Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers

Source of book: I own this.

This post introduces what I hope to be a new series for Women’s History Month (March). While I am a huge fan of female writers, and try to read a wide range of books each year, I have never concentrated specifically on Women’s History. Regular readers know, however, that I love strong women, despise patriarchal ideas, and hope to make the world a better place for my daughters. 

I first discovered Dorothy Sayers in either junior high or high school, through her short story, “The Inspiration of Mr. Budd.” I didn’t read any of her other books until law school, when my classmate Darren brought along a copy of Murder Must Advertise to one of our conferences. Never one to focus exclusively on study with no outside reading to break the monotony, I borrowed it, and was hooked.

While the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are her best known works, she was actually embarrassed by this fact. She had hoped that her more serious works would outlive her, not just the light mysteries. Other than the mystery series, her best known works are her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and her work on the creative process, The Mind of the Maker. (The latter is on my list of future reads.) Less well known are her theological works.

Sayers was notable for her academic achievement in an era when women were not encouraged in such pursuits. At the time she completed her time at Oxford, women were allowed to attend, but were not awarded degrees. This policy changed soon afterward, and she received her degree at that time. Although Sayers did not consider herself a feminist, she advocated for feminist ideas, some of which remain highly controversial in some theological circles even today.

This particular book is quite short, consisting of two essays, “Are Women Human,” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”

I have never been so tempted in my life to simply reproduce the entire text of a book and use that as my review. Sayers’ writing is that good, and so expresses my frustration with the culture of gender essentialism that still lingers.

Sayers’ basic thesis is that while men are considered as individuals, women are considered as a class, as “women,” rather than as full human beings. While men are sometimes treated the same way, for women, it is rather a fact of life. Sayers uses a particular question she was asked as an example. “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?” The question presupposes that women are a homogenous class. As Sayers points out, probably most women - and most men for that matter - are not all that interested in Aristotle. But she is, and that is the key point. Likewise, the question, “What do women want?” is so common as to be a cliche. Yet it means something vastly different than, “What do men want?” Sayers points out that women are more likely to ask what their particular man wants - hence the focus on pleasing the man. Women are instead lumped into a class.

What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.

A woman, no less than a man, is human and has desires that are individual, not as a part of a class. For a gender determinist, the single most important fact about a person is their membership in a group: are they male or female. This fact trumps any further discussion of individual preferences.

What we ask is to be human individuals, however peculiar and unexpected. It is no good saying: "You are a little girl and therefore you ought to like dolls"; if the answer is, "But I don't," there is no more to be said.

This is the exact heart of the disagreement. Does gender class membership trump individual preference? Is biology destiny?

One of my favorite of Sayer’s points is the one she makes at the beginning of the second essay. We carelessly use the term, “the opposite sex.” But in reality, there is nothing in existence that more closely resembles the human female as the human male. Thus, she describes them as “neighboring” sexes, not opposite. Again, this seems a bit self evident, but it is the one thing that gender essentialists refuse to grant.

In support of this idea, Sayers recounts a conversation she had regarding her writing.

A man once asked me ... how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. "Well," said the man, "I shouldn't have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing." I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.

This is exactly why one of my main beefs with the works of Charles Dickens is that he is incapable of writing believable female characters. He can create types, caricatures, but not real flesh and blood women. Why not? Because he isn’t able to view them as completely, fully human. They are either caricatures, or hopelessly impossible angels.

Sayers notes that she considers “women are divine creatures” to be more offensive than “women are the weaker vessel.”

I won’t quote the entire second essay, as much as I really want to, because of length (and copyright issues), but I do want to note that there is an extended discussion of the connection between dress codes for women and the view that women have different goals in picking clothing. (Sayers was greatly fond of trousers for their comfort and warmth, and bristled at all of the sexual connotations that the objections to them contained.) Men dress as they wish, but women are expected to dress for the pleasure of men. The more things change…

The other outstanding section in the second essay is an extended use of one of my very favorite devices. If you want to determine if something is sexist, say the same thing with the genders switched. The six pages in which Sayers turns popular ideas about women upside down are simply marvelous.

Just one of many examples:

His newspaper would assist him with a “Men’s Corner,” telling him how, by the expenditure of a good deal of money and a couple hours a day, he could attract the girls and retain his wife’s affection...

There is one final point that I want to make. I have been feeling for quite some time that the “a woman’s place is in the home” is both a recent development in our culture, and also one that has a strong classist bent. (I hope to write a more extensive post on this in the future.) Sayers filled in one final bit of information that I hadn’t considered.

A common argument against women working in “masculine” professions is that one doesn’t see men trying to take women’s jobs.

As Sayers points out, “Of course they do not. They have done it already.”

She then goes through the list of occupations that used to be primarily female before the industrial revolution. Pretty much the entire textile industry. The brewing and distilling. Preserving, pickling, bottling. And, since many men were absent for long periods during wars or on business, women had to act as CEOs for whatever the family trade was.

These occupations have been taken away from women, and largely made the domain of men, through the factory system.

If one looks closely at the change, what has happened is that all of the occupations that bring economic power and are genuinely enjoyable have been taken away from women, and given to men. It is easy to forget that when all of these important industries were done by women, those women contributed significantly to household income, and were thus indispensable. While political power didn’t come until later, there was genuine economic power.

And what have women been left within the home? A variety of fairly brainless and unrewarding tasks. I would venture that outside of a very small minority, few people find house cleaning and dishes to be much fun, and it certainly doesn’t pay. Cooking can be pleasurable, which may be why more men are moving back into the kitchen. (I love to cook, after all.) So why do the less pleasant but still necessary tasks end up as “women’s work?”

I know I am going against the grain with this one, but I agree with Sayers that the idea that child care for school aged children is only a full time job if you make it that way. The women of the past did so while engaging - of necessity - in all those other occupations. And, let’s be abundantly honest: outside of the middle to upper classes, women have always, and still do work while caring for children.

As Sayers puts it, “There has never been any question but that the women of the poor should toil alongside their men. No angry, and no compassionate, voice has been raised to say that women should not break their backs with harvest work, or soil their hands with blacking grates and peeling potatoes. The objection is only to work which is pleasant, exciting, or profitable - the work that any human being might think it worth while to do.”

She also points out that the idea that a wife didn’t need to soil her hands with work went mainstream when the middle classes tried to emulate the values of the nobility: an idle wife was the sign of a superior social status.

And what of those middle class women who might wish to find occupation?

It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being - and a human being must have occupation, if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world.

Look, I am not arguing against couples making a division of labor whereby one spouse cares for the children full time. In fact, this works well for many people with infants and those who choose to homeschool their kids. (My parents used this split until we were all up and out, at which point my mom returned to school and then work.) The problem comes when we insist that this is the only way it can or should be, or - what is very much the same thing - that it is the only “godly” way it should be. Even aside from the fact that this pretty much eliminates lower income people from attaining “godliness,” thus making the privilege of wealth into a virtue; it places women in a position where they have fewer - and less fulfilling - occupations available than they had a few hundred years ago. That makes no sense.

So, when evaluating how we speak of men and women, I believe it really is important to ask, “Am I viewing women as fully human, with ordinary human desires, or am I placing them in a category of ‘women,’ without regard to their humanity?”

Sayers doesn’t stop with the idea that class membership is the wrong way to view women, she also expands the idea to the whole of society.

A difference of age is as fundamental as a difference of sex; and so is a difference of nationality. All categories, if they are insisted upon beyond the immediate purpose which they serve, breed class antagonism and disruption in the state, and that is why they are dangerous.
To oppose one class perpetually to another - young against old, manual labor against brain-worker, rich against poor, man against woman - is to split the foundations of the state; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it - not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian state, where no one may think or act except as a member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick, and Harry, and the individual Jack and Jill - in fact upon you and me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Source of book: I own this.

Even though I finished reading this book several days ago, I have been contemplating, writing, and rewriting my thoughts. I read this book slowly enough anyway, and pondered it while reading, but I still haven’t come to a solid conclusion about it. It is undoubtedly a beautiful book, a haunting book, one that expresses the inexpressible; but it is hard to be sure entirely what Lewis meant by it, and even harder to decide what I feel about his meaning.

Till We Have Faces is an imaginative retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, from the point of view of the “wicked stepsister.” But it is more than that. Lewis adds psychological depth to an already complex story, and makes it in so many ways more terrifying and rending than the original.

The story of Cupid and Psyche dates back at least to the 4th Century BCE, as evidenced by artwork from that period. The written version of the tale appears as a story within the story in a novel by Apuleius, a Roman author of the 2nd Century CE. The book was largely forgotten after the fall of the Roman empire, but was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Since that time, it has been a source of inspiration for the visual arts, poetry, and prose. While many of the old myths continue to resonate with us as allegorical representations of truth, this one seems particularly timeless in its depiction of love, trust, and jealousy. Lewis takes it even further by creating a complex, flawed, and sympathetic character that tells us, ultimately, about ourselves.


Those who are already familiar with the underlying story can skip this part. I have noted before that I keep a Bible, a Bulfinch’s Mythology, and a dictionary handy when reading, because these three are indispensable for understanding much of literature.

Psyche was the youngest of three sister princesses, and had such beauty that the people stopped worshiping Venus, and started giving homage to Psyche instead. Venus became jealous, and incited the people to sacrifice Psyche by leaving her exposed to be devoured by (or perhaps married to) a monster.

Venus’ son, Cupid, sees Psyche, and falls in love with her. He has her taken to his palace, and comes to her at night and makes love to her, but forbids her to see him.

Psyche’s sisters are allowed to visit her, and they are overcome with jealousy at her palace, and conspire to destroy her happiness. They claim that she is married to the monster, and that is why he won’t let her see him, and convince her to take a lamp and look at him while he is sleeping. She accidentally wakes him up, and he banishes her.

After the sisters are lured to their doom, Psyche wanders the earth searching for her lover. She seeks divine assistance, but the other goddesses will not intervene. Venus herself is still furious, and sets Psyche to a series of impossible tasks, which she completes with assistance from animals, plants, and eventually Jupiter himself. At the very last, she gives in to curiosity, and all seems lost, but Cupid is able to convince Jupiter to make Psyche immortal, so they can be united in marriage. Thus love wins in the end.


C. S. Lewis was haunted and fascinated by the story of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life. He initially conceived the idea of the book, and indeed many of the ideas, during his undergratuate days. He would continue to mull over the questions and ideas for the next 35+ years, finally writing everything down in 1956. Lewis would dedicate the book to Joy Davidman, who he would marry later that year. She helped him with the book, and he later said that he patterned the final version of the main character in part after her.

The word “psyche” itself has multiple meanings. In its literal sense, it meant “breath” in Greek. But it also was used as the word for “butterfly” and for “the soul.” Thus, in the story and in real life, it was often used as a woman’s name. The little butterfly. But it also referred to the innermost being, and was used in that sense. So Cupid and Psyche could be understood allegorically as the wedding of love/desire with the soul. It also has been understood as an allegory of the Neoplatonic concept of the melding of the human soul with the Divine. Apuleius probably intended his version to be read that way, and later authors followed that basic idea, sometimes expanding the allegory by giving specific names to the parents and sisters of Psyche.

Lewis follows the basic idea of the union of the soul and the Divine nature, but makes some key changes to the plot. In my opinion, it is these that bring the complexity to the characters and to the fateful decisions they make.

The reason for the changes was simple. Lewis noticed that some of the characters behaved in ways that were illogical. The motivation seemed unclear, and hardly human.

Since Lewis elected to tell the tale from the point of view of the stepsister, he had to find a way to make her more than a cookie-cutter evil stepsister villain. So, he decided to make Cupid’s palace invisible to all except Psyche. Thus, she appears mad when visited by her sister, Orual. While Orual’s motives are not pure, she is motivated in large part by love for Psyche, and only realizes her error too late. Because she is the protagonist, she cannot be simply killed off by Venus early in the narrative. Instead, she is sentenced by Cupid to her own punishment, “You too shall be Psyche.” A good bit of the rest of the book is a departure from the original. Psyche’s tasks are given little time, while Orual’s life as queen takes center stage. Psyche herself is absent until the end.

There are some other changes to Orual as well. In the original, she is beautiful - just not as beautiful as Psyche. In Lewis’ version, she is ugly, and those around her are happy to tell her that. After the kingdom falls on hard times and a political marriage becomes unlikely, she has to resign herself to a lonely life. She initially compensates by pouring her love into her little sister, but when Psyche is taken from her, she buries her self in her role as queen. By all accounts, she is a strong, wise, and benevolent ruler, as the end of the book makes clear. But she has damaged those closest to her because her love for them is selfish and needy. She has damaged herself as well.

The book is divided into two sections, the first of which is much longer. It tells the story itself through the point in time when the older Orual writes down her story, which she intends to be her complaint against the gods. The second part is her epilogue after she has had an epiphany and sees things from a far different perspective. That moment might be characterized as her conversion, when she comes to peace with the gods.

It is this moment and the contrast that has given me the most trouble. I spent some time reading a variety of opinions about the book to see what ideas others have had. Most who have analyzed the book from the “Christian” perspective came to the conclusion that it was, to a degree, a representation of Lewis’ own conversion experience. (I use “Christian” in quotes, because there isn’t any one Christian viewpoint, any more than there is a one “American” viewpoint.) It is an interesting idea, particularly given that the book was conceived long before Lewis converted. It might explain why, to me at least, the second part felt a little disconnected from the first. Not that they didn’t fit together, but that the first part could have stood alone without the second.

This brings me to the discomfort at the heart of the resolution for me. True enough that Orual is biased. (The fact that she is an unreliable narrator is part of why she is such a likeable character.) True enough also that she cannot know or see everything, particularly the meaning of her own suffering. In that sense, it is like the Book of Job, where the questions are answered with another question, and the meaning is never known to the sufferer. Perhaps that is Lewis’ intent. In my experience, he often avoids attempting a complete answer to unanswerable questions. The resolution occurs, but the question remains. I was reminded of the question he grapples with in Perelandra: could the fall of mankind been prevented just by removing the temptor? In that book, the answer may be yes. Or it may not, and that is the thought that is left at the end.

Orual has a point, too. Had she been able to see clearly, had the gods revealed themselves to her, she would have made different choices. She is particularly pained when she hears her story told by a priest, who tells it like the classic legend, with all blame and no mitigation for Orual’s part in the story. I very much identify with Orual on this. There is so much in life that feels like groping and staggering in the rough direction of the good, of the truth, and yet it remains hidden to us.

That said, I do think that Lewis makes a valid theological point which is too often forgotten. No matter how much we know or learn or think, we will always see but a part of the picture. We do not know the answers, or at least the complete answer. For the old Orual, she concluded at the end of the first part that the gods themselves had no answer.

Let them answer my charge if they can. It may well be that, instead of answering, they’ll strike me mad or leprous, or turn me into beast, bird, or tree. But will not all the world then know (and the gods will know it knows) that this is because they have no answer?

The converted Orual realizes that the communication itself is impossible, and that the meaning cannot be seen until there has been some change in her (and in all mortals).

I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till the word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

The second part then ends incomplete, as Orual dies before she can finish her thought entirely. But what she is able to say responds to the end of the first part.

I ended my first book with the words “no answer.” I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might–

It is an interesting contrast. “No answer” and “I might.”

The transformation theme is one that Lewis used elsewhere. In The Last Battle, there is a contrast between what is “real” and what is really real. That which we see is a faded reflection of what truly is. Likewise, in The Great Divorce, which I read in my early teens, those who come to visit heaven from hell cannot tolerate the grass, because it is so real it hurts their feet. They are mere shadows, not yet become real. These are all connected to each other, and to an idea set forth by Saint Paul.

For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. (I Corinthians 13:12)

And also by Saint John.

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. (I John 3:2)

It is the mystery of how we shall someday have faces and be made real.

There were a few other things that stood out about the book. Orual describes her love for Psyche in very interesting terms.

I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.

Even in Orual’s own words, one can see that she is projecting her own disappointments onto the relationship. It is a selfish love, and it is consuming. That is why when Psyche is taken, it destroys pretty much every hope Orual has.

A couple of literary references were also noteworthy. Orual feels that her father has sacrificed Psyche in the same way Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. But also, Orual would desire to be Iphigenia if that would save Psyche. Later, when it appears too late, Orual decides to play the part of Antigone, by seeking to give Psyche a decent burial.

In one of the central scenes, where Orual (who has learned to swordfight) challenges a neighboring prince to single combat to settle the dispute, she notes that most of the people are eager to see the fight as a novelty, the same way that people who lack musical discernment will come see someone who plays the instrument with his toes.

I will also note that sexuality is woven through this entire story, just as it is in the original. Psyche is ravished by Cupid, but cannot enter into marriage with him until she becomes a goddess. The shallow middle sister, Redival, invites her father’s ire because of her flirtatious ways, and he worries that he will not be able to get her to marriage with her maidenhead intact. Orual suffers from her own sexual frustration throughout. She feels (with some justification) that Psyche is talking down to her after her relationship with Cupid starts. Is the mere loss of virginity enough to give Psyche that confidence and security that Orual feels she lacks?

In the fight scene referenced above, Orual draws fatal blood with her sword, and finds herself feeling weak and as if something had been taken away from her. She muses, “I have often wondered if women feel like that when they lose their virginity.” It is an interesting question. Like Lady MacBeth, she has “unsexed” herself, wearing a veil, fighting like a man. She succeeds, perhaps, in losing any identity as a woman, because she has lost hope of ever measuring up.

That leads to one final thought. As Psyche attempts to explain to Orual why she felt ashamed in the presence of a god, she notes that she felt most ashamed of being a mortal. Orual asks, logically, “But how could you help that?”

Psyche’s response is profound. “Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are the things they can’t help?”

Orual is herself most ashamed of what she cannot help. She is ashamed of her ugliness, and that is the one thing she cannot control. I would go one further and say that we often try to make others most ashamed of what they cannot control as well.

This is a book that I probably will want to revisit in the future. There is a lot in there, and like most of Lewis’ works, it seems as if it will reveal new treasures each time it is read.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do We Really Believe God Hates Fags? My Thoughts on the Passing of Fred Phelps

So, notorious funeral picketer and First Amendment test case Fred Phelps has finally passed from this life. Few will mourn his passing, although some will undoubtedly be more gracious than others.

Fred Phelps. We forget that his first funeral was that of Matthew Shepard.

I have been thinking about writing this post for some time, but now seemed the right time. (I jotted down much of this post well in advance.)

See, the more I listen to my fellow Evangelicals, the less I can escape the conclusion that our rhetoric and actions demonstrate that we don’t really think that differently than good ol’ Fred Phelps. We may deplore his methods, of course, but deep down have the same underlying assumptions and reasoning. Let me explain.

First, let me get this out of the way at the outset: I am not going to get into the arguments about sexual orientation. Nature/nurture. Innate trait/personal choice. There are plenty of cogent theological arguments for all sides; and scientific, and other information readily available online for those who want to explore the depths of the argument. There is also plenty of name-calling and stupidity from both sides. Surf at your own risk. Rather, for purposes of my argument, which is after all with Evangelicals, I will proceed from their usual starting place that all homosexual acts are sinful. I am also going to use “we” in referring to Christian Fundamentalist/Evangelical thought, as I was raised Evangelical. That said, and I hope this will be obvious, I do not personally subscribe to many of the ideas that I will be exploring, but I did in the past.  

That out of the way, let me proceed:

The basic assumption of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps clan is that God hates homosexuality so much that he will punish the entire United States because we haven’t purged homosexuality from our nation. Every dead soldier is a sign of God’s wrath, and that wrath is directly the result of our tolerance of homosexuals.

For Phelps, this assumption led him to picket funerals, starting with Matthew Shepard, but eventually progressing to a systematic protest at the funerals of soldiers. His iconic slogan was "God Hates Fags."

While most Evangelicals condemn Phelps’ methods, our own words and actions betray the fact that we tend to believe the exact same assumptions as Fred Phelps.

This assumption combines with our view of politics and the nature of the Kingdom of God.

In my opinion, much of the political insanity that has characterized the religious right over the last few decades can be directly traced to a belief that the United States is the new Israel, and that it can claim the political promises that God made to Israel in the Old Testament.

There is no doubt that we believe this. Count how many signs you have seen with 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” This is a specific promise to Israel that doesn’t neatly fit with today’s situation unless you believe that the United States is now God’s “chosen people.” (And don’t tell me you think it means “Christians,” because then why do you expect God to bless America?) Although this idea dates at least to the Puritans, who sought to establish a "City on a Hill," the modern Evangelical belief is heavily influenced by the Christian Reconstructionists, of whom more below.

Thus, because we associate the Kingdom of God with some sort of mythical America as a “Christian nation,” we spent our time, energy, and resources focusing on politics.

So here is what we seem to believe: In the past (take your pick when), America was a “Christian nation,” God’s chosen people. We were good, so we were blessed. Now, we feel America is in decline, because we are now not so good. We have to stop this decline, so we find a visible representation of how we have gotten worse and thus drawn God’s wrath on us. Hmm, how might we do that? What sin shall we pick?

We believe that homosexual sin is in an entirely different category from other sins. And, conveniently, it is one committed by a small minority.

I have heard so many times a little code phrase used in Evangelicalism. “I fear for our country. There are some lines you just can’t cross.” Make no mistake, this is a reference to all things homosexual.

The source of this particular idea goes back to approximately the 6th Century CE. It was at that time that the term “Sodomy” came into use as a description of sexual behavior. Even more importantly, this was the time at which it became common belief that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality. Particularly in Old Testament times, this was not the case, as I’ll explain below. This new belief was, unsurprisingly, motivated in part by political considerations. The emperor Justinian I was able to blame recent weather and earthquakes on homosexuals - and then trump up charges against his political opponents so he could whack them. (The more things change…)

Out of this arose the concept of homosexuality as the reason God destroys nations. Hey, He destroyed Sodom, so that must prove that He will tolerate all other sins, but not that one. The Catholic leadership took this idea and ran with it. Not only was it nice to have something to blame for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, It was a convenient tool to regulate sex. If we believe that sexual sin is the one God hates the most, then any deviation from the official dictates of the Church could draw the wrath of God. By the time that Sodomy was enshrined in the criminal codes of Western Europe, its definition had grown to encompass all sexual acts other than a penis ejaculating into a vagina. In the most extreme cases, this included any sexual act undertake for non-creative purposes.

So much for the modern conception of Sodomy. But was it always believed that the primary sin of Sodom was sexual?

Did you know that there is actually a verse on point? One that actually states what the sins of Sodom were?

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me.” Ezekiel 16:49-50

Wow. That is a bit inconvenient. That hits way too close to home. The resemblance to modern America is striking. The resemblance to the modern American church is also striking. Have you listened to the contempt in the way we talk about the poor and immigrants lately? (I’m not talking about voting and policy. Obviously, reasonable people disagree on policy. I am talking about what we say about the poor.)

Let’s also look at the actual account of Sodom too. What actually happened? A couple of angels go to visit Lot at his Sodom home. While they are visiting, a roving gang of men threaten to break down the door if Lot doesn’t surrender his guests up to them for a gang rape. Lot refuses, but instead offers up his virgin daughters to be the rape victims instead. (I discussed this aspect of culture in my post on women in old testament times.

I see a huge elephant sitting right in the middle of this story that is ignored completely by the definition of sodomy. Does anyone else see it?

This is a story of violence and rape.

If I were to write a story to illustrate a depraved culture, wouldn’t this be a good one? All a visitor to this place could expect is to be gang raped, and even the “righteous” man is willing to give up his young daughters to this abuse. Yikes!

This is even more clear in light of the culture at the time. This was such a horrific breach of the expectations of hospitality and safe passage for guests. Sodom was like a whole city of Jeffrey Dahmers.

Yet somehow, we came to ignore all this and make it primarily about the same-sex nature of the gang rape. Huh?

So, I believe that poor exegesis, combined with the political needs of a dictator started us on the wrong path. We came to believe that there is one sin and one sin only that God cannot abide. One so terrible that He has no choice but to destroy nations because of it.

This belief that homosexuality is the one sin that God destroys nations for can be stated succinctly: “God Hates Fags.”

So where does it go from there? Well, there is this huge problem. In order to avoid Divine Smiting, we have to somehow purge the evil.

For the Christian Reconstructionists (who I discussed in this post), the solution is obvious: Kill the Fags. The Reconstructionist connection to this whole philosophy is interesting too. I believe that their influence has been significant in our current obsession with politics as the focus of the Kingdom of God. The Reconstructionists believe that the Antebellum South was the pinnacle of our “Christian Nation.” The closest to a truly Christian society. (Never mind the slavery thing. Slavery is Biblical, right?) So the Reconstructionist would say that God is telling us, “Nice little theocratic Christian nation you folks had there. Too bad you forgot to kill the fags. Now I have to destroy you.”

However, in addition to being illegal, murder makes most Evangelicals uncomfortable. So another approach needs to be found that will show God how hard we are trying so he doesn’t destroy our nation.

So we have to find ways to express our disapproval. It isn’t enough to just oppose gay marriage. We have to actively express our contempt. To communicate that God Hates Fags.

It isn’t enough that most people (unless they live under a rock) know that the vast majority of Evangelicals do not approve of homosexual acts. That obviously isn’t enough to get God off our backs. We believe God requires us to do something or he will punish us. We have to take more concrete action.

And guess what? Recently we have had the opportunity to do just that.

There has been a concerted drive in several state legislatures to introduce bills that would provide a religious exemption from laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These were sparked by a case in which a baker refused to sell a cake for a gay wedding. However, the texts of the various bills went far beyond the facts of this case. Kansas probably had the broadest bill (which fortunately did not pass) in that it allowed government employees to refuse government services based on their religious beliefs.

I have seen some arguments coming from the conservative side that these bills would only exempt participation in same-sex weddings, but a plain reading of the bills show that they are far broader than that. As an attorney, it is easy to see them applied to permit businesses to hang out “no gays” signs. And even if a court later narrowed the scope of the exemption, the provisions for attorneys fees against the plaintiff would discourage suits. The risk would be great for someone without a deep pocket.

Let’s also be realistic about what kinds of cases have been raised as examples of why we need these laws. A florist wants to refuse to sell flowers that would be used at a same-sex wedding. The above-mentioned cake. These aren’t religious actions unless one believes that God requires us to withhold goods and services from people committing certain sins. I doubt anyone at that wedding looked at the flowers and thought that it was express support for the couple any more than anyone assumes that the flowers at the front of my church are a statement by the florist in favor of our denomination. But we are determined to make it a political statement.  

So here we have it: a good way to prove to God that we are taking the homosexual problem seriously! We can be sure to say, “we don’t serve your kind here!”

But if we don’t do this, won’t we be approving gay marriage?

This is an argument I have heard. The idea that by failing to make our displeasure and refusal abundantly clear, we are giving our approval.

Let me answer that one by noting that even in the context of marriage, we lend our services all the time to weddings we may or may not approve. I play my violin at weddings and other events as part of a string quartet, so I understand how the dilemma arises.

For example, how many weddings have I played that were second weddings after a divorce? Quite a few, I believe. Did I ask before playing if one party was divorced? Why not? Christ (arguably) wasn’t keen on remarriages. Wouldn’t I be “giving approval” to those weddings?

How about weddings that were ill advised. I can think of a few weddings that I didn’t give the chance of more than a couple of years before the marriage broke up. Should I have screened them?

How about weddings between people of different religions? One of the most memorable weddings I played was one of those. We were playing the prelude when one of the grandmothers came up and requested that we play Ave Maria. I assumed that she just liked Schubert. Until the ceremony, which referenced a sealing ceremony in Salt Lake City. Yep, this was a Mormon/Catholic wedding, and grandma had to give the middle finger to the other side of the family. (Fortunately no fight ensued. Presumably the Mormon side just enjoyed the beauty of Schubert…) Should I have asked that question? But we don’t screen for all these other particular sins. Just the one.

Or what about some other ones? I’ve played at Catholic weddings where prayers were offered to Mary. (That’s idolatry to a Protestant.) Or one where the ceremony was neo-pagan. Or the Jewish funeral. Should I have been part of offering comfort to grieving relatives? Or should I have been holding a sign saying she was burning in hell?

How many of these weddings have had people get drunk? Too many to count. And I suspect someone indulged in gluttony at every single one of them.

See, we really only care about this in ONE case. Because that is the one sin we believe is worse than any other. And not just that, but we believe God will punish us because other people commit this sin and this sin only.

“Nice little Christian nation you have there. Too bad I have to destroy it because you didn’t purge the fags.”

So yes, I believe we are saying, every bit as clearly as Fred Phelps: “God Hates Fags.”

If we believe that, perhaps we should be out there waving signs too.

But if we don’t believe that, then perhaps we need to reevaluate our behavior, our rhetoric, and our own hearts.

For more, here is the follow up post: Thought Police and Religious Freedom

Note on the legal aspect:

Did you know that a minister can refuse to marry African Americans? It’s true. Also, a church can refuse to let its premises be used for an African American wedding. Likewise, cases have held that ministers can refuse to officiate at mixed race weddings. That is why all the fear mongering about the loss of religious liberty is a bit silly. Performing the sacrament of marriage is and remains protected by the First Amendment. Even for clearly bigoted ministers.

That isn’t the case for civil marriages. A judge or clerk in his or her official capacity must grant all lawful requests. A civil marriage isn’t a sacrament. Thus, it is not a religious conviction that would lead to a refusal, but a political one. Only if we confuse the State with the Kingdom of God is this an issue. A minister gives the couple the blessing of God. A judge gives the couple the blessing of the State.

For that matter, providing a cake or wedding music isn’t a sacrament. My contribution is similar to - and significantly less important than - the work the janitor did to provide clean restrooms. If my music was a sacrament, I would be an idolator for playing that neo-pagan ceremony. And I could never hire an non-Christian to do anything at my wedding either, right? If they are equally sacraments - expressions of faith - then it would be equally sacrilegious to hire a Buddhist caterer as to hire a Wiccan priestess.  

I also am not exaggerating when I claim that this is about more than just gay weddings. There was a big case here in California when I was in law school over housing discrimination. (I watched the arguments at the California Supreme Court.) The issue was whether a landlord could refuse to rent to an unmarried heterosexual couple. (Here in California, one cannot discriminate on the basis of marital status. The court ruled that religious belief didn’t trump those laws.) This very much could become a situation where gays, particularly in certain communities, are refused housing, and one could see it extend to any service that people thought could possibly be “supporting” homosexuality.

I also find it a bit disturbing that many are so determined to be able to say “we don’t serve your kind” that they are willing to go the full libertarian route and eliminate all anti-discrimination laws. I was surprised that several friends and relatives re-posted this one, by Matt Walsh. 

Let’s just go throw the Civil Rights Act under the bus so that we can avoid the argument. Never mind that, just as in the case of Phil Lancaster, we once again feed the “all Christians are racist, sexist, and bigoted” stereotype.

Note on the religious aspect:

I touched on this a bit in my post on the Christmas Wars. Somehow, we have gotten the idea that the way to serve God is to be an “Asshole for Jesus.” We are to be salt and light by hassling people who don’t share our beliefs. We boycott businesses for saying “Happy Holidays.” We make sure we never serve homosexuals. Some of us even picket funerals. We do our best to prevent others from sinning. Or at least to make our contempt for them known.

We think that this is the sacrament we offer to God.

As my own pastor put it, instead of spreading the sweet fragrance of grace and love, we act as though God has called us to fumigate for roaches.

What really burns me, though, is that when there is blowback for this assholery, we are quick to cry “persecution.”

To quote Saint Peter:

“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.”

We have become a church of meddlers. We are more interested in “taking America back” by forcing others to abide by our moral and cultural standards than in showing love and compassion to our neighbors.

This is another area in which I believe that the Reconstructionist view of the world has infiltrated Evangelicalism. To the Reconstructionist the Church is in fact the next nation of Israel, and we are primarily called as Christians to establish a theocracy. Just like the good ol’ days in ancient Israel, we either convert, enslave, or slaughter those who stand in our way. That’s why they speak of those outside of their movement as the “enemies of God.” And they don’t mean it in the “love your enemies” sort of way either. Unless stoning is an act of love. (Actually, some of them do argue this…)

The whole viewpoint is to divide the world into the “us” and the “not us,” and defeat the “not us.” And, as I have pointed out, we live in mortal fear that if we don’t somehow purge the “not us” element, God will smite us. And by corollary, we believe that the way to God’s approval is to purge the sinners from our nation.

I don’t see this attitude anywhere in the teachings or actions of Christ.

Note on the history of the 20th Century:

If we are to learn anything from the bloody history of the 20th Century, it should be that we should take serious notice whenever a small minority group gets blamed for the decline of a society. This is compounded when there is a separation between the groups. If the majority and the minority live increasingly segregated lives, then two things happen. First, it becomes easy to forget the humanity of the minority group. Second, the disappearance of the minority isn’t even noticed. I recommend reading They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer  for how this played out in Germany. And no, I don’t want to hear that Christians are the true minority here. That doesn’t even pass the most basic test of statistical possibility. Also, it has largely been Christians who have emphasized separation from the unwashed sinners over the last few decades.

A few links:

Let me offer a few interesting links.

This one is by Ben Corey. You may or may not agree with all of his theology, but I think he nails this one.
 Great perspective.

I also recommend this one from Murray. The commandment to love our neighbor was followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan. Those who we wish to hold in contempt are the very people who Christ calls our neighbors.

And one final bit, from a man who is one of the targets of Fred Phelps and his church, George Takei. (Best known as Mr. Sulu, in the original Star Trek series.) Takei posted this on his Facebook feed (which is one of the best things on facebook these days - he has a great sense of humor and a love for terrible puns) after news of Phelps’ final illness hit the news.

"I take no solace or joy in this man's passing.

"We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding 'God Hates Fred' signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many.

"Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end."