Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Label me

I remember few things about my father from my childhood.  Mom and dad split up when I was a young boy, about six years old - so there are not too many things that I can say definitively that I remember about my dad and his personality.  He loved electronics.  He liked to garden. And he was quite possibly the most organized person I have ever met.  The first two traits I inherited, the third I sadly did not.  My father labeled everything.  If it could be categorized, you could find it filed away neatly on a shelf somewhere with other like objects and identified with a colorful label.  To this day I can remember the hundreds of record albums stored in our family room, organized first by genre and then alphabetically.

While this certainly has its advantages, it also has its limitations.  Not everything fits neatly into a label, which makes categorization difficult and somewhat inaccurate at times.  But the human mind seems to desire this order and so we persist.  If those labels were to stop at the widgets on our shelves, I suppose they would be nothing but helpful.

But examining a person in the same way can be troublesome.  Unlike a commoditized manufactured item that is almost identical to the one on the shelf next to it, humans are a product of infinitely different circumstances, experiences, inputs, and heritage.  No two are exactly alike.  Yet the desire to label persists.  The broadest of these labels are applied based upon nothing more than the geography of where one was born or currently lives.  They are Iranian, or American, or Chinese.  While it is true that there are certain cultural norms that are widely present in certain geographies that are not widely present in others, the idea that all 1.5 billion people living in southeast Asia can cohesively be labeled as anything should boggle the mind.  More narrowly, the labels continue with associations to a religious dogma such as Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist.  There are unquestionably some common tenets to these groups, but the fact that those who identify with one of those three words encompasses more than half the world's population, one should question the efficacy of those labels as well. They obviously mean vastly different things to those who claim membership in them.

The world of politics has plenty of labels too: conservative, liberal, communist, patriot.  The problem with all labels is that they are subject to application by people who freely define them in vastly different ways.  The label also ignores the different experiences, life circumstances, and heritage of those who might agree with part of the term has come to mean, but not all of it.  A person who calls himself a liberal, for instance, may not necessarily be supportive of abortion or gun control, while a conservative might not be supportive of prayer in schools.  These labels, like all attempts to categorize the complex thoughts of a human being, are all limiting and inadequate.  They, in fact, negate the individuality of people and deny them their own voice.  Worse, people can be assigned to a group only to have the defining characteristics of that group changed without their approval.  Such is often the case as societal agendas shift and members of that society embrace some of the new but retain much of the old.

These labels lend themselves well to stereotypes that might appear from highlighting some of the fringe elements of the "group".  Conspiracy theorists are all crazy.  Muslims think it pleases God to blow up their children.  Christians hate gays.  Americans are arrogant and fat.  Conservatives don't care about the environment.  While there is a reason why these stereotypes appeared, when they are broadly applied to a large group they are certainly found to be untrue.  Because the thoughts of the one are not the thoughts of the many.  But the very existence of the label can lead to exploitation of the members of that group by those in the media who wish to spin an agenda.  Associate an extreme person doing an extreme thing with a member of a given group and you have tarnished their image.  In fact, many unsavory individuals use a Trojan Horse tactic to infiltrate a popular cause and perform extreme acts in the name of the cause - thus redefining the cause and reducing those who would wish to be seen in alignment with that cause.  A perfect example of this - Tea Party activists (those concerned with excessive taxation) have successfully been re-branded as white racists.  Though there are surely some in the movement who are racist, the beginnings of the movement had nothing to do with race.  Who would want to wear that label?

Most of the time, people find themselves assigned to a group without having formally requesting to be assigned.  But other times, people willingly join a group simply because they derive power or a sense of identity through aligning themselves with groups of other people.  I see this happen in religion all the time.  People call themselves Christian because they want to go to heaven and think that joining a church and stating a belief in Jesus will get them there.  In some ways I think they simply want to ride someone else's coattails to the afterlife because they don't have confidence that they will get there on their own.  Al Quaeda has grown in popularity not necessarily because large amounts of people approved of their beliefs and tactics; rather, they viewed them as the only viable force to join to oppose the military intrusion of the West into their land. People joining groups for these reason generally try to figure out what the "group" believes, then (at least in public) make their lives resemble those norms.  They may have no more relationship to the group than mickey mouse does to a scorpion, but they join because they believe the group has something to offer them.  It is natural to seek power in situations like this and certain groups are conducive to granting such power.  However, it is concerning to me that some people think that by labeling themselves x,y, or z that they somehow will score spiritual points and end up gaining a place in the afterlife as a result of their self-identification.

Scripture states that while man looks at the outside, God looks at the heart.  Ultimately a person can label or be labeled all they want yet that will not change anything.  God sees the heart.  I would assert that unless one has the specific agenda to create division and disharmony, it is a bad idea on almost every level to try to categorize human beings.  Our attempts to do so are flawed at best, and quite damaging at worst.  They may make us temporarily feel better in our attempts to find meaning and purpose in life, but ultimately they only lead to division and death.  The best label a person can wear is the label that they are a human being - seeking the path of God for their life.  Encourage people to strive for this.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Homosexuality and the Bible

I've taken a nearly one year hiatus from writing blogs, so we shall see if the muse has left me.  Much as I wanted to avoid it, my attention has been drawn to this topic through numerous encounters in person, in the church, and through social media, so I felt the need to address it here.

The conversation has once again entered public debate as to whether or not homosexuality should be accepted by the population at large - embraced by business and the church - or discarded and opposed as an aberrant behavior of unbelievers who are trying to systematically dismantle Christianity.  As is my usual pensive nature, I've given a lot of thought to this prior to my writing of this blog.  The first part of it will undoubtedly anger half of the readers.  But being an equal opportunity offender, I'm relatively sure that the group who finds themselves in agreement with me at the beginning will surely be angry by the end.

The Bible appears to be fairly clear in several places that homosexuality is not something that was viewed as godly.  Indeed the Levitical law (Lev. 20:13) even proscribed the death penalty for both men who would be caught in homosexual acts.  Lest the casual observer limit the biblical view of homosexuality to just men, the New Testament (Romans 1:26) clarifies that women exchanged "natural" sexual relations for the "unnatural".  This reference implies lesbianism and perhaps bestiality had been practiced by women and in the context of the paragraph were being condemned by the writer, the apostle Paul.

Pretty cut and dry, right?  Maybe not.

First of all, it is important to view any discussion in the proper context.  If a man is standing next to his child at a busy intersection and commands his child, "Do not cross the street!", that is a specific command for a specific street for a specific reason - not a general and overarching command to the child to never cross any streets anywhere.  While the Ten Commandments were like God's Constitution - and could largely be applied as a framework for living to mankind as a whole - the Levitical law was similar to our own legislative framework.  It was Moses' attempt to take the Ten Commandments and develop rules for his society; the purpose of which was to shape and control the Hebrew people's behavior to resemble the behavior of one who embraced the spirit of the Commandments.

So why include homosexual behavior in the list of levitical prohibited acts?  The most obvious answer to this is procreation as it relates to political dominance.  We can see even today the effect of cultures who embrace procreation versus those who limit it.  The hispanic culture, known for their large families, is rapidly displacing the white culture's dominance in the USA, and the Muslims - also known for their large families - are rapidly growing their influence in western Europe.  The Israelites had just emerged from years of political subjugation and slavery in Egypt which had been prompted by fears of the Egyptian ruling class that the growing number of Hebrews (Exodus 1:9) might result in their empire falling.  Procreation resulted in economic and military might and homosexuality is very much anti-procreation.  It treats sex primarily as recreation.

Homosexuality was also prevalent in various pagan temple rituals.  The passage in Genesis 2:24 ("...the two shall become one flesh") is often cited in modern marriage ceremonies to indicate a unity or cohesion between the marriage partners - a blending of their unique characteristics to become a part of one another, forming a more complete "whole" (the Yin and Yang?).  Indeed, Jesus even referenced this spiritual concept during prayer to the Father (John 17:21) where he prayed for unity among men just as he was one with God.  The pagan temple rituals often involved a priest or priestess of the false god who would unite in sexual relations (homosexual and heterosexual) with the temple-goers as part of the worship of that god.  In this way, the worship of the false god would be self-gratifying to the worshiper and would in effect spiritually unite them with the false god by proxy through the priest.  The writers of the Bible were not unaware of this practice (1 Corinthians 6:15) and condemned prostitution in this circumstance.  Interestingly enough, prostitution in other instances was neither vilified nor prohibited.  Sampson, for instance, was not stripped of his super-human strength when he visited a Philistine prostitute (Judges 16:1-3).  God's strength only left him when he broke his Levite vow to never let a razor touch his hair.  Similarly, Rahab the prostitute was never told to "go and sin no more" by the Israelites, yet she is revered for her courage and can be found listed in the genealogy of Jesus.

Some people point to Sodom and Gomorrah as other examples of why homosexuality is so evil, yet the Bible is pretty clear that in those two cities there simply was no spiritual light.  It references a people who are so corrupt that they would take anything that was not theirs, simply for their own gratification - the very antithesis of Jesus' golden rule of treating others the way that they would want to be treated.  The corruption of those people need not be a de facto indictment of homosexuality.  Indeed, the people didn't seem to care whether the visitors were male or female - they would have raped either to satisfy their own selfish desires.  Unquestionably, selfishness is a form of pride and the Bible speaks against pride in hundreds of places.

So is homosexuality considered a sin in the Bible?  Certainly.  Sort of.  But if one considers the context of the sin, one might also come to the conclusion that using birth control (even the natural "timing method") is the same sin.  Both elevate sex to a god-like experience to be worshipped.  Both directly contradict the levitical laws encouraging large families and the first command of God to mankind to "be fruitful and multiply".  Both can be indicative of a form of pride suggesting a lack of faith in God and a desire by us to "control" our lives.  Most modern homosexuals do not stand at temple doors enjoining people to false gods, but that does not mean that the same thing could not be happening symbolically by the practicing homosexual - improper prioritizing of sex or relationship in and of themselves can be a barrier to God (You shall have no other gods before me).  Likewise, however, that barrier is not limited to homosexuals.  Many heterosexuals are driven by the same underlying motivation when they replace reliance on God with pride or another human being.  God looks at the heart, though (1 Samuel 16:7) while man looks at the outward appearance. 

Finally, this whole issue of supporting "the biblical model of marriage, one man and one woman" is a bit obscene.  Even the most cursory glances of the old testament show men of God such as David, Solomon, Abraham, Jacob, and countless others, had more than one wife.  In fact, multiple wives were codified into Jewish law as the "kinsman redeemer" was supposed to marry the wife of a deceased relative to preserve her estate and her lineage (Ruth 4).  Never, anywhere in the Bible, ever, is it stated that God's "model" is one man and one wife.  There are two or three places that are cited out of context and twisted by the "one plus one" crowd to imply such a model, but they, like our example of crossing the street above, are taken very much out of context.  It would be more accurate to cite the "Puritanical model of marriage" or the "traditional American model of marriage" because it certainly is not the Biblical model.  Nor is it the Islamic model.  Nor is it the Jewish model.

I am not gay and I think that there are a number of societal misconceptions about homosexuality that make this issue so sensitive and misunderstood, but that is neither here nor there. My intent in writing this blog today has more to do with my desire to exhort those who are attempting to "stand up for their faith" as it were, to consider where you got your opinions from, and consider if, through your thoughts and motivations, you might be engaged in the very same behavior that you are condemning.  As Jesus said to the spiritual leaders who had picked up stones to take the life of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:7), "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."