Friday, March 29, 2013

Civil Society and the Law of God

Something I need to chew on some more.

Biology contains all kinds of redundant systems that serve no obvious purpose (until somebody finds one: are my ears biologically engineered to serve as resting-places for spectacles? should I be very concerned that all my fellow humans use their spectacle-holders for the proper purpose? is the proper function of the ears a matter that the Supreme Court must decide for all civilized people?).

Citing scripture as though it offered a clear window into the mind of God is very problematic. There are many examples we might discuss, but let's just take two:

(1) "When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee" (Deut. 20:10-14, KJV).

This is the Lord's method for waging war as revealed to the Deuteronomist(s), and it is the "nice" method--as opposed to the brutal slaughter of all living things that he mandates for "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites" (Deut. 20:17). Is this the method of warfare that our American troops employ in Iraq, in Afghanistan? No. Bad as we are, we do not all embrace collateral damage and cultural imperialism as unproblematic goods. If we waged war "biblically" by following the Deuteronomist methods advocated here, people would see us (quite justifiably) as uncivilized monsters (with little to set us apart from Francisco Pizarro or Genghis Khan, who also had strict codes of honor justifying all the methods they used to slaughter people who resisted domination and steal all their stuff). If we reject God's methods for making war, why should we embrace his methods for making love? Isn't this problem the very reason Mormons want "continuing revelation" (so that we aren't stuck following rules that work really badly in hindsight, even if they looked great to some prophet at some point in the past)?

(2) "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination" (Lev. 18:22). "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days" (Deut. 22:28-29). So, the Lord's Pentateuchal law of marriage forbids homosexual relations (Leviticus) and mandates that the heterosexual rapist must pay a fine and marry his victim (Deuteronomy)? In our modern society, even in Utah and the Bible Belt, nobody seriously argues that women should be forced to marry rapists. That is something we have rejected (justifiably) as barbaric and unnecessary in our society (which is not Deuteronomistic society, thank God). Why are we still citing Leviticus as something meaningful, then? How is forbidding homosexuality any less barbaric than making a woman marry her rapist (with whom she is supposed to be reconciled merely because he gave her father some money, as though she were a piece of property he had damaged)?

If the "old law" in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is not really rendered utterly null by Christ's new one, then how do we determine which bits to keep and which to ignore? Why does Shakespeare get a pass for dressing men in women's clothing (Deut. 22:5): shouldn't all God-fearing people boycott him and his evil literature for its affront to biblical decency? Why don't we insist that people avoid eating shellfish (Lev. 11:10) or pork (Lev. 11:7-8)?

If we skip the Old Testament as irrelevant (which is what we really do most of the time, thank God) and jump to the New, the only anti-homosexual prohibition we get comes from the apostle Paul (Rom. 1:26-27), the same guy who thinks women should remain quiet in church and wear a full-body veil (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-12; 1 Tim. 2:9-10; I must confess the καταστολή looks a lot like the burkha to me, even if we agree with Origen that it should be interpreted allegorically here). Why do we reject Paul's advice on women but keep him on speed-dial when it comes to deciding how to interact with homosexuals?

Scripture says all kinds of things, most of them mutually contradictory (and ignored by most of the faithful in all historical religious traditions). It is not a clear guide for anyone's morality, and it cannot be turned into law that agrees neatly with the civil society we have built in modern America--a civil society which rests on ideals (like freedom and mutual toleration) that it does not value much. (You will find little importance given to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the Old or New Testaments: they tell you how to be righteous, not how to be free. Instead of approaching freedom as something beneficial to be cultivated, they most often approach it as something dangerous to be controlled via submission to the divine will. For better or worse, the USA and the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition historically stand against this approach more than with it, although we are doing our best to correct that deficit in modern society--on the Left and the Right.)

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