Jesurgislac’s Journal

January 3, 2009

On smelly feet

Fred Clark’s last post of the year at Slacktivist was Clean Shoes; Renaissance Guy’s first post of the year was To Judge or not to Judge.

Both in very different ways were writing about the same thing: how should Christians act towards unclean people, abominations… sinners?

RG:

I think the same thing is true concerning same-sex relations. The Bible teaches that such relations are sinful, and if questioned or confronted, I will say so. At the same time, I can completely love a person who commits such a sin. I can show him or her kindness, treat him or her as better than myself, and refrain from judging him or her. I’m willing to admit that in the eyes of God I might be far more sinful than any homosexual person in the world.

Fred:

Peter said. “But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”

Not a word there about calamari or bacon. That’s not what the vision was about. It was about people. God has shown us that we should not call any person impure or unclean — that we should not treat any person as impure or unclean.

So here’s an invitation or a challenge for the New Year: Sign up for the scavenger hunt. Take the Big List of the unclean and the untouchable and turn it upside down and inside out. Seek out those people instead of avoiding them. Touch them and let them touch you.

I react towards those two posts very differently. They’re both saying – though Fred much more subtly than RG – that gay is on the Big List of abominations. (Sex between men certainly is, twice, in Leviticus: in the list of 613 things an observant Jew must not do, a Jewish man may not have sex with another man, no more and no less than he may shave his beard or get tattooed or eat bacon or own a slave for more than 7 years without offering him his freedom: he cannot make a wave-offering in the Temple if he has made himself ritually unclean in this way. It’s not allowed.)

Both of them, also, explicitly say that this is about Christianity being inclusive, not exclusive.

Yet I get a warm and welcoming feeling from Fred’s post – he reminds me why I like Christianity; whereas from RG’s post I get no such feeling. Fred uses the illustration of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. (There are monasteries where by tradition, once a year on Maundy Thursday, the abbess or abbot, the representative of Christ on Earth of those vowed to the monastery, would wash the feet of twelve of the nuns or monks. )

In any hierarchical organisation, even the most rigid, there will be times when an extremely senior person may, by accident or design, end up doing a lowly service for a very junior one. When that happens, it can happen in a range of ways – the senior person could be irate that they have to do this, or could do it without anger but with an air that makes it clear they consider this to be a particular favour, or do it briskly and ungraciously – or, if they’re extremely confident in their seniority and see making their juniors comfortable as a part of their work, they might do the service with charm and grace, as if they were actually happy to do it for the junior.

Whether that’s fetching coffee, or holding a door open, or picking up a dropped folder, or… well, if you’re a junior nun, the Abbess washing your feet.

Or, if you’re a straight Christian who believes that gay sex is on God’s Big List of Abominations, but also believes that Jesus said to love the sinner even if you hate the sin, the problem of how to react to a same-sex couple in church.

Try to emulate Jesus washing his disciples feet in the upper room at Passover? Without a word for that smelly ingrown toenail that Thomas has, or the dirt that’s ground into all the cracks on Peter’s feet, or the remains of some dry goatcrap that John stepped in yesterday that got over the edge of his sandals? That’s Fred’s message about emulating Christ, as I get it.

Or try to emulate Jesus telling people they are sinners? After all, there you are, with their feet in your hands, you can see and smell how dirty they are, are you supposed to just ignore that filth, RG asks? Obviously, he’s still going to wash those feet, that’s what Jesus did, but why should he have to pretend he can’t smell the crap they’re walking in? That’s RG’s message about emulating Christ: make sure the sinners know they have dirty smelly feet, while acknowledging that his own feet are just as dirty.

When I was a very junior employee in my first week at IBM, it happened that a very senior manager had to open the secure door to the wing where I worked: he just happened to be the nearest employee with a keycard, which I hadn’t yet been issued. I had no idea who he was at the time: I had been told I had to identify myself to anyone who let me into the secure floor, or both they and I could get into trouble. So I shyly told him my name and who I worked for, and I have never forgotten: he gave me an enormous smile, held out his hand, and said happily “Welcome to the team! Good to meet you!” shook my hand, and went on his way.

You can do these things one way, or you can do them another…

And yet: being gay is not like having smelly feet. Straight or at least very closeted Christians who argue that it is their business to condemn sinful LGBT people for being queer, use parallels of alcoholism or drug addiction or – if you’re Obama’s BFF Rick Warren, really ugly stuff like paedophilia or bestiality.

They blur the lines when they do this, as well as cause offense, because alcoholism, drug addiction, cause measurable harm to the addict, as well as to the people the addict knows. Not abstract, God-says-it’s-a-sin harm, but real, physical, evidentiary damage that you don’t have to believe in God to see.

Paedophilia and bestiality are both regarded as abominations because they involve forcing those who cannot consent. Homophobic Christians argue that they are being “forced to consent” to something they cannot consent to, when they live in countries that accept same-sex marriage as legal, equating themselves with the children or animals harmed by a molester. They see themselves (we saw this after Proposition 8, when even though they won, a loud whine went up from all over the anti-marriage blogosphere) as the victims of LGBT people who want to get married.

Like eating bacon, having sex with a woman while she’s having her period, having sex with someone of your own gender may not be to everyone’s taste. But the only reason Christians have for asserting God says all or any of these things are sinful is that they are against the law of Leviticus. That may be enough for a good Christian or a devout Jew or a Muslim. But (unlike eating bacon) what people do in the privacy of a consenting adult relationship, is no one’s business but their own – and God’s if you believe in God. Whether that’s having sex during a woman’s period, or a man having sex with another man: it’s not an outsider’s business to inquire into it. It does no harm.

Christianity at its best is about acting against real, measurable harm to others. Jesus didn’t say “Police other people’s sex lives if you want to pass Judgement”: he said, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of sick people, visit people in prison.

When Katrina hit New Orleans, hundreds of prisoners were abandoned in Orleans Parish Prison. Yet oddly enough, this act of utter inhumanity was never cited by the many Christians who argued that when Katrina hit New Orleans God destroyed a wicked city. Nor, though in fairness a majority of Christians rejected the idea that God sends hurricanes, did any of these Christians who asserted a supernatural cause point out that the kind of wickedness explicitly condemned by Jesus was the kind of inhumanity that left thousands of people behind in New Orleans to survive as best they might because they were too poor to obey an evacuation warning that provided no assistance: the kind of inhumanity that left thousands waiting for days without clean water or food or health care: the kind of inhumanity that left prisoners behind to drown. That is the sin of Sodom: not the sex lives of Mardi Gras festival goers.

Complaining about the smelly feet of the gay couple sitting next to you, in a country where 36 million people go hungry, is exactly like preachers denouncing New Orleans for hosting Mardi Gras and ignoring Orleans Parish Prison. If you can say two things for sure about the Jesus of the gospels, he would have gone to Mardi Gras and had a great time: but he’d have walked over water and broken down walls to rescue the prisoners who were standing chest high in water.

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9 Comments »

  1. When i believed in god, i believed in a jesus who would have walked onwater to save people. He never did, though. Surely somebody drowned in the sea of galilee in those three years.

    I just cant imagine caring what two people do in private. It befuddles and boggles me. Never has anyone given me a coherent reason why they care. It would be laughable if it didnt hurt people like you. Yours is a voice i like and admire, why does anyone care what you do with other consenting adults? Sigh. People suck.

    Comment by Personal failure — January 4, 2009 @ 3:02 am | Reply

  2. When i believed in god, i believed in a jesus who would have walked onwater to save people. He never did, though. Surely somebody drowned in the sea of galilee in those three years.

    Well, yeah.

    I used to believe in “historical Jesus” for quite a while after I stopped believing Jesus was God, but the character of Jesus in the four Biblical gospels is certainly a fine one – regardless of whether based on an actual person, or a personalization of a particular faith. At this distance in time, I’m not sure it matters, if you’re not religious.

    I just cant imagine caring what two people do in private. It befuddles and boggles me. Never has anyone given me a coherent reason why they care. It would be laughable if it didnt hurt people like you.

    Thank you. I do see most of this as people using their religion as an excuse.

    C. S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy that he had been asked more than once why he did not denounce homosexuality or gambling, and people were generally surprised that his basic reason was that he’d never been tempted to commit either of those sins, and that he felt able to write about temptation/sin only where he knew from personal experience what it was like to want to commit those sins, or to do so. He also wrote quite extensively about his school days, on how people were apt to talk up homosexuality as if it were a worse sin than anything – primarily, he thought, because (as was true in his day) – it was also a criminal offense. Whereas bullying, which Lewis considered far worse than two boys mutually having it off, was not a criminal offense.) So for me, Lewis is my example of how a Christian can genuinely believe that homosexuality is a sin – without feeling that means he needs to go around denouncing it all the time, or equating it with sins of violence and force, or even supporting legal discrimination.

    Whereas these people are clearly impelled by something other that a couple of verses in Leviticus and a handful of doubtful passages in St Paul’s epistles. Hardline atheists have disagreed with me, but I don’t really think religious fervour is to blame…

    Comment by jesurgislac — January 4, 2009 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

  3. As a Christian myself, I have no problem with homosexuality. As you imply above, Christ never mentions same-sex relations in his preaching, and I have even heard it said that the miracle of the Centurion’s servant, when read in the original Greek, implies that the servant was a male sex partner of the centurion (but I cannot speak from any basis of knowledge about whether that is fact, or if it is, how strong the implication is).

    I do know that same-sex marriage is sanctioned in the Bible, though: Ruth swears what amounts to a marriage vow to her mother-in-law Naomi (which reveals also that marriage need not be about sex). In the UK’s “civil partnership” laws, which is marriage in all but name, such a union (or two adult family members) is explicitly permitted – which may be why one reason we didn’t call it “marriage” (the other being we don’t have separation of Church and State over here).

    Comment by SnowdropExplodes — January 5, 2009 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  4. and I have even heard it said that the miracle of the Centurion’s servant, when read in the original Greek, implies that the servant was a male sex partner of the centurion

    So have I. But I haven’t read the original Greek either.

    In the UK’s “civil partnership” laws, which is marriage in all but name, such a union (or two adult family members) is explicitly permitted

    Civil partnership is legally identical to marriage, and has the same rules about who can and cannot register.

    In point of fact, a woman can register a civil partnership with her dead (or divorced) former husband’s mother – but only because of a legal decision in 2005 that allowed a woman to marry her ex-husband’s father. The regulations for on who can and cannot register a civil partnership together are identical for same-sex couples as for marriage and mixed-sex couples – so two adult family members cannot register a civil partnership (though first cousins are permitted…)

    which may be why one reason we didn’t call it “marriage” (the other being we don’t have separation of Church and State over here).

    The main reason was, I think, that Tony Blair took seriously the claims of the churches that they objected to the word marriage being used for same-sex relationships. It would have been much simpler just to abolish one line in the 1975 Marriage Act restricting marriage to mixed-sex couples only (which seems to have been written in mainly to divorce Jan Morris from her wife…).

    Comment by jesurgislac — January 6, 2009 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  5. I once started to type in that C.S. Lewis passage about homosexuality from “Surprised by Joy” at Ampersand’s blog (haven’t been there in awhile–no reason, I just haven’t). I was going to make the point you made, that even if someone thinks homosexual sex is sinful (as I used to), there’s no particular reason to magnify its importance. Fleshly sins, according to Lewis, are tiny compared to the more spiritual sins like pride and self-righteousness and worldly ambition.

    So I started to type it in and then noticed that, well, even Lewis uses phrases like “eros, blackened and upside down” and so forth to describe homosexuality and realized that people might not get the point I was trying to make.

    Anyway, thinking of people like Lewis (and my earlier self) is why I was initially not opposed to the Warren invocation (along with just being unconsciously insensitive to the whole issue), because there are some conservative Christians who still have a live and let live attitude–that is, they might think that the only nonsinful sexual act is heterosexual sex between a married couple, but they don’t necessarily think the government has to enforce this belief system. It’s worthwhile for Obama to reach out to them. But unfortunately Warren isn’t that sort of conservative Christian.

    Comment by Donald Johnson — January 7, 2009 @ 3:58 am | Reply

  6. The more I read of your writing, the more I’m convinced that you’re one of the best of the writers whose blogs that I’m currently following. We may not agree, but that doesn’t mean that you’re aren’t brilliant.

    I would say though, more as a clarification than a disagreement, that Fred’s beliefs meet another criteria: as far as I know, he doesn’t support the banning of same sex marriage. He doesn’t support it but he would likely vote to legalize it and vote against banning it were he given the option.

    He recognizes that there is a more overriding concern than opposing the “sin of homosexuality” and that is being that good neighbor.

    Being a good neighbor means, in this case, recognizing that making a political decision based on one’s faith is precisely the thing that a bad neighbor does.

    So, even if he believes that homosexuality is a sin, he doesn’t act like it. RG does.

    To me, I can only see my neighbor in one of those positions.

    Comment by Spherical Time — January 7, 2009 @ 7:32 am | Reply

  7. Donald: So I started to type it in and then noticed that, well, even Lewis uses phrases like “eros, blackened and upside down” and so forth to describe homosexuality and realized that people might not get the point I was trying to make.

    This is exactly why I tend to summarise it when I refer to it. I think it benefits by context.

    because there are some conservative Christians who still have a live and let live attitude–that is, they might think that the only nonsinful sexual act is heterosexual sex between a married couple, but they don’t necessarily think the government has to enforce this belief system. It’s worthwhile for Obama to reach out to them.

    Yes. I’d agree to that. Also, they might think (indeed, many of them do think) that abortion is sinful but that making abortion illegal is too damaging to be supported. Also, they might think that any extramarital sex is sinful but that it’s better to provide condoms to protect against STIs than to tell people to be abstinent and wash your hands of them when they’re not. All of these things are true of many conservative and even some liberal Christians… but, Rick Warren demonstrably is not one of them.

    I think it would have been an excellent strategic move to isolate the nutcase Christians – the ones who think God needs the government to enforce His will – by giving a platform to a conservative Christian who isn’t a nutcase. I can’t believe Obama didn’t know that Rick Warren is a nutcase Christian, though.

    Comment by jesurgislac — January 8, 2009 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

  8. Spherical Time: I would say though, more as a clarification than a disagreement, that Fred’s beliefs meet another criteria: as far as I know, he doesn’t support the banning of same sex marriage. He doesn’t support it but he would likely vote to legalize it and vote against banning it were he given the option.

    Yes indeed. In fact I think Fred’s actually written a couple of posts against Proposition 8 and for the right of same-sex couples to civil marriage – regardless of the religious feelings of some.

    Being a good neighbor means, in this case, recognizing that making a political decision based on one’s faith is precisely the thing that a bad neighbor does.

    Very good way of putting it. And thank you for kind words about my writing! *shines*

    Comment by jesurgislac — January 8, 2009 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

  9. Jesurgislac: And thank you for kind words about my writing! *shines*

    Just keep that in mind when we disagree, yah? 🙂

    Comment by Spherical Time — January 10, 2009 @ 10:06 pm | Reply


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