The Times We Shouldn’t Defend Our Traditions

“Philosophers,” says Martha Nussbaum, “don’t write like prophets….they have to believe, I think, that at least a part of evil is not innate or necessary, that at least a good part of it is based on error, whether societal or personal.”

For prophets, on the other hand, “the urgency and magnitude of the evils they see admit of no delay, no calm and patient dialogue…Suppose Jeremiah had said, ‘the heart of Israel is corrupt utterly, but on the other hand there are some very nice people there.’” (Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 1999, 240-1)

Nussbaum’s own inclinations and ultimate sympathies lie with the philosopher—and most of the time, mine do, too. Often, I firmly believe that attributing a problem or an evil to an entire religion, or religion as a whole, is not only inaccurate and unhelpful, but actively destructive. I often jump into the fray to point out concrete examples of principles and themes of a tradition, or groups or individual practitioners within a faith—mine or any other—that I truly believe are at work for the good. I truly believe that religion is not a monolith, and that it can do, and has done, great work in the service of humanity and of our universe. And I truly, deeply believe that the God I serve is good.

Yet both Nussbaum and I—precisely because of “the philosopher’s interest in the nuances of individual cases” (Nussbaum, 1999, 241)—are sometimes compelled to admit that the prophet has a point. Sometimes, stating the nuance and the capacity for good in a tradition that has hurt people is deeply inappropriate. Sometimes, devotion to the underlying goodness of a tradition and to its prerogative to practice as it sees fit comes at great cost to the lives of real people.

This past week, Rolling Stone Magazine published a heartbreaking article, “One Town’s War On Gay Teens,” detailing the toll of anti-gay bullying in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district. In 1994, according to the article, the conservative, evangelical group Minnesota Family Council (MFC) pushed the Anoka-Hennepin school board into adopting a district wide policy, “which pronounced that within the health curriculum, ‘homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.’” While the language was specific to the health curriculum, the policy practically erased discussion of homosexuality “in any context.”

When queer students—or even students who were perceived as such—complained to teachers and administrators of anti-gay bullying, they received no relevant support, and the homophobic smears continued unabated. The policy may have been quiet, but its toll is now known nationwide. Since 1999, nine students, many of whom were queer or taunted as such, committed suicide, most notably 15-year old Justin Aaberg in July of 2010.

In many of the progressive circles I frequent, both online and in real life, variations on a theme of the same angry, horrified response to the Rolling Stone article came up: Is this truly what “Christian love” looks like? Is it true that people like the MFC can’t be made to see the grave harm they’ve caused? And the conclusion often was: No, these people knew exactly what they were doing. To make the non-conformers this desperate was precisely the point.

And as much as I want to believe otherwise, I find myself agreeing with this conclusion. According to the article, MFC activist Barb Anderson blames “pro-gay groups for the tragedies”:

She explained that such “child corruption” agencies allow “quote-unquote gay kids” to wrongly feel legitimized. “And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death,” Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren’t encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn’t be in a position to be bullied. (emphasis mine.)

And Nussbaum notes with astonishment that Roger Scrunton argued—in 1995!—that “schools ought to teach revulsion toward homosexuality, on the grounds that the perpetuation of this revulsion is ‘a human good.’” (Nussbaum 1999, 192) I will pause for that statement to fully sink in. If one truly believes that, well, what are a few suicides?

It is, in a way, ironic that one of the go-to Scriptures for anti-gay activists is the story, in Genesis 18 and 19, of Sodom and Gomorrah. Because according to many (to my mind, convincing) interpretations, the sexual sins of those cities of the plain were not homosexuality, but gang rape—sex used in the service not of pleasure, but of terror employed to enforce submission and conformity. Rabbi Steven Greenberg writes:

While the event that sealed the fate of the Sodomites was their demand for Lot to bring out his guests so that the mob might “know” them, this was still not seen so much as sexual excess as hatred of the stranger and exploitation of the weak…[in Sodom] no difference was tolerated. (Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men, 2004, 65-6)

The invocation of sexualized violence to assert dominance and enforce conformity should ring familiar. For make no mistake—the bullying that drove people like Justin Aaberg to suicide, both from their classmates and, more sinisterly, from the supposedly moral, responsible adults of the MFC was nothing other than psychological and spiritual gang rape. Its purpose was none other than to strip people like Justin of all individuality, of all self-respect, of all autonomy, to break them until they shaped up—or disappeared.

So when I encountered these generalizing statements about Christianity, or religion, or despairing for the humanity of those pushing anti-gay policies, my first response was to jump in and correct the generalizations. I then decided against it. Because in the wake of such tragedies—in the wake of the real threat of harm, or of actual, already perpetrated harm—someone for whom it is most important to jump to the defense of an institution rather than to demand justice for the people that institution has hurt is, forgive me, someone who has their priorities deeply screwed up.

Our traditions and our faith communities are important to us, as they should be.  But we cannot let them become ends in themselves.  Abraham was right to argue that, for the sake of ten righteous, the city should be spared; truly, there are far more than ten righteous in the cities that are our traditions. Yet when violent crimes occur in our cities, our first response should not be to say, “we’re not all like that!” Our first response should be to root out the perpetrators, and to seek justice for the victims.

Cross-posted to my personal blog.

Image: John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852). This image has passed into the public domain and is used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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6 thoughts on “The Times We Shouldn’t Defend Our Traditions

  1. The primary interpretation of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that I’ve encountered in my studies is that it was a sin against hospitality, the big deal being not precisely what they wanted to do to the visitor, but that they wanted to do anything to the visitor at all that would violate the cultural norm and moral virtue of hospitality to the stranger. A classmate in my “Hebrew Scriptures” who was from Africa commented that this was how it was invariably preached in his culture, which also places a high moral value on hospitality to the guest, and he found the anti-homosexual interpretation of it that he encountered almost everywhere in the US to be extremely odd.

    Which only amplifies the irony of using that text to justify the behavior that resulted in these tragedies.

    1. Victoria–I’m definitely familiar with that interpretation, and I agree that it is a convincing one, as well as being traditionally dominant. What I was trying to get at was, inasmuch as there was a specifically sexual component understood in the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, how do we define it?

      And yes, the overall context of their actions being a sin against hospitality does add to the irony, doesn’t it?

  2. Jun27Adam K. I think that MacArthur has made a theological error. I was in Dr. Douglas Stuart’s Exegesis in the Historical Books at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and I typed into my notes: Israel-modern naotin Confusion: Assuming that things that apply to biblical Israel also apply to modern naotins. God’s promises, blessings, curses, and judgments cannot be indiscriminately applied to America or to any other modern naotin.This misunderstanding is both common and understandable. As we read the Old Testament we witness God operating regularly on a naotinal level. This is for two major reasons. First, Israel was a theocratic naotin. Israel possessed a special status as a naotin that no other political or geographic naotin before or since has ever possessed it literally was God’s Nation. The theocratic naotin of Israel was unique it never has been and never will be duplicated (as such, America is not God’s Nation nor is it a Christian Nation but rather a naotin with Christians in it but that is for another time).Secondly, we recognize that in ancient times, naotins were far more homogeneous than they are today. At one time, the metaphor used of America was that of the melting pot. However America is no longer a melting pot but more like a salad bowl very different and distinct ingredients all occupying the same bowl. Less and less do we observe acculturation (the melting pot), but instead different cultures, peoples, beliefs, and practices now live next door to one another. Thus this generation’s buzz word is tolerance; for we must learn to live together within this diverse salad.So with the theocratic naotin of Israel no more and political/geographic naotins no longer homogeneous cultures, beliefs, practices, and people groups we no longer witness God’s promises, blessings, curses, and judgments applied on a political/geographic naotinal level in the same way we witness within the Old Testament.I agree that naotinally we have violated God’s will because every one of us personally has done so (Is. 53:6; Rom. 3:10-18,23). However, has not every other naotin done the same? How does the U.S. stack up against the U.K., Germany, Canada, or Afghanistan? Should we be judged more harshly than China with its human rights violations? Should we be punished more severely or immediately than Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Rwanda for their atrocities? And don’t we deserve a reprieve for our humanitarian efforts and other naotinal good works ? (of course we don’t, but just follow the logic )On June 5, 1973 Canadian radio commentator Gordon Sinclair made a broadcast titled, The Americans. 02 Early on in his broadcast, Sinclair emphatically argues, this Canadian thinks it is time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least-appreciated people in all the earth. His broadcast goes on to list time after time at which America came to the aid of those in need while never experiencing reciprocal kindness or often even gratitude. In his final conclusions, he writes, I can name to you 5,000 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble. Can you name me even one time when someone else raced to the Americans in trouble? But I agree we ALL stand deserving of judgment unless we stand in Jesus Christ in whom there is no condemnaotin (Romans 8:1). And one day, at the final trumpet, that judgment will come upon every man, woman, child, of every tribe, tongue, and naotin. However I believe MacArthur (just as Falwell and Robertson and others) often speed up that day of judgment.Humanly we forget that the LORD is patient, not wanting anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23). In Jesus’ day, when others saw God’s judgment in a local tragedy, Jesus sternly warned them not to assume this was a judgment, BUT that one day there WILL BE a judgment so REPENT NOW (Luke 13:1-5). God will not bring a naotinal judgment now such as MacArthur warns of because in Jesus’ parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) the farmer [God] tells the harvesters not to pull up [for judgment] the weeds prematurely because, while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn (vv. 29-30).Make no mistake, there will be a judgment on all at the end of time but I think MacArthur’s scope (naotinally) and timetable (immediately) are theologically lacking.

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