You know you’re suffering from jet lag when the entire family is wide awake at 2am watching Pokiemon and playing video games. We all have that “wish I could sleep but I’ve given up” look on our faces. And school and office hours are fast approaching.
For my part, I’ve decided to tidy up a few loose ends from the trip to New Zealand, Australia and Zambia. I’ve downloaded some photos, unpacked a couple of bags, and now I’m trying to sort a few remaining thoughts from the trip. First up, I want to finish reflections on homosexuality and the terms of our public discourse about it. Now, part of me doesn’t want to return to this at all. But another part continued to reflect on things and, interestingly enough, each point along our trip featured some major news story on the subject. So, unable to escape the issue, I’m choosing in this post to pull a couple further reflections together.
What Zambia Teaches Us about Moral Approaches to Homosexuality and Law
First stop: Zambia. It’s actually the third stop in our trip and surprisingly a third stop with some major news item related to homosexuality and gay rights. I was surprised to note during my stay in Zambia an article in one of Lusaka’s newspapers describing an ongoing criminal case regarding homosexual acts. The article appeared on the front page beneath the fold. Two men faced criminal sanction for allegedly offering and engaging in homosexual acts. Zambian law forbids such acts under Cap. 87, Sections 155 through 157 of the Zambian penal code (see here). Section 155 reads:
Any person who: (a) has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; (b) has carnal knowledge of an animal; or (c) permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature; is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.
Section 156 imposes imprisonment for seven years for any “attempt to commit unnatural offences”. Section 158 addresses “any act of gross indecency” committed between two men, two women, or two children of the same sex, “whether in public or in private”, and classifies such acts as felonies punishable by imprisonment for five years (except in the case of children where “best interests of the child” determines the penalty). All of these codes occur in an “Offenses Against Morality” chapter that criminalizes a range of sexual and related offenses including: rape, abduction, indecent assault and insults against women, defilement of children and people with disabilities, trafficking and prostitution, abortion, incest, and the use of drugs and alcohol to commit or attempt sexual crimes.
What interests me is the wording of the Zambian statute–“carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.” The statute covers both heterosexual and homosexual acts. And it does so with a basic and clear appeal to natural order or natural law. Moreover, the public policy does not describe particular sexual acts in the statute itself. Such descriptions and details are left to adjudication, which means the sexual acts themselves are always presented and debated in an effort to refine or reinforce the morality of those behaviors. What might be called the “vagueness” or “general” nature of the law actually works to keep the conscience engaged as the facts and sex acts are presented and debated.
In our previous discussions a good number of thoughtful men and women responded to my post by saying such appeals were “not sufficient” or that they “would not work.” But here in a Zambian daily was an article citing the law and “working” in the very ways being denied in our discussion.
As I’ve reflected on the many comments, posts, and sources cited over the last two weeks, two things seem clear to me:
1. Calls to abandon natural law arguments as insufficient or ineffective appear premature. Moreover, calls to abandon this approach leave us with no widely accessible public square argument. As an evangelical, I proudly hold to the authority, clarity and sufficiency of the Scriptures. But, like a lot of other evangelicals, I also admit that the Bible as a source of authority and moral norms is not accepted by most people in the country. Even a lot of Christians have no functional sense of the Bible’s authority in moral matters. So, if we’re interested to play a part in these public discussions, we’ll have to find an appeal to something broader than the Bible and something logically prior to political force or what we might call “democratic morality.” To my mind broader and prior appeals require some understanding of natural law and appeals to conscience as a beginning point for moral reflection and lawmaking. Or, to put it another way, in a pluralistic and diverse society like ours (values I hold as positive and welcome) society has no moral argument broad enough or basis for agreement accessible enough or even a starting point for discussion without appeals to natural law.
2. Our context has shaped our sense of what’s possible perhaps more than we recognize. Our friends who think a lot about contextualization tell us that we have to develop messages that communicate with an audience that doesn’t necessarily share our assumptions. Without doubt, they’re correct. But we often fail to realize that people in our context who do not share our assumptions are communicating back to us as well. It’s a two-way street. And in this exchange of perspectives and ideals, how we frame a matter shapes and delimits any perceived possible responses. We understand this in the case of abortion. It matters whether you frame the discussion as “choice” or “life.” That frame brings into view possible alternatives and simultaneously excludes others. The frame works like a horse’s blinders, limiting our view to what’s before us and excluding from view wider landscapes. If we’re pro-lifers we do not consider “choice” a viable policy option because it means the possibility of taking life. “Safe, legal and rare” does not begin to satisfy the moral dictates of a conscience that believes all life is made in the image of God and therefore ought to be protected. How we frame things determines what we think is possible or acceptable.
On reflection it seems to me that abandoning natural law and conscience arguments in discussions of homosexuality–the very arguments that sustain the pro-life movement–means the acceptance of rhetorical frameworks and cultural blinders that undermine traditional sexual behavior and morality. In other words, the church has taken on the culture’s frame at the price of her own ability to state and defend the truth plainly from a natural order perspective. We’re in danger of our context contextualizing the church. I’m concerned with the number of faithful Christian brothers and sisters who rule out any probability for effective use of moral law and appeals to conscience. That seems to me a capitulation we need to rethink. In forfeiting as “ineffective” and “insufficient” any appeals to natural order and the conscience, we’re left only with our Bibles (which isn’t a problem if we’re not interested in engaging those who reject the Bible) while we get relegated to “religious bigot” and marginalized as “wanting to force the Bible on everyone else.” If we continue to omit these arguments in the case of public policy discussions of homosexuality, we will continue to see bad public policy enacted and the decay of moral reasoning (not just “traditional” moral reasoning, but moral reasoning itself). And no wonder: We will have abandoned any broad pre-public policy grounds for moral discourse.
JFK Airport and the Exporting of U.S.-Styled “Gay Rights” Perspectives
Our return to this hemisphere was a long grueling route from Lusaka to Johannesburg to Doha to New York to Miami and finally to Grand Cayman. And when we landed in New York we received another reminder of just how far New York is from Lusaka. Airport televisions repeated news coverage of the G-20 Summit taking place in Russia. Lots of attention was appropriately given to the conflict in Syria and the possibility of international intervention in that troubled land.
But in addition to the Syria coverage, news anchors focused on the personal relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Much was made of the fact that no private meeting between the two presidents was scheduled and interpersonal tensions were high.
In the days leading up to the G-20 Summit, news outlets featured two articles regarding “gay rights” in Russia. One asked whether gay activists would be discriminated against in the 2014 Winter Olympics and another pondered Russia’s ban against any public promotion of homosexuality to minors. Unlike Zambia’s ban on private and public acts “against the order of nature,” Russia’s new bill bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” children under 18 years of age. Several prominent gay rights organizations, entertainers and politicians condemned Russia’s law and some are calling for boycotts of the 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in Russia.
In response to these developments, journalists reported that rather than speaking with Mr. Putin personally, and perhaps working diplomatically on some common understanding regarding Syria or even Edward Snowden, President Obama planned to speak to a gathering of Russian “gay rights” activists.
While in Zambia, my family and I had dinner with a number of gracious Zambian families. These were sweet times of hospitality and fellowship. At one dinner conversation, our hostess worked as a public health professional, administering HIV/AIDS and other health programs. She shared with us her perspective on the changing U.S. attitude toward aid to African countries combating HIV/AIDS. Apparently there’s significant pressure to adopt friendly policies and attitudes toward homosexuality as a condition of receiving U.S. aid. That’s a pretty difficult position in southern Africa where homosexual acts are viewed as morally wrong and sometimes illegal.
When I think of the Russian and Zambian examples, I wonder to myself, Is the promotion of homosexual behaviors and lifestyles really the foreign policy issue we want our President to represent? Does the American public really want its Commander-in-Chief using the influence and power of the Oval Office during times of war to dictate sexual morality to other sovereign nations who themselves have used proper legal structures to enact public policies fitting their worldview?
I know I don’t. I don’t want these issues ignored, hence I’m sharing my own perspectives publicly. But I don’t think they rise to the level of snubbing Putin on Syria and meeting with his country’s gay rights advocates instead. Nor do I think a continent fighting a major HIV/AIDS crisis ought to be coerced into adopting what it finds to be morally repugnant and unnatural acts in exchange for humanitarian support. Insofar as the highest levels of U.S. government now advocates internationally on behalf of gay rights, it seems to me that supporters of natural and traditional views will need to step up their game rather than recede further into the background.
One thing seems clear from the Russia example. A policy regime that does not criminalize private acts but does protect children from propaganda is as intolerable to some activists as an outright ban on both private and public acts. This means there’s no positive outcome that can be viewed as win-win. That’s a shame. And it reveals that someone’s morality is going to be “forced” on everyone else–like it or lump it.
A Final Thought on the Use of Language in These Public Policy Debates
Which brings me to a final thought on the use of language in these public policy debates. I benefited greatly from a number of people who questioned whether Christians in particular should use explicit language in our engagement on this issue. Some were shocked and dismayed at the language of my original post. I was glad to hear from them, and especially thankful for Denny Burk’s thoughtful critique and push back. If you haven’t read Denny’s piece, you should. It’s one of a couple that were so useful I retweeted it and commend it as a counter-perspective to my own.
What I want to reply to here is Denny’s very valid question:
Would it not be better to allow our language to be shaped by the Bible’s own language in speaking about these things? If scripture is our authority, then we would do well not to be more explicit than the Bible is in confronting these issues. … In text after text, the Bible’s language about sexuality is indirect and discreet. Would it not be better to adopt the Bible’s mode of expression rather than language that many would consider to be coarse and explicit?
Fair and good question. Denny points out that regarding homosexual acts Romans 1 is the most explicit text in the New Testament and there Paul “does not speak explicitly of body parts.” And, indeed, the Bible does prohibit Christian use of coarse jesting or of Christian casual use of language not befitting our status as God’s holy people. There is no space for air between Denny and me on this issue.
I wonder, however, if two further things ought not be said for a fuller understanding of the use of language here.
First, to Denny’s first question, there are many areas of speech wherein the Bible’s own language does not shape how we speak of things. There are theological areas (say, the Trinity) and there are practical matters (say, sexuality). There is much that we must say about human sexuality, including the use of labels like “homosexual” or even the name of body parts, that find no basis in the biblical text itself. If we’re going to limit our conversation and choice of words to the biblical texts, we’ll soon find ourselves unable to engage this discussion at any length. I think the text is sufficient for setting some broad boundaries, as Denny suggests, and for setting our tone, but I think Denny overlooks the fact that my descriptions are the kinds of descriptions you’ll find in a wikipedia entry on homosexuality (if you thought I was too explicit, you should not view this entry) or in a public school text book. In other words, I used the technical language of the field. All of which makes me think it’s worth considering whether our sense of inappropriateness is formed by the actual language itself–words for body parts we’re likely to use in any talk about “the birds and the bees” with our developing children–or if the sense of (in)appropriateness is actually connected with the description of the sex acts themselves. If the latter, the problem isn’t the language I employed; it’s the acts that trouble us.
Which brings me to a second reaction. I do have a biblical basis for speaking the way I did. My point above would be playing in the shadows of the biblical text if I had no biblical response to Denny’s critique. It’s true that Romans 1, if we take it as an example or model of speech on the issue, does not name body parts. Arguably it stops short of the brief but explicit description I used in my post–even though it does give us its own brief description as Denny acknowledges. But it would not be true to say there’s no biblical support for this kind of rhetoric or no biblical example of its use. What if we moved from using a text like Romans 1 as an example and asked instead, Is there any precept given in the New Testament that justifies the brief but explicit approach I used in the original post?
In principle, I would root my approach in a text like 2 Cor. 4:2, which states, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” As a text like Romans 1 illustrates, Paul’s practice of openly stating the truth included plain statements about the naturalness or shamefulness of certain acts–homosexual in the case of Romans 1 and heterosexual in the case of 1 Cor. 6. He does not shy away from declaring the whole counsel of God which includes frank statements about sexual sin. Moreover, those statements are calculated to (a) keep his conscience clear (2 Cor. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:3), (b)commend his ministry to the conscience of others (2 Cor. 4:2), and (c) awaken the conscience and faith of his hearers (1 Tim. 1:5, 19).
And, at times, it seems to me that Paul did speak in ways calculated to shock the conscience on matters involving sexual morality or immorality. He was in his own way explicit, even if he didn’t use technical names for body parts. Consider his words in 1 Cor. 6:15-16.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ”The two will become one flesh.”
Now, too see why this should have been shocking to conscience and deemed slightly explicit, we need to read it again slowly, letting the analogy and implications take root. First, Paul says our physical bodies are “members” or “body parts” of Jesus Christ. Then Paul asks a rhetorical question: Should we take “members”/body “parts” of Christ (i.e., our physical bodies) and join them to a prostitute? Let the plain implications of the question register. Use a little sanctified imagination. Though, again, he doesn’t name specific body parts, I find Paul’s analogy here rather explicit. Paul means to provoke abhorrence at the thought of Christian sexual immorality by describing it as Christian patronage of prostitution. We know Paul himself abhors the thought because he answers his rhetorical question with an absolute “Never!” and follows with an imperative, “Flee sexual immorality” (v. 18). We’re meant to have the same attitude as the apostle and he’s using a rather explicit sexual metaphor to alarm our conscience.
So, in both precept and practice, I think there’s grounds for attempting what I attempt in the first post. I’m not at all arguing that I executed it flawlessly or even well. I’m simply saying that such an approach does find support in the Scriptures and that if we take Denny’s question to its logical conclusion we’ll be unable to speak about such things as homosexuality at any meaningful length in the public square.
I fully respect those that disagree with me about strategy in the public square and public policy debates. There disagreement does not diminish their Christian profession in my sight or necessarily lower my appreciation of them as persons or ministers where appropriate. I don’t think I have everything right in this discussion. Nor do I even regard myself as a “culture warrior” as some have stated. But as I traveled the world recently, it became clearer than ever that people of conscience who care about these developments need to be appropriately outspoken, frank and loving, plain and bold. The current trends suggest there will be no “opt out” clause, no “conscientious objector” status that any can claim. The debate seems to be zero sum, win-lose. These are precisely the times when every citizen in a free and democratic land needs to let their voice be heard, however popular or not. I’m grateful I live in a land where I can join the fray.