One of the many books I am reading is Robert Gagnon’s “The Bible and Homosexual Practice.” As one can deduce from the title, Gagnon assumes from the start a couple of things. One, being Gay is a psychological pathology and, two, it is something one chooses to do, a practice. To be honest, I am not particularly invested in what he has to say about what the Bible says about LGBTQ individuals. I am more interested in HOW what he has to say affects others, and whether typical American white patriarchal hypocrisy and its exclusivity ends up being counterproductive to the gospel message.
Being a heterosexual Gentile, I don’t find arguments based on Levitical code particularly compelling, or indeed, relevant to a 21st century Christian’s worldview, nor understand why scholars like Gagnon spend so much time dissecting them and passionately defending prohibitions that defined the covenant between JEWS and YHWH. There were many things listed in those codes that were forbidden, toevah, and were designed to set Israel apart from her neighbors. Evangelicals tend to concentrate on a few toevah that have little impact on them, while disregarding all the other toevah that would inconvenience them or that they enjoy, such as shellfish or wearing clothing of mixed fabrics.
Indeed, some of Israel’s practices were anything but moral. The prohibition against human sacrifice was cruelly circumvented in Israel’s Canaan holy war, where women and children were slaughtered as “herem,” set aside, dedicated to and destroyed for YHWH. This ethnic cleansing was a form of human sacrifice, just not done in a ritualistic manner. The same literalistic “if it was ok for Israel, it’s gotta be ok for the US Cavalry” was the go to excuse for American Manifest Destiny as an American Christian nation systematically raped and pillaged across the lands of the First Nation peoples. Conservatives go to great lengths to rationalize and validate Israel’s genocide, why, so that they can justify their own attacks on others.
The excuse for imperialism from a religious standpoint has always been grounded in the view that the Church universal has replaced Israel as God’s “set apart” people. There is a certain self conscious pride that accompanies that claim, an underlying arrogance that says “we know what’s best for everyone else, and we are going to force it on you.” “We will assimilate you, and if you resist, we will alienate you.” Conservative Christianity has always had a Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde relationship with society, loving, if you meet the requirements for membership and know the rules, but don’t step out of line, or you’ll be ostracized.
This tendency towards religious imperialism is currently on full display in America amongst white conservative evangelicals, Mormons, and other conservative Christians. The outcries against women’s reproductive rights, against minority, immigrant and refugee rights, against the women’s movement, against the LGBTQ community, all give evidence of the need to exclude others, and set one particular group, apart, and above all others. Conservatives have taken the worst aspect of Israel’s past and appropriated it for their own form of Levitical law. While Jesus, and later Paul, show a marked departure and trajectory AWAY from legalism, conservative Christianity shows a dogged determination to return to as much literal interpretation and legalism as possible.
Indeed, the great commandment and the Golden rule seem to almost get in the way of the conservative agenda of “defining” Christianity, of establishing its boundaries. When someone mentions God’s love for all mankind, when Jesus’ cry for God’s unconditional forgiveness for sinners is brought up, all sorts of exceptions are raised. God loves you except if you do this or that.
And, of course, what follows whenever you have religious imperialism, is the effort to impose laws that maintain that religious superiority, again, as we are seeing in America. Just as we saw in ancient Israel with it’s insistence on conformity of society, while maintaining its “apartness” from the heathen, we have this concerted effort to force Christianity (one form of it, anyway) on society, while retaining a sense of superiority at the same time. Time and time again, I have heard my evangelical brothers and sisters talk about America needing to be a Christian nation, while not the other hand, refer to “wide is the path to destruction” and few will find the “narrow gate.” I have even heard Christians joke about it. Their exclusiveness becomes a badge of honor.
Gagnon and others fall into the same trap of seeing Christianity as exclusionary, legalistic and controlling. They make the mistake of defining the relationship God wishes to have with his children as following a set of rules. In doing so, being a child of God becomes something you DO rather than something you ARE. And in the process of defining, as narrowly as possible, who God’s children are, they turn away the greatest amount of people they possibly can. This should not be the goal of Christianity.