Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2004 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 8, Issue 2
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Classroom Controversy: Christianity and Gay Rights
Paul J. Levesque, California State University Fullerton
Paul J. Levesque is an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at California State University, Fullerton.
In developing a lecture on the controversial issue of Christian responses to same-sex sexual behavior, the author employs strategies to minimize tensions and foster learning. Pedagogy includes a step by step unfolding of the issue. One step acknowledges that the official positions of Christian churches on the issue of homosexuality vary greatly. Some consider gay men and lesbians a threat to faith and family; others are tolerant and even accepting. These divergent conclusions are reached largely due to different methods of interpreting the Bible. In addition, a variety of responses can be made to an ethical position which runs counter to one’s religious views. Even if one personally holds to the incompatibility of same-sex behavior with one’s faith, there remains the wider issue of how one might implement this view in a multicultural and multireligious world.
At the state university where I teach, one of the primary learning goals for the undergraduate course in world religions is to foster greater sensitivity and empathy toward religious beliefs and customs that differ from the students’ own. As the students grow in their understanding of various traditions, they instinctively compare this new knowledge with their own convictions and heritages. The course objective is not to change their own beliefs, but to expand their appreciation of the worldviews held by others. For the most part, this process presents a challenge to their own way of thinking without causing undue personal anxiety or controversy in the classroom.
However, recently I have experimented with adding a new component to my courses in world religions which often pushes classroom harmony to its limits. It is one thing to respect another’s belief system; it is something else entirely to approve of another’s moral lifestyle.
The objective of this paper is to present the methodology I employed in developing a new lecture and class discussion on Christian views of the morality of same-sex sexual acts. The learning goals were to: (1) acknowledge the importance of the issue; (2a) understand that there is no single “Christian” response to the issue; (2b) describe the different responses; (3) identify the reasons behind these responses; (4) recognize that one’s specific moral values may not be shared by society at large, or even by other adherents to one’s religious tradition. While it is not one of my defined learning goals, it is my hope that classroom reflections such as these can serve as a small step for students to learn how to respect their peers and their future coworkers, regardless of their sexual orientation.
The first challenge I faced was how to integrate this topic into the existing course on religions of the world. The course includes five segments, each covering one religion. It seemed logical enough to discuss the different responses of the Christian churches to same-sex relations at the end of the section on Christianity. However, placing a controversial issue at the end of one segment detracted from the coherence of the course. It also appeared risky to choose such a heated issue as the only moral dilemma investigated in the course.
Thus, for consistency, as well as for students’ own merit, I decided to add a discussion of a moral issue at the end of each segment of a specific religious tradition: Hindu views of ecology, Buddhist responses to economic justice, the Holocaust and current anti-Semitism, and Islamic interpretations of the role of women. I incorporated sections of Young’s (1995) presentation of these ethical issues. I wanted to ensure that these other topics were not as impassioned in order to provide opportunities for the individual students to learn how to discuss moral issues without being overtaken by one’s emotions. This also provided a method for the class as a group to grow in its ability to respect differences expressed in class discussions.
Admittedly, there is a high degree of subjectivity involved in determining the level of tension a specific issue may generate, and it is unknown how specific individuals may react to a particular issue. Still, it seemed reasonable to assume that the three issues preceding the discussion on Christianity–ecology, economic justice and anti-Semitism–would not be highly contentious. Discussing less controversial ethical issues first is in keeping with the strategy of shaping “the terms of debate long before the controversial issue arises in class” (Pace, 2003, 43). This is one of the ten pedagogical strategies for teaching controversial issues in college courses recommended by David Pace (2003).
I also embraced the strategies of providing “students with experiences of seeing a question from multiple perspectives” and giving “students practice at contextualizing controversial issues” (Pace, 2003, 43). For example, in teaching the general Hindu respect for animals, vegetarianism, and non-violence, students also identify the ambiguities and departures from these positions within Hinduism as explained in class readings and their own experiences. In anticipating our discussion of Christian views of same-sex behavior, it is significant for students to begin to take the step from the particular identification that there is no single “Hindu” response to ecology, to the universal recognition that different persons within the same tradition often have conflicting responses to moral questions. Further, in reflecting on his or her own response to ecology, even the most ardent of ecologically sensitive students is challenged to re-evaluate his or her position as possibly lacking in some facet. Similar learning experiences surround the class discussion of Buddhism and economic justice, and anti-Semitism–all of which precede the investigation of Christianity.
On the day when Christian attitudes toward same-sex relationships are discussed, I embrace the strategy of approaching “the controversial issue incrementally” (Pace, 203, 44). Commensurate with the learning goals for this section, I took the following steps in presenting the topic: (1) acknowledge the importance of the issue; (2a&b) classify the different Christian responses to the issue; (3) identify conflicting methodologies to biblical interpretation as a key ingredient to the differences; (4) recognize that one’s specific moral values may not be shared by society at large, or even by other adherents to one’s religious tradition.
I decided to begin class with a statement from the Alliance Defense Fund, which was founded by leading members of the New Christian Right. The quotation reads, “The number one threat to faith, freedom, and family today is... the homosexual legal agenda” (Sears, 1999). I put the first half of the quotation on the board and elicited responses to complete the sentence. Homosexuality did not appear very quickly on the students’ list; it appeared under “sexual issues” after such topics as secularism and freedom of speech. What is the “homosexual legal agenda”? Even though “homosexual legal agenda” is commonly used in a pejorative way, the “agenda” includes job discrimination, civil unions and adoption which can also be framed as “rights.” We need only look to the news to appreciate the scope of the issues.
I suggest that the issue of gay and lesbian rights is controversial not simply due to a conflict between secular and religious views, but also because of conflicting views within religious traditions, especially Christianity. It is essential to acknowledge that there is no single Christian position on the moral issues surrounding sexual orientation.
Classification of Christian Responses
The next step is to take a brief look at the different ways Christians approach the issue of same-sex behavior. The official positions of Christian churches vary greatly, but have been classified into four groups (Nelson, 1977; Nugent & Gramick, 1989-90). I provide students with a handout summarizing the four classifications.
The first group has been called “rejecting-punitive.” This view holds that any same-sex behavior or attraction is a sin. “Even desire to engage in a homosexual relationship is always sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent and perverted” (Resolution on Homosexual Marriage, Southern Baptist Convention, June 11-13, 1996, in Bennett, 1999, 9). According to this position, the gay man or lesbian is to remain celibate or “change” one’s orientation through “reparative therapy.”
The second group takes a “rejecting-nonpunitive” approach. In the words of the Catholic Church, which falls under this group: “Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2000, 2357). Yet, while sexual acts between individuals of the same sex are condemned, there is no need to punish a person because of his/her orientation–as long as it is not acted upon. “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC, 2000, 2358). Still, even the orientation itself is considered to be “objectively disordered” and chastity is required. (see CCC, 2000, 2359).
The third group embodies “qualified acceptance.” This view holds that gay male and lesbian sexual activity may be acceptable for Christians, in some instances, but it is always inferior to heterosexual unions. This opinion can be found in past position papers presented by certain members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). While the ELCA does not currently approve of same-sex union ceremonies or of pastors in same-sex relationships, it is the largest religious body in the U.S. which welcomes gay men and lesbians to full congregational participation, making no conditions of celibacy (Assembly Action CA 91.7.51, in ELCA, 1999, 39). The ELCA may move to the fourth group since it is currently discussing the blessing of same-sex unions and ordaining non-celibate gay men and lesbians in committed relationships and plans to make a decision in 2005.
The fourth group advocates “full acceptance.” The leading churches in this group also explicitly acknowledge not only lesbian, and gay men, but also bisexual and transgender persons as equal to heterosexual persons. This is promoted by the United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, Quakers (Society of Friends), Moravian Church, and actions by the Episcopal Church USA. The oldest, fully accepting church is the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches founded in 1968.
The logical question, “Why do the official positions of Christian churches vary so greatly?” is often preempted in class by someone paraphrasing (or even reciting exactly) the biblical proscriptions against male-male sexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-11). This provides an introduction to scripture and an opening to explain that the cause of discrepant Christian positions lies primarily in the different ways churches approach the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation span a wide continuum, ranging from strict literal fundamentalism to free application. I propose that along this spectrum there are three main methods of approaching the Bible: literal, historical-critical exegesis, and contextual hermeneutics. Each methodological approach yields a distinctly different interpretation.
With the literal approach, a text is taken at face value and is applied without deviation over time and place. Everything the Bible says is deemed to be strictly factual and correct (inerrant) on all topics.
A second approach to the Bible is an historical-critical reading, employed to determine how the text was understood by the people who wrote it long ago. This is an exegetical method which understands the text by placing it within its historical and cultural context.
A third methodological approach to the Bible can be called contextual hermeneutics (see Schneiders, 1990). Similar to the previous method, it frequently considers the historical and cultural context of the text, but it takes a further step in asking whether the text is applicable to us today–even if everyone agrees as to its meaning. Biblical imperatives must be applied only after taking into account modern insights, such as those discerned through psychology, sociology, biology, and even theology. Scripture itself is judged in light of Jesus’ call to love (see Wink, 1999, 47).
Discussing methods of interpreting the Bible can often cause tension in the classroom, particularly for Christians who embrace a literal understanding. Students are not always eager to reflect critically upon a literal approach which they have already accepted as a basic requirement of their faith. Michael Cosby presents insights from his experience of fostering a more nuanced understanding of scripture. He suggests that: “Teaching is a combination of soothing and stretching, of consolation and confrontation” (2001, 72). Specifically, he proposes that by “limiting the discussion to concrete material” there is a greater possibility that students will recognize the limitations of attempting a strictly literal reading (2001, 72). Cosby’s goal is to help students “see the relevance of Scripture by reading its stories in their ancient contexts” (2001, 72). While he implements his strategy over the span of an entire course on the Bible, his plan is applicable to my single lecture. In applying Cosby’s ideas in such a small space of time, it is important that my learning goals are less ambitious than his. Cosby wishes to teach students “to move away from their simplistic models of biblical interpretation and application” (2001, 79). I simply wish to identify conflicting methodologies to biblical interpretation. Still, as I present the three methodologies of biblical interpretation as outlined above, I identify inconsistencies in applying a literal reading by referring to specific passages. For example slavery is acceptable in the entire letter of Philemon, Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1, and other passages, yet, it is not morally acceptable today.
Key to the historical-critical approach is to ask what the biblical authors actually understood by their condemnations. McNeill asks, “Can one merely accept what is referred to in English translations of the Bible as homosexuality as representing in the mind of the biblical authors what we refer to today by the same term?” (McNeill, 1993, 38). Placing the story of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-11) in its ancient context provides a concrete example of the historical-critical method. From this perspective, the sin of Sodom is not “homosexuality” but abuse and inhospitality against strangers, which is the way this text was understood by many well into the Middle Ages (Boswell, 1980, 92-99). The “abominations” in Leviticus (concerning issues as divergent as eating pork, engaging in intercourse during menstruation, and male-male sex) refer to acts which are “ceremonially unclean rather than inherently evil” (Boswell, 1980, 102).
As to the third approach, the Bible is understood as culturally conditioned and not a list of moral absolutes. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong employs this methodology when he rhetorically asks, “Is Paul’s commentary on homosexuality more absolute than some of his other antiquated, culturally conditioned ideas?” (Spong, 1988, 152). Priority is given to the overarching biblical invitation to love others, instead of succumbing to a legalistic application of prescriptions and proscriptions.
Given these three divergent approaches to the Bible, it should be clear why different Christians come to opposing views regarding the morality of gay and lesbian behavior as they invoke the Bible. At a deeper level, what is at issue is not the moral question as to whether same-sex behavior is good or not, but the essential doctrinal issue of what methodology is acceptable in biblical interpretation and if it is applied consistently.
Responses to Gay and Lesbian Rights
Even among those Christians who view same-sex behavior as sinful, there exists a range of responses as to how the larger society should regulate behaviors.
In our pluralistic world, diversity is encouraged and affirmed. The “diversity of communities, traditions, understandings of the truth, and visions of God is not an obstacle for us to overcome, but an opportunity for our energetic engagement and dialogue with one another” (Eck, 1993, 168). In our diversity, the pluralist does not expect that I conform to her vision of reality, nor she to mine–otherwise all heterogeneity would be lost. We are invited to remain committed to our positions–or to change our minds–but always to remain in respectful dialogue with the other.
Applied to the topic at hand, within a pluralistic society, there exists an individual right to believe that the Bible teaches that same-sex behavior is wrong. At the same time, there is an intellectual obligation to admit that other well meaning and logical people believe that the lives of gay men and lesbians are perfectly compatible with the Bible (not to mention those who do not acquiesce to the Bible as their moral rule).
In offering my class this presentation of a controversial issue and following the pedagogy outlined, it is my hope that students grow in their appreciation of some of the complexities and challenges which confront us in our pluralistic society.
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