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The Pentateuch, Part 5: Torah and the Christian Moral Compass

A hypothetical dilemma I like to present to Christians to gauge their moral compass is to insert themselves into the Pericope Aulterae–the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery–and see how they would have responded to the same question over stoning the adulteress.  If you were a law abiding Jew in the first century who happened to witness this incident outside the Temple between the Pharisees and a rabbi from out of town, on which side would you be?  The responses I get are often very telling.  Usually, the respondents seem to think that knowing whether this rabbi is the Messiah or not makes all the difference.  Some will say, more or less, that a faithful Jew should have observed the Law up until Jesus shows the woman mercy, essentially a doctrine of abrogation.  It’s these Christians of whom I’m most suspicious of their moral values.  Particularly disturbing is when Christians argue against this passage’s disputed status in the canon on the grounds that its absence could potentially mean adulterers would still need to be stoned to death.

I’ll admit, the question is a bit of a trap, but of course, it was always intended to be one.  A little background on First Century Israel reveals that under Roman rule the Jews had already been made to abandon the practice of stoning long before the time of Christ, so presenting him with that question was really no different than asking the same question to anyone else today.  Christians ought not to think that the actions of Jesus in this story equate to some sort of radical fiat that governs Christianity in a way similar to how the Mosaic Law governed Judaism.  Aside from the fact that this was already the direction Judaism was heading, Christians ethicists ought to be able to come to the same conclusion as Christ did even if this narrative were not authentic, or even if it were not in the Bible.

Part of the problem with Christian morality in practice today is that so many Christians hold exclusively to deontological ethics, which is basically judging the morality of an action based on its adherence to rules.  They tend to do this mostly because they erroneously assume that’s the only definite moral theory available.  In the post-modern era, Christians have been overly trained to reject moral relativism, but have largely overcompensated by reducing the Bible from a holy book to a rule book.

This is a problem first because the Bible doesn’t necessarily limit itself to a single moral theory; Jesus was probably closer to a virtue ethicist than anything else.  Second, deontological ethics fosters moral helplessness.  It would help Christians to listen to their atheistic critics when believers make audacious claims such as that there would be no morality without the Bible.  When Christians act like the only thing stopping them from running amuck murdering, raping, or stealing are the commands in a text, that actually frightens non-Christians and isn’t a very impressive statement about the morality of Christians.  Unfortunately, Christians are at times all too comfortable with this moral helplessness when it gives them a license for bad behavior.  Like a Milgram experiment, they may be led to do things that conflict with their natural, God-given moral compass simply because they’ve been told “it’s in the Bible.”  Church history is regrettably littered with such helpless defenses for killing heretics, enslaving fellow human beings, and other oppression, but fortunately virtue has been on the right side of history.

Lastly, the two testaments of scripture are not the clear-cut, absolute rulebook that Christians make it out to be.  The whole Bible is a complex–sometimes contradictory–book of morality and anyone who acts like it’s a simple handbook is either ignorant of its contents or in denial.  Right wing politicians may argue that the Bible should be the basis for US law, yet evangelicals in particular have never been able to fully agree on the application of said Biblical law.  There obviously wouldn’t be nearly so many fragmented denominations if this weren’t the case.  The New Testament doesn’t always provide a convenient abrogation point of an Old Testament law like it does for stoning adulterers, eating unclean animals, sacrifices, or specific Jewish customs.  I’ve previously demonstrated that customs like gleaning which Christians often incorrectly assume were set aside with the Old Covenant were in reality discontinued much later in history by English common law.  Hardliners often try to supply their own interpretive methods to determine which laws are still applicable and which are not, yet scripture itself doesn’t provide any easy to follow methodology, and even those who claim to follow such methods aren’t as knowledgable about the Torah as one would think they ought to be if they truly believed every law could still be binding.  It seems their conclusions are usually just to apply the grace of the New Testament to themselves and the Old Testament for everybody else.

Perhaps the greater problem at play here is that most of the Christians who hold strictly to deontological ethics aren’t really deontological ethicists themselves.  It’s similar to how so many Christians claim to be Trinitarians simply because they consider that to be an essential Christian doctrine, yet they don’t realize the beliefs they actually hold are Modalism or some other heresy.  Ironically, these hardliners will condemn all non-Trinitarians to hell oblivious to the fact that their own beliefs are in fact no closer to orthodox Trinitarianism.  In the same way, while some Christians are quick to condemn others on the basis of the Mosaic Law, these same Christians don’t really abide by it as strictly as such a reading would demand.  A prominent example of this is when fundamentalists refer to “traditional” marriage as one man and one woman, yet most of the laymen have no idea that biblical marriage also included polygamy, concubines, levirate marriage, prisoners of war, and other customs no longer considered acceptable in today’s society.  We also don’t see any Christian lobby equally concerned that wages should be paid daily according to Deuteronomy 24:15.  Despite all the claims of a morality based in the written word, clearly even conservative Christians draw their moral foundation from elsewhere.

Note that I am not referring to legalism here, as is commonly misunderstood in the ethical discussion.  The Pharisees are often confused as legalists by Christian readers, but the historical record reveals they were actually in the progressive, common sense wing of Judaism, in contrast to the literalist Sadducees who tried to hold to the strict letter of the Law.  While it was the Pharisees who presented Jesus with the test, they were ironically the sect that most closely aligned with his conclusion.  But like Jews who confused the past culture being governed in the Law for the Law itself, today’s Christians have similarly mistaken modern American evangelical culture of the last 50-or-so years as God’s eternal design for living.  As loathe as they would be to admit it, they have much in common with the relativists whom they accuse of letting culture define morality.

Instead of forcing the Bible to be read as a rulebook, I recommend Christians see it as more of a document of an ongoing ethical dialogue.  This was a process which was very active during the first century where talmudic wisdom appears in the Sermon on the Mount and other places in the Gospels, and where Paul uses halakhic reasoning in his epistles.  Though the founders of Christianity are mostly overlooked today as a part of Jewish history, the ideas and interpretive methods they shared are nevertheless the reason why Judaism has adapted to modern life despite not acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah or Paul as an Apostle.  While Christians like to think of the Jews as still under the Law, virtually every modern sect of Judaism today has descended from the Pharisees’ Rabbinic school, thus even the most orthodox Jews are not locked into archaic laws like slavery and stoning.  If Christians under grace could only be so liberated, these common sense roots of morality offer a more universal ethic than one dependent entirely on divine mandate.

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The Pentateuch, Part 4: The Levitical Memeplex

The book of Leviticus isn’t widely popular in Sunday schools.  It only has two narratives, one about “strange fire” which results in the death of Aaron’s sons (chapter 10) and the other about a blasphemer being put to death (chapter 24), neither of which are as child-friendly as other Bible stories like Joseph or David.  Most of its content is law, specifically the ones that Christians don’t observe like ritual sacrifices or dietary restrictions, but also more adult themed subjects about forbidden sex or bodily fluids.  Yet interestingly, the traditional starting point for children learning the Torah in the early synagogue was Leviticus, not Genesis.

The Mosaic Law is, to me, the point where primitive Judaism graduates from being an isolated tribal cult to a world class religion.  Although the narrative continues to wander in the wilderness for another 40 years, the text is firmly settled at this point.  Not just in the sense that it describes permanent dwellings (Lev. 14:33-53) and cities of refuge in the promised land, but in how it evaluates the surrounding culture from an objective standpoint.  It is not written in a bubble by a dogmatic authoritarian, but rather the author has evidently taken inventory of his neighboring legal codes and freely borrowed what was good, improved upon what was lacking, and rejected what was bad.  Leviticus is such a fascinating book for comparative religious studies mostly because it is itself a study of comparative religions.

Some of its practices, like the purification periods after childbirth (Lev 12:1-5) were simply commonplace in the surrounding cultures, as similarly prescribed by Hippocrates, or the custom of priests keeping the hides from animal sacrifices (Lev 7:8), presumably for subsistence, which is also found in Virgil’s Aeneid (Book VII 8:96 “The priest on skins of off’rings takes his ease”).  Surrounding cultures had similar laws governing what to do if an ox or bull gored someone to death (Ex. 21:28-32), such as Hammurabi’s code (251) and also the laws of Eshnunna.  Examples like this seem to be borrowed without commentary, just with minor cultural slant.  Comparative study of other laws, however, sometimes reveals a deliberate underlying repudiation of the gentile legal and purity codes.

The controversial “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 17-26 is where we see the most prominent examples of this when contrasted with the sexual permissiveness of Israel’s neighbors.  The Hittite Code of the Nesilim, for instance, condemned intercourse with one’s mother (188), while allowing it with a stepmother if the father was dead (190).  The Levitical code, on the other hand, prohibits both sexual relations with one’s mother (Lev. 18:7), as well as with any wife of one’s father (Lev. 18:8), presumably from polygamy or remarriage.  Prohibiting both would seem common sense today simply because that’s normative, yet ancient societies had to thoughtfully establish their sexual ethics, and it seems these decisions affected the fitness of their cultural survival.  Hence, Judaism is still a living faith whereas Hittite culture is long extinct.

The Zoroastrian Avesta, a text which also happens to intersect with several narratives in the Torah, particularly the Flood, has a clear example of cultural lending and the modification that results:

Ahura Mazda [the Zoroastrian deity] answered:  “The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva [demon]”

compared with Leviticus 18:22:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

Scholars still debate which version preceded the other, but the debate will probably remain forever unsettled as the Zoroastrian scriptures have a more chaotic history of preservation than the Hebrew canon.  Proponents of a later, post-exilic origin of the Torah will argue that the books of Moses did not reach their final form until exposure to Zoroastrian influence during the Babylonian captivity (7th century BC), but of course this theory works both ways.  Personally, I lean towards the Zoroastrians borrowing from the Jews for the simple reason that their text complicates the subject with the reference to demonology, and from my own experience, borrowed texts tend towards embellishment, not reduction.  It would be unusual for a culture to have co-opted a phrase like this while deliberately excising the superstitious element, but either way the Jewish version doesn’t rely on such magical thinking.  This is consistent with the rest of the Levitical Holiness Code, which grounds its laws in reality and common sense while its neighbors chose mythos instead.  (As a side note, it amuses me when supposed fundamentalists attempt to insert these elements into the Bible like this)

I think the relationship between Judaism and other ancient near east religions is best understood through memetics.  A meme is basically a piece of information that is copied from one person to another, like stories, songs, laws, recipes, etc.  A collection of memes that are passed down together like the Torah are considered a memeplex.  A memeplex self-replicates and preserves itself, demonstrably in the way that a religion spreads.  The memeplex fittest for survival ultimately preserves not only itself, but also the culture that promotes it.  It would be easy to say that the middle eastern culture that prohibited eating foods like pork and shellfish that posed a serious health risk, and also enforcing stabilizing sexual policies that reduced promiscuity and maximized procreation, might have a natural selection advantage over its competitors that was purely accidental or coincidental, if it were just a coincidence.  However, as we’ve learned, memes have a guiding intelligence behind them and the endurance of the Torah through the ages is not an accident of evolution, but rather a deliberate effort to overcome the weaknesses that brought other cultures to decay.

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The One about Gay Marriage

imagesWhen the Supreme Court heard the cases for Prop 8 and DOMA last month, my criticism of the religious right brought me into immediate conflict with my Christian friends and family.  My not being against gay marriage came as a shock to a lot of people who don’t seem to have read my blog. For over a week I was bombarded by concerned Christians trying to either understand my dissent from the apparent mainstream or make me see the error of my ways.  Many of them were hit-and-run “just checking in” comments, while others mainly seemed to follow along a scripted dialogue.  I probably should have just blogged a general response at that time, but emotions were running high and I wanted to be sure that my statement would be thoughtful, rational, and not hurtful.  Now that I’ve collected my thoughts, here are the top things I think that conservative Christians need to know about the gay marriage debate:

1.  Legalizing same-sex marriage has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity.

Without fail, the conversation always starts uncomfortably with the other person first asking me if I’m still a Christian, or if I still believe the Bible, or think homosexuality is a sin, etc.  To me, questioning an opponent’s faith is a frustrating starting point to any debate not just because it seems like a subtle personal attack, but because it really has no bearing on the discussion itself.  It should go without saying that the Bible or any other religion are not and cannot be the basis for US law.  After all, the defense for Prop 8 and DOMA never once mentioned “God” or the “Bible” in their arguments before the Supreme Court.  That seems to be a disconnect from what the conservative protesters outside were arguing.  To me, it seemed rather two-faced to say one thing in public and then present a different case entirely to the Justices, simply because their lawyers knew their real reasons would never stand up in a court of law.  Contrast this with the opposing arguments, that were completely in line with what their supporters on the street actually believe.   I personally think that if Christians want to ban same-sex marriage because they believe it’s what the Bible commands, then they ought to go to court proudly and unashamed with that statement.  Otherwise, it sounds suspiciously like someone trying to uphold a ban on interracial marriage but not wanting to admit that their real reasons for doing so are just because they don’t like people of other races.

The claim for the Biblical basis to oppose gay marriage is not just a lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution, but of the Bible itself.  Critics of these conservative arguments are justified in pointing out the selective nature of certain passages from the Levitical purity code while ignoring others, or even the entire New Covenant.  Modern Christians tend to view Biblical Law like Islamic Sharia Law: an immutable code that reflects God’s ideal plan for mankind that will result in blessings if followed correctly by a society.  Talmudic tradition and and also the interpretive methods of Jesus Christ, however, show that this was never historically the case.  Like the Constitution, the Mosaic Law was a conceptual foundation for jurisprudence, but it was never intended to establish the ideal society.  In fact, as Jesus himself attests to God’s grudgingly permitting divorce, it sometimes regulated rather than outright banned distasteful practices, such as slavery or conquest marriages, which were artifacts of its culture and time.  Christianity’s worldwide success can actually be attributed to its supra-cultural appeal that transcended the bronze age social mores of its Jewish predecessors.  The reality is if Christians today really had to live under Mosaic Law, most of them probably wouldn’t be Christians.

The argument that homosexuality is a sin is even more irrelevant, because U.S. law permits many acts that are sinful according to the Bible–including homosexuality!  It baffles me why libertarian-leaning conservatives have fabricated a controversy solely around the issue of marriage, as if we deny rights to other groups of sinners, or as if we couldn’t further limit people’s rights on that basis.  We take rights like voting away from convicted felons because they’ve committed a crime, we take driver’s licenses away from drunk drivers, we take child custody away from abusive parents, yet we even allow gays to pay the fee and get married in several states but don’t give them the full rights as other legally married couples in their same state.  Gay marriage opponents will, with no support, argue that gays are unfit parents solely on the basis of the sexuality, yet preventing gay couples from marrying doesn’t stop them from having children, it just makes it harder to raise them.  If conservatives really believed that (and really, there’s no reason to), they ought to be trying to take children, either biological or adopted, from their gay parents; otherwise, it’s immoral to let somebody raise children but not permit that child to enjoy the same benefits and security as any other two parent household.   Conservatives need to stop trying to use the law punitively against behavior that’s not actually a crime.

2.  The state does not bless marriages.

With all the talk about the “sanctity” of marriage from the conservative side, I often wonder how they can honestly look at legal marriage in this country and still consider it sacred.  For starters, half of all marriages in this country end in divorce.  Fidelity or procreation are completely untied from the marital contract, we let adulterers, swingers, porn stars, and serial killer death row inmates marry.  Simply put, the state does not make a moral judgment when it grants a marriage license.  On top of that, the desirable benefits legally tied to marriage–inheritance, child custody, joint tax filing, hospital visitation rights, end of life decisions, etc.–have no Biblical basis whatsoever.  If they honestly evaluated it, anybody who would argue gay marriage is an abomination would have to admit that marriage itself is an abomination if we rely on the government to bless it instead of God.  Insisting that gay marriage should be illegal because it will confuse people’s sense of morality is futile, we already have to discern that about a 5-minute Las Vegas marriage and annulment.  We are left to make our own moral judgments about the married and re-married adulterers, swingers, and porn stars, we don’t need to take away their state recognition to do that.  Not everybody will agree with our morality, of course: the Catholic Church won’t marry divorcees even though the state will; not all Christians believe homosexuality is a sin and some already perform gay unions even if the state won’t.

Conservatives mistakenly sees this wedge issue as a moral battle for a holy institution, when marriages could be holy and God-honoring even if they weren’t recognized by the state.  The problem is that making heterosexual marriage the line of demarcation creates far more moral ambiguity than same-sex marriage does, because it creates the false impression that all heterosexual unions are virtuous when in fact the majority are not.  Many of the prominent leaders of the movement–Ted Haggard, Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, and so on–fall disgracefully short of the Biblical ideal, very often in scandals that most gays wouldn’t be caught in.  I think gay marriage is such a popular fight among conservatives simply because it’s so effortless for them.  Most Americans are Biblically illiterate but they claim to be expert Christians just because they can quote a verse from Leviticus.  Nobody questions whether a protester outside the courthouse is a faithful husband or wife, it’s far easier to demonize a tiny 3% of the population than it is to address how the other 97% is actually destroying the institution of marriage.

It’s fashionable at this point for libertarians to throw up their hands and say that government should be completely removed from marriage, but that’s practically impossible.  Marriage is about more than filing taxes jointly, society really can’t function without some rules governing child custody, shared property, and other life decisions.  One country couldn’t easily convert to a system of civil unions since that would negate everyone’s marital standing once they leave that country.

3.  Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with polygamy, pedophilia, bestiality, incest, or anything else.

The next step of the conservative script always seem to jump to the conclusion that gay marriage will open the door to a slippery slope of other practices.  If two consenting adults of the same sex can marry, then what’s to stop 3 or 4, or brothers from marrying each other, or a child, a goat, a toaster, etc.  There are many problems with this illogical assumption, the first being that same-sex relationships are not illegal in this country.  It shouldn’t even need to be mentioned that minors, animals, or inanimate objects cannot give legal consent to marriage or any other contract, and while I don’t think conservatives actually believe this, they still use it as if it were a serious argument.  Honestly, I think this argument is so silly it shouldn’t even need to be addressed, yet follow any news story on gay marriage and you’ll see  one conservative after another comment about this repeatedly as if they’ve never before heard it refuted.

Bigamy, on the other hand, is universally prohibited, and while groups of three or more are free to co-habitate if they choose, the barriers to legalizing polygamy are not as simple as merely expanding it to include the same gender; it would require complex re-writes of every law governing child custody, inheritance, benefits, etc.  Furthermore, polyamorous relationships are not discriminated from marriage benefits like gays are, because two members of the party can still be married and receive the full state and federal benefits.  I will admit, though, that polygamy is the one and only item on this list that might even be a real possibility, but that would be true even if there were no gays.   Polygamy is still currently practiced by millions of people worldwide, mostly Muslims and some fundamentalist Mormons, two of the most anti-gay religions known to man.  Pretty much anything that you claim that gay marriage would lead to would not only be a possible slippery slope arising from heterosexual marriage as well, but would actually be more likely.

But even if polygamists did rally after DOMA and Prop 8 are struck down, it’s still not acceptable to try to ban one thing by banning another.  The way to block polygamy is to pass more aggressive laws addressing polygamy.  Slippery slope arguments are never an acceptable reason to ban anything, because just about anything could be prohibited on that basis.  The Constitution exists not to limit the rights of citizens, but rather to limit the powers of government.  While it’s unacceptable to use a slippery slope in favor of limiting rights (“if we allow citizens to own guns, eventually they’ll want to get nukes, ergo we must ban guns”), it is acceptable to ask that when limiting state powers (“if we ban assault rifles, what’s to stop the state from banning all guns?”).  Therefore, the only place this line of reasoning has in the discussion is questioning if the government could also limit gay people’s rights in any other way or prevent any other groups from marrying.

4.  Gay marriage isn’t about you.

While gay marriage proponents were all changing their facebook profile pictures to the red equality sign, I noticed their friends lists were almost uniformly red.  Looking at the profiles of some of the friends who were staunchly against gay marriage, however, I noticed they had almost no–if any–friends in visible support.  This is not just a reflection of the increasingly polarized political climate, it also shows that the ones most opposed to gay marriage would ironically be the least affected by it.  From my experience, many conservatives seem to erroneously think that gay marriage would be a license for a nationwide moral decline.  The reality, however, is that gay marriage won’t cause anybody to be gay who isn’t already, nor will banning it prevent same-sex couples from living together.  Basically, it will affect no more than a tiny fraction of the 3% of the population who are gay and already in a relationship.  To put this into perspective, when California judges ruled that nothing in the state’s laws prevented two people of the same sex from being married, only a little more than 150,000 couples were wed before Prop 8 was passed to change the constitution, and even this represents the accumulation of couples who were denied the ability to marry for decades.  Unless you have a large circle of gay friends, it’s unlikely that gay marriage will affect you in any way.  But even though conservatives have never been able to explain how gay marriage negatively affects their own marriage, banning it or denying legally married same-sex couples the same benefits as their heterosexual peers has very real detriment to those who are in same-sex relationships as well as their children.

5.  Laws should protect everyone equally, not just promote and benefit the ideal.

The arguments defending Prop 8 centered heavily on promoting heterosexual marriage, even those beyond child-rearing age, as the ideal relationship that government has an interest in promoting because it produces offspring.  The first problem with that reasoning is that marriage doesn’t exist just to benefit the government.  While society as a whole does benefit from stable marriages, the institution actually exists for the protection and security of those involved in the relationship.  Marriage is a contract between those two people, not a contract between them and the government.

The next problem is that government does not exist to protect the ideal, laws should protect everyone equally even if they fall outside that standard.  This principle can also be found in the Mosaic Law by permitting divorce, which not even Jesus would agree was an ideal.  Single parenthood has been shown to have detrimental effects on children (incidentally, these studies are often mis-cited by Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage to support banning gay marriage), yet even though it’s not ideal we don’t attempt to limit people’s rights who remain single parents either by choice or no fault of their own.  The problem with DOMA is that gays are already legally married in 9 jurisdictions, so most of the general conservative arguments are 10 years out of date anyway.  There are 40,000 children living in gay households in California alone, there is no moral justification for withholding them necessary protections just because some squeamish politician in another state might somehow lose sleep with the knowledge that their parents are two men or two women.

Lastly, the gay community and society in general does actually benefit from gay marriage.  Any group historically barred from marriage inherits a self-perpetuating promiscuous stereotype (see the attitudes towards interracial couples before the 60’s).  Marriage in general reduces promiscuity, and gay marriage has been proven to reduce HIV infections in the states where it’s legal.  Ironically, the same people that would condemn the gay community for the stigma of AIDS would also deny them a proven and effective means to avert the epidemic.  In a similar way, conservatives opposed integrating open homosexuals into the military often because of an assumed effeminate stereotype; as long as, in their mind, no gays were in the military, then all gays could fit this self-perpetuating image.  Ultimately when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, there were no noticeable problems in the ranks, gays didn’t start dressing in pink uniforms or hitting on their straight coworkers any more than they do in the civilian world.  Perhaps the Religious Right’s biggest fear about allowing gay marriage nationwide is that it wouldn’t usher in the Apocalypse that they claim it would.

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