(This is part of an email I recently wrote to a thoughtful Christian acquaintance, who I shall call “Linus.” Obviously, our discussion was set off by Dan Savages recent remarks. My thanks to Linus for his kind permission to include some quotes from his letter. The occasional links were added by me just now, not part of the original correspondence. –Amp]
I guess I am really taking exception to Savage’s characterization of the Bible as “pro-slavery” when a proper reading makes it clear that over the course of the narrative, the pro-slavery statements are turned on their ear and negated. By my understanding, Christians haven’t altered their views on slavery from what the Bible says; they are anti-slavery because the Bible is anti-slavery.
By labeling out-of-context statements about slavery as “bullshit”, putting forth an argument that the Bible is pro-slavery, and then equating them to different moral teachings that he disagrees with, Savage is not treating the Bible or its present-day adherents with any fairness. [...]
I think it is important to reflect that while Christians hold the entirety of scripture to be inspired by God – it is still written in a historical context by a human author. Paul, in situ, is writing as a pastor to a member of his flock, instructing him on how he is to receive a returned runaway slave. I suggest you read Philemon to get a sense of the exchange, it is only a few paragraphs long, but the tone is appropriate for a pastor’s instruction in the form of a letter. A full-on command to free the slave or an emancipation declaration might not have achieved Paul’s purpose, but his wording and tone make it clear where he stands on the issue. I cannot tell you why God would use subtle language and tone in this case, or the many other cases where he is mysterious – it is a question that has the potential to be an entire theological discussion by itself.
I think your interpretation is, while not unreasonable, EXTREMELY strained. It’s the interpretation of a good person who is strongly motivated to believe the Bible doesn’t condone slavery, and who has found a way to interpret the text to support that reading.
But it’s not a straightforward, obvious reading of the text. Philemon, which you’re putting great weight on, is ambiguous at best. Especially in light of other passages of the New Testament (e.g., in Titus when Paul says “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior”), a much more straightforward interpretation is that Paul expected Philemon to return as BOTH a slave and a brother in Christ, and would have seen nothing greatly wrong with that outcome.
This is Savage’s point (if I’ve understood it). When you genuinely want to, you subscribe to a “subtle” — I’d say generous — interpretation of the text to reconcile the NT’s condoning slavery with your own belief that condoning slavery is wrong.
If you genuinely wanted to, you could make a similar generous reconciliation for homosexuality. For instance, you argue that we should bear in mind that the scriptures were “written in a historical context by a human author.” But the human authors who wrote scripture simply didn’t have a concept of “gay and lesbian people” as we do. In Paul’s time, it’s very plausible that the homosexual acts he was condemning were between adult men and young boys, and he wasn’t familiar with the idea of two adult men or women living together in a consensual relationship.
Etc, etc. I’m sure you know the arguments; they do require you to interpret the text a bit, but not in a more extreme way than what you do to argue that the NT isn’t condoning slavery.
Please know that I don’t say that with any sense of satisfaction – it has very real implications for how I practice my personal faith – but I feel like it is the only consistent position I can take based on how I understand Christianity and the teachings of the Bible.
This is bothersome because you’re speaking as if you have no choice. You could decide that the Bible does not condemn consensual, loving same-sex relationships between adults; you have chosen not to. You could even more easily decide that the Bible doesn’t say anything about what civil law regarding same-sex marriage should be. Your understanding of the Bible, and your view of when it is and is not okay to interpret the text (as you do when considering slavery), and what that means for civil law, is not an objective fact. It is your own subjective judgment.
The Bible isn’t forcing you to treat lgbt people unequally. Nothing in the text of the Bible forces you to believe that Paul was intending to condemn two adult women living together and forming a loving family. At some level, perhaps unconsciously, you’re choosing to believe that. (And I say this without any sense of satisfaction, by the way! I would much prefer to welcome you as an ally than to disagree with you on this issue.)
[More from the letter in a later post.]