The Phil Robertson/A&E flap has produced some silly commentary, but perhaps none quite so silly as this exchange on MSNBC earlier this week. Joy Reid filled in for Ed Schultz on his show last Monday and invited Michael Eric Dyson to discuss the contretemps over Robertson’s comments on homosexuality and religion. Dyson argues at the end of this clip that Robertson attempted to “us[e] Jesus in making Jesus co-sign all of this bigotry here,” and then almost in the same breath accused Christian men who profess love of Jesus as being, er … you know (via The Right Scoop and Truth Revolt):
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and the rest of those folks ought to be ashamed of themselves. And gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people ought to speak up and link their own fate to African-American people because ultimately we’re in the thing together.
JOY REID, SUBSTITUTE HOST: But what do you think of this attempt to recruit essentially Rosa Parks?
DYSON: Oh my God.
REID: Because this is something that has been done before on the Right.
DYSON: Right. Right.
REID: Like in anytime that something they say is taking as offensive by African-Americans or taken as offensive by the LGBT community…
REID: …you get, “Well, Martin Luther King, Jr. would’ve been on our side…
REID: . …or Rosa Parks or, you know, Phil Robertson is the next Rosa Parks.” What do you think of that as a tactic?
DYSON: I mean it’s — well, first of all, it’s scurrilous, but it’s the same as using Jesus in making Jesus co-sign all of this bigotry here. Jesus was a Jew who, around whom a religion was made. So the anti-Semitism of many of the Christians is ironic to begin with.
And then secondly, the gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual stuff – look through the Bible. There’s a lot of interesting things. The same men who will stand up in the church of all men. “I put my God, Jesus, overall women. I love him more than I love her.”
Hmmm. Do you really? That sounds interestingly homoerotic to people who are outside your religious traditions. I’m not suggesting it is but I’m suggesting that there are some very interesting, subtle, narrative tensions within the Bible itself and within Christianity beyond that.
I tried to get offended by this argument, and ended up laughing every time I tried. I mean, it takes a lot of effort to take this kind of trolling seriously, doesn’t it? According to Dyson’s CV, he’s a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, a Catholic university, but he must be the first professor at Georgetown to have never studied the difference between agape, philos, and eros. Not all love is sexual, as even most people “outside your religious traditions” understand. Most normal people would scoff at the idea that a son’s love for his father would “sound interestingly homoerotic,” let alone that of sons for The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is the kind of commentary that only occurs in profoundly unserious circles, with MSNBC among the leading examples. I doubt that Dyson buys this schtick, which is just intended to tweak Christians who believe that Corinthians is scripture by using the “you guys are so gay!” insult, but it’s more an insult to his own audience. It’s the kind of ivory-tower sneering at those hoi polloi in the sticks that reveals more ignorance of the speaker than of anyone else. Exactly who does Dyson think would believe that professing a love of Jesus Christ equates to a homoerotic experience? Christians laugh at this, but perhaps it’s people “outside [our] religious tradition” who should be more insulted at Dyson’s assessment of their intelligence and common sense.
This displays a surprising amount of bigotry in and of itself, but it leads to a better and more subtle point, and one that Dyson should have explored rather than just using the tired “you guys are so gay!” attack. Dyson argued that people are using Jesus to “cosign” bigotry by focusing on homosexuality as the be-all of sins in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and there may be at least a little bit of truth in that. It is important to understand Corinthians and its place in Scripture, especially with Jesus’ teaching on consecrated marriage, and the context of the nature of sin.
After all, 1 Corinthians doesn’t come in a vacuum. Paul wrote the letter because the church in Corinth had fragmented and lost its way, especially on moral issues. Corinth was the Las Vegas of that era, where the leading culture promoted sexual excess and other activities that conflicted with the doctrine of Christianity. In one section of this letter, Paul delivers an acid scolding to the Corinthian church for turning a blind eye to an incestuous relationship involving one of its members, calling for what would be termed now an excommunication for its unrepentant member rather than “tolerance.” He was not at all interested in dumbing down the doctrine in order to expand membership, but urged the Corinthians to live and preach the truth to save souls.
For this reason, Paul spells out the dangers facing Corinthians and all of us in sin — leading off with “the immoral,” which in the original was “fornicators,” and processing through a number of other sinful activities:
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral,[b] nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals,[c][d]10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
“Fornicators” refers to any sexual activity outside of consecrated marriage. And Jesus himself was clear on the definition of consecrated marriage in Matthew 19:4-6, referring back to Genesis and the Creation. Therefore, “fornication” applies equally to heterosexual and homosexual activity outside of that defined structure of marriage, which is intended to serve the purpose of Creation first on the model of the self-sacrificial love of the Trinity. (Paul later gives a definition of the roles of husbands and wives which emphasizes this.) It’s all sinful, because God created sexuality to be expressed within consecrated marriage, as Jesus and Paul teach in the Scriptures.
But that’s not the end-all, be-all of sin either, as the rest of Corinthians makes clear. In 1 Cor 6:10, we get a longer list that have nothing to do with sexual activities, and even in 1 Cor 6:9 we see “idolaters.” Even for the sexual sins, Paul doesn’t make any further distinction. In the passage that immediately follows (1 Cor 6:12-20), Paul asks the Corinthians to consider the fact that they are joined to the Body of Christ when they act immorally against their own bodies, but doesn’t bother to distinguish one form of sexual sin from another. “Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body,” Paul writes, with the “immoral” again translated from “fornicators” of every kind.
Distinguishing one form of deadly sin over all the others is a fool’s errand. It’s akin to arguing whether the Houston Texans or the Washington Redskins are a better football team this year; what’s the point? They’re both terrible. A better analogy would be to think of salvation as a 100-foot leap between cliffs, with deathly rocks hundreds of feet below. Salvation is only possible, in the Christian faith, by the intercession of Jesus Christ as payment of our sins. If two people remain in mortal sin and one leaps 25 feet and the other 50, it’s pointless for the latter to claim primacy over the former all the way down.
Sin is sin, and we all fall short of the glory of God. That should make us humble rather than narrow, Pharisaical readers of 1 Corinthians, and produce love of our fellow sinners in such a way as to preach and live the truth as best we can. (For Dyson’s benefit, that’s philos.) Categorizing sin in order to cast judgment is merely counting beans on the plummet downward. All of us have an inclination to sin, which is why we have Christmas — the gift from God of our salvation through the Easter sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, Merry Christmas. I certainly need it, enough to know that we all do, and hope that as many can be saved as possible while still proclaiming the truth of the Scriptures. We are called, in this season especially, to lift up in truth more than condemning, let alone in categorical scale. Let us love our God and Jesus Christ with that agape love showered down upon us by the Creator, and help others to see it as well.