Sunday, March 28, 2010

Jesus, Compassion, and Homosexuality

I am currently reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. Chapter Three of this fascinating and enlightening book is entitled "Jesus, Compassion, and Politics." Here Borg claims that the compassion so evident in the teaching and in the public life of Jesus "was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community." Jesus' concept of compassion was in opposition to the predominant Jewish paradigm of the day, which was holiness ("Be holy as God is holy"). The issue that reflected this opposition was the law of purity and its social and political, as well as its religious, implications. In the Judaism of Jesus' time, "holiness was understood to mean 'separation from everything unclean'...[and] [t]he ethos of purity produced a politics of purity--that is, a society structured around a purity system."

The purity system marginalized those who were considered to be the most impure: occupational groups such as tax collectors and shepherds; people who were not considered to be physically whole, such as "the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, and so forth"; and the "abjectly poor." Women were considered generally less pure than men, and gentiles were "impure and unclean."

But according to Borg, "[i]n the message and activity of Jesus, we see an alternative social vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion." Jesus presented a different concept of purity, one in which inner purity was to be more valued than purity on the outside: "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." Both the teachings of Jesus and his activities were a "challenge to the purity system." He healed lepers and hemorrhaging women and ate meals with tax collectors and sinners. For Jesus, compassion always trumped purity.

In a section of the chapter entitled Spirit, Compassion, and Us, Borg says the following:

The intra-Jewish battle between Jesus and the advocates of the purity system can be seen as a battle over two different ways to interpret Scripture. Both he and his critics stood in the tradition of Israel and sought to be faithful to it. The elites of his day read Scripture in accordance with the paradigm of holiness as purity. Jesus read it in accordance with the paradigm of compassion. Each provided a lens through which the tradition was seen. It was thus a hermeneutical battle, a conflict between two very different ways of interpreting the sacred traditions of Judaism. It was not, of course, the kind of academic hermeneutical argument that occurs today in scholarly circles. Rather it was a hermeneutical battle about the shape of a world, and the stakes were high.

The same hermeneutical struggle goes on in the church today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity.

To use a specific example, I am convinced that much of the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians has arisen because, in addition to whatever non-religious homophobic reasons may be involved, homosexuality is seen (often unconsciously) as a purity issue. For these Christians, there's something "dirty" about it, boundaries are being crossed, things are being put together that do not belong together, and so forth. Indeed, homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism. The prohibition against it is found in the purity laws of the book of Leviticus.

It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. It also seems to me that the passage in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world ["In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female."] also means "In Christ there is neither straight nor gay." Granted, Paul didn't say that, but the logic of "life in the Spirit" and the ethos of compassion imply it.

One can only pray for the coming of the day on which the Catholic hierarchy chooses the ethos of compassion over what Marcus Borg calls "a purity system constituted by external boundaries." One does of course assume - compassionately - that Church attitudes toward and teachings on homosexuality do not involve "non-religious homophobic reasons" for such attitudes and teachings.


  1. "Historical J...."?!?
    Using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

    To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

  2. Ross, thank you for a really helpful summary of Borg's ideas. You have summarized his key points here with such clarity, that I think many folks including myself will find your post useful for a long time to come.

  3. Thanks, Bill. I do think that if Marcus Borg were required reading for Catholic seminarians, we'd be getting homilies that actually touch our lives and deepen our faith rather than the yawners we put up with now. Fat chance of that ever happening.