This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest American Lutheran body and member of the Lutheran World Federation, rewrote its policy. Under the old policy, openly gay persons could be ordained to ministry, but could only serve if they remained celibate — if they refused all possibility of love in a committed relationship. After years of review, countless meetings of task forces and councils, and collected input from congregations across the country (including dissenting input), the new policy states that gay ministers will now be permitted the same rights to human companionship — to love — as heterosexuals, provided that their relationship is monogamous and committed. Their committed partners will be entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of married clergy because in most states, gay people do not have the right to marry. For those who would like to read the news release, here is a link: http://bit.ly/anmgiZ
The above is a contentious issue for many people, but basic human decency and humility — respect and love for other human beings as beings created in the image of God — should endure regardless of ideological and theological disputes. I think of this particularly after hearing not for the first time about the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist church based in Topeka, which pickets (among other things) the funerals of our soldiers killed in the line of duty. This church is open about its hatred for gay people, and proclaims that God purposefully causes our soldiers to die as punishment for America’s “tolerance” of homosexuality. They appear at soldiers’ funerals (gay or not) holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God is Your Enemy,” and “God Hates You.” For a recent article on a late soldier’s father’s efforts to fight them, click here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36449471/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts//
I will grant no further space to this “church.” They may be particularly radical, yet they are certainly not the only people who hold such signs or chant such slogans of hatred. But the issue here is not where one stands with regard to homosexuality or even gay people in ministry. The issue is how we conduct ourselves in relation to our fellow humans. I cannot help noticing that many people who quote the Bible the loudest are often using it to keep at bay some kind of “other” — mostly people who are different in some way from themselves. And the person doing the quoting is always so thoroughly convinced that God is on their side, and that God is against the other guy. It seems to me that this constitutes a hijacking of God. Why do people always quote the Bible to disenfranchise some other group (gays, women, African-Americans, Jews, etc.), but never themselves? How is it that the target is always somebody else and never oneself?
We so easily hijack God to glorify ourselves and make less of others. We can pick an issue, find a quote in the Bible, and then beat everybody over the head with it — oblivious to the amount of pain we may cause another human being — because after all, God is on our side and that justifies everything. Never mind that Jesus identified the greatest commandment as: “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength,” and the second one as: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If we are to take the Bible seriously, is it not imperative to give these words, identified as the greatest commandments, more than casual lip service? Nor can one claim that these are only New Testament ordinances. Jesus quoted those words from Deuteronomy, after all. Other words attributed to Jesus that are often passed over: “Judge not, lest you be judged,” and “The measure you give is the measure you get.”
If love is the greatest commandment, how does it serve love to denigrate and to inflict pain with our words upon fellow human beings, who are as much God’s children as ourselves? Does God love only some of us? Does God think only some of us worthy of being treated with respect and compassion? On the surface, few people of faith would agree with such statements. But when it comes to the crucible of practice, many of us behave as if the answer to those questions is yes. If we’re going to quote the Bible, we are then obliged to be aware of the Bible as a whole, not just whatever verse(s) we are currently inclined to use to make other people look bad. The Bible is not a weapon to be wielded against God’s other children. This is a dishonor.
I also notice that many people who quote Leviticus on the matter of homosexuality fail to quote Leviticus on anything else — like the prohibition on wearing clothes made from two different fabrics. You mean we can’t wear our cotton/polyester blends? You can also forget about shellfish, and don’t even think about those nice ham or bologna sandwiches for lunch. This is not to say anything against Leviticus per se or the practice of keeping kosher; I love the Hebrew Bible. But it is to say that we cannot divorce Leviticus’ one ordinance concerning homosexuality from the myriad ordinances among which it appears. Leviticus does nothing to single out its words on homosexuality as any more important than any of the other things that surround it. Yet most people who cite the verse on homosexuality neglect to observe most of the other rules in the same book.
A discussion of what may be the reasons for many of the Levitical ordinances would lead us astray for this particular post. But it is certainly true, and overtly stated in the text, that the Levitical regulations are concerned with ritual purity and the need at the time for the Israelites as a fledgling people to separate themselves from other Canaanites.
But one glaring fact remains. We are mortals. We are finite in our understanding of the universe and of God. We are the created, and cannot hope to penetrate the depths of the mind of the Creator. We may only fling our arms wide open to that Creator’s mercy and love. Lest I be judged by the same harsh measure that I might give to someone else — I prefer to err on the side of love, which is the only thing we know for certain pleases God.
© Elizabeth Keck 2010
I often find myself reminding people that when Jesus intervened at the stoning of a woman and said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8: 1-11), it was not an invitation but an admonition.
Excellent point — and I believe that episode is in Mark as well. I think we are so quick to point out the faults of others because it distracts us from acknowledging and dealing with our own faults, and perhaps it also makes us feel better about our own faults if we think other people’s are just as bad or worse. Ironically, what should really make us feel better is the knowledge that because we ourselves are not faultless, then neither is anybody else, and therefore we are all “in the same boat” together.
I appreciate your comment on the use of God’s Word as a weapon to “beat over the head with.” I am often appaled when I see this happen. The Word is not a weapon, but brings creativity and healing. It was the same Word that was spoken and created light. It was the same Word on the cross that spoke the words, “Father, forgive them.” I find that when the Word is used by we humans as a weapon, it is only out of fear. I appreciate your conclusion that we err on the side of love, for in using the “Word in love” we can have confidence in our pleasing God. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment; I agree that fear often makes us forget the primacy of love in the act of God’s creating light and life. Your analogy to the words of forgiveness on the Cross — forgiveness for a truly horrifying act done to another — is also very on point, I think, to a divine emphasis on love. I always feel a lurking uneasiness whenever I say “God wants x” or “God thinks y” because of the danger of confusing whatever God might want with what I myself want, and also because of the likely improbability that I could really know with certainty what God thinks in a specific way. Because of that, it really does seem to me that the only “failsafe” as far as doing what God would want is to try to act in love and respect for other human beings. And if we are mistaken in what we do on that score, at least our motivation would have been good and humble at its core, rather than self-gratifying. Given our human capacity for missteps and self-centeredness, I believe love is the safest bet indeed! Thank you very much again for your thoughts, and thanks also for reading mine.
“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” — Susan B. Anthony
A tip of the hat to Ms. Anthony. An insightful woman, she!
I am pastor of United Congregational Church UCC in Worcester, MA. I so greatly appreciate your thoughtful and sensitive comments. As much progress as we’ve made in openness to others, it breaks my heart when Scripture is still used to hurt others. Thank you for your compassion and deep understanding of the importance of valuing and cherishing every child of God as God does.
Terry, thank you very much for reading my thoughts — and thank you very much as well for your kind words. It does, sadly, seem to come naturally for people to attack and to judge with their own sense of righteousness, rather than take the path of quieter, less dramatic emotions such as love and compassion. How true are Jesus’ words that we should remove the beam from our own eye before pointing out the splinter in another person’s eye! Hard words to follow, but I think we ought to at least try. Anyway, it’s always good to know that there are others who also feel that the Bible should not be wielded as a weapon…. Incidentally, did you hear of my blog through Peter or Pat at the UCC Worcester? I am married to their son Adam, who grew up in your church!