Last Sunday morning, as the rector of my church drew attention to the words of Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies exhorting us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Marriage postal plebiscite, one of my friends turned to me and said: “I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, where the church that now denies same-sex marriage believed that interracial love and marriage were also sins, and could point to Scripture to proclaim it. God help us, we’re making the same mistake again.” By chance, I had in my own Bible reading lately encountered the following in the Old Testament from Nehemiah Chapter 13:
…in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?
One can see how easily Apartheid leaders might have turned such words to their designs, likewise to the will of white nationalists in Australia or the USA, or Nazis for that matter. And yet, as far as I’m aware, in today’s Australia there are no church leaders calling for inter-racial couples to be separated, still less threatening to beat them, rip out their beards, or forbid them from learning a new language.
Words such as these in Nehemiah engender different responses from believers. The prophet’s words may inspire some to xenophobia, or affirm them in a pre-existing loathing. Others might stick their head into the sand and try to ignore the ancient prophet altogether, preferring to focus on Christ’s teachings about love in the New Testament. For others again, such words might encourage them to come to terms with the historical and cultural specificity of much of the Bible’s contents, particularly in the Old Testament. This is something that the church once did well, but has now forgotten or suppressed, at least in certain corners of the earth.
Nehemiah lived and taught at a time when Israel faced extermination. His beleaguered people were an ethnic and linguistic minority, swallowed by the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. The nation’s future, Nehemiah believed, required a guerrilla credo: band together now or die. He yearned to save his people’s language and traditions with the fervour others still seek to protect endangered systems of beliefs and language. If Apartheid South Africa saw itself in this ancient tale of genocide, then they were looking in the wrong direction. For they, in fact, were the destroyers of minorities, the scourge of languages and cultures. Ancient prohibitions in Leviticus were likewise intended to protect a nation on the run in even older times. Those laws are not, and never were, meant for us today. Not in the way that some would want us to believe.
To reckon with such words in Scripture is to expand or deepen in belief, or to lose one’s faith entirely. One of the books my father – an Anglican chaplain – left me when he died was from Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, James Kugel. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now is a wonderfully compelling introduction for those wishing to take on such a challenge with an open mind. Stay or leave? In most cases, it is up to church leaders to decide which it will be. Not everyone will, or could – even if they wanted to – wade through thousands of pages of Biblical scholarship. Nor should they need to.
Millions of Australians have now walked away from church, and with good reasons. A failure to respond to sexual violence and abuse in the church is one. Many of us have seen firsthand the damage wrought by such abuse on human lives, and, as a nation, all of us have heard it in the testimony brought before the Royal Commission. Abuse all too often inflicted on the vulnerable by the very institutions that dare name Same-Sex Marriage, of all things, as a threat to the moral fabric of our nation. No. What has shred, and daily shreds, the fabric of our nation are crimes committed in the name of those sworn to serve and to protect Australia’s most vulnerable. In churches, and church schools and clubs across the land, the Royal Commission has uncovered generations of true sexual disorder and abuse, the institutionalized evisceration of human hearts. Yet even now, when advocates for SSM point out that LGBTIQ+ attraction is natural, the more radical Christian anti-SSM activists have the audacity to sneer that incest and rape are “natural” too.
The scientific realisation that same sex attraction is natural was important for the advance of LGBTIQ+ rights, but the argument proved insufficient to shift the minds of hardened skeptics. (One wishes that today’s fundamentalists might be as skeptical of scripture and church leadership as they are skeptical of science. Inquiring minds well served theologians and church leaders of the past. They well served St Paul and Jesus Christ.) Taken alone, though, these critics have a point. Nature makes a poor moral arbiter. It is not enough to identify a thing as natural to declare it beautiful or good. And yet, the analogy of same-sex attraction, still less same-sex marriage, to the soul-annihilating crimes of incest, rape, and pedophilia is a moral and intellectual absurdity. It is, moreover, in light of the findings of the Royal Commission, an abomination.
As St Paul taught the church in Corinth, in some of the most beautiful words ever written of love:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
It is gut-wrenchingly tragic that it needs repeating in Twenty-First Century Australia that pedophilia, incest, and rape bear no resemblance to any sort of love, same sex or otherwise.
The numbers of Australians who have left the church are now vertiginous. Unfortunately, like many in a darkened hole, church leaders keep on digging. Like failing tyrants they imagine that stricter rule might turn the tide again. And yet, almost miraculously, despite the exodus of Christians from Australian pews, many have remained. I attend a congregation where most, quite possibly the majority of, Christians are likely to vote YES in the SSM postal vote. Others will search their conscience and vote, NO. Their reasons may vary, and I will remember Martin Luther King, Jr’s reminder that loving someone and disliking their point of view need not be mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the trend towards inclusive Christian attitudes towards SSM is growing, with a recent Galaxy Poll suggesting some 54% of Australian Christians support marriage equality.
Which leads us to a stark conclusion. Either the leaders of our churches have lost their congregations. Or, more likely, the churches of Australia have lost their leaders. Too many clergy remain mired in theological obscurantism and sexual solipsism. Is there anything more tragic then a priest’s lament that his marriage is diminished each time a gay man weds? Meanwhile, millions of Australians across all demographics and religions have come to know their LGBTIQ+ sons and daughters, families, neighbours, and friends, as equals in all respects … except the law. This transformation has come too late for generations lost to fear and hatred, and yet it has come, and grows now every day.
As St Paul wrote to Corinth, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In the face of violence and exclusion, we have seen first-hand the love and truth and perseverance of our LGBTIQ+ brothers and sisters. They have persevered in love, as generations before them preserved, not only to be seen, but to be recognized as equals before the law. Not to be tolerated, but to be loved and be defended. As Paul taught the church in Galatia, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If Paul had lived to know the LGBTIQ+ community, as we know it today, I have faith that they too would be included in his words. For others who remain uncertain how to vote, recall that the conversion of Saul of Tarsus from persecutor of Christians to the author of such words of Christian love reveals a man unafraid to change his mind. Afraid perhaps, but brave enough to dare. LGBTIQ+ Australians love their partners, their children, their families, and communities as well as the rest of us. Perhaps better. For such families have had to fight for every inch of recognition of that love. I am proud to attend a church that seeks to redress the failures of the church’s past, and “welcomes all people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, or religion.”
Last Sunday morning, as the rector drew attention to the words of Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies exhorting us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Marriage postal plebiscite, he also drew attention to the words of Professor Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University, and Associate Priest at St. John’s Anglican Church, East Malvern, Victoria. As Professor Bouma wrote for ABC Religion and Ethics, “my heart aches for those who are told their committed relationships are not worthy of marriage, that their loving is inferior, and that their being is evil. My compassion for those excluded moves me to vote ‘yes.’” I too will be voting YES without hesitation.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Frederick W. Faber