An Open Letter to Political Columnist George F. Will of the Washington Post By John Shelby Spong  
  John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, for more than twenty years and is one of the leading spokespersons in the world for progressive Christianity. He is the author of 15 books including the best-selling Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Living in Sin, Liberating the Gospels, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die.  
       
 
 
     
 

Dear George: You have a huge platform through television, Newsweek and the Washington Post to be a major influence in shaping public opinion. I find myself impressed by your insights into the world of baseball and a bit less impressed by your right-of-center political musings. I am however absolutely amazed at the profoundly uninformed positions you have recently offered the public on the questions that are currently the content of ecclesiastical debate in our churches. You seem to have no understanding of what it means to seek to bind together an ancient faith with the insights of our contemporary world. I appreciate the fact that you are a fellow Episcopalian and, as such, are vitally interested in the issue of the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson to be the Bishop of New Hampshire. The fact that the media of the world covered this event indicates that it was regarded as a significant moment of history, a turning point in the life of the Christian Church. Indeed, I believe it was the enabling vote at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church that allowed this consecration to go forward that opened our church decisively to the full inclusion of homosexual people. It also struck a mighty blow at cultural homophobia. As such it has inaugurated a great consciousness-raising and welcome discussion that has now reached far beyond the boundaries of the Episcopal Church. That is a major accomplishment for a relatively small church. Yet you, George, in your Washington Post column, have characterized this debate as one that pits the "cultural trendiness" of the Northern Hemisphere nations against the "doctrinal clarity" of the Southern Hemisphere nations. I regard that analysis as breathtakingly naive and suggest that it is revelatory of nothing more than your own deep and abiding prejudice. For you to speak publicly about this issue, when you are as poorly informed as your words reveal you to be, calls either your competence or your integrity, perhaps both, into question. Because you added a gratuitous comment about me by name in your Newsweek column (November 10, 2003), I think it appropriate that I respond to you in an equally public way.

You pose the issues of this debate as between modernism in religion and the true faith of antiquity. You suggest that two thousand years of Church teaching about sexuality and family are being imaginatively construed in "a certain interpretive trajectory." You quote approvingly a Fairfax, Virginia, Episcopal priest who, referring to the debate at the National Episcopal General Convention last summer, said, "When the plain teaching of the Bible was referenced, eyes rolled, and with expressions of polite exasperation, we were told that it was time to move on. The Bible simply had not kept up." You appear to be saying that those who quote the Bible, as if it provides the last word on moral issues, are to be commended. Well, George, perhaps you need to understand why it is that people who quote the Bible to undergird their own inability to embrace reality might need to be enlightened.

The Bible was quoted to support the divine right of Kings when the Magna Carta made its appearance in1215. History has demonstrated that the Bible was wrong on that issue and today no king rules on this planet by divine right. People have embraced democracy. You might think that represents "cultural trendiness," but I believe it represents an emerging consciousness that the writers of the Bible, bound to their time in history, could never have contemplated.

In the 17th century the Church, acting out of what you call "doctrinal clarity," imprisoned Galileo and almost executed him because his study of the motion of "heavenly bodies" led him to the conclusion that the earth was not the center of the universe and that indeed the earth rotated around the sun. The "fathers of the Church" in their attack on Galileo quoted a verse from the book of Joshua, in which the sun was made to stand still in the sky to enable Joshua to kill more of his enemies, as sure proof that the sun rotated around the earth. I think eyes should roll in a space age when this "clear teaching of the Bible" is referenced.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin challenged the "clear teaching of the Bible" in the story of creation. But no matter how many passages of scripture have been quoted since The Origin of Species was published in 1859, our modern world is quite sure that it is Darwin rather than the Bible that is closer to the truth. That is unless you now want to regard DNA evidence as a bit more of your "cultural trendiness."

We could go on and show how "doctrinal clarity" led the Church to participate in, and to justify with biblical quotations, the institution of slavery as well as slavery's two bastard stepchildren, segregation and apartheid. Are you not aware that even the popes in history have been slaveholders? Is our present integrated society, which has opened the door to people like Colin Powell to serve in an office that was previously denied to any African-American, just another example of "cultural trendiness?"

Women in this country were certainly treated up until relatively modern times with what you call doctrinal clarity." The Ten Commandments defined the woman as property that, along with the ox and the ass, was not to be coveted. With full biblical encouragement, the Church in the Middle Ages regarded women as anything but equal, and even today the Southern Baptist Church, has directed women to be subject to their husbands. The word "obey" required of the woman alone, was not taken out of the Episcopal marriage ceremony until 1928. Women could not enter our universities in any significant numbers before the 20th century. Women did not receive the power of the vote in the United States until 1920 and even that was accomplished against the opposition of the Bible quoters. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1876 that a woman could not practice law in the State of Illinois because "God has designed her for the more domestic role." Is that what you are now calling "progressive cultural aggression" which you suggest is challenging "the conservatism of institutions?" I consider it a step into enlightenment.

Shall we examine the way children were employed in the sweatshops of the 19th century or abused in the boarding schools of England with official church sanctions until Charles Dickens began to raise the secular consciousness of his nation? You note approvingly in your column, that when dissident Episcopalians met recently in the town of Plano, Texas to nurse the wounds of their defeat at the General Convention, that they received a letter of support from the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger. Would you have our church in this 21st century approve the incredible negativity that emanates from the Roman Catholic Church about women? Do you think that this Church, which has spawned a veritable culture of abuse and cover up, is qualified to lecture anyone on issues of either morality or "doctrinal clarity?"

You see, George, the battle over the full acceptance of homosexual people in both Church and society is like all of these other movements. It pits an old and dying definition, supported by appeals to scripture, against an emerging new consciousness. Slavery was sustained as long as African people could be defined as subhuman, childlike and without sufficient intelligence to be full citizens of this land. Slavery and segregation collapsed when that definition was mortally wounded by a new consciousness informed by new data. Are you suggesting that this was the result of "cultural trendiness?"

The same thing happened in the feminist movement. The breaking of the traditional female stereotype began when women challenged the male-imposed definition of what it means to be a woman. Women insisted on the right to define themselves. This new definition led women not only into education and the workplace but also into positions in the cabinet of the President of the United States in 1933, and into the House of Representatives, the Senate, the governors' mansions and the Supreme Court as the 20th century unfolded. Certainly we will elect our first woman president in this century. This is not "cultural trendiness," George, this is the direct result of a new consciousness that neither you nor anyone else will ever turn around. The battle for the full inclusion of homosexual persons in both the Church and the social order is the result of a similar new consciousness attacking an old and inadequate definition. Homosexual people were once defined, with biblical under girding, as sinful people. It was assumed by this negative definition that gay and lesbian people either chose to be homosexual, as an act of moral depravity, or that they were mentally ill and could not help themselves. That definition has simply been rendered inoperative by new knowledge. Most educated people today accept the fact that sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is something over which people have no control. Human beings simply awaken to it, they do not choose it. Homosexual orientation is also now generally recognized as consisting of a stable percentage of the population at all times and in all places. This means that it cannot be externally caused as assumed by the old definition.

The scientifically documented presence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom argues against it being classified as "unnatural," unless you attribute to animals the ability to make moral choices. These are the factors that have created the emerging new consensus, and if they are correct, as more and more scholars now believe, then homosexuality must be seen as being in the same category as race, gender or even left-handedness. They are the "givens" not the choices of the individuals. To discriminate against a person on the basis of something the person is must be seen as nothing more than prejudicial ignorance that leads to the willful destruction of another's humanity. That makes it an overt act of bigotry. To quote the Bible to render bigotry acceptable is neither new nor is it any more convincing in this situation than it has been when used earlier in our history to justify other evils. For you to suggest further, that nations of the Third World where such things as polygamy, female circumcision, and second class status for women are still widely practiced, ought to be listened to and respected when they speak out of the context of a discredited and dying definition of homosexuality is bizarre.

What our church has done, George, is nothing less than to challenge the ignorance and prejudice that has allowed people like you and me to participate in the oppression of countless numbers of people throughout history, whose only "sin" was that they were born with a sexual orientation different from the majority. Our Church has done an audacious thing. We will not now tremble at our own audacity. This is rather a cause for rejoicing that another in a long list of human prejudices has begun to fall. The fact that we have justified our destructive behavior in the past with quotations from the Bible does not excuse our negativity. This is not "cultural trendiness," George, nor is it a denial of "doctrinal clarity." Maybe it is time for you to examine these issues more thoroughly before you place your uninformed biases into the public arena.

-- John Shelby Spong

 
       
 

 

 
     

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