Thursday, May 3, 2012

Comments on North Carolina Amendment One

While driving in the car today, I heard that Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham weighed in on the North Carolina amendment against gay marriage. I respect these North Carolina natives.  As a Christian, I treasure much of the work they have both done for God's kingdom.  However, their statements sadden me, not so much because of the politics that I don't agree with, but because of how they use the Bible to support their position.  As a Biblical scholar and a professing Christian, it saddens me to see these men, who are generally regarded as statesmen of the faith, misusing a book I have devoted my life to teaching and studying.  Instead of using this as an opportunity to share a Biblical word of comfort, reconciliation, or even a prophetic word against dehumanizing prejudice, these men used their prominent positions to once again confirm the media's image of Christians, their God, and their Bible as petty and mean-spirited.

Gay marriage is already illegal in North Carolina.  The amendment states that "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."  As many have argued, the amendment is superfluous and so broadly written that legally recognized domestic unions would also be illegal.  I suppose you could use parts of the Bible to back the idea of a perspective claiming to be the "Biblical view on marriage." But why on earth would you want to force that one very narrow perspective on all the citizens of a pluralistic democracy like our own?  Only a few months ago, many Christian conservatives used the (dis)establishment of Religion clause of the US first amendment to protest against the federal government forcing Catholic charities to supply health insurance coverage of birth control.  By what logic, then, can such conservative Christians justify pushing their own unique theological perspective into the bedrooms of their fellow North Carolinians? 

Of course, the argument does not seem to be based upon logic or reason, but on the emotional and selective misinterpretation of the Bible.  In his statement, Billy Graham states that "The Bible is clear, God's definition of marriage is between a man and a woman."  Yes, the Bible has many, many examples of male and female couples.  Some are held up as positive examples; others, particularly in the Old Testament, not so much.  I think of the triangle that binds Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in tragic circumstances, circumstances in which God ultimately comes to the aid of Hagar and Ishmael--the single mother alone with her child in the wilderness.  I think of Hoseah and Gomer, not exactly the happy couple who are the symbols of God's marriage with Israel.  Even Samuel's father, Elkanah, had two wives Peninnah and Hannah.  Simply put, one can find many models of marriage in the Old Testament, not all of them happy or straightforward.

However, I suspect that the amendment is less about advocating the traditional view of marriage as it is about excluding even the legal possibility of gay marriage in North Carolina.  Here, too, in various editorials and in the media, I have seen the Bible misused.  There are typically two passages that are trotted out when discussing the issue of homosexuality.  One passage misguided people turn to is in Leviticus 18:22, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (NRSV).  However, one should be careful about simplistically reading a verse like this out of context.  There are many obscure rules and regulations in Leviticus.  Pulling any number of these out of context and making them into law could have serious consequences for the state of North Carolina.   For example, what would our mills and farms do if there was a constitutional amendment against Lev 19:19, "You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different threads?"  Or shall we next write a constitutional amendment outlawing tattoo parlors, as would be required from a reading of Lev 19:28?  In Lev 11:24-26, it would appear that people are rendered ritually impure by touching the carcasses of such animals as pigs.  That would make Friday night football a special abomination to the Lord, a horrific breach of Sabbath.  And should we outlaw good North Carolina barbecue?  I can't even imagine the cries against government regulation.

More difficult to deal with is Romans 1:26-27.  It would seem that in these verses Paul is singling out same sex behavior as deeply sinful behavior.  However, even this cannot be taken out of context.  In the wider context, Paul doesn't let anything slip from his attention, especially when you look at his list of vices  in 1:28-31.  However, I don't hear anyone advocating a constitutional amendment against such things as strife, gossip, craftiness, arrogance, or foolishness?   If we were to take these verses seriously, I imagine our very legislative process would have to be rendered impious.  

In Paul's thinking about sin, everyone falls short of God's will.  Paul doesn't single out any sin, and neither should we who claim to know the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Still, I'd like to dwell on the interpretation of these verses in Roman 1 for a little while longer.  Paul states that the entire basis for human guilt is idolatry, as he defines in 1:25 as exchanging the "truth about God for a lie and worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator."  Now, how exactly do we serve the creature rather than the Creator.  In 2010, American spent $55 Billion on pets, an increase over previous years, and that in spite of a recession.  Now anyone can tell you that I love my dog as much as anyone can.  However, according to some estimate, a child dies once every 5 seconds in this world from hunger related causes.  This is a tragedy and a horror.  If one really looks at Paul's discussion in Romans 1, we are all implicated--and continue to be as we sit by and do so little to make a real change.

Now, I stated above that I admire the Grahams for their work and I want to take a moment and point out that Franklin Graham in particular has done as much or more than any famous Evangelical to raise awareness about the plight of children's poverty in the world.  Many goodhearted people have chipped in, given money, or prepared shoe boxes for his ministry.   There are many wonderful people in North Carolina who are earnestly motivated to do what they can to help those in need, whether in their own community or overseas. As my fellow North Carolinians prepare to go to the polls this coming Tuesday, I ask simply that they pray and search their conscience and decide which is better: to use their time and energy to do some good in the world for someone in need, or to waste energy supporting a petty and superfluous amendment that could cause great emotional and spiritual harm to our friends, families, and neighbors.