Dan Savage Was (Mostly) Right
May 2nd, 2012
Let’s skip the preliminaries and jump straight to the heart of the controversy, shall we? Dr. John Corvino, author and philosophy professor at Wayne State University, made a similar argument five years ago — no, strike that — ten years ago, about Leviticus 25:44-46:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
and Ephesians 6:5-9:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Ten years ago, Corvino addressed those passages:
Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:
(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.
(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with
(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.
Corvino warned that if historical context isn’t used to aid in terpreting the Bible, using “Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery.” Five years ago, he returned to context again, but said:
I’m not convinced that any amount of context is going to help the slavery passages. I think when we look to those passages, we have to admit that the prejudices and limitations of the Biblical authors crept into the text. And if they did that with respect to slavery, it could happen with respect with homosexuality.
Which brings us to the latest outrage over columnist Dan Savage, who said this at convention of high school journalists two weeks ago:
The Bible. We’ll just talk about the Bible for a second. People often point out that they can’t help it, they can’t help with the anti-gay bullying because it says right there in Leviticus, it says right there in Timothy, it says right there in Romans that being gay is wrong.
We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people, the same way (applause and cheers)… the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation (applause). We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things. The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waved the Bible over their heads during the Civil War and justified it. The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave-owner about owning his Christian slaves. And Paul doesn’t say Christians don’t own people. Paul talks about how Christians own people.
We ignore what the Bible says about slavery because the Bible got slavery wrong. Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation points out that if the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong — slavery — what are the odds that the Bible has gotten something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? One hundred percent.
The Bible says that if your daughter is not a virgin on her wedding night, or if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night, she shall be dragged to her father’s doorstep and stoned to death. Calista Gingrich lives. And there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone women to death on their wedding night if they are not virgins. At least not yet. We don’t know where the GOP is going these days.
People are dying because people can’t clear this one last hurdle. They can’t get past this one last thing in the Bible about homosexuality.
One other thing I want to talk about is…. So you can tell the Bible guys in the hall they can come back now because I’m done beating up the Bible (Cheers and applause). It’s funny, as someone who’s on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react to that (Cheers). I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings, but I have a right to defend myself and to point out the hypocrisy of people who justify anti-gay bigotry by pointing to the Bible and insisting we must live by the code of Leviticus on this one issue and no other.
Aside from the last paragraph (which I’ll get to in a minute), there is very little different from what Savage said and what Corvino has said through the past decade. The only substantial difference was not a substantive one, that difference being one of tone. Savage used the word “bullshit” — twice! — which is a well-used exclamation that the kids (and more than a few adults) use these days when confronted with utter nonsense, that nonsense, in this particular case, being the Bible’s instructions on purchasing, owning and being slaves, instructions which, if a teacher or leader were to try to impart today, the audience would scream, “bullshit!” At least, so I would imagine.
Where Savage truly did err, of course, was in calling those students who walked out on him “pansy-assed.” And for that, Savage was wrong, and for that he apologized. “My use of ‘pansy-assed’ was insulting, it was name-calling, and it was wrong,” he wrote. “And I apologize for saying it.” As well he should. As the face of the most widely-recognized anti-bullying campaign, Savage’s turning to name-calling was incredibly inappropriate. And to use a name — pansy-assed — with all of the undertones of disgust for effeminacy, well the irony, if you can call it that, is striking.
(Savage also erred factually: the shortest book of the New Testament is the Third Letter of John, which doesn’t have anything to do with slavery. He may have been thinking of Paul’s letter to Ephesians 6:5-9) or his letter to Colossians 3:22-4:1, or, perhaps, of Paul’s shortest book in the New Testament, his letter to Philemon, a slave-owning bishop of Colossae, to whose congregation Paul’s letter to Colossians is addressed. But anyway.)
Savage’s apology was very specific for calling the walkouts “pansy-assed.” But he didn’t apologize for using the word “bullshit” to describe those ideas written in the Bible which, if they would have come from anywhere else, would have elicited cries of “bullshit!” should anyone ever attempt to seriously propose them today in 2012. He only described his choice of that word “regrettable.”
It is regrettable, but only because it gives anti-gay Christians an opening (as if they really needed one) to cry foul over the larger point that Savage was making. And let’s not fall into the error of ignoring that it really is that larger point that they’re upset about, and not the dingle-dropping. He’s used worse words than “bullshit” in other contexts and Brietbart.com didn’t lead with an entire page devoted to it. And that wasn’t the issue for the minority of students at the conference either: if you look at that video above, you’ll see that the walkout started before Savage dropped his first poo.
The walkout started when he said he wanted to talk about the Bible.
And that’s what anti-gay Christians are really upset about. They are happy to talk about the Bible until they’re blue in the face. But when someone like Savage reads the Bible — something that I thought countless self-described Christians were all praying he would do — and describes some of the passages he found in it, then all aitch-ee-double-toothpicks breaks loose.
Which is very surprising. Is pointing out that the Bible got it wrong on slavery really that controversial? It certainly isn’t controversial among the growing numbers of Christians who also believe that the Bible got it wrong on homosexuality. Nor is it controversial among the very many more Christians who are still trying to sort out what they think about the Bible’s take on homosexuality. Nor is it controversial, when it gets right down to it, among those Christians who condemn gay people with the vigor of Paul. Their denominations all denounce slavery as an unmitigated evil and in other strong terms that the Bible’s authors didn’t have the moral foresight to mention. Even the Southern Baptist Convention — whose sole reason for existence is that they broke away from their northern abolitionist counterparts over the validity of these very passages — formally apologized in 1995 for getting it wrong by using the Bible’s defense of slavery as a defense of slavery.
So now we’ve learned some valuable, if conflicting, lessons. It turns out that Savage isn’t allowed to read the Bible after all. Or, if he is, he isn’t allowed describe what the Bible says. Or if he is allowed to do that but only in a way that affirms its complete inerrancy, then that would mean that if he runs across someone describing the proper and righteous way to own slaves, his only logical response would be to call it the Inspired Word of the Unchanging Almighty.
You know what I call that?
Bullshit. And regrettable.