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Op-ed: History, shame and pride

In his op-ed piece “The Shame of LGBTQ Pride,” published June 23, WV State Senator Mike Azinger made assertions that warrant critical examination. He begins by quoting with approval the view that “tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society.” He then reasons that “tolerance” has caused our present society to fall from its pre-tolerance Eden into its current state of depravity. In Sen. Azinger’s pre-tolerance Eden “Americans believed monolithically that transcendent absolute truth came from the Bible. In fact, we were, in those days, without the chaos that we have in our culture today.”

Neither biblical scholarship nor historical facts support his uncomplicated perspective. The first encounter between Protestant Christians from France who came to the New World seeking religious freedom and Spanish Catholic settlers occurred in the mid-1500s in an area near what is now Jacksonville, Fla. The Spanish hanged the entire French colony for “scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.” In the 1600s the Massachusetts Bay Colony — established by Puritans escaping religious persecution in England — tolerated no dissent from their own religious orthodoxy. Between 1659 and 1661, they hanged four Quakers for persistently returning to stand up for Quaker doctrine, which conflicted with Puritan dogma.

At the time of the founding of our republic, colonies — now states — had a crazy quilt of laws governing religion, many of them explicitly discriminatory toward Catholics and Jews. New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and did so until 1806). These various discriminatory laws were each premised upon being the embodiment of “absolute truth … from the Bible.”

Out of concern for the potentially divisive nature of religious sectarianism, our country’s founders divined a different path forward: governmental tolerance toward all religions and governmental support for no religion. This may be seen, for example, in the explicit prohibition against any religious test for public office contained in Article VI of the Constitution.

Indeed our first President George Washington wrote in 1790: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. …For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He was addressing the members of America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., (where his letter is read aloud every August).

In closing, he wrote specifically to the Jews a phrase that applies to Muslims as well: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Like Sen. Azinger’s op-ed, President Washington’s letter quoted from the Bible: that last sentence comes from Micah 4:4. The prophet Micah, who famously sought for the heart of Scripture, concluded, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Washington’s letter, and his use of the Bible, was aimed at building community by including an often-persecuted minority. In so doing, he, like Micah, found the heart of Scripture in justice, love, and humility.

Sen. Azinger, on the other hand, uses the Bible as an armory, to find weapons to wield against yet another often-persecuted minority, and so to divide our community into “us” and “them.” So the Bible’s wonderful affirmation that women as well as men are made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) becomes instead an assertion that biology is destiny, and that heterosexuality is God’s sole will for human beings: The meaning of the Genesis passage, or the Romans 1 text that Sen. Azinger also quotes, may be discussed and argued. But the real problem here is how the Bible should be applied: whether as a bandage to heal, or a bludgeon to wound.

In fact, no one has ever actually used the Bible in the way that Sen. Azinger claims Americans once did “monolithically:” applying “transcendent absolute truth … from the Bible” immediately, comprehensively, and uncritically to our lives. All of us interpret the Bible for our contexts, and apply it selectively. So, Christians worship on Sunday to honor Jesus by worshipping on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but in so doing (particularly if we do yard work on Saturday!), we violate Sabbath law (for example, Deut 5:12-15). If we accept or charge interest on loans, we violate some of the Bible’s fundamental economic principles (for example, Exod 22:25; Deut 23:19-20; Ezek 18:8).

Should Christians say dismissively that that is all Old Testament stuff, the Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world: how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)? The New Testament clearly and explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage (Matt 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor 7:10-16). But do we truly believe of divorced and remarried people what Sen. Azinger says we must believe of LGBTQ people, that they are living shamefully in sin?

The point is that we can, and do, read and apply Scripture attentive to our lived context as well as to the biblical context. Indeed, we must do so. The true test of whether we are using Scripture rightly is whether our reading brings us into relationship with the God of Scripture, who requires us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” Washington’s use of Scripture met this test. Sen. Azinger’s, sadly, does not.

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Dr. Steven Tuell is from Mineral Wells and is the James A Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and an ordained United Methodist elder.

Walt Auvil is from Parkersburg and is an attorney and member of the WV State Democratic Executive Committee. Tuell and Auvil are 1974 graduates of Parkersburg South High School.

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