These past two weeks, an ancient and a modern tale of bitter, poisonous waters suddenly rang together as an alarm and an awakening. Right now: We have been learning about the horrifying and disgusting behavior of the government of Michigan, turning off the pipes bringing pure water from Lake Huron to the mostly Black citizens of the city of Flint and instead sending poisonous waters to Flint. (The Governor, Rick Snyder, is no Tea Party type, but a fairly typical “establishment” Republican businessman — anti-labor, anti-choice for women, anti-Syrian-refugees, and contemptuous of pleas from the Black folks of Flint to end the poisoning of their children.)
So the bitter waters came: Waters that stank and were colored brown and green, waters that caused rashes and boils to spring up on the skins of those who had to drink it. Waters infused with lead, which is well-known to permanently and irreversibly damage the brains of young children. Long long ago: The age-old Torah telling that we read this past Shabbat was the story of how ancient Israel crossed the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s power dissolved and his army drowned there. Just a few days later, according to the story, they protested because they had no water fit to drink. What connects these two events?
Yesterday in Minneapolis, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) crossed an historic threshold as Presbyterians in the Twin Cities area voted to eliminate all official barriers to the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people as ministers and lay leaders in their 2.4 million member denomination. With their vote the Twin Cities Presbyterians were the 87th Presbytery (a regional governing body) to vote yes, giving the denomination the majority of votes needed to approve the landmark change.
In light of this historic event and other debates closer to home, I want to repost a 2008 item below.
One of my faith heroes and friends, Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a United Methodist serving as pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, recently engaged in a faith-based debate for Newsweek about what Scripture teaches on same-sex marriage. I found it very insightful. His dialogue partner was Barrett Duke from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Their online discussion was a follow-up to the Newsweek cover story by Lisa Miller, Our Mutual Joy.
It’s this kind of thoughtful interaction that can help people of faith grow together in Christ—while hopefully (in my opinion) moving us toward a Christian faith that asks about the “content of one’s character,” one’s fidelity to God, and how one manifests God’ love both materially and spiritually to the poor and the least of these, rather than sexual customs or mores.
Bill Wylie-Kellerman: I found the cover story by Lisa Miller quite good over all, and stimulating, raising a number of things about which I’d like to talk, beginning with the very nature of marriage in church and society. That is actually a matter of some theological confusion. I love the Bible, and stake my life in the biblical witness, and it is that which calls me to the struggle for full inclusion of gay people and their gifts. I know we disagree.
Barrett Duke: Greetings. I look forward to our conversation. This is a very important topic, not only for the church but also for our culture. I believe Christians must submit to the Bible’s teachings, and I believe the Bible is unequivocal in its teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful. That being the case, it is impossible for me to accept same-sex marriage, which legitimizes a sinful behavior.
I think Lisa Miller’s NEWSWEEK article was atrocious. It was obviously biased in its attitude from the start. It is evident to me that Lisa already had her mind made up and was simply interested in trying to convince her readers that she was right. Of course, she is within her right to do that, but she was hardly honest in her treatment of the Bible in the process. She dismissed it without even giving it opportunity to speak. Her comment, “Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition …” was offensive and uninformed. My objections to same-sex marriage are very much rooted in the Bible. If NEWSWEEK actually intended to be an honest mediator of this issue, they should have published pro and con articles by respected Bible scholars rather than engage in such blatantly obvious opinion journalism.
Wylie-Kellerman: By laying out a clear argument, public conversations are invited. I also know it was a great breath of air for gay folks to read a theologically literate argument on their behalf. They are so constantly hit over the head with Scripture, to which we must surely come.
Ms. Miller called the mix of civil and religious elements of marriage an often “messy conflation of the two.” I agree. On the one hand, a marriage is a civil contract between two people and the state with certain rights, responsibilities and privileges implied. On the other, it is also often an act of worship between two people before God, surrounded by prayer and support from a worshiping community and with the presence of ongoing pastoral care. It seems to me only over the former that the state should have authority. In the Episcopal Church, for example, marriage is one of the sacraments. In Methodism, it is a service of worship. This means we have the intrusion and participation of the state in a sacramental act of worship. That’s more than messy.
Duke: I’m sure some considered the article a “breath of air,” but they have not been well served. It is not a theologically literate argument. It didn’t even deal with many of the key Bible passages. Reading Ms. Miller’s article, one could get the impression that the New Testament is silent about the subject of homosexuality, which of course it certainly is not. Furthermore, my objections to same-sex marriage are not based solely on the Bible’s teachings. The Bible informs my opinion about this issue, but the question I think we are trying to answer is, what does God have to say about this? It is clear that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. Since I believe that the Bible is God’s word, and I have good reason for this belief, then it must mean that God condemns homosexual marriage, so the Bible cannot be used to help create an argument for same-sex marriage. Whether one wants to create a nonreligious, i.e., civil, marriage or not, it doesn’t change what is the clear biblical teaching about homosexual behavior.
Wylie-Kellerman: I want to go forward here speaking out of the conversation which I hear going on in Scripture, one pertinent to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. The direct sanctions in the Levitical code against male homosexual acts arise during the period of the exile. They are part of the purity code that set boundaries against assimilation into Babylon. Much of those laws concern dietary restrictions. Think Daniel and Meshach and friends and their refusal to consume the imperial diet. The boundaries of the community are being proscribed and protected by the code. As I understand it, the body itself becomes the image of community. So all of the body’s entry and exit points, all orifices are regulated: what goes in as resistance to the empire—like kosher table—has served Judaism’s cultural identity throughout the Diaspora. By the time of Jesus, however, these boundaries had been turned on their sides. The purity code was turned against women, the sick and disabled, and poor people. They were the unclean.
At great personal cost, Jesus set about in his life and ministry to welcome the unclean into his community and to his table. He violated the purity code with his body, even finally on the cross. In the Book of Acts (chapter 10), the Holy Spirit urges Peter in a vision to eat unclean foods, and he says that would be an “abomination.” Precisely so. But the Spirit persists, and he accedes, which really means he is able to welcome and eat with a gentile, Cornelius, otherwise unclean, then on his way to visit. St. Paul spends a lot of his correspondence thinking this through in writing about the law (more than the purity code, but really set in motion by its stricture). For him the issue is whether the “wall of hostility” (Ephesians) would run down the middle of the common table, even the communion table, dividing Jews and gentiles in the Christian community. In the church, the movement is toward fuller and deeper inclusion. It is that which culminates in Paul saying there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female for we are all one in Christ. In the context of the American freedom struggle, this was understood by the church (sometimes poorly and certainly belatedly) to imply, there is neither black nor white. Today I hear the summons to say, in Christ, there is neither gay nor straight.