Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What's Really Shocking

It's 6:00 in the morning. I don't go to work until 9 most days, so I'm not usually up this early. But I couldn't sleep well. The thing is, I saw people expressing opinions yesterday that are weighing on my mind. First, I saw a picture of a sign in front of a pizza joint in my home state of Arkansas. It said "Leviticus 20:13. Why don't we listen?" Now, here's what that verse actually says.
If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."
Well, that seems clear enough. This pizza place, called Heavenly Pizza Pies, seems to be calling for the killing of gay people, or at least gay men.* When there was an outcry, they took the sign down and claimed they were saying no such thing. Maybe they didn't mean it that way. I don't know. Here's the response that they posted on Facebook:
We as a company don't support same sex marriage, but we still care for everyone and would do anything to help. We posted a Bold Verse out of God's word, something that as a nation we have forgotten. As a nation we have taken God out of schools, we have taken prayer out of school and the work place, and now we take another one of God's law and throw it away. We will stand bold in honoring God's word in and out of the work place. If you were upset with this verse, remember its God's word, we will all stand before him in judgement.
What are we to make of people posting a sign like that? Honestly, I doubt they really want to see gay people killed, but you never know with some people. One thing we can conclude with confidence is that they're being extremely selective about which parts of Leviticus to take seriously. I mean, this is a pizza place--I'm pretty sure they put sausage, pepperoni, and ham on their pizzas, and all those things are made from pork. Leviticus 11:7-8 clearly says pigs are unclean and not to be eaten. Their carcasses aren't even to be touched, which, it has been often pointed out, would seem to rule out playing football with an actual pigskin.

When questioned, people say such dietary restrictions are part of the Old Covenant, and that the New Covenant makes them unnecessary. But those same people point to the verses about homosexuality in Leviticus and say they still hold. Why? What are their criteria for deciding which parts of the Bible are still valid and which are no longer applicable? I ask this question all the time, because I would really like to know, but I never get a clear answer. Usually I get no answer at all, even though I think I usually succeed in asking nicely. Apparently the question is gauche.

Seeing the picture of this sign in my home state disturbed me enough, though I can't say it surprised me. But what continued to disturb me were other things I saw people saying on the same topic, or in response to it. One woman, in a thread unrelated to the pizza joint sign, also mentioned the parts of the Old Testament that talk about killing gays. She wasn't exactly stating her approval, but she was mentioning it in support of her contention that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong. In a thread about the sign, a guy told me that homosexuality is clearly wrong according to the Bible, and cited Genesis 2:18, where God decides to create women:
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.
This guy was apparently thinking of a different translation, and used the word "worker" instead of helper. Yes, worker. So, here's someone defending the idea that homosexuality is bad, by citing a verse saying women were created almost as an afterthought, to be "workers" for men. I'll admit, I found this kind of upsetting. What made it worse is that he seemed to be a decent guy, who honestly seemed to be trying to do what is right, based on his religion (he thought the pizza place sign was a bad thing, for example).

So I pointed out that he's deciding to how to judge one fraction of the human race (homosexuals), based on his interpretation of a text that says half the human race were created as helpers for the other half. Deciding how to treat that large a percentage of humankind is a pretty serious step to take, morally speaking. And he's doing it based on Genesis, the same book that tells us a snake talked, that people lived hundreds of years, and that Noah got two of every species on earth onto a boat (did he go to the Andes to get llamas? What about plants?).

Anyway, I asked to consider the possibility that the Bible is a book written by members of an ancient tribe living in a violent, sexist, superstitious time. Yes, it does say homosexuality is wrong, that homosexuals should be killed (along with suspected witches and children who curse their parents), and it also says that women were created to be "helpers". And when it does, it's wrong. And when people base their behavior toward women, gays, and others based on a literal interpretation of those verses, they are wrong, and perpetuate the unbelievable injustice that's characterized most of human history--millions of lives lost and wasted, for thousands of years, based on parts of the Bible that are mostly myth or myth-based ritual.

This suggestion was apparently out of bounds. Though I tried hard to be civil, I was the bad guy for saying such things. The man I was debating got mad, and a woman chimed in to say she felt sorry for me and would pray for me. Neither of them seemed at all shocked by Bible verses talking about killing gays, or describing women as "helpers" by design, even though one of them was a woman. Yet they were shocked by me saying those passages should be rejected as the writings of an ancient people who believed the earth was flat.

What kind of world are we living in when a large percentage of people still look at Iron Age documents about killing people, or treating women as second class citizens (because of a story involving their creation from a man's rib) and they aren't shocked by them? Not only are they not shocked, but they believe them and live their lives by them. What they do find shocking is someone questioning those verses. That strikes me as very, very twisted, especially since many of them really are trying to do the right thing. It's just that they're basing their judgement of what's right on very questionable, hard to interpret sources.

Please don't get me wrong. This may be a screed, but it's not an anti-Christian screed--many of the people I admire most are Christians. It's a screed against discrimination based on Biblical literalism. Taking these writings as straightforward guides to behavior is very, very hurtful. The guy I was debating claimed that the Bible verse about killing gays should be interpreted to mean they would be suffer "eternal death" (Hell) not earthly death. That's also hurtful, but I also think he's wrong about the interpretation. I think that verse means exactly what it says, and that it's surely caused untold numbers of violent deaths. Who knows how many people were stoned to death because of that verse, or others like it? It says what it says, and it's wrong.

Obviously, I have a big problem with this kind of fundamentalism. But I have a far bigger problem when its practitioners try to write their Old Testament views of morality into law. If people want to believe these things, that's their right. I think they're wrong and hurtful beliefs, but I'm not going to try to force them to change. That's not the kind of country we live in. But I am going to keep telling them they don't get to force that view of morality on me or anyone else. They were allowed to do so for millennia, and that needs to end. Soon.

Does that mean laws should never enforce moral codes of any kind? Certainly not. Justice Antonin Scalia once asked, if he shouldn't say homosexuality should be illegal, whether he could still say murder should be illegal. Of course he should! Murder clearly hurts people, and you don't need to appeal to any religious text or supernatural entity to see that. Murder, rape, theft, perjury, and dozens of other things are clearly hurtful for obvious, real-world reasons, and should of course be illegal. But ideas about what is wrong based on religion or the supernatural are very debatable, and therefore shouldn't be written into law, especially if not everyone in the country subscribes to that religion. If you want to follow additional moral rules, based on religion and beyond the proper scope of law, that's your prerogative. But I don't see why you should be able to force anyone else to. If you want to tell gays they don't get to have the same right--to love and marry another adult--that you have, you need to realize that you are denying them something most people consider an essential part of a happy life. You'd better have ironclad proof that homosexuality is wrong and damaging, and for reasons that don't appeal to the supernatural. I've never seen any such proof.

And if you want to go on thinking that homosexuality is bad, or that women are "helpers", then that's your right. If you want to quote Bible verses saying homosexuals should be killed, I guess that's your right too, as much as it makes my lip curl to hear it. But please, please ask yourself this: Which is more shocking? People questioning Bible verses that promote such ideas, or the verses themselves?


* I hate that I feel like I need to mention this, but since I'm 41 and single, people will wonder, and that will distract from the point I'm trying to make. I'm straight. I'm not the bravest guy, but I like to think that if I were gay I would have had the guts to come out years ago. This issue is important to me because I have a lot of gay friends I love, and I hate seeing injustice, especially when it's justified with such dubious reasoning.