Kevin Rudd’s appearance on Q&A on Monday may or may not help his election chances this weekend, but one thing it did is create a bit of a splash in the christian blogosphere regarding his answer to a question about marriage equality. As far as I know this has never been described as a “christian blog”, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents worth.
In case you haven’t seen it (and you can watch it here), part of Rudd’s reply to a question about how he can stand for gay marriage rights was saying that the bible describes slavery as a “natural condition” because in Ephesians 6:5-8 Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. In reply, bloggers like Sandy Grant, David Dould, as well as the pastor who asked the question and a few facebook posts I saw, have taken umbrage with Rudd’s biblical interpretation, saying that the bible never describes slavery as natural.
I think they have a point too. But I also think that they have missed the real point, because by focussing on the specifics of biblical interpretation they are ignoring that for centuries christians built their wealth, even their empires, on the horrific exploitation of slaves. And they justified it from the bible. The reason the church’s doctrine on slavery is what it is now is because we live this side of the abolition movement, not because everyone who reads the bible will automatically decide slavery is wrong.
I also don’t see how anyone who defends the passage in Ephesians to which Rudd referred can then claim, as the pastor who asked the question did, that Matthew 19:5 (“a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife”) can be used as an argument against gay marriage. Just like Paul in Ephesians, Jesus here is making no absolute moral statement, just referring to what the social conditions of the time were. There is no mention or hint in this passage of whether homosexual marriage should be allowed or not. Instead Jesus is responding to the Pharisees, who were using the law to justify men abandoning their commitment to their wives.
In fact, Jesus is silent on homosexuality in all the gospels, with the possible exception of this very passage, where his very cryptic statement in verse 12 (“there are eunuchs who were born that way”) could actually be seen as a challenge to anyone trying to draw defined boundaries around what is “natural” sexuality or gender.
It’s very dangerous trying to draw moral absolutes, or laws, from the bible. While I’ll be the first to say that the bible provides a wonderful foundation for ethics, there are a number of things within it that our modern society would find morally deplorable.
In the Old Testament there are brutal laws and punishments (including laws about slavery), and the advocacy of wholesale slaughter of innocents and genocide in the early days of Israel as a nation. Neither fit very comfortably with Jesus’ later teachings. In the New Testament there is sexism present that certainly seems to contradict Paul’s assertion in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”
Not only that, but as Paul is trying to illustrate in that Galatians passage, the Christian message is not one based laws, but instead on grace and faith. Fundamental to Christianity is the idea that we’re all sinners and it’s not keeping laws that makes righteousness, but faith and love. “For the entire law is fulfilled by keeping this one command: Love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s Paul in Galatians 5:14. Jesus says something pretty similar in Matthew 22:40, but it also sounds quite close to what Kevin Rudd said the other night.
Jesus is anti-laws. The above paragraph shows that, but as further examples I will take a few passages from just one of the gospels. In the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, Jesus systematically tears apart a number of laws (you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery…) by pointing out that it’s useless to keep laws if in your heart you’re not honouring others and God.
In Matt 12, Jesus intentionally and openly breaks the law twice in front of the religious leaders, picking food and then healing someone, to show the ridiculousness of the Pharisees’ legalism. In Matt 15, the Pharisees are again his target, this time over eating laws. “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me… their teachings are merely human rules.” In Matt 23, it’s the same story. As well as beautifully calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”, he calls them out for giving “a tenth of your spices… but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
This post is long enough without me going into detail on any of these passages, but I recommend you check them out more for yourself. My point is that Jesus’ teaching is more about breaking laws than making laws. The bible is not a legal guidebook.
Here’s another little side point while we’re talking about Pharisees. A number of ethical issues were brought up on Q&A the other night, from climate change to refugees to economics. Were christians quoting the bible to press Kevin Rudd on these? It shows the way the church has managed to funnel biblical ethics into a couple of issues while ignoring others. If anyone wonders why the tide of popular opinion is changing and people aren’t convinced with the biblical ethics the church is presenting, this might be a good place to start.
Back to K-Rudd and the biblical passage in question. The really remarkable thing about the book of Ephesians is that it’s a letter that addresses the slaves and speaks to them not as private property but as people with their own moral agency. Immediately following (6:9) is a warning to slave owners that “both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.”
Not only that, but it’s being written by someone in prison (6:20), who claims his authority from another criminal – a man who had in living memory been executed by the government and religious leaders.
Things change, and so it happens that this once persecuted sect called Christianity has come to be the religion of kings and emperors. Of the economically privileged in today’s world who, like the slave owners of the past, enjoy prosperity on the back of the exploitation of others. Where once we were criminals, now we are lawmakers.
But core to the message of the gospel is still the image of God not ruling from a throne, but rejected and despised; hanging on a cross. The God who says that “whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.” (Matt 25:40)
Maybe the place for Christians to be seeking is not that of the legislators deciding who can be married and who can’t, but trying to be loving neighbours to some of the modern day outcasts – those who have grown up being called poofters, fags and dykes. Those who have been told by our society that a sexual orientation beyond their control is somehow inferior or wrong. Those who have been turned away from our churches like the sinners and tax collectors of the bible.
But a warning – identifying as Jesus does with the poorest and least can challenge some of our preconceptions and possibly change you forever. After I made the effort to go out and befriend those my churches had told me were immoral, I found myself standing alongside my gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer friends, declaring that their struggle for equality was also mine.