Friday, 18 September 2015

Kim Davis: a theological reflection

There has been so much printed about Kim Davis recently that I am almost reluctant to air my own views.

Almost, but not quite.

Mrs. Davis has come in for a great deal of stick and I have to say I have little sympathy. While I would describe myself as liberal, gay-friendly and affirming of same-sex marriage, I must, though, be clear that I am not gay, Republican nor even American.

I am also a Christian, and this is where the problems seem to begin because, certainly in Republican terms, I am off message: it is not possible in the mind-set of many Republican Christians to support same-sex marriage and be a Christian. Because these two can't be countenanced together I can only be a Christian and not be gay-friendly or be gay-friendly and not be a Christian. 

But I am both.

I am both - and tired of being told that I need to repent of my sins/accept Jesus as my Saviour/read my Bible/etc.

I have done all those things and gone one stage further: I am an ordained minister.

This opens a new line of vitriol because in the Republican Christian worldview none of this computes. I am a "false priest" teaching a "false Gospel" in a "false church" to my "poor, misled" congregation because of my "sin-darkened mind", the remedy for which is to repent/accept Jesus as my Saviour/read my Bible/etc.

And so the conversation becomes circular.

It may just be a cultural thing: where I am from, it would be judged as a gross impertinence to attempt to second-guess the spiritual status of another before God. It is considered best to leave all matters relating to someone else's soul to the grace of God, who alone can know the truth. But no, in the land of the free having the temerity to disagree, have alternative perspectives or question received wisdom is tantamount to sin against the Holy Spirit.

Kim Davis has chosen to make a stand on an issue which, she has stated, goes to the heart of the principle of religious freedom: as a practicing Christian she can not, in all conscience, issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

I have some sympathy for the principle of religious freedom but in this case I believe Mrs. Davis has chosen the wrong issue to fight for. She has claimed that she is fighting over an issue central to her faith when no one could credibly claim that human sexuality is a matter which is determinative of salvation: I can think of a number of things I would list as "central" to the Christian faith - a committed and personal relationship of obedient discipleship with the living Christ being top of that list. Gay marriage - indeed, homosexuality in general - isn't on the list at all. It is not a matter of salvation, so the suggestion that one can not be gay and be a Christian is untheological and unsustainable.

Why can not a gay person be a Christian?

The general argument is that it is about unrepentant sin but that ignores the fact that "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." No one ceases to be a sinner because they have repented. To argue so would be to go against our everyday experience of temptation and failing. In addition, if indeed "All have fallen short of the glory of God", surely all sexuality is fallen - yours, mine, his, hers, theirs - regardless of how anyone's sexuality is characterised.

Part of the "Christian" ant-homosexual polemic also relates to the teaching of scripture: passages so well known they don't need to be repeated here. It is worth noting, though, that there are a mere half a dozen passages specifically referring to homosexual acts. What is overlooked are the vastly more significant numbers of scriptural injunctions and judgements about heterosexual sexual ethics and behaviours. One could, on that basis alone, argue that straights, as opposed to gays, are the ones who are the problem and are the ones in greater need of condemnation and close supervision. It is a travesty of theology - indeed, a perversion of scripture - to assert, on the basis of a few Biblical verses, that God holds a special place of hatred and contempt for homosexuals while claiming, despite such contrary overwhelming scriptural evidence, that God somehow loves and favours the heterosexual more.

In the light of God's searing judgement there is no hierarchy of sin. Sin is sin. It is not God, but we who continue to ascribe levels of severity to sin, passing over some while emphasising others.

 No, sin is sin.

But even this misses the point. If all are created in God's image it is difficult to argue that homosexuality is somehow not of God but, rather than recognise what we have learned through medicine, sociology and psychology - that sexuality is a continuum and certainly not a conscious choice (when did you choose to be straight?), we persevere with a pre-Christian understanding of sexual ethics. In doing so we fall back on the anti-intellectualism inherent in some branches of Christianity that the wisdom of man is as nothing to the wisdom of God, as if our intellects were not gifts of God to be used to bring his Kingdom closer.

We also need to be clear that there is no "Biblical marriage". Scripture gives us a variety of alternatives in terms of sexual relationships, many of which would seem completely alien, unethical and unsavoury today. One man and one woman may now be the norm but it is merely one of a number of options all of which were accepted in their day and recorded in scripture.

The anti-intellectualism I have alluded to would have us, in theory, bound to a whole range of conducts and behaviours deemed as scriptural and yet, with no apparent sense of irony, Christians down the ages of all churchmanships have claimed to be Bible-believers while knowingly picking and choosing which parts of scripture suit them. We are not obedient to the whole canon of Biblical injunctions and moral codes, so this meme of being obedient to scripture is a nonsense and we should be more honest about it instead of hiding behind the fantasy of "scriptural authority" and obedience to it.

The same anti-intellectualism would have us believe that, notwithstanding the on-going work of the Holy Spirit, God's self-revelation ended the moment the canon of scripture was set. Too many Christians view the insights of modern scholarship and hermeneutics as akin to heresy and so they give themselves permission to go on accepting the untenable and never give themselves the option of examining new interpretations.

There is a theological illiteracy at the heart of much that today passes for Christianity and at present it is most apparent in discussions about human sexuality: people quote verses without looking at, let alone understanding, the wider context; people have little understanding that what we are reading in scripture is the end result of a long process of translation (and mistranslation) from ancient Hebrew and Greek, where some of the words and phrases rendered into English are so obscure and with no absolute modern equivalent, that scholars are unsure of the exact meaning. The outcome is often a best-guess stab at the meaning. One of the words translated as "homosexual" would, it now transpires, be better translated as "pederast" which changes the whole meaning of the text.

Regardless of the fact that as Christians we believe the incarnation ushered in a new covenant and regardless of the fact that the whole tenor of Jesus' ministry was to challenge and reform the existing religious order, at the same time as preaching a Gospel of equality, many Christians prefer, instead, to stick with the idea that, in the words of Matthew's Jesus, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them" while ignoring the rider, "but to fulfil them." These people are the Old Testament Christians, or Leviticites, more concerned, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, to observe to the letter the laws that oppressed the people.

It has been long known that the alleged teaching of scripture in both Old and New Testaments on homosexuality is, in fact, a warning against apostasy: a warning to God's people not to follow the cultic sexual practices of Israel's pagan neighbours and yet, we refuse to let-go of our innate belief that these verses are a polemic against all forms of homosexuality, including the faithful, monogamous aspirations of those to whom Kim Davis would deny a marriage license. The two could not be further apart. They are not two sides of the same coin.

If for generations we have been picking and choosing which parts of scripture suit us theologically and culturally (and one could argue that in relation to Mrs. Davis's marriage status) and, given the dreadful history of the churches in getting it wrong on issues such as slavery and race, why have the attitudes to homosexuality stuck? It can only be that these attitudes reflect human sin: the sin of prejudice and closed mindedness; the sin of fear of the different and the other in society; the sin of being judgemental; the sin of superiority and the sin of believing we know the mind of God.

I noted earlier that I thought Kim Davis had chosen the wrong issue to take to the battle of religious freedom. Let's be clear: in America no one is being stopped from worshipping freely. No one is institutionally disadvantaged by being identified as a person of faith. No one is at risk of losing their home, their reputation, their livelihood, their education or, indeed, their life as a consequence of being an out and proud Christian, so let's stop this narrative of persecution. 

You see, while I think Kim Davis is wrong and that in her case the injunction in Romans to obey the laws of the land because they have been instituted by God is a sound principle for a state employee to follow, I do not subscribe to the idea of a blanket ban on civil disobedience.

Kim Davis has chosen not to obey a law, which had she enforced it would have caused no disadvantage or danger to any third party. In so doing she has chosen the wrong fight. There may well be occasions in the future where Christian civil disobedience would be absolutely the right course of action. This is not it and she has diminished the whole principle of Religious freedom as a consequence. 

It seems that when Christians such as Kim Davis and the Republican politicians who have sprung to her support talk about Religious freedom, they are really talking about Christian religious freedom.

This has yet to be tested out in the courts, although it is surely only a matter of time, but can we imagine the fuss if a Quaker clerk refused a gun license on the grounds of religious freedom? Or if a Muslim shopkeeper refused to sell alcohol on the grounds of religious freedom? Or if a Jehovah's Witness doctor refused a blood transfusion on the grounds of religious freedom? Or if a Jewish supermarket checkout operator refused to handle ham on the grounds of religious freedom? There would be uproar, and rightly so.

That is not religious freedom, it is freedom only to impose your own beliefs on others and that, surely, is no freedom at all.



  1. Hi Fr. Lewyar,

    I like your article very much. I pinned your comic on my Pinterest board (hope that was okay)
    I am an American Christian and am confused and ashamed at the behavior of many of my brothers and sisters. I've been studying and researching, trying to find answers to the hardness of heart within the church around me.
    I am not a religious scholar, but do you think it is possible that there is a type of teaching like Martin Luther called "theologians of glory" that is influencing the church? Maybe they are straying too far from the cross of Christ.
    Maybe we need to focus on the perversity of 1 Corinthians 1 rather than the perversity of our fellow man ;) Do you think I am on the right track or exaggerating the problem?

    Thank you for your thoughtful post,

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi Jamie,

    Thanks for the feedback. This is a hard issue no? It's one I'm cautious not to address in too much detail from my side of the Atlantic but it strikes me that you are not exaggerating at all: there is a war for the soul of the church in America right now.

    In terms of influencing the discussion or general tone of debate I think the key is to behave in a Christ-like way: too much of what we see is anything but Christ-like. My own scriptural touchstones are the passage in Micah which talks about loving mercy and justice and walking humbly with God, and St. Paul's advice in Philippians 2.12 to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

    Follow that teaching and try not to worry about others: let your example be your testimony.

    If you are on Facebook I would commend to you two groups, "Kissing Fish" and "The Christian Left." You may be pleased to discover that you are not alone and I hope you find them a support and a help as you negotiate the culture wars around American Christianity.