The Shepherd’s Legacy

Sunday, November 2, 2003

The Shepherd’s Legacy

Today, I considered these recent developments:

An anti-homosexual “fundamentalist” cleric (see my note below about that misused term, fundamentalist) seeks to acquire a plot of public land in a rural town. His declared intent is to erect a monument there proclaiming that Matthew Shepard (murdered in Wyoming because he was gay) will be a resident of hell because he was a homosexual.

Parishioners threaten to leave the American Episcopal Church over the ordination of a decent and devout (but admittedly homosexual) priest as New Hampshire’s new bishop.

Other American protestant denominations brace themselves for similar controversies– fearing schism should they follow suit.

The Roman Church begins reviewing policies regarding its own not-quite-celibate homosexual clerics. Can they be “trusted” to remain fully in the closet?

I see three main sources for this discontent:

Cultural tradition. A very, very few times and places in human history have been characterized by openly supportive policies and attitudes toward the gay and lesbians living and working among us. While almost everyone has acknowledged their presence, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice has dominated. Some cultures have been more strident, even cruel toward the gay/lesbian sub-population than others. The US, Canada, and parts of Europe are far more gay tolerant than the rest of the world.
That famous passage in Leviticus that condemns gay male behavior. This passage was product of a culture that stressed the primacy of procreation in an under-populated world, and did not make the same condemnation of female homosexuality, presumably because all fertile females could be pressed into child-bearing duty as needed. As a result of this perspective, the homosexual behavior of non-fertile females apparently was not even seen as a moral issue.
The occasional over-the-top behavior of some homosexuals and their advocates. In recent years we have experienced a “perfect storm” of negative images: The molestations committed by some Roman Catholic priests (many of whom are “gay”), the excesses of groups like the “National Man-Boy Love Association”, the notion of gay affirmative action, and the proposal for gay “marriage” – all these developments have unnecessarily stoked the fires of social unease.

We should be examining a more basic and pertinent question: How should we acknowledge the basic decency and humanity of gay men and lesbian women?

True Fundamentalism

Earlier, I put the term “fundamentalist” in quotes because I simply refuse to cede that term to the literalists. A true fundamentalist seeks to uncover the universal principle behind a particular scriptural entreaty or proscription, a process of careful discernment that distinguishes the wise from smug every time. An authentic fundamentalist understands that the protection of human dignity is the core value that lies behind most of our authentic moral rules. [I define human dignity as personal volitional integrity in the context of a system that holds everyone accountable for conduct that threatens it. For example, the proscriptions against assault, fraud and trickery were self-evidently designed to protect individual human dignity.]

It is the task of true fundamentalism to mine both scripture and human experience for the core moral principles that they contain. Were literalists running things, we’d still have widespread slavery. That repellant institution was not condemned by the author(s) of Leviticus, and was not directly challenged by Jesus during his reported ministry, although liberation at a profound level was clearly an animating principle behind his teaching. The true fundamentalists have successfully condemned slavery by identifying the fundamental principles that have animated scripture. The authentic core moral principles always trump narrow literalism.

Homosexuality and Moral Principle

So what is the core moral principle at stake here? It is the protection of human dignity. What is the new application? Our homosexual neighbors have awakened to their birthright as fellow members of the human family, as entitled to the protection of their individual human dignity as the rest of us. And many of the rest of us have awakened to a newly discovered reality: Homosexual orientation is an innate characteristic of some persons, not an immoral choice.

I suspect, but can’t prove, that male homosexuality has been preserved in our genetic mix because it represents a useful adaptation for the species as a whole, to be expressed as a small percentage of all males. In earlier times (as well as now) it was useful to have males who are “out of the game” when it comes to competition for female mates. Our peacemakers and spiritual leaders may be more effective when they aren’t predisposed to seek “our women.” It is no coincidence that a very high percentage of the best clerics in the Roman Catholic Church and many others are gay (at least in predisposition if not practice).

The Marriage Question

I count among my friends several monogamous; same-sex couples whose relationships are every bit as solid and durable as those of my married friends. Some desire to be married. Yet the term “marriage” carries a long established meaning. Several thousand years of tradition have applied the term only to sanctioned unions between men and women. Even the most liberal of the major religious denominations have not entertained using the term marriage for blessings of the unions of same sex couples. In this sense, the gay “marriage” issue is really a semantic controversy, secondary to the fundamental psychological barrier suffered by many gay-averse people. Surely the question of homosexual marriage is for individual religions to work out within each tradition. And governments and employers are to work out practical questions such relationships present in the context of rules governing benefits and property allocations among domestic partners and married persons alike.

That Persistent Phobia

On the psychological level, I think much of the resistance to a more relaxed acceptance of the homosexual sub-culture boils down to a worry that somehow one’s daughter or son will be recruited to the “gay cause”. And on another level it is that perennial conflict between inclusion and exclusion.

I support inclusion over exclusion any day. And the worries and concerns of the straight community are unreasonable. Successful recruitment of adult straights is not a realistic prospect given the social, biological and genetic facts of heterosexual life. “Recruitment” of children is child abuse, a crime to be dealt with very severely. But child abuse is uniformly condemned by all mainstream straights and gays.


And as to any “fundamentalist” cleric who would consign a young murder victim like Matthew Shepard to hell …I don’t have to descend to the “Jesus wouldn’t drive a Hummer” silliness to make the counterpoint: The Great Shepherd of the Christian religion would never condone a jihad against homosexual men and lesbian women, nor consign them to Purgatory, much less hell, ahead of people like that homophobic cleric. I suspect that Dante’s purgatory is more likely to be populated with bigots and hypocrites, and a sprinkling of intolerant literalists.

Copyright © 2003 by Jay B. Gaskill

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