July 25, 2013
Note: The new issue of Quaker Theology (#23) is now available for online reading. Contents include responses by the editors of QT and six Friends to a press statement on “Quakers and Homosexuality” by Friends Church Kenya. I wrote one of the six, and the text of my piece is below. The other responses are worth reading as well, and can be found here: http://quaker.org/quest/QT-23-Friends-Church-Kenya-vs-Homosexuals-Text-and-Responses-Quaker-Theology-Number-23.html
In the United States, “marriage equality” has been the phrase at the center of the recent controversy about sexual orientation. Should same sex couples be allowed to marry, or should marriage be limited to opposite sex couples? In this political debate, “equality” and “freedom” have been the central terms.
For those seeking to follow God’s will, however, the religious terms of the issue are quite different. For us, there is no escaping the question of sin. We may all be equal in God’s eyes, and may all be free to choose our life’s path, but what path does God want us to follow? Which way lies sin, and which way lies righteousness?
Governments may come to allow same sex marriage on an equal footing with opposite sex marriage, but then governments allow many forms of sinful behavior from adultery to gambling. The test in the political sphere is not whether some behavior is sinful but whether it will demonstrably cause harm to others. So long as we believe there is no harm to others, we believe individuals ought to be equally free to pursue the path they please.
But for those who choose to submit to God’s will, the path that pleases them will be the path that is pleasing to God. And so, even as marriage equality triumphs in state after state, and even as public opinion polls show increasing majorities for allowing same sex marriage, religious denominations continue to be locked in a cold stalemate about what God wills with regard to acceptable sexual relationships.
Lutherans are divided. Presbyterians are divided. Methodists are divided. Even with their autocratic governance, Roman Catholics are divided. And so forth down the line of U.S. denominations. With a few exceptions, the question of sinfulness of same-sex sexual acts is a contentious one within Christian religious denominations.
As a general rule, the more inclined a denomination is to see the Bible as the only and complete authoritative word of God, the more likely it is to view homosexuality as a sin. Thus, Evangelicals and Pentecostals are strongly inclined to view homosexuality as sinful, pointing to six to ten Bible verses they believe specifically excoriate homosexuality.
Quakers in the United States are divided exactly on these lines. FGC and other liberal Friends are more inclined to welcome gays, lesbians and transgendered people, and to affirm committed same sex relationships. Evangelical Friends are much more inclined to decry homosexuality as sinful, and same-sex unions (even if legal) as illegitimate. Many Conservative Friends (viewing the Bible as important, but not the final word) are tending toward a welcoming and affirming stance. FUM Friends are divided about the matter roughly in terms of whether they accept any spiritual authority beyond the Bible.
With such a tense and explosive argument ongoing in the United States among Christians, we need no additional fuel for the controversy. But with so many Quakers in East Africa, a strong statement from the Friends Church Kenya (purporting to speak for all Kenyan Friends) decrying homosexuality as “a sin that is roundly condemned in scripture” compels the attention of Quakers everywhere.
The argument of the Kenyan statement rests entirely upon eight Bible verses, two in the Hebrew Testament, and six in the New Testament Letters, five of these in letters attributed to Paul. Three of these texts—Ephesians 5:3-5, Galatians 5:19-21, and Jude 1:7—are simple exhortations to avoid “sexual immorality.” They add nothing to an understanding of whether homosexuality should be considered sinful sexual immorality.
The best reading of the other five (Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22-23, Romans 1:26-27, 1Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:9,10) is by no mean simple or straightforward. There are questions of translation, for example, and questions of cultural and historical context. It is unclear whether some of them even are concerned with homosexuality, as we understand that term today. (And let us remember, that word was coined in the late 19th century to demarcate something deviant.) The passages are worth study and discussion, and a great deal has been written about them. But by no means does it suffice to simply list the passages to declare the matter clearly settled. There are many Biblically observant Christians (I am one) who do not see these passages as telling us anything substantial about God’s will with regard to same sex sexual orientation or behavior.
Ask yourself this: would you accept a listing of Biblical passages speaking approvingly of slavery as settling the question of God’s will with regard to slavery? Remember, there are dozens. How about a list of Bible passages urging women to be silent and subservient? Again there are many.
I have no knowledge of why Kenyan Friends undertook to write this recent statement, but every church statement declaring homosexuality as sinful has a story about how it came to be written. Generally, that story has more to do with political currents than spiritual leadings. In the United States, references to homosexuality were extremely rare in denominational teachings until a few decades ago.
In 1963, a group of British Friends wrote “Toward a Quaker View of Sex,” a remarkable, wise and broad-reaching pamphlet that affirmed loving, homosexual relationships. It met with sharp antagonism especially among evangelical Friends. That was a surprising, isolated controversy until the 1970s when more evangelical yearly meetings in the United States began making statements declaring homosexuality a sin – statements that resemble the recent statement from Friends Church Kenya.
In Indiana Yearly Meeting, for example, an FUM yearly meeting that has recently come to schism over the issue, the authoritative statement was not adopted until 1982. It declares “Indiana Yearly Meeting believes homosexual practices to be contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind. We believe the Holy Spirit and Scriptures witness to this.” It then lists five Bible verses: four of those enumerated by Kenyan Friends and one additional verse from Leviticus (adding Leviticus 18:22-23). Though reference is made to the Holy Spirit, no support is tendered for the ‘homosexuality is a sin’ view than the list of five Bible verses.
What animated that 1982 Minute? Let us come back to the political terrain for a moment.
In the United States, we can usefully date the beginning of advocacy among gays and lesbians for full and equal recognition as human beings to June 28, 1969, when homosexuals in Greenwich Village (New York City) resisted police raids against them in what have come to be called the Stonewall Riots, named after a gay bar frequently raided by police. Before then, homosexuals had submitted to social stigma and legal persecution. After Stonewall, gays and lesbians increasingly insisted on an end to such policies and practices. Efforts to end discrimination of gays and lesbians blossomed across the U.S.
The rise of a gay rights movement quickly triggered a political backlash. In 1977, less than a decade after Stonewall, entertainer Anita Bryant began a campaign to overturn a new anti-discrimination employment law in Dade County Florida. She made that cause national in creating a group called Save Our Children. That same year, James Dobson founded Focus on the Family. (Friends may remember an episode in the summer of 1977 when conflict over homosexuality erupted at an international conference of Quakers held in Wichita, Kansas, almost destroying the event.) Harvey Milk, a gay activist and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was assassinated in 1978. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, declaring a war on homosexuals. And three years later, Indiana Yearly Meeting felt prompted to declare homosexuality a sin.
Indiana Yearly Meeting’s 1982 Minute came about, I understand, because the pastor of West Elkton (Ohio) Friends testified at a child custody hearing on behalf of a woman, a meeting attender, who had divorced her husband and had settled into a relationship with lesbian partner. Some members of the meeting complained to the Yearly Meeting office; some in leadership across the yearly meeting mobilized in opposition. And so the Yearly Meeting came to discuss homosexuality and to minute its view. Thus arose a statement now seen as fundamental enough to shatter the Yearly Meeting when some Friends raise questions about what the Bible, read as best we can, really says is sin in these matters.
When IYM wrote that 1982 minute, whose water was it carrying? Today, whose water is being carried by the statement of Friends Church Kenya? Likely there are political currents buffeting the Friends Church in Kenya – just as in the U.S. in recent decades.
I would not have us turn our attention away from the Bible. Rather, I would have us take care to see what God is saying to us through the Bible, not just grab snippets (treacherous-to-translate-snippets) to decide the matter settled.
I would not have us abandon the religious discernment of what is sin in favor of engagement with the political realm’s search for equality and freedom. But I would have us listen together deeply and tenderly for God’s will in all matters of sexuality, not jut the sexuality of those who may seem unlike us.
I would have us remember that, in the Gospels, Jesus says not one word about homosexuality. Over and over he gathers in love those who others—especially political and religious authorities—would scorn.
In our times, Jesus will continue to speak to us, quietly but persistently, leading us to shed our prejudices, even those of very long standing. Authoritative statements, however firm or forceful, will not create a bulwark against God’s love.