Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Personal Note: When Justice Trumps Holy Scripture

Today’s post will depart from the usual preoccupation with eldritch matters—early twentieth century horror, fantasy and science fiction—to consider a more contemporary topic, one that may seem far more terrifying and disorienting than a mere recrudescence of Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, at least to some folks.

Last June, as most readers know, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made the historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage in our country.  Last March, perhaps in anticipation of that outcome, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA quietly announced its approval of a proposal to allow churches in our denomination to celebrate same-sex marriages.  The measure passed with the support of approximately 75% of the assembly, following exhaustive study, prayer and debate. 

The proposal does not compel individual congregations to perform same-sex marriages; whether to do so is a decision left to the local governing body of each church, called session, in Presbyterian parlance.  Your humble blogger is a church elder serving on session at a neighborhood church, which now has the arduous responsibility of deciding whether to sanction same-sex marriage, and determining how to communicate this decision to an aging and dwindling congregation. 

Allowing individual churches to decide the matter for themselves—akin to “states’ rights” but involving congregations instead—may have been a strategy to avoid accelerating the loss of membership or causing the schisms that have afflicted other Protestant denominations.  The open-endedness of the proposal seems to reflect anxiety and indecisiveness at all levels of the Presbyterian Church.  Though it seems to many of us to be a just and compassionate decision, there have been few audible hallelujahs, and not a little fear.

Presbyterians, who are known affectionately as the “frozen chosen”, value orderliness and restraint and avoid conflict or spectacle in matters of church government.  So it is uncomfortable to observe weeping or raised voices at our more recent session meetings, of which there have now been several devoted to the issue of same-sex marriage.  Our more progressive wing immediately advocated for a quick decision in favor of allowing gay marriage, to follow the momentum of the Supreme Court ruling in June.  More conservative members, of which I am admittedly one, lobbied for a period of reflection, study, and discussion.  How would we present this divisive matter to the rest of the congregation, many of whom are ardent traditionalists? 

It’s not that all Hell has broken loose—especially since many members of the congregation no longer believe in Hell.  (As a horror enthusiast, this is a dismaying development.  If no one believes in Satan and his minions, what will become of literature that traffics in demonic possession, vampirism, the Last Days, and so forth?  What can be done to keep fear alive?)  But if we are to discard 2000 years of church teaching and understanding, if we are choosing to ignore significant passages of supposed Holy and Inerrant Scripture, shouldn’t there be at least a moment or two to consider and reconsider?

No.  Let’s get on with it.

I have several gay colleagues, friends and clients, and certainly don’t begrudge them any civil rights due a fellow American citizen, much less the opportunity to enjoy lifelong relationships with the ones they love.  Because of the nature of my work, my office is one of the most culturally diverse places on earth—far more diverse than a white middle-class Protestant church. 

Not long after the Supreme Court ruling, my wife and I attended a dinner party hosted by one of her gay co-workers and his partner in the next town over.  The two gentlemen host this affair in their backyard every year, a neighborhood block party with excellent food, strong drinks, and hits from the 1980s pouring from speakers hidden among the old trees.  Gay and straight couples and single folks mill about and settle into circles here and there in an immaculate garden lit by tiki torches.  The yard is nervous with young children of various nationalities dashing about, tripping over a wary dog or two, spilling their drinks. Neighbors young and old wander into the mix from the sidewalk all night. 

Gardens of any kind recall the original garden we were cast out of eons ago, and prefigure the one we may return to someday, if we don’t manage to plant it here ourselves.  Or perhaps this annual event in the next town over is merely an idyllic vision of an American neighborhood block party—peaceful, prosperous, friendly, lively, diverse. What is wrong with this picture?

Nothing is wrong with this picture.

Since the announcement from the General Assembly last March almost nothing has been said about gay marriage at our church, probably out of fear of alienating some of the members.  However, in the interim I learned that our compassionate pastor quietly presided over one same-sex marriage held well off the premises, which is permissible according to church regulations, since session only determines whether such a marriage can occur on the premises.  Location, location, location.   I was saddened that such a celebration could not be comfortably announced or shared inside the walls of our church, but this may be changing soon.

Session was held again last night, and consisted mainly of a very orderly discussion of both sides of the issue of gay marriage.  Honestly, I was hoping to see a fight, at least a spirited—spirit filled—debate.  The panel consisted of one woman who articulated the progressive view, one man who earnestly reminded us of the traditional view—unnecessary, since all of us were already well versed in it—an older clergyman who spoke for the presbytery, (akin to a Roman Catholic diocese), and a gay member of the congregation. 

The progressive used a clever strategy:  she focused on the small set of “clobber-texts”, readings from Leviticus, Genesis, and Romans that explicitly condemn homosexuality.  She showed how bound they were to the cultural, linguistic and historical context they were derived from—an approach used previously to reinterpret Biblical teachings on slavery, the role of women, the nature of government, and the ethics of capital punishment.  She effectively disarmed the traditional arguments against gay marriage.   

The traditionalist did make the important point that more or less equal piles of scholarship have been generated on both sides of the controversy—but without producing a conclusive answer for the rest of us.  The clergyman assured us that the General Assembly’s proceedings last spring were sober, thoughtful, diligent, prayerful, thorough, and scholarly—which everyone already suspected.

The last speaker spoke simply, eloquently and courageously about what it was like to grow up as a homosexual in a conservative Christian church.  He brought down the house.

But we still need to decide, and then tell our congregation.

As church elders go, my zeal for the faith is fairly tepid, and in the absence much bloviating from the pulpit about evil, or death, or damnation, my enthusiasm for a strict—and reassuring—orthodoxy has waned.  Has the Bible been wrong about homosexuality for the past 2000 years?  After all, the Romans and the ancient Greeks were fairly hip about it, as I recall.  Or for that matter, has the church, nominally under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, been wrong about the role of women in society, or the nature of slavery, or the justification for war?  Will it be right for the next 2000 years?  

If the explicit recommendations of an ancient Holy Scripture can be waived or re-interpreted in the wake—in the light—of a Supreme Court decision, rightly or wrongly, then the Bible seems much less the inerrant Word of God, the comprehensive guide to living, the only book we need.  Maybe there ought to be a few other books on the shelf!

And this is the crux of the matter, at least for me.  If love, tolerance, and a concern for justice lead us to put aside Holy Scripture to do what is right and compassionate, if the Bible is no longer perceived—even by the church—as the inerrant guide to faith and living, then why do I have to get up on Sunday mornings?  Ultimately, the issue is much larger and deeper than the matter of allowing, or even celebrating same-sex marriage.  It strikes at the heart of orthodoxy and the sacredness of revealed texts.  How terrifying would it be to dispense with them?

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