The “sin question” problem
September 21st, 2012
The ophthalmologist’s assistant brought in his next patent, a lovely young woman wearing a t-shirt reading “curves are beautiful”. And it was an appropriate phrase; she had curves a plenty and they were indeed beautiful. She was perhaps 20 pounds over “ideal”, but every ounce was exactly where it should be and her glowing taut skin and firm musculature (along with her bottle of carrot juice) illustrated that this was a woman who took care of herself.
“So Doctor”, she said, “is it bad for my health to be overweight?”
Taken aback, the doctor groped for a response. He thought about his lunch with it’s processed flour bread and sodium-intense ham and gave what he thought was a safe answer. “Well, there are many things that aren’t ideal, but the important thing is that you strive to live a healthy life. After all, none of us are perfect.”
“No, Doctor, I want to know if my being twenty pounds overweight is bad for my health.”
Again he tried for diplomacy. “Every body is different. If you’re asking if I think you’re fat, the answer is no. You look very good at the weight you are at and as long as you are taking care of yourself I wouldn’t worry.”
“But is it bad for my health to be overweight?”
A little frantic now he replied, “I really don’t know how your body processes food or the amount of stress that would result from trying to lose a few pounds. I can’t tell you that losing twenty pounds would improve your health or life expectancy. That’s not my specialty. I’m an eye doctor.”
“But doctor, you’re a physician. You have a degree and medical books. What do the books say? Is it bad for my health to be overweight.”
Finally the doctor sighed, “Yes, the medical books say that being overweight should be avoided. So while I think you shouldn’t worry about it, I guess my answer has to technically be yes, being overweight is not ideal for your health.”
The woman shot back in her chair with a look of shock on her face as though he’s slapped her. “You’re calling me UNHEALTHY!!!”
I think some times our community does this with people of faith.
We run into someone who has no problem with gay people, who supports civil rights for couples, and who strives to be supportive, and we say, “So pastor, is homosexuality a sin?”
A sin? Well, that’s difficult to answer.
Sin is a very vague term that covers everything from mass murder to being less than cheerful as you give to a homeless person. It means, basically, any imperfection. “Missing the mark”. A held grudge. The thrill of rushing to the phone to tell the latest about your friend.
In Christian theology, as expressed by the words attributed to Christ, failing to love the people you come into contact with as much as you love yourself is sin. And it’s constant. And we all do it everyday.
But there’s another aspect to consider. There are a number of things in Scripture that were forbidden a few thousand years ago. For many of them it’s obvious why they are there: murder, theft, lying – these all treat our neighbor with contempt. Others may not have made a lot of sense at the time, but scientific discovery has, in retrospect, suggested had a practical purpose: dietary laws, crop rotation, and perhaps even circumcision. And then there were those which seem to have been a matter of cultural identity and religious adherence: rules about pagan gods and practices.
Some of those prohibitions fit easily into modern ethics. Others were specifically exempted and ended by the Christian fathers. And a good many things that may have worked in ancient cultures, like matters of gender, outgrew their relevance and no longer fit with the themes of Christian faith.
And then there are a lot of gray area sins, the “sin for me, but maybe not for thee” type. There are a lot of Christians who see alcohol as harmful to the body and an inhibitor of responsible behavior. They see damaged lives and broken dreams and say, “that stuff is evil and drinking it is sin”. But they aren’t going to call you a sinner if you have a beer.
So “is homosexuality a sin?” is a tougher question than might appear on the face of it and does not lend itself to “yes” or “no” answers. Or, if one is thoughtful and consistent about one’s faith, it ought not.
And “sin” is not the only troublesome word there. “Homosexuality” means, of course, the quality of finding one’s innate attracts on a sexual and emotional level to be towards persons of the same sex. But in these questions, there is always the component of sexual behavior. Few are ever asking “pastor is it sin to be attracted but never act on it?” And even issues about identity or “pride” come in.
A few decades ago when “gay people” were those weird men in San Francisco that you saw on the news parading down the street in a jock strap once a year, it wasn’t difficult for most evangelical Christians to tick the “lays with a man like a woman” box and say with confidence that, “yep, homosexuality is sin”. And by “sin” they meant, this is a biggie, it’ll send you to hell with the murderers and pedophiles.
But with increased visibility, “homosexuality” is also now Susan and Janet who show up for service every Sunday with their two kids and who can be counted on to always be there for the weekly food bank. “Homosexuality” is the church organist who is single and probably not “laying with” anybody, but enjoys his Saturday nights performing as Glamour de’Velvet. And what about young Joey who you are fairly sure really is “laying with a man like a woman” with his best friend; but you’ve known this kid since the day he was born and you know that he is a good kid.
“Is homosexuality a sin?”
For an increasing number of pastors, they don’t know how to answer that. They aren’t theologian dicing the ancient texts for context and cultural comparison, they just want to preach the good news of forgiveness and help people live better lives. But they are the ones who gets the question and an answer is expected.
For example, Joel Osteen went on CNN this week to promote his new book. Osteen is one who doesn’t give much time to preaching sin; he’s more interested in “lifting people up” and encouraging them to live happier lives. Personally, I’m not big on the “think positive thoughts” type of preachers, but he has the largest congregation in the nation so evidently a lot of people are.
Now there is nothing in Osteen’s book about homosexuality. There’s nothing in his sermons about homosexuality. But listen to this exchange:
This was a no-win situation for Osteen. And, of course, he didn’t win. People don’t want uncertainty, they want answers. And, most often, they want the answers to be what they already believe. They want you to take sides – their side, specifically.
Conservatives called him out for failing to rail against abomination. Albert Mohler had this to say:
Viewers of CNN saw a display of confusion, evasion, and equivocation coming from one presented as a Christian pastor. What they were really seeing is the total theological bankruptcy of the word of faith movement and the gospel of positive thinking. Osteen cannot, or at least will not, speak even the simplest word of biblical conviction. He states his intention to stay in his “lane” of glib affirmation.
Osteen’s admission that his own sexual orientation is not a choice while still deriding homosexuality as a sin that his 43,000 weekly congregants can choose to rectify is hardly surprising. He has repeated the claim — that gays can change their orientation — before several times.
Televangelist icons have a long history of offensive and homophobic remarks that undermine their message of inclusion and acceptance within the christian faith.
It’s funny, in a way.
I get why religious conservatives want to know everyone’s position. It’s to know whether he’s a man of God or a heretic to denounce. If you care deeply about doctrine, you keep track of who endorses or disavows your particular collection.
But sometimes its the people in our community who don’t adhere to Christian faith or believe that there is such a thing as a “sin” that some deity will punish you for who are the most insistent on getting the question answered. And I have to think, why do you care?
Like the curvaceous lady in the doctor’s office; why was it so important that her eye doctor weigh in? Was it an angry bitter disillusioned (but wafer-thin) mother who spent her childhood telling her “You’re fat! No one will want you and you’ll never get anywhere being so fat!”? Is that the voice that she’s trying to silence?
In the real world, I know a lot of us heard the voice of Christian certainty tell us over and over, “You’re a sinner! No one will want you and you’ll never get anywhere being a faggot, being a dyke, being some gender freak! God has no use for sinners like you!” And (though fewer in number) those shrill accusatory voices are still out there yelling their abuse in harmony with the voices in our memories.
Okay. So Joel Osteen thinks that “homosexuality is sin”. He doesn’t understand it, doesn’t know what to do with it, and so he doesn’t preach it, it’s not his “lane”. I doubt he even knows what he means by that, whether he means orientation or behavior or identity. Clearly he didn’t go on the program with the goal of condemning anyone.
But yet we demand, “Joel, is homosexuality a sin? What does the book say?”
So he flails about trying to give an answer that makes sense, when this is clearly an area that he just isn’t comfortable and no answer is going to work.
I wonder why we do that? I really don’t know.