Friday, March 29, 2013

Bill O'Reilly, Dan Savage, and Bible Thumpers

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 
Philemon 1:8-12 

Recently on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Bill O’Reilly commented that in the debate over marriage equality, the strong arguments were all on the side of same sex marriage. They just want to be treated like everyone else in American, he said. “That’s a strong argument.” By contrast, he noted that all the opponents can do is “thump their Bibles.” And that, he opined, is not a good argument.

Not that long ago, Bill O’Reilly was criticizing those who had shifted toward supporting equal marriage for what he termed “pandering” to public opinion. And he mocked those who said that their perspectives were “evolving.” His own shift, if that is what it is, has been much more abrupt. And it represents a seismic shift in the argument.

The public sentiment in favor of equal marriage is growing at an amazing rate. And that is a very good thing.

But what is not a good thing is that the Bible has been “thumped” from both sides.

Opponents misuse it, and supporters ignore it or denigrate it.

A friend posted a quotation from Dan Savage that is indicative of how the Bible has been dismissed in the debate. Addressing a high school group in Washington State, Savage declared:

“The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn't say, 'Christians don't own people.' Paul talks about how Christians own people.... the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong: slavery. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? One hundred percent."

In spite of the fact that the Bible does not condemn slavery, at least not consistently, and there are many more verses condoning slavery than there are condemning it, we need to put that in historical perspective. Nearly two millennia after the last biblical writer wrote the last verse in the Bible, the framers of our constitution “got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong.” If Jefferson and his colleagues were wrong two hundred years ago, it’s not surprising that Paul was wrong two thousand years ago. We should also note that the “slaves” in Paul’s time were more like indentured servants than the slaves kept by the Founders.

But wait, there’s more.

Paul, like Jesus, was a radical egalitarian. In his letter to Philemon, he is appealing for the release of Onesimus. He hopes that Philemon will do this, out of a sense of Christian faith, rather than under compulsion, because he feels Paul’s appeal as a command. But one way or the other, he wants Onesimus freed and embraced as “a brother.” Paul understand the early Christian church to be an egalitarian community, and a model for what the whole world will eventually become when the Kingdom of God is realized “on earth as it is in heaven.”

John Wesley, who was deeply committed to biblical Christianity, was a life-long opponent of slavery. Wesley knew the many verses that condoned slavery, but he also saw that the whole thrust of the Bible, from the Exodus to Paul’s letters, was toward freedom and liberation.

While the founders were enshrining slavery in the Constitution, Wesley was condemning it. In his last letter, written to William Wilberforce, he writes: “O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

Wesley did not oppose slavery in spite of his faith, but because of it. In the same way, we cannot develop an authentically Christian perspective on equal marriage by appealing to a few scattered verses of Scripture. We need to look for the broad themes and principles.

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