Answering President Jed Bartlet on the Bible and Sexuality
I have been very gradually working my way through The West Wing, currently up to Season 2 and I just saw this epic scene where President Jed Bartlett lays into some conservative Christian radio show host for her views about homosexuality.
I’ve heard this line of argument several times, it latches onto something genuinely problematic which most Christians have a hard time explaining, so I thought it might be a good idea to offer my own response to President Jed Bartlet:
Dear President Bartlet,
Sir, I just saw your rather dramatic lambasting of Dr. Jenna Jacobs for her views on homosexuality. You speak with great passion and conviction on the subject and are rightly concerned that pious people will use religious texts as a license to treat LGBT persons with hatred and indifference. I sincerely appreciate that concern and I applaud it.
As a biblical scholar myself I have to confess that I was seriously impressed with your ability to recall biblical passages from the Pentateuch by memory. You are obviously a veteran of a very rigorous Sunday School program and you can recall Scripture with a precision that would leave many rabbis envious of your abilities. You obviously have spent a lot of time reading the Bible and you take it very seriously. I appreciate that too.
Let me say also that I don’t know Dr. Jacobs, I don’t listen to her show, I have no desire to defend her as I imagine that she and I probably do not see eye to eye on social issues and how to express a Christian view point about them. Still, I do wonder if you gave a Christian view of the Bible and sexuality a fair go, at least as a biblical theologian might express them.
The problem is that you are right, there are some very strange prohibitions in the Bible about combining fabrics together, planting crops side by side, laws pertaining to slavery, and stoning the less scrupulously observant of religion. The Old Testament contains things that are not only weird, but look callous and cruel even to those brought up with a deep reverence for the Bible.
Sir, I do not presume to lecture you on matters of religion, but it seems to me like you want to say in effect, “You believe what the Old Testament says about homosexuality, so then, do you believe all the crazy rules and regulations in the Old Testament too?” That is a good question and such a question requires an obvious “no,” since Christians themselves would concur that they are not bound to obey all the Old Testament regulations. But the matter I wish to press Mr. President is that you have overlooked how Christians read the Old Testament as Scripture and how they use Scripture to construct their own mode of moral discourse.
Please indulge me for a few short moments Mr. President in the hope that I can illuminate your understanding of the Bible and help you better appreciate how Christians use the Bible in their moral reasoning.
First, the Old Testament regulations were for a specific moment in Israel’s history and are not prescriptive for all time. The purpose of the law was to equip the Israelites to survive in the harsh context of the ancient near east. To tease that our further, the purpose of the law was to protract Israel’s capacity to worship God, to cocoon God’s purposes around Israel, to keep the Israelites separate from the peoples of Canaan, to teach Israel about human sin and divine holiness, and to point to the messianic deliverer whom God would send in the future. Many of these laws are not ideal (such as divorce as Jesus himself taught), other laws are a liberalization of ancient practices but still not particularly pleasant (like the treatment of slaves), many laws are related to the specific context of the ancient near east (like inter-tribal warfare), and several laws censure things that seem odd to us like consuming blood (because of its link to pagan worship). So, even from a Christian perspective, we have to say that Old Testament laws were a survival measure in a hostile environment, they were addressing cultures as they were rather than how they might be, they were incremental attempts to bring light to a world that was brutal and dark, and the laws were preparatory for something better rather than final. These laws might be God’s first word on how human should live before him, but they were certainly not the last word either.
Second, the Old Testament is strictly speaking not prescriptive for Christian ethics. That is not because the Old Testament is a bad thing that has been done away with, but because it is a good thing that has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ. I would suggest that the basis of Christian ethics is largely three things: (1) The example of Jesus and the apostles; (2) The teachings of Jesus and the apostles; and (3) Life in the Spirit. The Old Testament Law then is not the constitution for a Christian society, not the content of Christian ethics, nor the catalyst for Christian social reform. Instead, the Law is more like a consultant for Christian beliefs, embodying a form of wisdom on how to fear the Lord, how to walk in his ways, and how to love him. We are not bound to its letter, but we ignore its teachings to the peril our own spiritual ignorance.
Third, if the Old and New agree on one thing, it is this: the supremacy of love. Both Testaments agree that love of God and love of neighbour are the core concerns and truest teachings of Law. We read the commands: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5) and similarly “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). This is precisely what Jesus himself argued according to the Evangelists where Jesus said: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37-40). Even the Apostle Paul, though often maligned for his views of women and homosexual behavior, said: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14).
When it comes to the issue of sexuality and marriage, Christians should not rush to Leviticus or Deuteronomy searching for proof texts for their beliefs. The first thing to note is that Genesis teaches that God made men and women in his image, and that marriage is rooted in a sexual ecology of the complementarity of men and women oriented towards the creation of a family (Gen 1:26-28). What is more, this is something that Jesus affirmed (Mark 10:6-9). On top of that, there are prescriptions about homosexual acts outside Leviticus made by the Apostle Paul (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). And while these prescriptions are disputed are they only about pederasty, an aggressive bi-sexuality, excessive lust, or limited to cultic prostitution generally they are regarded by most scholars as censuring homoerotic behavior. Of course, if you think Jesus and Paul were just wrong and you care to disagree with them, that is fine, but please understand that that is not an attractive option for those of us who wish to affirm what our own tradition teaches on marriage and sexuality.
Mr. President, at the end of the day Christian ethics are based on love not law: love for God and love for our neighbors. Christians, within the precincts of their own consciences, cannot affirm behavior that they believe Scripture prohibits. The wisdom of our tradition is that sexuality is a gift from God, leading us to affirm celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Yet because of the command to love their neighbours, you can expect Christians to always treat people, irrespective of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, with compassion and dignity, as we ourselves would want to be treated. If you wish to wag a finger at Christians for their hypocrisy, and I hope you do, citing texts from Leviticus is probably not the best way to do that. Much better is to accuse Christians of not keeping Jesus’ commands to love their gay neighbor, point out that they have not followed Jesus’ example to welcome those who polite society has rejected, and they have not embraced the lost for whom Jesus said he came to save! That is a word of rebuke Christians need to hear time and again.
That is my two cents on the matter Sir. I wish you all the best in the coming election season.
PS, watch out for that Jeff Haffley guy, he’s a sly old critter!