The Greatest Commandment versus the Duck Commander

At the moment, it’s hard to avoid the dust-up over Phil Robertson’s comments made during a recent GQ interview. Setting aside the questions of why Robertson would ever even want to be interviewed by GQ, or why GQ would want to interview him, his comments have unleashed a torrent of criticism, and a corresponding torrent of criticism of his critics. Robertson’s opinions led to his being placed on indefinite hiatus from participating in Duck Dynasty, the A&E “reality” show that’s made the Robertson family famous beyond merely those looking to buy a good duck call. In return, the Robertson family has said that they aren’t sure they can, or will, continue with the show if patriarch Phil isn’t part of the process.

Robertson’s controversial comments were twofold. In one direction, reflecting on his early life growing up in Louisiana, he makes incredibly insensitive and inaccurate comments about the status of African-Americans before the civil rights movement:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

 Of course, it doesn’t take Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock to notice that, if his self-described status as “white trash” meant that he was being treated more lowly than other whites – even as  lowly as blacks, for goodness’ sake – then by definition, he most certainly did see, with his own eyes, blacks being mistreated. But to be so culturally oblivious as to not understand why, as a white man in Klan-saturated, Jim Crow Louisiana, he may never have heard blacks put voice to their problems and discrimination is a bit mind boggling. Phil Robertson may or may not be many things, but he didn’t become a multi-millionaire by being stupid.

In the second troublesome direction of his comments, Robertson offered his opinions regarding homosexuality:

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.”

 What, in your mind, is sinful?

 “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

According to Robertson – a self-described “Bible thumper” who strongly stands for his fundamentalist version of the Christian faith – homosexuality is a core factor in the godlessness and immorality plaguing this nation, by definition in the same category with all manner of sexual promiscuity, even bestiality, along with a shopping list of other moral deficits. This opinion is hardly unique to Robertson. In varying degrees, it’s an opinion held by a large number of Christians in the world – at least, according to the official doctrines of the various strands of the faith, if not the actual beliefs of their individual members, it’s the belief of the majority of Christians worldwide.

But this is by no means the only view within the Christian faith. There is a substantial minority within the faith, both in terms of official denominational doctrine as well as individuals’ beliefs, that this traditional understanding of homosexuality has been wrong – and not just wrong, but  the cause of terrible human tragedy, the justification for the spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse of millions of gay and lesbian people over the course of the past two thousand years, inside and outside of the Christian Church. This traditional interpretation of the Bible – arising out of only a handful of verses across both Old and New Testaments – has been used to justify the shunning, public humiliation, scorn, discrimination, violence, and even the murder, of countless people merely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Even the mildest of expressions of this traditionalist view – the cliché “hate the sin, love the sinner” – really does nothing but offer this same type of discrimination, only in warmer, fuzzier terms to make it more palatable to the hearts and minds of those doing the discriminating. To tell people who are by their very nature drawn to love those of the same sex that they are inherently disordered, and therefore, in a significant way inferior in their very being to others, is a devastatingly harmful thing to claim. It isn’t just harmful; it’s an utterly un-Christlike thing, and a thing contrary to the Christian belief that all human beings, in all of our many variations, are created in the very image of God. As James V. Brownson, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary writes in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, “[T]he emotional burden imposed explicitly or implicitly by traditionalists on contemporary gays and lesbians – not just to avoid same-sex behavior but to renounce their own persistent impulses and desires, even when those desires are not excessive, simply because they are “objectively” disordered – creates a profoundly difficult and duplicitous message of acceptance interlaced with rejection.”

Indeed it does. All that a person has to do is to sit with a group of LGBTQ people and have them share their personal stories, and you’ll hear a near-universal thread of rejection, abuse, and damage caused to them by their respective religious bodies. You’ll find that LGBTQ people are at least as spiritually and religiously inclined as the general population, if not more so – contrary to the stereotypes and twisting of scripture that paint them as godless, immoral idolaters. And in that spiritual journey, they have, almost to a person, been horribly harmed by their churches. The spiritual carnage caused in the lives of LGBTQ people by traditional church doctrine is appalling, gut-wrenching.

Without getting into the detail that a discussion of biblical interpretation of the handful of so-called gay “clobber verses” would require, the reality is that the very best of biblical scholarship today indicates that these texts that have traditionally been used to condemn homosexual orientation and action have been misunderstood – by inaccurate translation from the original languages, as well as an incorrect understanding of the historical context and actual intent of the original authors. These supposed condemnations are actually referring to a number of types of same-sex activities that were considered wrong because

  1. they were quite often forced, non-consensual situations, often between slaves and their owners, or between adults and adolescents;
  2. they were expressions of out-of-control lusts, perpetrated by those who were not by nature homosexual, but who were by nature heterosexual, acting contrary to their own nature;
  3. they were examples of prostitution, or expressions of actual worship of pagan deities or other expressions of idolatry;
  4. they were seen as denigrating the patriarchal, male-dominated society of the time in which females were seen as something less than males, so anything that supposedly made a man more like a woman was seen as shamelessly “degrading” the man and the entire patriarchal structure of their society; and
  5. the pre-scientific culture in which these writings occurred did not have the understanding that we now have, regarding the inherent and unchangeable nature of human sexual orientation.

According to contemporary biblical and historical scholarship available to us now, and not available at earlier times in the history of the faith, these few New Testament passages that Robertson and others use as a basis for their beliefs (for a Christian, the Old Testament snippets regarding this issue are so clearly no longer applicable that they really don’t even merit discussion here) are really not referring at all to the issue that we face today – that of people whom we now understand are, by nature, oriented to be drawn to those of the same sex, and, extending the issue to the question of marriage, who wish to engage in loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.

Of course, this is only the latest, but certainly not the first, time that Christians have erroneously applied scripture to a social/cultural issue and caused great harm to many people. Usually (but not always) with the best of intentions of honoring God by honoring the scriptures as they understood them, we Christians have royally botched our understanding of the meaning of scripture any number of times. Certainly, we see this in past issues of slavery, women’s equality, and civil rights, and there are other examples as well. In each of these cases, Christians have eventually learned the error and terrible harm caused by their misapplying scripture to these situations, and we have adjusted our scriptural interpretation accordingly. The current situation regarding homosexuality is just the next issue regarding which Christians are gradually learning to adjust their beliefs.

And it can’t come a moment too soon. While Phil Robertson’s form of anti-gay rhetoric seems relatively mild on the surface, it’s actually the exact same rationale used to justify laws in Uganda calling for life imprisonment for being gay. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who has beaten the crap out of, or even killed, a gay person in a hate crime. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who discriminates against an LGBTQ person in employment or housing, or even as silly a situation as refusing to sell them a wedding cake. Phil Robertson might not personally treat someone badly because of his erroneous views, but given his near omnipresence in our culture at the moment, and his general likeability, his words will only encourage those who would indeed harm others in ways small and large.

Phil Robertson’s being smacked by A&E for his hurtful words is not a limitation of his First Amendment rights. He has the right to his beliefs, and no one has imprisoned him since the interview. But he has been criticized, rightly, for the harmful nature of his words. Neither is this a battle for “the Christian point of view,” since there is no single “Christian point of view” regarding homosexuality. But related to both of those issues, hateful, harmful speech is properly subject to criticism and condemnation, regardless of whether it stems from a person’s religious views or elsewhere. I’m sure that Bull Connor justified the evil of his actions against African-Americans as part of his religious views. If he didn’t, countless Klan members, skinheads, and Neo-Nazis certainly have. In perfect parallel with the Robertson dust-up, many people in the past who were denounced for their pro-slavery, anti-woman, or anti-civil rights beliefs claimed the right to those beliefs as a matter of their religion. But that didn’t get them off the hook. Simply claiming that hate speech is part of one’s religious views doesn’t earn that speech a free pass from criticism, consequence, or rejection.

Of course, the rub here is that the Robertsons’ TV show is very popular. For my own part, I can only take the show in limited doses – I’m not a fan in general of supposed reality TV – but in those doses, I’ve usually enjoyed most of what I saw. And if I met them in person, or were their house guest, I think I’d genuinely like the Robertsons (I’m not sure about Phil himself, though; he seems to have that scary, “something’s not quite right” intensity in his eyes that you see in, say, old engravings of John Brown, for example). And I want to like a show that espouses morality and a strong sense of family, along with healthy helpings of comedy.

But despite their personal likeability, and my wish for a fun, morally healthy show, I can’t give their patriarch a pass when he espouses outdated beliefs regarding race or human sexuality, especially when claiming to base either or both of those beliefs in the Christian faith. We’ve all learned a number of things at our parents’ or grandparents’ knees that, while not diminishing our love for any of them, we’ve come to realize have been mistaken and that we’ve rejected. The same is true of some of the earlier traditions of our faith that we’d been taught. As we move forward, we discover the truths of our faith more deeply, in ways that differ from earlier understandings, and applied to situations never dreamt of by the original authors of the scriptures. And I believe that it’s quite clear that that’s the situation here. The older, traditional understanding of homosexuality in the Christian Church has been wrong, and harmful, and needs to be rejected – not because spiritual beliefs are supposedly being diluted by godless secularism, but because we simply understand more about the realities of the situation now than people did 2,000 years ago, and we can see how to apply the principles taught by Jesus himself to these newer realities. Surely, this process is occurring more quickly now, with more and more people within our own families and close circles of friends who are finding the courage to come out as LGBTQ, allowing those around them to recognize that this is not some abstract theological issue. Rather, it’s one that for most people, has a well-known name, and face. It’s a brother or sister, or aunt or uncle, or parent or grandparent, or maybe even one’s own self. And it’s obvious that the people in question aren’t godless, immoral, shameful, idolatrous, or destructive to society. And they certainly aren’t an “abomination.” Odds are, they’re just as moral, and good, and upstanding, and spiritual, as anyone else. It’s time we Christians stopped villifying LGBTQ people, and started asking forgiveness for the damage our earlier misinterpretations have done.

So people shouldn’t “stand with Phil” just because they like the TV show, or because they feel the family, or the faith, is being attacked. They shouldn’t stand with him when he says things that, even if he didn’t personally intend them as hurtful, nonetheless are very hurtful – potentially even physically dangerous – to others. No matter how likeable the show is, or the family is, Phil Robertson’s views on race and homosexuality are simply outdated and wrong. Every day, more and more Christians are coming to realize this truth. If there is any redeeming value to this whole situation, I hope that would be that even more faithful Christians would think about this issue and would come to realize that we need to reject the traditional positions of the church regarding homosexuality if we truly want to be more faithful to the teachings of the bearded man that we follow and call Lord, the one who calls human beings – not the bearded man who calls ducks.

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