God's Word is not a selective moral smorgasbord
(September 6, 2022)
There is a tragic tendency of Christians to pick and choose portions of Scripture that support political-social-moral positions they strongly identify with personally … and to reject other parts of Scripture that challenge those same positions. However … it is very important to note that Scripture is a single recitation of God and His commands to us – not unsurprisingly requiring of us some considerable mental effort to make the Word work for us. Selective reading simply skips that part of the critically important task.
I write this because I am deeply sorrowed by an article (and subsequent Facebook posting) entitled "Walter Brueggemann: How to read the Bible on homosexuality (published on September 4, 2022 by Outreach – An LGBTQ Catholic Resource) ... because it was a seminar on "Crisis" put on by Brueggemann back in the early 1980s at the Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama (my attendance to the seminar urged by a friend who cared deeply for me as I was headed through a massive existential crisis) that stirred me to look deeper into a Christian faith I had abandoned two decades earlier ... abandoned as I enthusiastically entered the "professional world" (as a Georgetown grad student and then as a university professor in Mobile). Brueggemann's seminar introduced me to a very caring God (revealed in Jesus Christ) ... a Divine Being that I began to search for eagerly as a follow-up to this seminar. Interestingly I was soon to find that God in both street ministry (to Mobile's homeless) and prison ministry ... and eventually theological studies at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey ... continuing both my street ministry and prison ministry in nearby Trenton at the same time I was going full blast in my Biblical studies.
Tragically, Brueggemann's Outreach article falls into the error of performing a selective reading of God's Word ... finding the portions that confirm viewpoints one already holds on matters - and dismissing (even negating) the portions of Scripture that do not agree with that viewpoint.
My concern is summed up in the statement (highlighted to stand out within his longer text):
Start with the awareness that the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic. Inspired by God as it is, all sorts of persons have a say in the complexity of Scripture, and we are under mandate to listen, as best we can, to all of its voices.
To demonstrate the great social variances that Scripture supposedly speaks by, he quotes Old Testament sources from Leviticus (20:13) and Deuteronomy (23:1) in affirming why it is that "LGBTQ people and those who stand in solidarity with them, look askance at the Bible." These selections are very hostile to homosexual behavior.
Brueggemann even goes on to quote at length Paul's opening words in his letter to the Romans (1:23-27):
They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Brueggemann then goes on to state:
Paul’s intention here is not fully clear, but he wants to name the most extreme affront of the Gentiles before the creator God, and Paul takes disordered sexual relations as the ultimate affront. This indictment is not as clear as those in the tradition of Leviticus, but it does serve as an echo of those texts. It is impossible to explain away these texts.
He then affirms:
Given these most frequently cited texts (that we may designate as texts of rigor), how may we understand the Bible given a cultural circumstance that is very different from that assumed by and reflected in these old traditions?
It is then that Brueggemann asserts the highlighted text:
Well, start with the awareness that the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic. Inspired by God as it is, all sorts of persons have a say in the complexity of Scripture, and we are under mandate to listen, as best we can, to all of its voices
Brueggemann then goes on to include a number of Biblical texts. He states that Isaiah 56:3-8 "has been taken to be an exact refutation of the prohibition in Deuteronomy 23:1." He quotes the particular Isaiah passage:
For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
This text issues a grand welcome to those who have been excluded, so that all are gathered in by this generous gathering God. The temple is for "all peoples," not just the ones who have kept the purity codes.
Beyond this text, we may notice other texts that are tilted toward the inclusion of all persons without asking about their qualifications, or measuring up the costs that have been articulated by those in control. Jesus issues a welcoming summons to all those who are weary and heavy laden:
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30).
No qualification, no exclusion. Jesus is on the side of those who are "worn out." They may be "worn out" by being lower-class people who do all the heavy lifting, or it may be those who are "worn out" by the heavy demands of Torah, imposed by those who make the Torah filled with judgment and exclusion.
Distinguishing between identity and behavior
I can easily sum up my concern about the Brueggemann article on this simple basis: Brueggemann has not distinguished between God's love of us – regardless of our fundamental social identity or where it is that we find ourselves in the social scheme of things – for most certainly God loves all of his human creation – yet just as clearly God's full dislike of some of the social behavior that can follow that identity … depending on how we go at that identity.
Simply put … Jesus loved the woman caught in adultery. However his loving inclusiveness of this social outcast does not mean that he also loved her adulterous behavior. Indeed, after rescuing her from the angry crowd, he clearly warned her not to fall back into that behavior. Jesus certainly most "inclusively" also loved the Samaritan (non-Jewish) woman at the well … but offered no support for her adulterous lifestyle … instead showing her the way out of the bondage her behavior had placed her in. He has urged on both women the taking up of a new identity!
For that matter, that was Jesus's approach to all sinners struggling with their sins … offering them healing, renewal, release from the imprisoning grip of sin (physical, mental, and spiritual) holding them in bondage. He certainly was not confirming them in their previous identity and its resultant behavior!
I repeat … God's love for the person who practices rape, infidelity, prostitution, sodomy, pederasty, etc., does not mean that He is in support of such behavior. That's hardly the case – as Scripture clearly reveals – no matter how Brueggemann choses to read Scripture.
I've seen too much of the human damage caused by sin (in my own life as well) to want to "authorize" such behavior.
I'm also very aware how sexual sin seems to be a rather common problem in human nature … just as much as the abuse of power and wealth can be. These have always been a problem for humankind … from even the very beginning. And the Bible is very clear on the matter that such behavior is not what a loving God wants to see coming from us.
But also I've thankfully seen much of the good that comes in God's Salvation … salvation through delivery from such sin – not by authorizing very destructive sinful behavior.
It is that same distinction between God's loving inclusiveness of all people – regardless of their social placement in larger society – and certain behavior that can easily accompany such social placement – that sadly Brueggemann has failed to make. God loves everyone (even when we humans do not) … but detests their sins (even when we humans find clever ways to excuse those sins).
God's inclusiveness does not include what His Word has clearly marked as sin … sin to be avoided at all costs. This sadly however is something that our modern society is going to find very difficult to accept – and most likely will fight bitterly – as it most eagerly heads down the path that its highly rationalized Idealism wants to take it. Tragically – as history reveals repeatedly – this is not a road that that we should ever be wanting to take.
So once again my plea for my country and my civilization that I love so deeply is for God to come to our rescue … before we do ourselves in (like ancient Israel, Greece and Rome before us). May God bring us another Great Awakening.