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Moral Values, Biblical
Moral Values, and Those that Mattered to Me
Since our 2004 Presidential election I've read numerous articles and editorials discussing strong support for Mr. Bush especially among conservative Christians citing "Biblical moral values," especially on gay marriage and abortion. I've also read several articles describing these voters' expectations of having their moral particulars integrated more thoroughly into laws across America on both the state and federal levels. That expectation seems perfectly reasonable to me; voters elect someone whom they trust to carry out an implicitly shared agenda.
My concerns focus on the many assumptions (especially assumptions treated as absolute, sacred Truth) undergirding that view of "morality." This does bring up many questions of whether certain high-profile beliefs and practices should in fact prevail in America. These questions also speak to the nature and content of political struggles likely to come.
Some persons—certainly not all—who uphold generally conservative values (those often championed as driving many of the votes for Mr. Bush) imply or even state expressly that persons whose moral stances differ from their traditions operate on a lower or even "ungodly" moral plane. A few of my Christian peers oppose or even condemn persons who challenge or simply question long-venerated theological dogmas, doctrines, hermeneutics, and/or "religious authorities." I emphasize that not all Christians assert this position; I do find it too commonly affirmed in conservative circles. (I do self-identify as a Christian, though some of my more conservative Christian peers disagree because I do not affirm certain fundamentalist or creedal positions as literal and objective "Truth.")
Political and social policy decisions related to issues such as sexuality, reproduction, and marriage do have profound implications for the individual and society. Because of this tremendous impact, and the likelihood of this theological platform having more to say in upcoming elections, I do affirm that these issues and the assumptions undergirding them deserve the most diligent and unflinchingly honest, rational study. I hope these pages will contribute constructively to the discussion.
I also realize that worthwhile and credible study faces
These factors provide quite a few points at which sincere, devout, morally conscientious persons may differ in how to sift through the very complex moral questions we face today.
I emphasize that in this website I offer no remarks in sarcasm, derision, or condescension. If you find any that strike you that way or otherwise offend you, I guarantee you I do NOT intend them that way. Please let me know and allow me the opportunity to clarify and make amends if necessary.
I have three central concerns rooted in the present discussion:
Other Morals Matter Too
I respect the concerns voiced by many of my Christian colleagues over the issues cited above. I understand the theological and doctrinal underpinnings. And I have greater concerns for many other profound points of morality—or immorality—(many of which I consider far more substantial) such as:
• "pre-emptively" invading a nation that had not attacked us, and posed no imminent threat (some of Mr. Bush's supporters respond to this by merely diverting attention away from the facts: "Would you rather have Saddam in power?")
• Mr. Bush portraying himself and his military campaign as a divine cause ("Crusade"); later backtracking and sugar-coating his position, speaking of the formerly good relations (which he largely destroyed) with most other civilized nations as having been nothing more than "different opinions," so that now we should "set all that behind us"—in other words, wanting to make all the division and antagonism he generated just magically vanish.
• this should have absolutely offended all who truly, devoutly revere Jesus' life and teachings: Mr. Bush's implicit threat, "You're either with us [America], or you're against us" (cf. Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23). Mr. Bush bastardizes Jesus' words, beating them into war-drum propaganda utterly and absolutely contradictory to the heart of the fundamental gospel message and the history that followed it, at least for the first few decades of the Jesus groups. With this one particularly superficial misappropriation, Mr. Bush shows himself either ignorant of, or unconcerned with, any trace of credibility and integrity in both the (a) intellectual-philosophical-logical and (b) theological-hermeneutic-spiritual aspects of any mature moral deliberations.
• regularly rejecting or squelching all reasonable objections and concerns from not only Americans, but also other allies, including most of those who fully endorsed and supported our military campaign into Afghanistan.
• some of Mr. Bush's supporters slandering even the most intelligent, informed dissent as "unpatriotic" or even "un-Christian."
• frequently mentioning Iraq/Saddam together with Osama/Taliban/Al Qaeda, knowing that eventually many listeners would erroneously blend the disparate, unrelated parties as if they acted together (many did buy this, and today still affirm the belief, even with no substantiation, and despite the administration's later disavowal—which struck me as calculated to provide superficial cover after enough people bought the deception).
• touting this as justification for waging the unprovoked invasion as if it had a central role in the "War On Terror," insisting that Saddam/Iraq posed grave danger, comparable to Osama/Taliban/Al Qaeda.
• consistently avoiding and dismissing any responsibility for the continuing horrible consequences of his determination to wage war (1 2), oblivious to or unwilling to face honestly any significant error on his part, and therefore never showing the moral maturity, courage, or integrity necessary to apologize or make amends (which might "look weak" to some. But why should genuine Christians, at least those who claim to revere Jesus' deliberate self-sacrifice—to betrayal, torture, and grisly execution—as the core guiding principle of their life, care one whit about what superficially "looks weak" to others who do not comprehend spiritual truths?)
• Mr. Bush's literally treating the WMD issue as a joke in his video stunt—a Commander-in-Chief crassly ignoring the tragic morbid reality of then-hundreds of courageous soldiers who died obeying his orders. (1 2 3)
These should suffice to establish that "moral values" go far, far beyond certain tradtional opinions on even weighty issues such as abortion and the definition of marriage. We could enumerate many other legal, ethical, procedural, and environmental issues typifying Mr. Bush and his administration, issues which faded into the background only in contrast with 9/11.
From my own discussions and readings, trying to understand the positions of some of Mr. Bush's supporters, I've noticed at least two significant variables complicating a broad understanding of these points: (1) Few Christians in most mainstream fellowships have commonly identified these points as "moral issues," at least certainly not with the fervor attached to the more conventional target issues, and (2) many sincere, earnest Christians blend their spiritual beliefs with their political, and they cannot (or will not) extricate the two, in such a way that many of these persons tend to misconstrue any challenge to their religious convictions as an insult to and assault on their patriotic values as well, when (at least from me) NO such insult nor assault exists.
Legislating "Biblical Morality" to "Defend the Sanctity of Marriage"
Let's take a more thorough look at the specific proposal that we should affirm and legally mandate a "Biblical" standard of marriage—"one man, one woman, for life"—rooted in Genesis 2:24. Some today affirm that letting gays and lesbians make a formal lifetime marital commitment would somehow "undermine" heterosexual marriage. "Concerned Women for America" and others adamantly oppose offering gays even a civil union because they see this as an intolerable "legitimizing" of homosexuality.
(Some theologically-based opponents of gay marriage apparently recognize the hazards of imposing their religiously-derived morals on a secular republic in which many persons do not subscribe to cultural/religious norms created three and four millennia ago. These opponents seek to re-frame the issue on supposedly purely sociological grounds: "Our society has always rejected this, as have all societies around the world." One doesn't need long to notice the glaring flaw in this tactic: sociological norms do in fact evolve—as other "sociological norms" in America and elsewhere have changed to reject slavery, to allow women to vote, to give minorities the right to sit anywhere in the bus or eat in any restaurant, to allow interracial marriage, to outlaw discrimination on any basis of ethnicity, religion, or race. Note that many sincerely devout, Bible-believing Americans also cited scripture and tradition, championing their culture as if it were holy and sacred, to oppose and condemn these moral advances, in a futile attempt to squelch growth struggles of an ethically maturing society. Today Concerned Women of America and others, likewise citing scripture and tradition, exercise their right to resist gay marriage, just as a few generations ago most men emphatically resisted women's rights to vote, to an education, to work. The formerly promising tactic of decrying gay marriage as an offense against sociological tradition quickly falls apart. The only substantial argument carrying any potential authority to exclude gay marriage lies in presumably divine and unquestionable theological dogmas.)
For discussion let's grant the conservative premise of a "divine and eternal plan" for marriage always to include only "one man, one woman, for life." Let's start examining this question by pointing out a fact that many Christians may not know, or at least may not have thought about in this context. Several key patriarchs, all part of the lineage of Jesus, disregarded Genesis 2:24:
I hope my Christian peers who affirm that they want to shape our culture according to "Biblical morality" don't actually mean that they want to encourage people today to treat monogamous marriage as these venerable Biblical leaders did.
Do opponents of gay marriage duly and explicitly condemn Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon for "undermining" God's Plan for Marriage millennia ago, as strongly as they condemn modern proponents of gay marriage?
In any case, the Hebrew patriarchs' disregard for Genesis 2:24 does not justify any neglect or error on our part. And I've heard some of my Christian friends asserting that this just shows how God could use even these flawed men in his eternal plan. Then this may still today move thinking persons to ask: Does one's setting aside a particular legal, cultural point of scriptural morality effectively diminish the spiritual validity of one's faith, one's relationship to God? These four examples show clearly that going beyond the Genesis dictum of heterosexual monogamous morality into unGodly polygamous immorality does not damage our respect for them. So, at this point in the discussion, Christians today may just as fully honor and welcome homosexuals as spiritual, devout, and Godly.
Most persons I've heard objecting most vigorously to the prospect of gay marriage, or even civil unions, self-identify as Christians. So to avoid getting bogged down in haggling over the ramifications of the Hebrew patriarchs' disregard for one-man-one-woman, let's make a more immediately practical point reflecting that fact. Rather than vaguely invoking "Biblical morality" this delegation should more candidly declare: "We want to impose certain Christian scriptures on this secular republic." For example, Matthew 19:1-12, several references in 1 Cor. 7, and Eph. 5:31 do echo Genesis 2:24. To facilitate discussion here, let's use Mt. 19 to reference these collectively.
For consistency, those who would legally impose Christian doctrine upon all Americans regardless of religious beliefs—should also affirm equally "Godly" moral principles in these verses. For example, given Mt. 19, why do they not also seek to pass laws forbidding any "unscriptural" and thus immoral remarriage? Many Christians affirm that any marriage involving a divorced party for any cause other than adultery, constitutes an unjustifiable, unscriptural, immoral "undermining" of the sanctity of God's plan for marriage. Some Christians insist that only the "innocent party" may ever remarry at all.
Will my Christian friends affirm that our laws, and perhaps even our Constitution, should require all this? If not, why not? What happened to the insistence on infusing Christian moral values of marriage into our laws?
Do my Christian friends who decry the prospect of homosexual marriage as "unscriptural" attack ALL "unscriptural" heterosexual divorce and remarriage with equal indignation? I find very few willing to champion this scripture the same conviction, even though it affirms teachings from Jesus himself! Why? Have they become ashamed of Jesus?
Perhaps they shy away from legislating God's will as Jesus taught it here because they know full well that if they called on their legislators to write Matthew 19 into law, or—in the more extremist position—into our national Constitution, then many of them would have to condemn many of their children, their siblings, their parents, and even themselves for their "undermining" those "Biblical moral values" with their own equally "unscriptural" and thus (by their scriptural standard) evil, immoral divorces and remarriages. Or it could cloak their preference to invoke the more generic label of "Biblical" rather than honestly admitting, "We want Jesus' words as law in America." A few do in fact assert this point. I do sincerely appreciate their consistency (but then I wonder about their taking it seriously when we discuss the third point, below).
But so many selectively focus their indignation on those they condemn as "homosexual sinners"— with no comparably diligent and vocal effort to pass laws defending marriage from heterosexual sinners.
I suggest that this exposes the true core of the moral uproar: not objective dedication to God's Will or even Jesus' own words, but a subjective repulsive prejudice against homosexual intimacy as inexplicably "worse" than heterosexual immorality, though both elicited condemnation under the Hebrew covenant. (For now suffice it to say that any meaningful and worthwhile Biblcal study of homosexuality requires much, much more depth and breadth of knowledge and analysis than the ability to quote Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Rom. 1:27, 1 Cor. 6:9, and 1 Tim. 1:20. Two gays want to formalize a lifetime marital commitment to each other? Disgusting! Pass laws to forbid it! But someone's heterosexual daughter or dad goes into a second or third marriage for whatever reason, or marries someone divorced for a reason other than adultery—oh, that we understand. Cut 'em a break. God's grace can embrace heterosexuals.
This strikes me as blatant hypocrisy.
I have another concern about the typical "Christian morality" agenda: If my Christian peers have any validity in asserting that we must pass laws, or even a Constitutional amendment, to impose the "Biblical standards" of Genesis 2:24, Mt. 19, 1 Cor. 7, and Eph. 5:31 upon all American marriages, why not likewise impose Ephesians 5:22? If we should "defend marriage" by legislating "one man, one woman" for all citizens and residents of the U.S., Christian or not, why should we not demand that our elected officials also pass and enforce laws of "Biblical morality" that "defend the sanctity of marriage" by requiring "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord"?
Why not put Ephesians 5:22 on the ballot? Why not take Ephesians 5:22 to the Congress? Why not inject Ephesians 5:22 into the Constitution? Any reasonable thinking person can answer confidently: because Ephesians 5:22 has no place in America's legal system.
I propose that likewise, a social policy clearly rooted in other Biblical scriptures that teach moral condemnation, derision, and exclusion of homosexuality has no place in America's legal system.
Let's take it one more logical step (logical, that is, according to fundamentalist and conservative hermeneutics and premises). Would my friends who oppose gay marriage—on presumably "Biblical moral values"—not also advocate that we return to the equally "Biblical moral values" of condoning and endorsing slavery as the status quo (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22; Col. 4:1; Titus 2:9)? Note that this refers not to "slavery" as a rhetorical, symbolic, spiritual metaphor (e.g., Rom. 7:25, 1 Cor. 7:22), but as literal, political, economic, physical condition of bondage.
"Ridiculous! No one's said we should try to bring back actual slavery! That would be reprehensible, unjust, and immoral!"
Exactly. I agree: all decent persons should reject any such ludicrous, repugnant, disgusting proposal. And in fact to my knowledge no one has said we should take this huge leap backwards morally, digressing to the ignorance and callousness of this archaic New Testament tolerance of human enslavement. I'm glad that the vast majority of civilized people have grown morally mature enough that we have deliberately and decisively set aside and outright rejected this shameful "moral value" from early Christian writings. And well we should.
This highlights an underlying principle that should shape every informed, rational discussion on morals today: the Bible, for all its good and noble precepts, also reflects its authors, their local culture, and all the flaws and limitations intertwined. Let's learn to respect the Bible in that light: powerful, not perfect; meaningful, but not the ground of all meaning; much of it transcending time, often enlightening and uplifting, and much of it also reflecting and even promoting outdated cultural immaturity, ignorance, even dehumanization.
To the extent that we grasp this fundamental point, we will continue moving toward a more rational, mature moral consciousness. We will grow more fully into an enlightenment that recognizes and respects our cultural and religious heritage, and also realizes the culturally-rooted limitations, errors, ignorances, fears, and prejudices that contaminate them.
Most of my more conservative Christian peers seem to resist this basic view of growth and maturing. I can understand why, as I did the same for some 20-25 years of studying the related problems. I do see these family and friends as decent, honest, genuinely loving and caring persons. Spiritually, most do very well in many things, OK in most, struggling in some, and occasionally or chronically failing in a few—just as I do, though we may differ on the particulars. I admire and appreciate their sincerity. I'm thankful for the good examples they've given me, as well as much of the guidance they've offered.
Those virtues notwithstanding, when it comes to questions of how to define marriage by "Biblical" standards, or investigate the greater complexities involved in issues such as medical care, reproductive rights, abortion, stem-cell research, and so forth, it distresses me that so many otherwise educated, reasonable people still rely so centrally, sometimes unquestioningly, on writings that show themselves so obviously mired in their authors' socially, culturally, and politically-shaped particulars.
At least we can agree on this much: someone who considers abortion murder should not have an abortion. Someone who considers homosexuality sinful should not pursue a homosexual relationship. Someone who sees stem-cell research as wicked should never accept any medical benefits that have any link whatsoever to any stem cell research.
Typically the moral complications here have roots in certain Christians' belief that their moral/cultural traditions and opinions reflect absolutely divine, eternal, transcendent, immutable, and unquestionable Truths—even though those "Truths" have roots in scriptures that deem human enslavement morally acceptable; truths from days when "God's will" deplored not only homosexuality, but also tattoos and wearing blended fabrics; when the birth of a girl rendered a mother "unclean" for twice as long as the birth of a male; when God's perfect, holy, and sublime justice required a rape victim to marry the rapist. Our moral issues require enlightenment and wisdom that goes far beyond this level.
But for many sincere and well-meaning people, reverence for this ancient book excludes any more thorough, expanded knowledge of the issues, or fuller reasoning on, truly profound questions.
Core of Christian "Values"—
As much weight as the first two dynamics carry, I believe this final concern should matter more than any other moral precept we've discussed here—at least for anyone who truly reveres the traditional gospel accounts as mattering more than all other human endeavors and relationships.
Caution: this becomes complex and perhaps difficult or uncomfortable, because it goes beyond the mechanistic proof-text, paint-by-numbers mentality in which simply finding and citing scripture passes for "moral judgment" or even "spiritual wisdom." This issue requires serious reflection on one's method of interpreting, understanding, and applying scriptural principles, recognizing and adjusting for the power of cultural influences.
Many who genuinely revere the teachings and life of Jesus may find it difficult to imagine that Mr. Bush's most definitive actions—which many Americans strongly praised as courageous leadership—showed total disregard of principles, teachings, and Jesus' own example, that have a crucial and indispensable role in the Christian message. Oddly enough, I find that fundamentalist and conservative Christians—who most vigorously claim to believe in and revere the Bible as the literal Word Of God, who in that context cite the Biblical basis for condemning abortion and gay marriage—typically (not always) spend more time than anyone else explaining why in these scriptures Jesus does not literally mean what he says, and why his example in these scriptures does not apply to, say, Mr. Bush's War On Terror (and the invasion of Iraq).
In this context I ask my fellow Christians who cited "Christian morality" as a major factor in their vote for Mr. Bush: rather than focusing on traditional views of homosexuality (about which Jesus said nothing) and abortion (not addressed directly anywhere in the entire Bible), shouldn't you rather set out to pass laws and amend the Constitution to mandate principles that DO have a central and defining role in meaningful Christian spirituality? Here I refer to genuinely profound moral teachings that, according to the gospels, Jesus did live and die by:
• Love one's enemies, pray for and bless those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-47; Romans 12:14)
Should Christians actually believe and
practice this moral precept?
• Forgive those who attack you without reason (Matthew 6:14-15; Luke 23:34)
Christians actually believe and practice this moral precept?
• Refuse to return evil for evil (Romans 12:17)
Should Christians actually believe
and practice this moral precept?
• Do not resist evil; turn the other cheek when assaulted (Matthew 5:38-39; cf. 1 Peter 3:17)
Should Christians actually believe and practice this moral precept?
If Christians should push for the passage of laws and amendments that promote "Christian values," why not start here?
Perhaps because, especially in the volatile circumstances brought on by a President who started an unprovoked war, alienated and antagonized most of our long-standing allies who did support our military campaign pursuing Bin Laden in and near Afghanistan, and who has now gotten us entangled in a world conflict that will take years to resolve—if we ever do untangle it—too many self-professed Christians expressly or implicitly reply, "Forgive Osama? Love Sadddam? You CRAZY, Jesus?"
Jesus, obviously, "doesn't understand" the War On Terror.
Or at least Jesus "doesn't understand" it as George W. Bush does.
Hmmmm. Which perspective should "Christ-ians" honor?
Which dynamics should Christians emphasize as preeminent above all others: (1) the life, teachings, and example of Jesus the Messiah—or (2) our cultural/theological doctrines condemning abortion and demeaning gays?
And which, in practice, did prevail in the 2004 election?
And what's wrong with this picture?
For our purposes here I readily acknowledge that Jesus' core principles—nonviolence, nonresistance, and forgiveness and blessing for enemies—probably make no sense pragmatically nor politically; only within a transcendent framework can anyone affirm them (note: transcendence does not require supernaturalism).
For the record, I concede this point that does exclude legislating forgiveness and love for enemies: those happen subjectively and cannot be monitored objectively. Our legal system can address only overt behaviors (though "malice aforethought" and similar emotional/subjective considerations may clearly influence the verdict and punishment for certain behaviors). Regardless, I think this point rightly highlights why we should focus more on what truly matters most in faith and spiritual values. I do believe that if more Christians genuinely bowed to Jesus' example and actually exalted the truly definitive elements of Jesus' life and example—nonresistance to evil, forgiveness for tormentors, and transcendent love for enemies—we'd have far fewer clashes over our different moral assessments of other issues, we'd not insist on certain traditional moral positions as absolute, and we would learn more the fullness of grace, welcoming each other as God made us, and celebrating that freedom.
I believe a useful and meaningful discussion of these things in coming years will require thinking, caring, devout people to begin working through, discussing, and understanding these distinctions. We must take these things far more seriously.
Merely citing scriptures will not do.
W's World, W's World
As demonstrated matter-of-factly in so many of Mr. Bush's explicit statements, his worldview has no room for such realities. He expresses no grasp of, nor interest in, the complexity of the world's tremendous moral quandaries. He has often affirmed his evidently genuine belief that everything significant in life comes down to the most elementary black-and-white dichotomy:
This viewpoint may seem cute, even endearing among, say, preschoolers—where we expect such a simplistic, grossly limited view—but in any adult, I find it terribly unsettling and disturbing. And when voiced by a man who has the power and the desire to destroy a nation, such na´vetÚ goes beyond questions of morality. I find it spiritually, socially, intellectually, and morally horrifying.
As variations on "Biblical moral issues" will likely take a larger, more explicit role in upcoming American elections, I do have optimism and faith in this sense: I am thankful that through our growing moral maturity we have begun exploring greater knowledge, understanding, and enlightenment that advances us beyond the New Testament's obvious moral inadequacies and errors (slavery as a "moral value.") Let's keep in mind what that obvious, mostly uncontested example tells us about the proper place of scripture.
I do have confidence that as more sincere, devout, spiritual people come to understand, respect, and acknowledge the Bible more thoroughly and honestly—as a product of its culture (and as we likewise recognize and respond to the attendant ramifications)—we will gradually likewise grow beyond these and other examples of the cultural assumptions, traditions, and some prejudices and phobias, too often wrapped in scripture, that drove much of the 2004 election. We can do so much better.
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