Thursday, June 18, 2020

Christian Homophobia: Hypocrisy over the Bible and Secular Law (again!)

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that companies can't discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. Several self-professed conservative Christians have complained, typified perhaps by Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, who said "People of sincere faith who stand on God’s Word as their foundation for life should never be forced by the government to compromise their religious beliefs."

At least two objections to this should be obvious, but seem to be rarely talked about.

Firstly, if "standing on God's Word" means "following the Bible literally", then people are forced by the government to compromise their religious beliefs the whole time. As an obvious example, consider Leviticus 20:10, "And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." (KJV). In the United States, you are allowed to believe this - because one of the great benefits of religious freedom, you can't be persecuted for believing or not believing something. But you are certainly not allowed to carry out the threat - it's murder, and the claim that a particular belief led you to commit murder is no defense. The Supreme Court decision says that the same argument applies to firing someone because you discover that they're gay. It's legal to believe that they shouldn't be gay, but it's not legal to fire them.

Secondly, we should once again confront the cherry-picking hypocrisy of Biblicist homophobia. The level of discussion here is typically poor: someone whose stance is largely anti-religious is likely to point out that the Bible also bans tattoos, the eating of shellfish, or clothing made from mixed fabrics; someone who's been taught to defend Biblical homophobia says that those other laws are obviously ceremonial; there is no meeting in the middle, no real discussion. Or someone whose stance is more liberal-religious points out that some of the words translated as anti-gay are quite ambiguous, like the debate about the word "ἀρσενοκοῖται" ("arsenokoitai") in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which could refer to pedophilia, and has only been translated as against homosexuality for less than a century. But quibbling over a word in translation never really helps (it might convince someone who won't learn any Hebrew or Greek that educated pen-pushers are out to trick them). Picking particular words to focus on, or particularly outdated verses as a compare-and-constrast, doesn't make for much of a discussion.

However, looking at the (actually very few) anti-gay verses in the Bible in their surrounding context does reveal a much clearer picture of cherry-picking. Take the Leviticus 20:10 example above - punishment for adultery. It's just 3 verses before the condemnation of "man lying with man", which is quoted much more often. And it's part of a whole list of taboos, particularly against adultery and incest, and followed in the next chapter with a ban on marrying a divorced woman. Or the passage in 1 Corinthians 6 - the very same list that condemns ἀρσενοκοῖται also condemns πόρνοι (pornos) and κλέπται (kleptos). It's pretty clear what those mean - the author condemns pornography and theft. One of those is illegal in the USA, one isn't (though it is in several other countries). Taking the Bible in context, the passages of laws and punishments in Leviticus are often arranged as more detailed working-out of the laws given in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5). The clear sexual commandment is "Thou shalt not commit adultery", and the subsequent passages banning incest, homosexuality, remarriage after divorce, and so on, are arranged as matters related to this. Passages against homosexuality are few, ambiguous, and always placed alongside other condemnations. Passages against adultery are frequent, repeated, used as the basis for other condemnations, and have their own dedicated place in the Ten Commandments.

So, if Mr Graham and his allies were to demonstrate that they believe adulterers should be persecuted at least as much as gay people, then they would be giving more than lip-service to their claim to follow the Bible. But they won't. They are homophobic hypocrites, preaching selective bigotry in place of equal justice, degrading the Bible by weaponizing verses and ignoring the chapters and books from which they come.

Questions Asked Later

Adding a Q&A section of things close friends and family have asked so far.

Aren't you saying that homophobic beliefs are OK?
Not OK: just not illegal. Personally I detest homophobia. But I wouldn't introduce an Inquisition or a Thought Police to make sure those beliefs can't exist.

Isn't there more context about Corinth behind Paul's letters?
Yes. There's plenty of discussion about what the contemporary practices were and whether Paul was condemning committed relationships or licentious parties.

Are you saying that homosexual relationships are as bad as adultery?
Personally I don't think that homosexual relationships are anything at all like cheating on a partner. I am saying that if someone is really following the Bible, they can't honestly condemn homosexuality without condemning adultery at least as strongly.

What about the Biblical bans on working seven days a week, lending money and charging interest, bearing false witness, and so on?
Quite right. If we made a complete list of practices banned (and punished) in the Bible with notes about how often they're mentioned and how harshly they're punished, that would be a very long essay. The reason I focused mainly on adultery in this essay is because it's the ban in the Bible that's most clearly related to homosexuality - the Bible discusses homosexuality as a footnote to adultery. If you want to investigate this area more generally, start by reading the Ten Commandments themselves and ask "Which of these would we recognize as laws today?" It is a very interesting mixture.

Why do you think that the very same Christians who denounce homosexuality give a free pass to leaders who practice serial adultery, abuse, financial fraud, and lying?
It's not about Christianity and the Bible really, that's just an excuse. (I'm sure they do believe it's about Christianity and the Bible, though you can't keep believing that if you read the Bible honestly.) It's about being angry and afraid that the world is changing, and the sort of people who for centuries were in charge (wealthy white European and American men) might not automatically be in charge in the future. This is frightening, and when things frighten us we're all predisposed to say that they're morally wrong. It's not about being in any way harmed by gay people: it's all about being frightened that they might no longer be the arbiter of who gets a free pass in spite of hurting people, and who gets persecuted in spite of hurting nobody. Never expect people to be rational when they're scared.

Why do you care so much about the Bible and homosexuality?
I'm a Christian, and I care passionately about the religion that motivated the spread of literacy on several continents, the founding of schools and universities, the abolition of slavery, parts of the Civil Rights movement. The history of Christianity isn't all good, but it certainly has good parts. I don't want to see its future potential ruined for generations by outdated bigots using it to defend their own personal bigotry.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Courage and Cowardice before Angry Crowds

In May 2020, Donald Trump, President of the USA, used riot police to remove protestors, clergy, and laity from the way to St John's Episcopalian Church in Washington DC, so that he felt safe enough to leave the Whitehouse without having to meet any of them.

During the Peasants' Revolt in 1382, King Richard II, then 14 years old, met crowds of rebels in person at least three times. Though some of the most violent leaders were executed, the King personally diffused some of the angriest crowds, and acknowledged and met the demand to abolish serfdom. (For all of us who've ever left a bad employer by applying for and getting a better job, we owe thanks in part to the eventual success of the Peasants' Revolt.)

In 1897, Sarah Alexander saved Gandhi from a white lynch mob in Durban, keeping them at bay with her umbrella, until her husband (who happened to be the chief of police) responded to her summons and came to join the rescue. Were it not for Ms Alexander’s bravery, the modern history of India would be entirely different.

Nell Gwyn, famous actress and mistress to King Charles II, was once beset by a mob in Oxford. Thinking they were mistaking her carriage with that of an aristocratic French rival, she put her head out of the coach and called "Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!” Of course, I’d expect to be sorely castigated for using such insults today - but golly, she had wits and she had guts!

These stories inspire us. They show us heights of courage and leadership in the face of an angry crowd.

By contrast, a leader who cannot even bear to listen to an angry crowd is a coward. A leader who needs armed bully-boys to clear the way before they dare to venture out is literally a fascist - the “fasces” was the bundle of rods with an axe blade that was carried by the lictors, a magistrate’s bodyguard in Ancient Rome. Don’t take the etymology too literally, I’m not saying that the USA is now by definition a fascist dictatorship. By the same token, “democracy” doesn’t literally mean “mob rule” anymore, and someone can be “ostracized” without writing anything on a broken piece of pottery. But definitions aside, President Trump’s acts of bullying deserve our scorn and disgust, especially when so easily contrasted with historic acts of bravery and leadership that so naturally inspire our humble praise and respect. We can tell what a coward looks like, because we know what a hero looks like.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Wildfires or Cats - What's the Bigger Threat?

In the past couple of weeks I've seen figures saying that 1 billion animals have been killed by fires in Australia ... and figures that say that every year, "free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually" (Nature Communications, 2013) in the USA alone.

So every year, cats in the USA might be responsible for more than ten times as many animal deaths than this year's devastating fires in Australia.

Personally I quite like cats. I wish they wouldn't take birds, but at least in our neighborhood, we have a much bigger problem with rabbits - so for the sake of tulips, crocuses, grape hyacinths, and many other plants, I think the cats might be helpful. (Sorry, bunny lovers, I don't mean to horrify you.) But who knows, maybe even keeping the rabbit population under control is a job best left to native predators. However we see it on a neighborhood level, introducing a predatory species that kills billions and has few if any predators of its own doesn't turn out well for ecosystems.

If we really want to save wildlife, many of us are right behind initiatives to curb greenhouse gases, plant trees, restore habitats, and if it's done carefully and well we are willing to pay for this with taxation.

But if we wanted to save ten times as many wild animals, do any of us have the heart to tackle the cat problem? If not, the easily-repeated finger-pointing "Science tells us how to solve the problem but you just refuse to, that's irrational and immoral!" comes right back at us.

Frequently Asked Questions and Discussion Points 

There have been a few responses to this post, which I'll try to gather here. (Feel free to post comments and corrections, especially if you think any of the points below are not presented fairly.)

Are you saying that wildfires aren't a problem?
Of course not. For Australia particularly, I recommend donating to https://www.rspca.org.au/

Feral cats are the biggest problem, not pet cats
In terms of numbers, the Nature Comm. article agrees: "The predation estimate for un-owned cats was higher primarily due to predation rates by this group averaging three times greater than rates for owned cats." This argues that controlling the feral cat population is more important than convincing cat owners to keep pets indoors.

Cats have always been part of the natural ecosystem
That's true on most continents, though not Australia and many islands. But the scale of the problem is unnatural. If one-third of human households kept foxes as pets, and every year some proportion or these foxes returned to the wild and bred, then the sheer numbers would cause a similar problem for other species. Similarly, fires have always been part of the natural ecosystem, but the ways human activity interacts with the environment can make them more devastating. Fires are natural, but still devastating, and if anything it makes it even more crucial that humans follow responsible policies that take this into account.

Deforestation and pesticide use on a mass scale are far greater killers of native wildlife than free roaming cats
Again, from the Nature Comm. article"Our estimate of bird mortality far exceeds any previously estimated US figure for cats 13,14,16, as well as estimates for any other direct source of anthropogenic mortality, including collisions with windows, buildings, communication towers, vehicles and pesticide poisoning 13,15,16,17,18,19,20,21." 

So there's a big list of citations to the contrary. It includes a range of studies going from 1979 to 2012, and it's not easy to compare "apples to apples", so I dare say that it's possible and valuable to do further studies. But with the information I have at present, I don't have a good alternative to accepting that cats kill more than pesticides.

Are there other articles that corroborate this research?
http://www.ace-eco.org/vol8/iss2/art3/
https://doi.org/10.1093/jel/eqz035

Omnivores have to kill to survive ... I find the Australian fires more disturbing because lives were lost en masse for nothing.
Yes, absolutely the recent fire events are disturbing beyond belief. And it's notoriously hard to feel an empathic connection with long ongoing events, compared with immediate catastrophes. There is a core emotional difference here - it's easy to want to reduce fires, or diseases, we have little or no emotional sympathy with bacteria, let alone fires. It's hard to frame a policy for controlling cats without feeling that it's grossly inhumane to blame them for being themselves, whereas we don't feel that we're "blaming" fires or bacteria for anything - we don't feel that they're advanced enough evolutionarily speaking to be "blamed" at all. 

Cats should not be demonized, this leads to cruelty
Absolutely. There should be no place at all for feeling revulsion towards cats themselves. It is really bad that anger against cats can lead to inhumane or cruel treatment.

What's a "humane" way to control feral cat populations?
Surely introducing poison to the food-chain is a terrible idea?
It usually is. See https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive-species/feral-animals-australia/feral-cats? for ways poisons in Australia at least have been carefully designed not to harm native wildlife (based on genetic resistance or even different chewing behaviour).

Cats have a right to live just as much as other animals
Cat's don't have a right to be introduced in unnaturally large numbers into new ecosystems and wipe out entire species.

It's wrong to kill cats
Yes, and it's a choice between the lesser of various evils. So it's a kind of trolley problem. But it's a particular case where we humans made the trolley, we are guiding the trolley, and we can see that if we do nothing we're preferring the uncontrolled spread of cats (of which there are already many) over entire species (which are irreplaceable). It's wrong to kill cats, but it's even worse to introduce them, let them kill entire species, and then say that doing anything more about it than neutering some of the cats would be immoral.

Why do we treat dogs differently?
We've been culling / euthanizing / removing stray dogs all over the world for years, because packs of stray dogs are much more of a menace to humans, and because they're a menace to humans, we regard population control as a necessary evil. Of course, it's not that simple, there is a huge variety in ways dogs have been treated, sometimes tolerated, removed, there are similar no-kill policies in some places that people advocate for cats. For a survey of dog population management and its relationship with rabies, see this article. It finds that indiscriminate culling is counterproductive (as well as undesirable), but acknowledges that for unowned dogs, euthanasia is the only way currently available to reduce overcrowding in shelters. Just neutering and releasing stray dogs back into wild or urban environments is hardly ever advocated by anyone - to the extent that this suggestion would be considered ludicrous. It is however very much what we sometimes advocate for cats. The difference between our policies for dogs and cats is based on their size relative to humans - a poor way to make decisions for the host of other species.






Friday, February 15, 2019

Massacres and Martial Law

Spurred by the thought of the "St Valentine's Day Massacre" in 1929, when seven Chicago gang members were shot - when such events are from a different time or place, we don't call them "mass shootings", we call them "massacres". Opponents of stricter gun safety laws are saying that it's either pointless or undesirable to use gun safety legislation to prevent massacres.
In other countries, when executives in power get so frustrated with the civilian legislation process that they order military funding and personnel to be used for domestic law and order enforcements, we don't call it "using emergency powers", we call it "declaring martial law". That's how we would describe President Trump's actions today if he were the president of another country, unless it was at war or in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
If your quick reaction to that description is "Calling this martial law is ridiculous, you're blowing this out of proportion!", please ask yourself where that reaction is coming from. If we really believed that immigration at the US / Mexican border is an emergency threat to basic law and order, a threat to our immediate safety, we would sadly acknowledge that declaring martial law is a necessary evil. Nobody seems to actually believe this - certainly, nobody has said "The situation is so urgent, President Trump is right to declare martial law". In other words, using "martial law" is out of proportion - but it's not the name, it's the decision itself.
I suspect a lot of people's discomfort with the term martial law is because, while it's easy to feel that the President is wrong, it's very hard for many Americans to feel that Democrats might be right. That's a nasty emotional dissonance, and it makes us want to ignore what's being done on our behalf. That's one of the ways that democratic rights are lost.
If you have Republican representatives with any influence here, please tell them that you think the military should not be used to circumvent the civilian legislative process for raising government revenue in this way. Such a belief, after all, is what the American Revolution was based upon. And please ask your friends and family to consider these issues.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The College Captain


In the midst of many stories of youthful drunkenness and its bad consequences of sexual assault, I’d like to share a story from the early 1990s. We were in college, undergraduates at Durham, and I remember a small crowd milling around in a bright stairwell after the bar had closed. Most people were somewhat drunk, and some were very drunk, which was normal.

My memory is incomplete - I remember the exact place, but not the date. I couldn’t tell you how many people were there. But I do remember the two main characters in the story, even though I only remember one of their names. He was a true college sports captain - good looking and very popular. The girl was blonde, and I think I remember she was wearing a charming red cocktail dress, from which I’d guess that this was after a formal dinner or college event somewhere. The sports captain had been flirting with her earlier, I think - at least, we’d been teasing him at times about what his chances were with her this evening.

By this point in the evening she was blind drunk. Really really intoxicated - shaky, slurring words, flopping around while trying to stand up. As they kept talking on the landing at the top of the stairs, she was flopping more and more in his direction. This went on for a while, and soon he was practically holding her up. They could easily have left and spent the night together - that kind of thing was relatively common.

What happened next was different, and surprised us. What I think I remember is the sports captain getting the attention of one of the girl’s friends, who came over. After a brief conversation, a few of the girls left together, taking their staggering friend along with them. The sports captain moseyed down the stairs to join the rest of the crowd.

The teasing started over again. Much of the conversation I’ll just guess at and reconstruct. “What happened there?” “Well, it was time for her to go to bed.” “But you’ve been chatting her up all night, and we thought you were in!”, “Oh mate, you just blew it!”. Typical banter.

His response took us by surprise.

“Come on, boys, you could only see the whites of her eyes. There’s no honour for anyone in that!”

That’s the moment that stuck with me. This was already someone I looked up to, and I remember thinking yes, that’s what setting an example looks like, I’m lucky to be his friend.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

An attack on all of us

This happened yesterday: Temple De Hirsch Sinai vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Since the election in November, at least one synagogue and two mosques have been attacked in my area. Since January there have been over a hundred threats against Jewish organizations alone.
We've also heard a lot about freedom of religion in the USA recently, which has sadly demonstrated that a lot of Christians think that being asked to write "Congratulations Mike and Tim" on a cake is unbearable, while a bomb threat at your daycare is just something Jewish kids have to put up with for being "different".
This is all wrong. So so wrong.
To my Jewish friends and family, so many of whom have connections with Temple De Hirsh Sinai, I am so sorry for this. Keep telling your story so we can all hear it and take action together. Let me know when you need someone to stand with you, if I can I will come.
To all my other friends and family and anyone reading this - we can see before our eyes how minorities are being attacked. If we let this happen, history will cast judgement on our inaction. If we talk tough on terrorism but allow white supremacist terrorists to operate unhindered, history will cast judgement on our bigotry. If we use our own faith to persecute others, history will rightly denounce us for being persecutors, not praise us for being faithful.
We must dedicate ourselves to using our voices, our checkbooks, our elected leaders, and our votes, and commit ourselves to turning back this tide of hatred.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Before the Women's March

Before heading to the Women's March in Seattle in a couple of hours, I'd like to share something that happened at work a few months ago. You might need to enlarge the picture, it's a bathroom scrawl, not easy to read.



There you go, simple and standard bit of sexist humor, scribbled in a "safe" place where the other people who see it are expected to agree, chuckle, and move on. As you can see, this time I didn't.

After scrawling my angry rejoinder, I shared the picture with my boss and HR rep, who were terrific. We were only a small company sharing the floor at the time, so we hoped it wasn't one of us - and I bet each of the other tenants hoped it wasn't one of them, and the building facilities hoped it wasn't one of them. The other tenants on the floor and building services were notified, and told their employees that the incident had happened, and if any more such behavior was encountered, there'd be a thorough investigation, and a culprit if positively identified could well get fired. Short of taking contortionist handwriting samples from every frequenter of the men's bathroom, I'm not sure what more they could have done. It seems to have sent the right message - at least, we haven't seen anything like this since.

Lots of us, women and men, will go to the march today. That's great. But not everyone can attend. Like a lot of parents, we're fitting it in for a couple of hours in between other commitments today. People have all sorts of reasons for being busy, and if you can't go, don't feel guilty. 

But for men in particular, what we do any other day is as important as what we do today. If we see something like the above and think "hey, it's just a bit of fun in the men's bathroom", then we're part of the problem. If we feel that somehow the real men like this kind of stuff, and it's only wimpy men that feel bad about it, then we're allowing ourselves to be part of the problem. 

Strong men don't demonstrate their prowess by disparaging women, or anyone else. They don't need to. If you want to be strong, stand up for others. Marching today is a great way to stand up. But there are no shortage or other opportunities, day by day. Most times the media isn't watching - the people watching are our friends, colleagues, and the hundreds of people we encounter in small ways as we go about our lives, in the supermarket, the parking lot, at the bus stop, on the sidewalk.

Men, do your part standing up for women. Logically it's just a special case of "people, stand up for other people", but social constructs make it a particularly important special case. Other people will stand with you given half a chance. Be gentle, be strong. Be a gentleman.