believe that we ought to let people die if they don’t have health insurance, which is quite a price to pay for liberty’s “blessings.” (I’m not making this up. Read about it here.)

There’s much more at stake here than the same old partisan bickering over the role of the federal government, not least is how we will define and practice “liberty.” If it means the freedom not to care about the less fortunate, even when they’re dying, why bother with perfecting our “union”?

I suppose we could imagine a “union” formed by those who look alike, are like-minded, and have all the resources they need to take care of themselves. If so, then the U.S. Constitution would form a more perfect country club, but certainly not a country.

What we do with our freedom is as much an arduous theological task as it is a political one.

In the history of Christian theology, freedom has never meant living without constraint, or the freedom to do whatever we want. The grace of God in Christ frees us from bondage to sin and also thereby frees us for living into that grace with others.

The freedom to live for and with others appears in clauses eight and nine of the Constitution’s Preamble: “to provide for the common defence” and to “promote the general Welfare.” As U.S. citizens have always realized, that’s far easier said than done.

Christians have likewise realized how difficult freedom can be. I’ve been thinking about that just recently in my work on the Blessings Project of the Episcopal Church, which has been collecting and developing resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships. As part of that work, we’ve tried to address the ongoing (and centuries-old) challenge of living with disagreements in the Church – the religious version of forming a “more perfect union.”

Reflecting on that daunting task, my colleagues and I kept coming back to this: Christian unity is not a product of our own efforts but is instead a gift from God. The Church enacts that gift in baptism, which initiates us into the Body of Christ. Salvation, in other words, is thoroughly social and communal.

More pointedly put, baptism joins us to God by joining us to others who are different from us.

Now that’s a rather peculiar claim, and remarkably similar to trying to form a nation from people who don’t have anything else in common but a “constitution.”

St. Paul (no less) insisted on this view of baptism by urging the Galatians to set aside the social and cultural distinctions with which they were most familiar and which threatened to keep them divided. If you are baptized, Paul claimed, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Christians are united, not because we agree with each other about everything or because we happen to like each other’s company, but because God has joined us together in Christ (whether we like it or not).

In that sense, both the Gospel and the U.S. Constitution are wonderfully and terrifyingly peculiar (to say the least). My salvation is inextricably bound to the salvation of others; my life in the United States is tied to the lives of everyone else in this country (whether I like it or not).

Those are not aspirational statements. They are facts, and the challenge in both cases is to learn how to live into the fact of our deeply interconnected and intertwined lives, not only in the Church and not only in the United States, but also on this planet.

As I’ve tried to do that In The Episcopal Church, I have been pleasantly surprised by occasional moments of feeling remarkably connected, even fondly so, to those with whom I profoundly disagree. Those were clearly moments of divine grace (trust me on that), which I would have missed had I not stuck with the struggle.

On the night before Jesus died, according to John’s gospel, he prayed for unity. In the midst of that prayer, Jesus commanded his disciples to love each other, a reminder they likely needed to hear. But this commandment was not a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it onerous obligation. Jesus commanded it so that they might have joy (John 15:9-11).

As we mark the anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, let’s take some of that peculiar Gospel energy into our civic lives. That will demand a lot from us, and it won’t be easy to live fully into that “more perfect Union” in an amazingly diverse society. But if we stick with it, and with God’s help, we may yet discover in new ways that the “truly arduous task” can lead us into joy.