Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Can Haz Slave Boy?

The Advocate has an online article about four billboards on Interstate 30 in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas that tout the message "Would Jesus Discriminate?" The billboards are the work of some local Metropolitan Community Churches, a gay evangelical denomination, and I give them props for getting pro-gay messages on Clear Channel billboards in Texas, let alone Dallas. But I disapprove of the way they decided to frame their message.

Would Jesus discriminate? Why, he sure would, honey! According to the gospels Jesus was all about discrimination: between the sheep and the goats, the foolish virgins and the wise ones, the saved and the damned, his true followers and the false ones. The gospels aren't even sure how Jesus, a not-so-nice Jewish boy from Galilee, felt about Teh Goy. Sometimes, as when a poor Greek-Syrian woman came to him to beg help for her sick daughter, he was brusque to the point of racism (Mark 7:25-30):
"Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 28 But she answered him, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 And he said to her, "For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter." 30 And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.
Fortunately for her daughter, the Syrophoenician woman was a better person than Jesus was.

However, there are pagans and then there are pagans. When a centurion in the Roman peace-keeping force in Galilee approached Jesus with a similar petition, he got a very different reception (Matthew 8:5-13).
5 As he entered Caper'na-um, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him 6 and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress." 7 And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." 8 But the centurion answered him, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." 10 When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; be it done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment.
Jesus could tell the difference between a mere mongrel pagan wench and an authoritative man of quality. In Luke's version (7:1-10) of this story, Jesus is out the door and halfway to the centurion's villa before the centurion, through messengers, tells him just to reach out and touch someone by long-distance. That's Jesus for you, no respecter of persons. There's what is probably a third version of the story in the gospel of John, where the patient is a court official's son -- a reminder that we shouldn't fixate too much on the details, since we're dealing with stories that were modified during transmission. On the other hand, though, the details that a given gospel supplies were probably significant to the writer, whether or not they are historically accurate, and can be studied in that light.

The MCC's interpretation of this story, based in some scholars' speculations, is that the centurion's servant was actually his boyfriend, so that by healing him "Jesus affirmed a gay couple." That's moving just a bit too fast, I'm afraid. I've been encountering this claim for some time now, and it has problems.

The key to this interpretation is the Greek word pais, translated here by the Revised Standard Version as "servant." Pais really means "boy," but it can connote either a slave (the use of "boy" toward social inferiors, especially racial, has its own history in English, including the United States) or a male sexual/romantic partner, especially in age-stratified relations where one partner is the "man" and the other is the "boy." (The "boy" doesn't even have to be an immature male, as many older African-American men who've been called "boy" by whites can tell you.) Gay and pro-gay Christians have argued that Matthew meant pais in this second sense, so that Jesus preserved a homosexual relationship by restoring the boy to health. Maybe they're right, but since the word is ambiguous, they're trying to hang a very heavy argument on a very slender thread. In his version, the author of Luke uses the word doulos, which is unambiguously "slave," but then slaves have often been used for sex by their owners, as Sally Hemings among others could tell you.

Even granting that there was an erotic relationship between the centurion and his boy, which is possible, I'm not happy about calling them a gay couple. Readers will note that we only hear about the centurion, not about the boy and what he wanted or felt. Until just a few years ago, gay Christians were fulminating about the inequality and exploitativeness of male-to-male eroticism in the Greco-Roman world, the sexual use of slaves, and so on. The word "pedophile" was thrown around a bit too freely, since the boys involved were not children but adolescents, sexually mature if not full adults even by the standards of contemporary American law. Now, rather suddenly, gay and pro-gay Christians have decided that if pederasty was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for them.

For example, this article from the "Would Jesus Discriminate?" site. It's an excerpt from The Children Are Free: Re-examining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships, published in 2002 by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Community Church, written by MCC Minister Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley:
To our modern minds, the idea of buying a teen lover seems repugnant. But we have to place this in the context of ancient cultural norms. In ancient times, commercial transactions were the predominant means of forming relationships. Under the law, the wife was viewed as the property of the husband, with a status just above that of slave. Moreover, in Jesus’ day, a boy or girl was considered of marriageable age upon reaching his or her early teens. It was not uncommon for boys and girls to marry at age 14 or 15. Nor was it uncommon for an older man to marry a young girl. Fortunately civilization has advanced, but these were the norms in the culture of Jesus’ day.

In that culture, if you were a gay man who wanted a male “spouse,” you achieved this, like your heterosexual counterparts, through a commercial transaction — purchasing someone to serve that purpose. A servant purchased to serve this purpose was often called a pais.

Talk about cultural relativism! As a matter of fact, commercial transactions were not the predominant means of forming relationships "in ancient times." To support their claim that pais was used for slaves purchased for sexual use, Miner and Connoley cite K. J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality (Harvard, 1978), page 16.
In many contexts [wrote Dover], and and almost invariably in poetry, the passive partner is called pais, 'boy' (plural paides), a word also used for 'child', 'girl', 'son', 'daughter', and 'slave'. The pais in a homosexual relationship was often a youth who had attained full height (the vase paintings leave no doubt about that) ...
However, though there was prostitution of both sexes in ancient Greece, the ideal love-object celebrated in classical Greek writing and art was a free-born boy, not a slave or a bought sexual partner. This ideal was still influential in Rome in Jesus' time, and the patterns of behavior were more complicated, but we still have cases like the poet Catullus' poems addressed to the presumably free youth Juventius. In Petronius' Latin novel the Satyricon, written at around the same time as the gospels, the protagonist (and former gladiator) Encolpius is constantly trying to keep his boyfriend (and slave, called "brother", not "boy") Giton from being lured away by other men. While marriage "in ancient times", as in ours, involved the exchange of property and other goods (dowry and bride-price) between families, a man who wanted to make a good marriage didn't go looking for a slave girl -- he wanted a free one whose status as wife certainly wouldn't be confused with that of a slave. No doubt many Roman men purchased male slaves or rented prostitutes, but no one would have thought of them as 'spouses.' (And slaves were anything but complacent about their status as slaves: buying their freedom was a major dream, and slaves formed cooperatives to accumulate money for that purpose.)

Miner and Connoley also mislead by speaking of "the culture of Jesus' day." There were numerous cultures in the eastern Mediterranean, and Jews ran their sexual affairs very differently than Romans or Syrians or Greeks or Egyptians, even though there had been a lot of multicultural mixing since the conquests of Alexander the Great three centuries earlier. Jews professed to be shocked by 'pagan' homosexuality, for example; Romans professed to be shocked by Jewish polygamy.

Oh, and about discrimination: Miner and Connoley know a thing or two about that as well. In The Children Are Free they discriminate sharply between good Christian gays and bad, unnatural gays:
And we know of hundreds of other gay people who could tell stories of struggling with their same-sex attractions while diligently serving God. These are not idolaters, people who hated God, and pursued their own desire for new and greater sexual thrills. These are lovers of God who, nevertheless, have been attracted to people of the same sex from early in life. They are innate (i.e., natural) homosexuals [page 16].

We’re not talking about the common stereotype of a radical fairy, riding half-naked on the back of a float in some Gay Pride parade, looking for his next sexual conquest. We’re talking about ordinary human beings wanting into loving relationships with the blessing of God – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do them part [page 68].
It seems that for Miner and Connoley (and many other gay Christians) Jesus would only disapprove of discrimination against nice, middle-class Christian gays who get married in church. The trashy "radical fairy" (a term they don't seem to understand) who participates in Gay Pride parades is fair game.

Some of the "Would Jesus Discriminate" billboards have been defaced with the word "lie." I'm afraid that's not far from the truth. The squib accompanying that photo says,
The sign is one of 22 billboards and 2,000 yard signs that aim to eliminate scripturally-based religious doctrine as an argument against efforts to win civil rights protections for Indiana's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
How do you "eliminate" an argument with misinformation? Besides, the Bible is irrelevant to "efforts to win civil rights protections for gay people"; the Bible is not the law of the land. The gay and pro-gay Christians behind this campaign are ceding too much ground to their opponents. As Miner and Connoley's snide remarks show, that's at least partly because they agree with their opponents on so many things. Let them work out their disagreements without dragging the state into it. Arguments for civil rights should not be based on biblical interpretation, especially when it's as sloppy, biased, and discriminatory as the gay Christian standard.