Should we be surprised when a gay activist famous for his bawdy sex column and known for his glorification of promiscuity attacks the Bible, ridicules Christian morality, and mocks the Pope in the lewdest of terms? Not at all.
Speaking to 3,000 high school students attending a journalism conference in mid-April, Dan Savage strayed from his appointed theme – anti-bullying – and launched into a tirade against the Bible, also castigating scores of Christian students who walked out during his presentation.
He said, “We can learn to ignore the ‘bull—’ in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the ‘bull—’ in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore ‘bull—’ in the Bible about all sorts of things. The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War and justified it.”
After the students walked out in protest, Savage said, “It’s funny, as someone who’s on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-a— some people react when you push back.”
Two weeks later, on April 29th, he issued a clear apology for using the term “pansy-a—” to describe the walkout of the students but emphatically denied that he was attacking Christianity: “I did not attack Christianity. I attacked hypocrisy. [His emphasis.] My remarks can only be read as an attack on all Christians if you believe that all Christians are hypocrites. Which I don’t believe.”
So, an attack on the Bible as a “radically pro-slavery document” which was also very wrong on human sexuality is not an attack on Christianity?
The same day Savage issued his apology, he launched into a similar tirade, this time while speaking in the chapel (!) of Elmhurst College in Illinois (once again, deviating from his anti-bullying topic). He also had some choice words for the Pope: “What the Pope is saying is that the only thing that stands between my [expletive deleted] and Brad Pitt’s mouth is a piece of paper….What the Pope is saying is that once we’re all gay-married we’re going to go extinct in a generation because once we’re all gay-married, we’re gonna forget which hole [expletive deleted] babies.” And I imagine that this was not an attack on Catholicism?
Savage posted another column on May 1st, further justifying his interpretation of Scripture: “There are untrue things in the Bible—and the Koran and the Book of Mormon and every other ‘sacred’ text—and you don’t have to take my word for it: just look at all the biblical ‘shoulds,’ ‘shall nots,’ and ‘abominations’ that religious conservatives already choose to ignore. They know that not everything in the Bible is true. All Christians read the Bible selectively. Some read it hypocritically—and the hypocrites react very angrily when anyone has the nerve to point that out.”
Perhaps there are actually principles of interpretation that help Christians (and Jews) understand and apply the Scriptures?
Let’s start here: Christians are quick to point to Leviticus 18:22 in their condemnation of homosexual practice: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Gay activists and their straight allies are quick to ask: “But what about all the other abominations listed in Leviticus?”
Actually, within Leviticus, only homosexual practice is singled out as an abomination, but elsewhere, the people of Israel are told that they should not eat shellfish (see Leviticus 11, although the word abomination is not used there) while in Leviticus 19, the text says, “You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19). Why don’t Christians pay attention to these other verses?
The answer is simple. Within the Torah (God’s Teaching and Law), there were many laws given to Israel to keep them separate from the nations (like Leviticus 19:19). That’s why the Torah said that certain foods, like shellfish, were unclean for the Israelites but not for all people (see Deuteronomy 14:7, 19). On the other hand, there were laws given to Israel that were universal in scope, like the command not to murder.
When it comes to homosexual practice, not only is it the only sinful action singled out in Leviticus as an abomination, but it is part of a list of universal moral prohibitions, including incest and other forbidden sexual acts. We know this because the chapter states that the Lord judged the pagan nations for these very acts, and if acts were wrong for idol-worshiping pagans, and they were wrong for the people of Israel (see Leviticus 18:24-30). And when we see that the prohibition against homosexual practice is reiterated in the New Testament, the case is settled for those who accept the Bible as God’s Word.
Dan, are you following? I’m not angry with you at all. I’m simply trying to help. We’ll tackle the issue of the Bible and slavery next.
If the Bible is “a radically pro-slavery document” (Dan Savage), how is it that Christians who successfully fought for the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries based their opposition to slavery on that very same Bible? The answer is simple: The Bible is actually not “a radically pro-slavery document.”
According to Savage (following atheist Sam Harris), “the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong. Slavery! What’re the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? 100% percent.”
To be candid, it’s easy to see where Savage and Harris are coming from. After all, in the Old Testament, the Law of Moses didn’t outlaw slavery, it legislated slavery. As for the New Testament, instead of renouncing slavery as an unjust and cruel institution, the authors taught slaves to obey their masters. So, the argument goes, if the Bible got the issue of slavery so terribly wrong, how can it be trusted on the complex issue of human sexuality? And if Christians today are willing to ignore what the Bible says about slavery, what gives them the right to quote the Bible when it comes to the prohibition of homosexual practice?
These are serious questions, and they deserve serious answers. (Dan, remember that I’m here to help!) In short, it was through a misuse of the Bible that Christians justified slavery (along with segregation and the oppression of women) whereas it is by a proper use of the Bible that Christians oppose homosexual practice, while affirming gays and lesbians as people created in God’s image who are objects of Jesus’ love.
Read rightly, the Bible is actually a book of liberation for slaves, a book of equality for the races, and a book of emancipation for women. It celebrates the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt, teaches that in God’s sight, people from every race are equal, and has many glowing things to say about women (did you ever read Proverbs 31:10-31?). Women also played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus and in the early Church. (There are whole books written on these subjects, but this 2008 lecture provides lots of useful information.) In contrast, there is not a single positive reference to homosexual practice in the Bible, while every reference to homosexuality in the Scriptures is decidedly negative.
Dan Savage stated that, “The shortest book in the New Testament [called Philemon] is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn’t say Christians don’t own people. Paul talks about how Christians own people.” To the contrary, Philemon was one of the key biblical texts used by the abolitionists in their argument against slavery.
The letter tells the story of a man named Onesimus who had been Philemon’s slave before escaping and then meeting the apostle Paul, who was at that time a prisoner of Rome. Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ and then wrote to Philemon urging him to receive Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
What a concept! This man was your slave, he ran away and has now become a Christian, so receive him back as your brother and no longer as a slave. Savage really got this one wrong.
As for the larger question of slavery and the New Testament, the Church in its infancy could hardly challenge the entire economic and social structure of Greece and Rome, so it worked within the system, setting in motion principles of liberation and equality, encouraging masters not to threaten their slaves but to provide them “with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9). And, to the shock of many readers, Paul taught that, in Jesus, there was neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 12:13), while Jesus himself declared that he came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18). And then there’s that letter to Philemon.
That’s why Christians like William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison were at the forefront of the abolition movement.
As for the Old Testament, slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient Near East, but the biblical system was much more humane. It was primarily a system of voluntary, indentured servitude lasting for six years unless the slave wanted to serve his master for life. Even then, both master and slave would rest on the Sabbath, if the slave was mistreated he would go free, and there was even a periodic declaration of amnesty when lifetimes slaves would be liberated.
It is only a gross misuse of the Bible that could possibly justify the American slave trade, marked by kidnapping, the murderous and merciless transatlantic middle passage, and then the selling of chained human beings like chattel – just for starts. Each of these acts is strictly forbidden by Old Testament ethics.
Added to all this was the overarching biblical principle of “love your neighbor as yourself,” and to follow this principle means to put an end to slavery. But it does not mean affirming something (homosexual practice) that the Bible explicitly forbids.
What about Old Testament laws that called for the stoning of women who had premarital sex? There’s one more article to come.
How can we quote the Bible in support of our moral values when the Old Testament contains laws calling for the stoning of a woman who lost her virginity before marriage? Actually, based on biblical principles, both Judaism and Christianity teach that such laws are not for today. But could you imagine what America would look like if sex outside of wedlock was as shocking and scandalous in our day as it was in ancient biblical times?
In his talk to high school journalism students, Dan Savage mocked the fact that the Bible “says that if your daughter’s not a virgin on her wedding night – if a woman isn’t a virgin on her wedding night – she shall be dragged to her father’s doorstep and stoned to death.”
Was this law ever justifiable? In ancient Israel, which the Bible states was a theocracy instituted by God himself (according to the Torah, God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt and then spoke his laws to them from Mount Sinai) and which was part of a culture where it was almost unthinkable for a girl to lose her virginity to another man before marriage, a law like this was hardly exceptional.
That being said, by New Testament times, Jewish leaders had virtually abolished the death penalty for such offenses, while Jesus stopped a Jewish crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery and Paul taught that there were spiritual consequences rather than corporal consequences for such offenses. In keeping with this mentality, in absolutely no shape, size, or form would I dream of advocating such laws today any more than I would dream of advocating the death penalty for adultery or homosexual practice.
But let’s ask ourselves some honest questions. While both Dan Savage and I categorically reject the idea of stoning a woman who lost her virginity before marriage, is our society today really in a position to make judgments on ancient Israel when it comes to sexual morality?
In America today, one in four teenage girls has been infected with an STD, and out of the hundreds of thousands of cases of gonorrhea every year, “teenage girls between 15 and 19 account for more cases than any other age group.” Some of the gonorrhea strains are developing into incurable “super bugs.” And we are the enlightened ones?
The CDC reports that one in 5 gay men have HIV, while gay and bisexual men account for half of the new HIV infections in the U.S., having AIDS at a rate over 50 times higher than other groups. (The rates are alarmingly high among gay teens.) Despite this, Dan Savage and his “husband” Terry Miller advocate being “monogamish,” admitting to at least 9 extramarital encounters since they have been together, even claiming that it has been a “stabilizing force” in their relationship. And Savage is criticizing biblical morality?
Let’s also consider the effects of the 1960’s sexual revolution on America. In 1960, 23% of black children were born out of wedlock; by 2008, the out of wedlock birth rate among black Americans was up to 72.3%. In white America, children born out of wedlock rose from 2.3% in 1960 to 28.1% in 2008 – an increase of more than 1000%. According to a Brookings Institution report published in 1996, “Every year about one million more children are born into fatherless families. If we have learned any policy lesson well over the past 25 years, it is that for children living in single-parent homes, the odds of living in poverty are great. The policy implications of the increase in out-of-wedlock births are staggering.”
And what about the modern plague of pornography? Recent surveys indicate that 40 million Americans regularly visit porn sites, that 12% of all internet sites are pornographic, that 25% of search engine requests are pornography related, and that the average age at which a child first sees online pornography is 11. And we are the ones standing on the higher moral ground? (This recent headline from the UK says it all: “Generation XXX: 13-year-old boy sexually abuses 5-year-old sister thanks to porn, says therapist.”)
Perhaps rather than focusing on the issue of the death penalty for premarital sex in ancient Israel – which, to repeat, we categorically reject – we should take a hard look at the massive and destructive sexual promiscuity of our day. Perhaps rather than gloating about our “progressive” attitudes towards premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sex, we should rue the fact that in 1969, 21 percent of Americans believed that “Premarital sex is not wrong” while in 2009, 60 percent stated it was not wrong.
Let the naked truth be told: America today is the land of Ashley Madison ads encouraging adultery, celebrity sex tapes ad nauseam, staggering rates of STD’s, and reality TV shows like “16 and Pregnant.”
All of which leads to a simple conclusion: Putting aside the harsh nature of the penalties involved in some Torah laws (which made sense in an ancient Near Eastern theocracy but not in our world today), I’ll take biblical morality over the Dan Savage version any day of the week. In fact, I have staked my life on it.
Dr. Michael Brown is the author of A Queer Thing Happened to America and the host of the nationally syndicated talk radio show The Line of Fire on the Salem Radio Network.
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