The Bible, bigotry, and same sex attraction

At a conference for High School journalists, Dan Savage gave a talk that was supposed to be about anti-bullying. Instead it was anti-Christian. As he began to talk about the “bullish*t” of what can be found in the Bible, many Christian students stood up and walked out on him—a move he later called “pansy-assed.” Here’s the video. It’s about three minutes, but be forewarned there is some swearing going on in it (not suitable if kids are nearby.)

The video has gone viral since being posted three days ago, the vast majority of people giving it a “like.” The comments below the video are horrifically anti-gay and only go to further the disgusting stereotype that Savage is bashing in his speech.

My first reaction to this video was shock. I couldn’t believe that someone could speak like that in such a public forum. If a speaker in a similar forum talked about how Jesus died for all of our sins he or she would have been rushed off the stage. But I quickly got over that. St. Peter wrote, “Don’t be surprised that a trial is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) Christians should expect to be persecuted.

My next reaction was sympathy. There was a part of me that felt bad for him. Here is a man who has been abused by people claiming to be Christian. He references being insulted and being physically beat up while others have died over this. And for him the source of blame is the Bible.

He suggests that we should overlook the prohibitions in the Bible regarding same sex activity just as we overlook things like stoning women who are adulterers. I teach a course on Scripture at Franciscan and I’ll be honest: it’s hard to read things like that in Scripture. Interestingly enough, the reason we find it hard to read is because we’ve been transformed by Christ who we also learn about in the Bible. For there are many cultures (who don’t read the Bible) who would still agree with those kind of behaviors.

If the law of God seems barbaric in the Old Testament, we have to remember that it was because 3,500 years ago humanity was barbaric, at least by our Western civilization standards of the 21st century. When you hear of the genocides that still occur today you can argue that not much has changed in some places in the world.

God slowly revealed Himself to the Israelites so that through them the world might learn what it truly means to live and love through the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. We don’t stone women anymore for adultery—”Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is one of the most famous lines of Jesus (John 8). In fact, we don’t believe in capital punishment at all (unless keeping the prisoner alive is a danger to society—an argument that makes more sense when prisoners were kept in tents and clay houses than billion dollar penitentiaries.)

Savage mentions that, “the Bible is a radically pro-slavery document.” I believe this accusation to be purposefully ignorant. Yes, St. Paul wrote of the respect and duty that slaves should have for their masters and masters for their slaves. But while the term “slave” is used in broad terms in both the Old and New Testament, it is NEVER used in the way it was experienced in America (capturing people from their native land, selling them off for profit, denying rights, justifying abuse, etc.) The Jewish people experienced that kind of slavery at the hand of the Egyptians and a strong part of their Law was to not do that to anyone else.

In the Jewish custom, a slave was more like an indentured servant who could only sell themselves, not be sold by someone else. And after six years they’d have to be released unless they begged their master to be a servant for life (Exodus 21:5) and even then only the judges could decide if that could happen.

But I understand Savage’s deeper point. In the time of slavery in America, some slave owners used the Bible to justify their actions. They were wrong to do so. In our current time, there are many America who bully and discriminate against people with same sex attractions and use the Bible to justify their actions. Guess what? They are wrong to do so, too.

Christianity has much to atone for in the way we have treated people with homosexual attractions. If only we were as shocked at the way the media portrays sinful heterosexual activity! It’s too easy to be shocked and disgusted at the sins we aren’t tempted to commit because we have no sympathy for the offender (whereas we are naturally kinder to people who struggle with our same issues.) Jesus didn’t say, “Love one another… except for the gays.” We are all commanded by Christ to love as He loved us and to treat each other with the dignity that comes from being made in the image and likeness of God. It seems clear to me that Dan Savage has never experienced that love from people who claim to know Christ but instead has experienced the opposite. And that’s why I feel such sorrow when I hear him speak.

However, just because people get the Bible wrong doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. Savage (and others) think the Bible and Christianity is the problem. If that were true then cultures not formed on the Bible should be tolerant and accepting of homosexual behavior… but that is not always the case. In a 2007 Pew Survey that asked if homosexuality should be accepted in society, Latin America, Western Europe, and Central Europe found about half agreeing with that idea. But Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, huge portions of Asia and all of Africa strongly disagreed. It’s hard to suggest that the Bible has influenced predijuce in China and India. (See the study here, page 35.)

And though I feel some sympathy for the man that doesn’t mean I sympathize at all with his position. He’s wrong and I think it was horrible that he used that opportunity with high school teenagers to bash the Bible. He would have been way more effective sharing with those teenagers the pain of being judged and condemned by by people with religious beliefs than attacking Christianity. He was “fighting back” to a group of kids who hadn’t done him any harm. It was immature and inappropriate.

I was proud of the students who walked out on him. It wasn’t “pansy-assed.” It was just the opposite. In Savage’s attempt to teach teens about not discriminating against homosexuals, he became the bully.

The world won’t see it that way. His anti-Christian rhetoric will be justified by “righteous anger” that blames all people of faith for any unjust act done against a person with same sex attraction. More and more in society today, people think to be Christian is to be a bigot. They think that we who believe that sex was made for a man and woman in marriage should hang our head in shame and stay home on voting day to atone for our sins.

Sadly, many Christians are doing just that. These issues are driving many away from the Church. It reminds me of something the artist formerly known as Ratzinger wrote in 1970 (from his book Faith and the Future, this quote taken from here) :

“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.

She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members…

The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” 

Smaller but stronger. A Church who’s strength is built not on the amount of her followers but the depth of her love for God and neighbor.

So how should we treat those who speak against us? With love. How should we behave towards those with same sex attractions? Love. What should we do to those who support and provide abortions? Love. How should we treat our enemies? Love.

But—and forgive me for using a phrase that Savage employed—not a “pansy-ass” love that says that everything is fine no matter what you do. A love that is rooted in truth. A love that is rooted in mercy. A love that is rooted in Jesus Christ.

Our love of God and neighbor means we can’t silent on these issues, no matter what persecution we will face, no matter what people may think of us when we do. And when we speak we must do so “with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than from doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:16-17)

Don’t expect to be understood. Don’t be surprised at the trial. And don’t lose hope for this culture. “Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)

32 Comments on “The Bible, bigotry, and same sex attraction

  1. beautifully written good sir! I love the quote from Ratzinger- I remember reading excerpts of that book when I was taking Theology of the Church! Thanks for everything Prof. Rice!

    Jerome Jumawan

  2. I say the following with a deep love — Bob and I have been very close friends for two decades.

    For some, Bob, the damages caused by religious leaders are seen as catastrophic. We have a religious minority with great power in this country — not the loving, forgiving Christians you interact with and teach, but the ones who claim to be Christians while declaring war in multiple countries in retaliation for what was revealed to be the misguided actions of a few insane zealots. Somewhere between “Turn the other cheek” and total invasion of sovereign nations was an appropriate response. We didn’t find it, and it left deep distrust for anyone defining our nation as Christian.

    Somewhere between government mandated support for birth control and scientific family planning are cures for unwanted pregnancy, a global epidemic of HIV, and a sustainable draw on natural resources, but some see The Vatican as archaically against such reform. I love your image that the God of Leviticus revealed himself to be a loving gentle god with the gifts of His son and eternal salvation. I believe it is naive to ignore the advances given to us since Jesus’ teachings, much the same way we no longer obey the laws of Leviticus. I don’t know where Jesus would stand on safe sex and birth control, but I believe that if Jesus were to live with us today, he would be anti-war (in the modern sense of war), anti capital-punishment, and perhaps his best friend would be gay.

    I know there are members of the religious right that would cringe to see that last sentence. I wonder if they have ever read the book?

    I am aware that I am blurring the lines between the religious right and true Christianity, but it is that blur that scares those of us who believe in religious freedom and equality for all. There are very powerful people who listen closely to people claiming to be Christian, but have hatred, anger and greed in their hearts. Whenever I hear someone say we are a Christian nation, I cringe. We are a nation of liberty and freedom. Which sect of Christianity would we choose?

    I am not anti-Christian, but I strongly believe in a separation of church and state, and I feel that many of the actions of people claiming to be Christian are abhorrent. The minute I see someone interpret Christian faith to influence public policy on welfare, marriage, or healthcare, i become skeptical.

    And with regard to Dan Savage — he also confused intolerance with Christianity. He probably hasn’t read the book either. But he was speaking to young journalists, and if anyone needs to be trained to uncover logical fallacies and religious persecution, it’s journalists!

    • As you know, the majority of my readers are coming from a Christian background (and more specifically, a Catholic one) so I really appreciate your perspective. Your comments gave me an insight into myself. Even though I don’t like to be associated with “extreme” speakers like Bill O’Riley or Newt Gingrich I can be quick to assume that the extreme from the other side speaks for the whole group. So I thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      More importantly, I appreciate the way you said it. I think we can all agree that dialog like this, coming from different points of view and beliefs but founded on mutual respect, makes America a better country and is more at the heart of what our nation is about. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sell newspapers. The ratings are much higher when you get the farthest extremes screaming at each other in a thirty second block of time. That’s exactly what Savage was doing and I think it set a horrible example for young, impressionable journalists who I think would be far better served by witnessing the kind of conversation we are having now.

      Of course, they’ll never get famous that way… but I’ll leave the blend of news and entertainment for another post.

      Love you, bro. Feel free to comment any time. Glad you did.

  3. Bob friggin Rice, this is why I am so glad you are my brother in Christ. You rock.

  4. Thanks for commenting on this video Prof. Rice! As said before, beautifully written. Thank you for defending what is true, good, and honorable.

  5. What struck me most about his comments is that his message was supposed to be an anti-bullying of gays message. But instead he was the perfect example of how Christian kids are bullied for their beliefs when they don’t fit into mainstream society’s permissive thought. He was the bully and used a public forum to bully the Christians in the audience. Shame on him. And kudos to the kids with enough conviction to not sit there and continue to be bullied.

  6. I am a Christian. I am also homosexual. It saddens me that a community that was once so persecuted and built upon spreading love and taking care of one another as our own brothers and sisters is now getting a bad name and a hateful reputation from a few, ignorant people who chose to use their “faith” as an excuse to hate. It also saddens me that a community willing to except any persecuted outsider and love them for who they were made to be have been shown only the ugly side of this beautiful religion because much like the prostitutes and hated tax collectors Jesus chose to associate with, these homosexual people who take people in who have no home left to go to and give them help without even knowing them, really understand the message of love He tried to convey to us. I think it’s one of the devil’s greatest works, keeping such an understanding people who lean upon one another for support away from a church with such a beautiful foundation and truth behind it by spawning petty, misunderstood hate.

    • I think the Catholic teaching on homosexuality is the most culturally controversial one we have today, even more so than the pro-life issues. The Church teaches that the attraction is not a sin but the activity is. But I appreciate that the distinction for someone who has same-sex attraction can seem irrelevant.

      You mention you are Christian, not Catholic. Perhaps you belong to a Christian community that supports a homosexual lifestyle. While not debating our differences in sexual morality I agree that our Christian faith has been slandered and mischaracterized by “a few, ignorant people who chose to use their ‘faith’ as an excuse to hate.” (I couldn’t have said it better myself!) My mind flashes (and stomach reels) to media images of Christians holding hateful signs about “God hates fags” or “Gays are going to hell”. It’s hard to imagine our Lord ever holding a sign like that.

      As I mentioned in a previous reply to my friend Richard Bullwinkle, the extremes don’t represent the whole. But that provides a challenge for someone with my beliefs. I believe that sex is a gift given by God for a man and a woman in the context of marriage and wasn’t intended for anything else. So how can I promote that while not seeming “hateful” to someone who is or supports homosexuality? Do I get lumped in with the hateful sign waivers?

      It’s a difficult issue, one that I constantly think about and doubt will get resolved here. But I’m grateful you felt comfortable enough to share your comments on this blog. They are always welcome.

      • Thank you for your response Mr. Rice. I understand what you were saying, but I think to some it came across, not as an endorsement of same-sex attraction, but a softening of the truth that homosexuality is indeed wrong and is sinful. It’s not a greater sin than adultery by heterosexual persons, but a sin none-the-less. I know that is not what you intended and I understood that perfectly. However, I read this aloud to other people in the room and that was the perception of some. I asked what everyone thought of it and most thought it was almost an endorsement. I had to re-read the parts to them, where you stated “They think that we who believe that sex was made for a man and woman in marriage should hang our head in shame and stay home on voting day to atone for our sins. Sadly, many Christians are doing just that.” And they got it, but they felt like they were lectured more about how Christians treat homosexuals than pointing out the fact mentioned above…the fact that homosexual acts are wrong ad that we should not be ambiguous about it.

        I think one of the problems that Christians experience is that, although there are people who DO hate others for their same sex attractions, we Christians (who may not practice hate), but who believe in the teaching of The Church regarding homosexuality, are called haters and intolerant. No matter how lovingly we try to present the truth about homosexuality to those with same sex attraction, we are still relentlessly called haters and intolerant by the same or by their supporters. The group also felt and I admit I agreed on this point, that it seemed you took the Church to task a little too much making us out to be the bad guy. We know that Christians have not always been very Christian like, but I think what we have done for society far outweighs any negative.

        We need to present it in a loving way, but under no circumstance are we to be ambiguous regarding truth. Even if we are called haters and intolerant and bigots, we need to (in love) speak the truth at all times.

        Thank you for allowing me to voice my opinion.
        I really did enjoy reading your article.

  7. This is beautifully written, with compassion and care… thank you for reminding us of the responsibility we have as Christians, not only in representing the faith which we share, but also for acting at all times in love to our brothers and sisters. As a youth minister, I am deeply offended by Savage’s intolerance for teens who stood by their own convictions to walk out, as well as by the language he uses to emphasize his own position. But I also believe that this is inevitable when anyone speaks publicly from a place of woundedness…
    Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

  8. I think you’re argument regarding acceptance of homosexuality is fallacious. Wikipedia ‘Homosexuality in China’. The very first line reads “Homosexuality in China was traditionally widespread in the region[1] prior to the spread of Christian and Islamic values via Central Asia.[2]”

    • Thanks for the clarification and didn’t mean to get it wrong. But since the Bible is still widely outlawed in China, I think there may be some validity in my point. But I’m not trying to suggest I’m a cultural expert.

    • While not trying to start an argument, I would question your reply comment by starting a retaliatory comment citing Wikipedia… While a very widely used forum, not always factual due to the wide and not always well documented people they have publishing/editing. Many universities do not allow they to be cited as a source.

      Either way, the article has one main point we can all agree with. Lashing out in anger is just that… A story will sell more and is more sensational with anger, but it never hits home and stays with people like those that are heart-felt, honest and kind.

  9. The world needs more people who can provide a balanced argument and explanation as Bob Rice does here, not a slandering one-sided, narrow minded misunderstanding of a religion and group of people that Dan Savage presents to impressionable teenagers. Just as Bob appreciates comments left here, I appreciate his efforts to apply Christ’s core teachings to these issues. I feel similar to Bob in my beliefs about this issue (I am a young, Catholic single male), sort of a “hate the sin but love the sinner” type of thing – we shouldn’t condone or condemn, but instead love nonetheless. It’s a shame that what people hear on Facebook, YouTube and the mass media are the extremes, and no one seems to care about broadcasting Christ’s real message. No one seems to care about WHY the Church has its teachings, but just what they are and how they “marginalize” and “oppress” people. We need to EDUCATE ourselves before we criminalize, and ask ourselves, in all seriousness, what would Jesus do? If we are real Christians, we would ask ourselves that daily in terms of what we say and how we act. The world would be a much better place if folks honestly did that more, including myself. Lines are being blurred between religion and spirituality as well, and Christian does not mean anti-gay. At its essence it means love.

  10. “Christianity has much to atone for in the way we have treated people with homosexual attractions. If only we were as shocked at the way the media portrays sinful heterosexual activity! It’s too easy to be shocked and disgusted at the sins we aren’t tempted to commit because we have no sympathy for the offender (whereas we are naturally kinder to people who struggle with our same issues.) ”
    This is an incredible and insightful line. Well done sir.

  11. This is a very wonderful response to the video. I have come up against this topic a lot due to where I live (DC), and found myself really frustrated with the conversation as a whole, an wrote my own response… ( But, I think your response is much clearer, has a lot more apologetic substance, and again, thank you for speaking boldly, with love and compassion.

  12. Good response Bob.
    For those who don’t want Sacred Scripture, OT or NT, or the Catholic Church, then just look at the demographics.
    Excellent use of Ratzinger. I have referred to that selection often.

  13. This was a fantastic article. Someone finally speaking with love and the true Christian message. I have been expressing this for awhile now (being a follower in Christ is about loving EVERYONE) and have noticed an increase of bitterness and hatred once I express I am Catholic. Christian doesn NOT make you a hater. Being a Christian is a lover of life and the message of Christ. Thank you so much for this.

  14. I love how u responded to this. Just seeing how intelligent and well written this is strengthens my faith. I’m glad i had the opportunity to hear u in real life at IHM in Grand Rapids. ur talk on the holy spirit was one of the highlights of that retreat. thank u

  15. @ Bob Rice: I respect your tone and appreciate you sharing your perspective on the video. Part of me wants to say “It’s Dan Savage. This is what he does.” You might also listen to his speech about his Mother’s death on an episode of NPR’s This American Life to hear a different side of the man.

    Leaving that aside, I get wary when Christians begin to compare themselves to other Christians, and reach a decision that they are on the correct path or know what is “true”. I simply cannot understand what objective measure you use to know that your reading of the Bible is the correct one. I’m sure that research into the cultures that were active around the time of the writing of the Bible are useful to better understand their mindset and intentions, but this demonstrates that the words in the book are decidedly that of men (as in males) and I just can’t see how you make the leap from “men wrote these words in these circumstances” to “this is what God or Jesus would want.”

    Is this some kind of revealed knowledge? If so, again, what objective test do you perform to demonstrate that the information you receive is divine, and not manifested within your own brain? What if someone else claims to have had a different truth revealed? Who will be the arbiter? This can be true of revealed wisdom between the full spectrum of Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc.

    As for me, I’m all for doing good works in the name of love and compassion. I’d just prefer to do it without the tangle of revealed truth, dogma, and divine commandment.

    For what it’s worth, a short comment.

  16. I couldn’t agree more with atlanticplace.

    And Liberal Catholic, you’re exactly right about the Wikipedia citation. I thought the very same thing as i posted it, but i was being lazy (student amidst impending finals).

    My basic point is that what’s popular isn’t always right even in this day and age. Cultural acceptance is not a valid argument. Look at what the Catholic Church did to Galileo when he proposed the earth was not the center of the universe, as popular belief claimed it to be.

    • The argument about “what the Church did to Galileo” is a common misconception. It was not the body of his teaching that was the problem, but his blatant disobedience about the timing of spreading the information. The Pope invited Galileo to the Vatican to share about his findings and Galileo was enthusiastically received, but he disregarded requests to postpone making his ideas public until they had been more thoroughly researched. The Church is not anti-science. For heaven’s sake, the modern Scientific Method owes much of its development to a Franciscan friar!

    • The majority of what was “done to Galileo” are myths.

  17. Read Galileo’s Daughter. She was a devout Catholic nun. Her letters paint a little different picture

    • I’m jumping in because I fear we’re getting a bit off topic. I’m familiar with Galileo’s Daughter. It softens the oft exaggerated image of the Church of faith brutally attacking a man of science but still acknowledges what went wrong. While the Church has contributed greatly to scientific research at times, this was a dark moment in the relationship between faith and reason. Even John Paul II recognized this and apologized for it on behalf of the Church as we moved into the third millennium.

      But this is a different conversation than what the blog is about. Ajax, if I understand you correctly, you wished to emphasize that what is popular isn’t always right. I couldn’t agree more. But the context of my quoting the statistic you refer to was not to say that since cultures don’t agree with something it is therefore not right. Savage suggested that if we “get over what the Bible teaches about homosexuality” (a paraphrase, not a direct quote) then everyone would accept it. By showing there are cultures not formed on Judaeo-Christian values I hoped to show that it is not the Bible that is at “fault.”

  18. Just wanted to say that I have respected and admired you for a ton of years, Bob – from your music to your teaching at small conferences I’ve attended. This post and your comments/replies really show me your deliberate thoughtfulness and also your compassion.
    Please keep up the good work and I’m looking forward to the new blog post you mentioned above that will be a reply to “atlanticplace’s” comment.

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