For years, I have privately mused that the Bible is a problematic book.
As the holy book for Christians, it has been used and misused over time to justify personal prejudices and bigotry, including racism and slavery, sexism, and homophobia.
It’s not that there are not verses and in fact chapters that seem to condone bigotry. I found myself feeling really uneasy about what appears to be a biblical endorsement of racism not unlike that I remember reading about coming from staunch segregationists; in the book of Ezra, in order for a group of Israelites who have survived the Exile to be “at one with God,” they are required to end intermarriage. “Now make confession to the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:11ff). The scribe and priest Ezra is actually embarrassed for the “sins” of his people in their turning away from God in many ways, among which is intermarriage with people “not their kind.”
Everyone knows about the scriptures that call homosexuality an “abomination” against God, and again, a sense of uneasiness comes as one tries to reconcile the words of the Bible with the mandate that we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” The Bible consistently seems to give direction on how to handle those who are out of the will of God, and few to any of those instructions seem to involve love.
The Bible’s apparent support of slavery was used by many during that dark period in American history to support the institution; to buck ”the word of God” was deemed risky and evidence of one’s heresy.
And so it is not surprising, that in light of the words of Scripture that decry homosexuality, that President Obama and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s support of gay marriage, the words of the Christian holy book are being used once again.
At issue? 1) The definition of marriage, and 2) the role of the president or any public servant in issues that appear to be religious in nature. And, of course, there is the politics of race that is playing a big part in the debates and discussions which have erupted since the president and the NAACP issued their support for gay marriage.
I am not as sure that the Bible defines marriage as being between a man and a woman as much as it defines procreation as being between a man and a woman. In Genesis 1:27, after God created both male and female, God said nothing about marriage, about loving each other or being committed to each other. No, God merely said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” In fact, the whole of Genesis 1 seems to be about the creation of the world, and procreation was at the center of it all.
Nowhere do we see commitment and love as being mandates of men and women being together. In fact, love and commitment are downplayed, trumped in favor of those relationships where offspring could be produced. A reading of the story of Sarai and Abram, later Sarah and Abraham, is heart-wrenching, as a barren Sarai instructs her husband to sleep with her handmaiden, Hagar, so that Abram can have a son. The story is troubling on a number of levels, but the point is that the definition of marriage is clearly not something that is between “one man and one woman.” What the Bible seems to be saying is that sex can be between one man and any woman or many women, so long as children are produced.
The story of Rachel and Leah is equally as troubling. Jacob wants Rachel but is tricked into marrying Leah …and he eventually gets Rachel after having been with Leah for years! Yes, he apparently loves Rachel, but this marriage thing, between one man and one woman, is, again, not apparently valued. Jacob is allowed to have Leah and Rachel …and is encouraged to abandon Leah in favor of Rachel, who, the Bible says, was beautiful.
So, the definition is marriage seems a bit muddled when it comes to the Bible.
Then there is the issue of same-gender relationships in the Bible. Apparently, same-gender relationships were common in biblical times. There was male prostitution as well as female prostitution; young boys were commonly sterilized and used as sexual objects for men of wealth. According to some scholars, what Paul objected to was heterosexual men taking part in same-sex relationships only because they could. Such activity, these scholars say, seemed to be hypocritical; a heterosexual should not engage in same-gender sex because it represented a departure from what he was. In other words, a heterosexual male engaging in same-gender sex was nothing more than lustful behavior. Paul disapproved.
It is worthy to note that only the actions and activities of males are mentioned in the Bible as homosexual; lesbian relationships are not so obvious or evident, and are not criticized as are the male same-sex relationships. And, of course, there is the fact that those who lift up “the word of God” as justification for their homophobia ignore other “words of God” describing other sins that are mentioned only in passing, if at all.
So, there is some ambiguity in the Bible as concerns same-sex issues. Where there is not ambiguity, however, is in the words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Our Founding Fathers put words in these documents which are supposedly the “bible,” if you will, for public servants. Anyone in public office is to act as a politician who takes a vow to protect and defend the Constitution, and that means protecting the civil rights of all Americans.
It seems that President Obama and the NAACP, an organization which, again, exists to protect the rights of people being marginalized and discriminated against, understand the role of the politician as opposed to the pastor. It is not their role to define scripture; it is their role and duty, however, to protect people.
There is something wrong with a nation which purports to believe in liberty, but which doles it out in bits and pieces to those whom it deems worthy. If the religious sector cannot fulfill the religious dictate to “love one another” and to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” it is not the role of the nation to supercede or take over the religious task of teaching love; the state cannot legislate moral behavior. But the state can and must legislate adherence to the law. Reinhold Niebuhr says in “Moral Man and Immoral Society” that the state follows a “rational ethic,” and says that that ethic “seeks to bring the needs of others into equal consideration with those of the self.”
All of the hoopla that has erupted since the president, and now, the NAACP, have come out in support of gay marriage, seems to be gleefully concentrating on the possible division in the African-American community, as a black man, and an historically black civil rights institution, seem to be going against the Bible.
But in the end, both President Obama and the NAACP seem to be on point in terms of understanding the difference between religion and politics, and seem to be clear in their understanding that public servants have a duty to serve all of the people, not just some.
As unpopular as that might make them, it seems that they have done the right thing.
Smith, a Yale Divinity School graduate, is author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,” and is a winner of the 2009 National Best Books Award.