Pope Francis’ Visit to the U.S.

Gene Bales

Nov. 29, 2015

Talk given to members of Bethany Lutheran Church, Lindsborg


The Pope is both head of state and religious authority.  Popes have been both political figures as well as pastors, with those roles being not always very easy to balance.  Even before his visit to the U.S. he had been politically involved in reconciling Cuba and the U.S.  His visit to Cuba came not long before his visit to the U.S.

The Pope’s visit to the U.S. had external religious business: the meeting of the World Meeting of Families, an international gathering of families that John Paul II initiated in the early 1990’s.  This time the gathering was in Philadelphia, and the Pope spent a fair amount of time with that.

He also used the visit to celebrate Mass and canonize Fr. Junipero Serra, the patron of California.

Besides these two major religious events, he also was invited to speak to the U.S. Congress and to the U.N.  The speech to Congress was a first for any Pope.  These two speeches were perhaps the most important he gave while in the U.S.

He also visited the 9/11 Memorial, Independence Hall, the Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility in Philadelphia, and the Little Sisters of the Poor.  And of course, he held a private meeting with Kim Davis, which probably got more press attention than anything else.

Pope Francis is a complex figure, with what is frankly a complex agenda.  More than once I had an idea for titling this little talk as “A Tale of Two Popes”.  One of the popes is a conservative traditionalist; the other is a very liberal spirit.  The first is well liked in the U.S.; the second is regarded with much suspicion and distrust.

This kind of analysis is probably not entirely fair.  I want to offer a few thoughts at the end of my talk about the Kim Davis issue, which I think actually illustrates something of the complexity of his commitments, this as a way of seeing just what he is trying to accomplish, which is less about changing doctrines and more about changing attitudes.

Pope Francis speech to the U.N. strongly emphasized themes from his recent encyclical Laudato Si, which is a very strongly worded document on the centrality of the environment as our common home as humans, and on the impact of environmental degradation on the poor.  In his speech to the U.N., Pope Francis said this:

. . .government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and all other civil rights.

 In this sentence, Francis links together environment, poverty, the family, and religious freedom.  This certainly sets the stage for many of his other comments.

While his speech to the U.N. had a very broad scope, his speech to the U.S. Congress was rather narrowly tailored to Americans.  He began by sounding a broad theme: the common good.

You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.

Immediately he ties the emphasis on the common good to those who are in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.

This general theme is fleshed out as he looks at four individuals in American history and religion: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  This is an unusual list, because while the first two names are familiar to most Americans, the last two are both Catholic, and even many Catholics today are not entirely familiar with them.  I think it is fair to say that his choice of these four was the stage setting for making various points that are near and dear to him.

First he takes the occasion of Lincoln’s assassination to condemn not only violence, but especially violence which stems from a simplistic reduction of the world to good and evil, a problem especially associated today with religious fundamentalism, and other kinds of ideologies.    What he appreciates about American society, however, is the way the diversity of denominations has built up American society.  (I note in passing how much a change in Catholic thinking may be found in this kind of comment: one hundred years ago the perspective was that all denominations were judged negatively for plunging the world into religious relativity.)

His positive appreciation of religious diversity leads to his comments on MLK.  But his concern here is not, somewhat surprisingly, with racial discrimination as much as with discrimination against foreigners and refugees.  He recalls MLK’s I have a Dream speech, and the importance of dreams for refugees and immigrants.  He notes the fact that he was the son of Italian refugees, and he makes a case for the positive impact of refugees and immigrants on the life of the nation.  In the middle of this he states very strongly the importance of the value of life, and in particular rejects all capital punishment, which, he notes, the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have also rejected.

Pope Francis notes the work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and her concern for the poor.  He also discusses Thomas Merton the Trappist writer of the spiritual life.  Merton in particular addressed the issue of the violence within the human heart, a violence which he also opposed in the political and social affairs of his day.

While most Americans could relate to his references to Lincoln and MLK, even most Catholics might have a hard time with both Day and Merton.  The latter were acknowledged for their religious commitment, but both came under fire for their unpopular political stances.  While Dorothy Day was a deeply religious Catholic, she was also an unabashed defender of the poor against both political and religious authorities.  And while Merton wrote some of the great spiritual classics of the age, he also inspired an entire generation of Catholic radicals opposed to the war in Vietname.  This choice of American Catholics by Pope Francis says more about his own agenda than it does about these individuals.

Francis returned to theme of unity through reconciliation in his comments at the 9/11 Memorial.  If the terrorists of 9/11 wanted to impose a uniformity of belief, it is important by contrast that we accept both diversity and the process of reconciliation as an alternative to uniformity.  This same sentiment was also voiced in his speech at Independence Hall, where he especially singled out Hispanics and other immigrants and encouraged them not to be discouraged by the hardships they faced.

One of the more noted sermons Francis preached was at the Mass in which Junipero Serra (1713-1784) was canonized.  Junipero Serra was a Franciscan missionary who organized the system of missions in California to help bring native Americans into the faith.  While his approach was always to protect natives from the abuse of others, it is also true that his approach entailed making converts into members of Spanish culture.

The canonization of Serra was controversial because for some contemporary native Americans Serra was responsible for destroying their native culture.  Yet it is also true that some welcomed the canonization as an indication of the importance of native Americans in the church.  There was a recognizable ambiguity in Serra’s legacy, which is hinted at by the Pope in his sermon.

Pope Francis emphasized Serra’s missionary spirit, his willingness to meet people where they were to be found, and to protect them.  But Francis also noted that violence against the natives is still a problem today.  Whether this was enough to answer all his critics is uncertain, but it does make clear his own willingness to embrace the ambiguity of the past.

When Francis visited the Curran-Fromhold Prison, he extended his greetings to the prisoners, but at one point turned his attention to the prison in which they found themselves, and more particularly to those who had the care of the prisoners.  His message was a humbling one: it is not just the prisoners who are in pain, but those who may look down on them as well.  Jesus offers to wash the feet of others, and we must do the same to those who have been imprisoned.

At the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis strongly emphasized the importance and centrality of the family, which he called “the factory of hope” in society.  And the family is not just the children but grandparents as well:

A people that doesn’t know how to look after its children or grandparents is a people that has no future. Because it doesn’t have strength or the memory to go forward.

It is easy to get into the habit of thinking that if someone is not “with us” on the centrality of the family or other concerns Catholics emphasize, they are “against us”.  But this is exactly what Francis warns against.  Faith is about opening windows to the spirit, not closing them.

To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not “part of our group”, who are not “like us”, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith! Faith opens a “window” to the presence and working of the Spirit.

There are two other events on Pope Francis’ visit that have to be mentioned, in part both turned to be as politically sensitive as anything else he did.  The first was his visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor.  His concern was to voice his support for their work and for their defense of their religious liberty.  Their case, of course, will be decided by the Supreme Court.  The pope did not take any position on the legality of the issue, but he was adamant on the importance of religious liberty.  His encouragement of the Little Sisters should also, however, be seen against the backdrop of the Vatican’s years-long investigation of American nuns, which Francis had brought to an end.  His support for their work was more than just a political stance, though that is largely how it was read in the media.

The second event was his meeting with Kim Davis, whose refusal to sign off on gay wedding licenses created a legal issue.  That meeting was arranged by the papal nuncio, Cardinal Vigano, not the Pope, though Kim Davis and her attorney did not have that understanding.  Whatever was said, Ms. Davis came away feeling that the Pope gave his support to her, while the Vatican distanced itself from any particular judgment on the legal issues at hand.

Some conclusions about the Pope’s message on his visit:

  1. He gave lots of evidence of wanting to promote a religious understanding of the environment, consonant with his recent encyclical.
  2. That understanding is tied in with the impact of environmental degradation on the poorer people of the world.
  3. He emphasized service to the poor, the missionary spirit, as a spirit open to the world, to meeting people as they are, not as we want them to be.
  4. He praised religious and denominational diversity as a force for the common good.
  5. He insisted on the importance of dialogue, reconciliation, as responses to conflict whether religious or political.
  6. He stirred up controversy among both liberals and conservatives with his canonization of Junipero Serra and his apparent support for the Little Sisters of the Poor and Kim Davis.

In the end, I think one must be cautious about reading too much into Francis’ support on the political level.  While conservatives have seen nothing in him but a socialistic environmentalist, liberals have been taken aback by his association with causes they don’t agree with.

But here’s the thing: Francis is not just preaching secular environmentalism, but an approach to God’s creation through the impact we are having on the poorer peoples of the world.  It is a deeply religious message, even if its clothing is distinctly modern.

And if it is true that Francis defends religious liberty for people holding conservative positions, it is also true that he gives much emphasis to the need to avoid the “us and them” mentality, to the need for dialogue between conflicting positions.

As always looking at the whole variety of his comments gives a more balanced view of his approach than trying to stuff him into certain political boxes.

All the same I would be the last to suggest that anyone serving in the role of  bishop of Rome is perfect or without flaw.  The history of the papacy should cure anyone of that delusion.  Pope Francis has his flaws and his blinders, but I think in all fairness he has had much good to say to all of us.




2016 Lindsborg Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Reading: 2 Timothy 2: 20-25a

I was asked to speak a bit on the importance of community—a topic which is certainly worthy of our consideration, but which I also realize is not entirely easy to address.

Community is the kind of word that tends to make our eyes glaze over.  We are all part of one, and we tend to think that it is a good thing for the most part.  But we don’t always think too carefully about what makes community a good thing for us.  And in some cases we may feel it is mostly a nuisance, an impediment.

The original Latin word from which we derive “community” had the sense of something that bound people together; something that was either internal to individuals, or an extrinsic factor like a location.  An aggregate of people who have never met is not a community, though it can become one rather quickly under the right circumstances.  Bystanders to an accident or bombing can become bound to one another in the desperation of immediate circumstances.

But the experience of community in these circumstances is only possible because of prior experiences of community in a much more positive vein.  Perhaps the quintessential positive experience of community is the annual Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa celebration when people get together with their families.  The experience that many have (not all, I hasten to add) is a feel-good sense, a sense in which each of us is reminded of the important way in which others validate us and we them.

While the family is a very important kind of community, it is hardly the only one.  A school or a college is another kind of community, as is a city council, or political party, or various organizations.  In religious terms, the community is said to be the congregation, or more generally the church.  Jesus spoke more of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a bit like a family, but Jesus made clear his brothers and sisters were his followers, not his biological family.  I will come back to the theological meaning of community a little later.  For the moment I think it is important to look at the human significance of community, and the challenges to it that have emerged in the modern world.

As a fact, no community is perfect.  We fail one another in a wide variety of ways.  And, worse, we sometimes take individual failure as inevitable because we believe we don’t have the strength to do better than members of our society.  It is in the face of an imperfect community that individualism can arise.  Individualism is the response to failure in the world, but it is a response that turns either toward self-loathing or in the end despair; or it is a response that grows in a seed-bed of anger and resentment against the world and the larger community.  Despair and suicide/ anger and rage are key indicators of the prevalence of individualism over a healthy community life.

Individualism is part of the American spirit—the belief that individuals, not communities, made this country great, that individuals, not teams or groups, created new entrepreneurial opportunities, that individuals opened new political doors of thought and action.  At the opposite pole, it is society that imprisons us, it is government that takes away our freedom.

I have been reading the popular science fiction novel The Martian,[1] on which the recent movie is based.  It is very engrossing because it puts the individual (a fictional character named Mark Watney) and his survival front and center in a situation in which he is desperately alone and doomed.  How he survives is amazing—he has a good background in the sciences and has a good knowledge of the atmosphere of Mars and the physical properties and capacities of his equipment.  The character of Mark Watney is, if anything is, a triumph of the individual.  He is not unlike Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s fictional character created back in the early 18th century who lives for many years on an island by himself, and survives through his own wits.

The entrepreneurial businessman is not unlike these strong individualists.  The businessman uses his own talents and vision to create, produce, and market new products that enlarge the consumer paradise of the market place.  I think especially of someone like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

But great individuals are never entirely self-made.  The Martian had the help of many people who provided the education he needed to do any of the things he did.  And Steve Jobs, who was by all accounts an ill-adjusted child, benefited from the devotion and support of his parents, from his friendship with Steve Wozniak, and from many other engineers whom he befriended in his younger days.

I think most of us recognize the indebtedness of individuals to the various communities that make up what we call “society”.  The family, teachers, friends, bankers, doctors, nurses—the list goes on and on.  This kind of individualism is what I would call the “soft” view of individualism, the kind that puts its emphasis on personal character, talents, and abilities, but never denies the importance of the surrounding social community.

But there is today, a much stronger view about the individual, what I would call a “hard” view of individualism.  This view takes the individual as having absolute moral rights without any attendant responsibilities, whose goal in life is self-love and freedom, with a contempt for human love and social and political claims.  Some of this can be seen especially in the views of Ayn Rand and her various apostles.  Rand is notorious for insisting on the evils of altruism, love of the other.  The only person that counts for her is the individual and his accomplishments and property.  On this view, a community exists only as a drain on the individual of energy and rights and property.

While Rand’s perspective is popular among conservative politicians, there is another kind of lived individualism not resting necessarily on philosophy.  Such lived individualism may stem from a sick community of some kind, and that community may be either one of social privilege or social disadvantage.

Both the rich and the poor can create such communities.  I think of Mr. Ethan Crouch, the troubled young man whose defense after killing four people while driving drunk, was “affluenza”, a disease marked by the absence of appropriate moral norms caused by rich parents and friends who lived in a cocoon where “responsibility” was a four-letter word.  I think also of Jean Valjean, the fictional hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, who was originally sent to prison for five years for stealing a loaf of bread for members of his family who were starving.  Someone might say we don’t do this kind of thing anymore.  But in places like Ferguson, Missouri, we do something like this, according to a February, 2015 report in the New York Times.[2]   In Ferguson poor blacks often get arrested and fined for minor traffic violations.  Because of their poverty, they can’t pay the fine, so some end up going to jail, and when they do their family life is disrupted and their employment opportunities and income are severely affected.  All it takes in some cases is a $50 dollar fine to set the dominoes in motion.  And the effects have gone on for years in the lives of some members of that community.

Communities that produce moral irresponsibility or impoverished despair are not producing a future. They are producing mal-formed individualists who come to resent and hate the various communities that have robbed them of a future.  So Mr. Couch fled to Mexico, and a large number of poor people are imprisoned for failure to pay minor traffic tickets.

Poor communities and wealthy communities each have their own moral and religious challenges.  So how does a follower of Jesus think about a community—a family, a city council meeting, a board of education meeting, a faculty meeting, a business meeting?

In a passage a little later in the letter to Timothy, the author of that letter lays out what will happen in the “last days”.  He says that people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents. . .” (3:2)   Just about everything becomes unholy when it becomes something pitted against the love of God, and especially against the power of God.  Sometimes passages like this can be interpreted as a rant against love of self, love of money, etc.  But Jesus himself insists on the commandment that we love one another as we love ourselves.  And he seems to praise the wise servant who invests his money wisely.  The issue is the openness to the love of God in and through all of our other loves.

The Christian’s standard for a good community begins with the recognition of the diversity of gifts and talents, some of gold and silver, some of wood and clay, and some of special use, while some for ordinary use.  But just as important as the diversity of gifts and talents is the fundamental openness to the spirit of love and hope, which raises up each talent and gift to a new level.  The character of a community is to be seen both in the diversity of individual gifts, as well as in the light of the individual’s openness to the faith, love, and peace that mark the servant of the Lord.

Our communities may have the appearance of being faith-filled, and loving, but limits to that are frequently encountered.  For one thing our love sometimes ends at the door of those who are different, who are lower in social class or education, or who are the object of our hatred. We do not lack for that category of people who challenge the character of every community—the other, the one who is different.  Sometimes we surround ourselves with those who love us and whom we love, but put at arm’s reach those who do not share our basic beliefs or usual practices.  Further, and perhaps just as problematically, we engage in what the writer of 2 Timothy calls stupid and sense controversies, breeding quarrels.  It may be part of the human condition that we do this, but the servant of the Lord is the one who mends conflicts, builds bridges, defuses antagonisms, and brings the promise and reality of peace.

One of the ways peace is achieved is by coming to accept responsibility for especially the evil or the wrongs one has done.  But peace is also achieved by acknowledging and celebrating the love of others, the love which has made each of us a special utensil in the hands of the Spirit.  The challenge with the more extreme versions of individualism in our society today is that they clearly put aside the work of the spirit.  I add that these forms of individualism are very often in the service of the making of money, and want to do so at the expense of others.  Peace demands love of the neighbor and love of the enemy, but it also demands justice–justice for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger in a strange land, the prisoners, widows and orphans.

Each individual has been given gifts and each gift may be refined by the Spirit of love in Christ.  Against a vision of the individual as an isolated atom of free irresponsibility, the servant of the Spirit of Jesus sees an individual as living and expanding cell of growth, developing natural talents and abilities in the Spirit of Love toward others with different talents and abilities.

Perhaps the best description of a community is that set forth by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of ervices, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (12:4-7)

This may seem entirely idealistic, and perhaps it is.  We live with others with whom we strongly disagree, and sometimes who we struggle not to hate.

Anger is a legitimate emotion in the individual and community.  But servants of the Lord always must resist the temptation to rage, the temptation to reject forgiveness once and for all, the temptation to assume that my truth is the truth.  Truth is with the journey of the spirit.  It is not the prerogative of the individual or the community.

I close with this prayer from Boethius:

O Father, give the spirit power to climb

To the fountain of all light, and be purified.

Break through the mists of earth, the weight of the clod,

Shine forth in splendor Thou that art calm weather,

And quiet resting place for faithful souls.

To see Thee is the end and the beginning,

Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,

Thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.[3]



[1] Andy Weir.  The Martian.  New York; Crown Publishers, 2011.

[2] See the article by Monica Davey in the Feb. 8, 2015, edition of the New York Times.

[3] George Appleton, ed.  The Oxford Book of Prayer.  Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 7, #14.

Fields of Blood, by Karen Armstrong (Alfred Knopf, 2014)

I just finished this wonderful book, and am compelled to sing its praises.  I have a number of Armstrong’s books and enjoyed them all, but this is by far the best researched and most detailed study of the history of the relation between religion and violence that I have ever seen.

Armstrong’s vision includes the ancient religions of China and India, and the Axial religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Her discussion of the Crusades and the later history of violence against both Jews and Muslims is fascinating and at times enlightening.  Her analysis of contemporary jihadi movements and violence makes a good case that much of the violence committed is not rooted in any deep appreciation of Islam, and the whole idea of a suicide bomber is utterly contrary to the teachings of the Koran.  Many Americans fail to understand any of this.

If one asks why there has been so much violence in relation to religion, Armstrong answers that anytime religion has been assumed by and allied with political and national concerns, violence is often the outcome.  In short when the social-political goal is the control of populations through the assertion of power, religion is sometimes utilized as a kind of justification.  But this belies the important resources within all religious traditions that are critical of this use of violence.  Her view of the use of violence is somewhat pessimistic, but she makes a strong case for the important role religion can have in resisting this.

I cannot do justice to the rich detail in her argument.  All I can say is that this book is one of the best I have read on religion in a long, long time. I cannot recommend it too highly.


Gene Bales

The Seven Principles of UU:
• 1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
• 2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
• 3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
• 4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
• 5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
• 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
• 7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

When David Norlin first contacted me about speaking today, he mentioned the seven principles adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and that they were hoping for comments on these principles. I had not been aware of them before this, and was very happy to make an acquaintance with them. One thing that struck me right away was the word “justice” which is mentioned twice—in the 2nd and 6th principles. Justice is a guide the formation of human relations, and it is thereby part of the goal of world community. So I thought I would offer some reflections today on the question of Justice.

I. Justice and Fairness
Justice in philosophical circles is a very complex subject, but getting clear about it is one of the most important moral challenges today. And that is because in many respects justice is itself being challenged on many fronts.

In common parlance, justice can simply mean being in accord with the law, or it can refer to someone who rules on what is lawful or not. The concern even from ancient Greek times is that justice is giving what is due or appropriate to someone. Fairness is essential to many forms of justice. So if there is a dispute about an inheritance, justice would be to recognize the legal situation of the will, and to insist that the will be followed, even if that angers some individuals and pleases others.

The role of fairness is more important in everyday interactions: a parent who distributes candy, and gives the same amount to every child except the one she doesn’t really like as much, acts unfairly. And children are good at sensing a lack of fairness.

Fairness is also seen in questions about retributive justice, the justice that oversees punishment of crime or offenses. Normally we would find it unjust to sentence to death someone who stole a television from a store. We would also find it unjust to dismiss pedophile charges against someone because we know the individual and we’re sure he won’t do it again.

II. Punishment and Injustice
Currently the injustice in our system of criminal sentencing has come under ever greater scrutiny. In a 2001 published study David Mustard found very large differences in the sentences of criminals, the relevant variables being race, class, gender, education. And this is true for many different kinds of crime. We have all become aware in recent months of the unusually high arrest record for blacks as compared with whites. And, along with this, is the extraordinary amount of individuals in jails and prisons in the United States, compared with other countries around the world.

One of the things that contributes to injustice in the sentencing of criminals is the insistence, contrary to the evidence of imprisonment, that our society is too lenient. So laws have been devised to prevent this. The third-strike-you’re-out laws are a case in point. Recently the fairness of such laws has been brought into question because there are times when the “third strike” is very far in severity from the action of the first several criminal acts. Sending someone off to prison by reason of this makes some people think that justice is being done because we are strict. But in fact strictness is sometimes just an excuse for a lack of good and thoughtful judgment. Justice requires good judgment, even more than strictness or heavy-handedness.

III. Distributive Justice
Let me change the focus a bit here from retribution and punishment to distribution of goods and services in society. Justice is a positive virtue as well as a negative one. But what is this kind of justice? Is it just another liberal name for welfare? How should we think of it?

Let me go back to the initial example of a parent giving out candy to her children. There a just distribution would normally be a fair distribution, where fairness is mathematical equality—the same for each child. We could give differential amounts under some circumstances. So for example I could tell my children that based on how many times they helped out in the kitchen during the week they would get some appropriate reward. Some would get more than others, but normally even children can accept that this is in principle fair.

Let me stretch this example a bit. Suppose you have three children, one of whom is confined to a wheelchair and has no ability to help at anything. You then give awards proportionate to how much they helped in the kitchen, and needless to say the child in the wheelchair is on the losing end, not just once but forever. Would that be fair or just?

IV. Care and Ethical Partiality
When it comes to society’s goods, there are people who will claim that justice is when each person earns their candy or salary or what have you. Obviously in such an economy it makes sense to have the highest employment possible. But in the end there are always large groups of people who can’t earn much of anything: the sick, the elderly, the disabled, young children. So we give them, if not nothing, then as little as possible. We don’t want them to be a drain on the rest of us. To spin this a different way : the more I have to give through taxes and the like to people who can’t earn their own living and cover their own expenses, the less I have for my own family. And surely the care and concern I have for my own family trumps any consideration of the good of others.

Feminists such as Carol Gilligan have made much of care as an ethical principal, a principal which it seemed male philosophers had neglected in their preoccupations with abstract ideas of justice and the common good. She was no doubt correct about this. But is justice understood as distributive justice for all undermined by care?

There is a similar argument from a viewpoint more in vogue today. If the notion of care is restricted to “my own interests and livelihood”, then self-care may well demand that government be scaled back as far as possible, taxes be reduced to zero. On this libertarian view, justice is giving to each person their due, and each person is due things only through their own labor and work. Social welfare programs of any kind are inimical to this idea of justice.

It may seem thoroughly unjust to put libertarian justice in the same camp as Gilligan’s notion of care. And they are clearly different in many ways. But they do have one thing in common: the substitution of care for a larger view of justice. (I add parenthetically that Gilligan has addressed the issue of justice in her later writing, so I am not being entirely fair here to the whole of her thinking.)

If we see these two examples of care in a very narrow sense, one can see why appeals to “social justice” are sometimes reckoned as socialism by astute commentators like Rush Limbaugh. But we can’t beg the question: is the cause of distributive justice today doomed in light of our commitment to home, hearth, and self?

V. The Importance of Distributive Justice
There is no doubt that what has been traditionally called distributive justice is under serious attack in this country and in many other places. To begin to address the issues raised here, I think it is important to step back and ask the question: just what does distributive justice look like and why should it exist?

Civilization around the globe has always relied on redistribution of goods for one reason or another. In the earliest agrarian civilizations, redistribution of food went to priests and kings, for the purpose of insuring the safety of the city-state. Therein was the original tax without representation. But whatever its inherent injustice, redistribution did serve the purpose of insuring survival. The armies staved off threats from other nations, and the high priests staved off divine threats.

The original trickle-down economics came with the growth of the wealth of monarchs and aristocracy, their homes, their armies, their lands. In the medieval period in the west, the Christian monasteries owned much of the land, and many bishops were simultaneously members of the landed aristocracy. So redistribution of goods served the interests of the ruling classes, which in some cases were both religious and secular.

In the modern age, the growth of a middle class made wealthy from industries of various kinds also made possible and necessary the beginnings of at least a minimal commitment to public welfare, notably public education, utilities, roads, infrastructure and the like. It was clear to at least some that the welfare of workers demanded that some of the immense wealth possessed by the aristocracy should be shifted back to workers who needed it for sheer survival. Increasingly movements arose to force the owners of factories to provide basic goods such as food, clothing, and shelter for those who labored. But economic growth required greater investment in education for all citizens and a multiplicity of other goods. Welfare was for the present in part, but also for the future.  The possibilities of redistribution of wage labor increased as wage labor itself came to prominence.

We know much of the story after that. The imposition of things like sales and income taxes, inheritance taxes and the like grew as the need for a dependable safety net for citizens seemed to be in the best interest of the nation-state. Taxes are almost universally hated and seen as unjust impositions, but when a person looks carefully both at the outcome of taxation and the impact of taxes on social welfare it is clear that taxes are not always bad things at all.

Taxes support the defense of the nation. They support those who are old, who cannot work, who are disabled physically or mentally, who are children in need of education—and the list goes on. Taxes for these ends are not only good, but in some measure ethically required for us to realize our obligations to one another. And yet taxes can impact citizens in some bad ways: high taxes on land, high sales taxes especially on food, are just two examples of regressive taxes which negatively impact social welfare.

Let me focus on one example to illustrate what is happening more and more these days.
Public school education was instituted in part to integrate the children of the relatively poor into American society and the American work force. The assumption was that a modern industrial work force was not workable without a public commitment to education for all.

VI. Privatization vs. Distributive Justice
But there are serious cracks in the public’s support. Some want to undo the public commitment to education, to privatize it, to make it a business, with the end result that commitment to the poorest children, and to those with special needs of any kind will not be able to afford an education, or at least not without being encumbered with enormous debt.

I know people who will say they see no reason why their hard earned tax money should go to public education when they don’t themselves have children in school. The point seems to be that the only time a person’s money should go to education is when it is really for their own family, and not for anyone else. This is a care ethic of sorts, turned back against the social fabric.

A similar sentiment may be found with regard to the use of taxes in maintaining national parks and museums. The idea of the day is to privatize everything, thereby relieving the public of taxes. If I want to take advantage of going to Yellowstone, I can pay my own way. And Yellowstone can become a private business.

Health care and Social Security are also under increasing attack for many of the same reasons. Health care, one hears, needs to be privatized and social security should be taken out of the government’s hands.

My point here is not to engage the usual arguments about all this, but to consider the nature of the contemporary standpoint. That standpoint is one where the individual, the individual self and possibly the individual’s family, is the highest good, whose welfare should take precedence over any other claim from the public, because the public by rights has no claim over anything. This is a view where the individual is a kind of ethical portal through which all other commitments must be either allowed or not allowed to pass. And the argument is forceful because the individual increasingly feels under attack from the world around him or her.

VII. Fear and the Ideology of Individualism
Thomas Hobbes back in the 17th century noted the importance of a fearful population for a political leader anxious to maintain absolute power. Fear individualizes; it cuts us off from others. The fear of losing our livelihood, of losing our own limited security, leads to a hatred of all taxes, a strong dislike of anything reeking of a social program for the benefit of others. Charity may be ok for the individual, but charity is not perceived as necessary.

There has always been a measure of egoism in human history; there has been occasionally a measure of selfishness; but not until modern times has there been an ideology of individualism. Individualism as an ideology is founded on a claim about the individual being the only source of ethical rightness and goodness, and goes hand in hand with a rejection and fear of government, internationalism, taxes, and public welfare programs of any kind.

There is a great advantage to the use of potential terror in creating the mindset of individualism. When everyone feels fearful and threatened by one group or another, then the mere feeling of being threatened is legitimation enough to kill someone else.

Democracy is an enemy of fear. Democracy is not built on an ideology of individualism, but on recognition of the individual’s embeddedness in a web of real and potential social and political relationships. In such democracy, the meaning of courage is very clear. Courage is recognizing that the full development of the individual requires a commitment to other individuals and their full development.

Justice requires a great deal of the individual. For one thing it requires knowledge and understanding, not just of what justice is in the abstract, but of what injustice is in the concrete. In real life injustices can often go quite unrecognized. The injustice of prison terms of inordinate length for minor drug crimes or a minor infraction that counts as the third strike you’re out and sends you to prison for decades—these are things that, unless they happen to you or your family or your friends, you may be unaware of.

VIII. The Incoherence of the Ideology of Individualism
This kind of ideology masquerades as something ethical. But it contains a fatal contradiction, since it puts me at the center of the moral universe, and resolves conflicts with others by simple self-affirmation. This ignores the question why someone else who claims individuality as an ethical philosophy cannot do so. To put it in other terms: individualism is not much more than an irrational and incoherent ethical philosophy resting on a presumed superiority of this individual over another. What reasons could ever be given for this kind of position that everyone else could not give?

If individualism is not a coherent ethical philosophy, then is every form of partiality incoherent? Let’s look at an example: parents have the opportunity to save their two children from a sinking boat, but doing so makes it impossible to save other children who are in the same dangerous situation. Is it wrong for parents to prefer to save their own children? Surely not. But there are obvious limits to this. Suppose the parents could save not only their own children, but others as well. Could they say: we’ll save our own, but not others because we only care about our own family? That would be an instance of partiality that is utterly unethical, in the end because it cannot give any good reason why my family possesses ethical importance, and some other family does not.

IX. Partiality and Justice
Partiality in our ethical judgments is both good and inevitable. Partiality may establish some kind of practical everyday order in our ethical goals. But partiality does not have final say-so over who has ethical rights over and against our own. Partiality is essential to justice, but it does not exhaust the meaning of justice.

This leads inevitably to the ethics of justice and fairness in society generally. Is justice an example of an extended partiality, which all individuals that make up a society constitute a large kind of family where all have equal rights? And what would we mean when we say that everyone in a society has equal rights?

One minimal definition of justice or a just society is one where each life is affirmed on the basis of a right correlative to a duty. So far so good. But surely this is not the end of the matter. A just society is one that embodies much more than simply a right to life. One might add that a just society is one in which people’s ability to create a sustainable good life is maximized. Does justice demand equality in every respect?

Justice does demand that freedom be as extensive as possible. But what limits are there to freedom, and thus to justice?

Some of the ideas of the late philosopher John Rawls may be useful here. Unlike some liberal thinkers in the past, Rawls thought that some kinds of inequality may be inevitable in fact. But he made two important provisos to this admission: first, inequality must in the end promote the freedom of all. An example: inequality with regard to my freedom to use water in California right now may be irritating, but inequality in water consumption will help sustain the population and economy much better than not. Golf courses need more water than people do for drinking and bathing, but surely the aesthetics of a green field is less important than the survival of humans.

Another important proviso is that all political offices should be open to all as much as possible. This insures justice and freedom as much as possible. It is questionable just how much offices are open to all today. It is no coincidence, for example, that most of our representatives in Congress and at the highest levels of government are all independently wealthy, or at least much wealthier than you or I. And frankly, it is beyond the financial means of many ordinary people to run even for local or state offices. Our political offices function like they might in an oligarchy, not a democracy.

These principles are not arbitrary, Rawls says. He says that if you did not know what social class or economic situation you belonged to, you would choose these principles or something like them. This is a kind of hypothetical argument under a veil of ignorance. It’s not hard to see how this kind of argument is intended to eliminate unfettered partiality as much as possible from ethical reasoning, without compromising freedom any more than necessary.

We all have partial interests and concerns that we want to defend. We cannot eliminate such things, nor should we necessarily. But when my interests lead to the enslavement of others as a way to keep labor really cheap, we need to ask ourselves: would I choose to live in a society where I might turn out to be a slave? If not, then I should not support a political or socio-economic system that requires this kind of enslavement.

X. The Political Utility of the Ideology of Individualism
I said earlier that individualism as a modern ideology is an incoherent ethical philosophy. Generally, incoherence like this does not go far in the world. But modern individualism has had a much more successful path to prominence than one might have thought. It has done this, I would like to suggest, by a variety of political and religious moves that draw one’s attention elsewhere. Individualism has turned out to be an important façade for political and religious maneuvering.

At the most extreme, individualism becomes a paranoid life style called survivalism, a political movement focusing on the need to have guns to protect individuals against imminent government attacks. The individual’s life and well-being are threatened everywhere by taxes, by government health care, by immigrants legal or illegal, by racial and ethnic minorities. Today this ideology of individualism stands behind many political efforts to lower taxes on the wealthy, to restrict voting rights, and to keep the lawless members of minority groups in a state of constant wariness.

But there problems of inequality that go far enough beyond the everyday that it is difficult for anyone to begin to catch sight of them. An example: there is much political wrangling today over issues like minimum wage. We mostly have a sense that wages in some industries are hardly adequate to meet living at a poverty level. So we propose, or oppose, raising the minimum wage in the hope that this will address a serious inequality in our society.

Without answering this question, I would suggest that there are far bigger inequalities in our society that are not visible to most of us most of the time. Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has published a monumental study of capital in the twenty-first century—though in truth it is a study of capital for the last several centuries. Enormous wealth is generated through the interest on what is called capital—estates, businesses, land, investments, inheritances—much of which is untaxed or taxed at a very low rate. Most of the 1%ers can actually live off this wealth without ever working at all.

We are under the impression that the great wealth that accumulates at the top of the economic structure helps society. But in fact it doesn’t. The burden on society generally increases as the tax base is siphoned off into tax shelters, and the rest of the population of a country is left to pay the bills. While Piketty aims much of his analysis at Europe, he includes the U.S. as well. We have only a vague sense of the problem. We are aware that there are CEO’s in the business world and elsewhere who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, not always from what they achieve, but sometimes simply because paying a high salary is a sign that the business is doing well, even if it isn’t. And our tax structure increasingly favors giving tax breaks to the wealthiest citizens.

I am not here to urge some particular political solution to these problems. I simply want to emphasize that wealth is a moral problem in modern society, and not just in some accidental sense. We often think of taxes as simply a burden. The modern doctrine of individualism promotes this view. But taxes aren’t just an economic solution to a practical problem; they are equally are reflection of our moral commitments as a society. We use our taxes to create, sustain, and promote a better socio-economic world for our children and grandchildren. It is not an acceptable view to regard the whole arena of education as a kind of business that is always losing money and should therefore be taught the virtues of austerity. I would never argue that efficiency is not important; but I will argue that education is not a business, any more than health care is, at heart, a business. For modern individualists, everything is a business, and the value of life is a product of individuals scurrying about in their businesses making as much money as possible. When everything is seen as a business, then much about human life has been falsified and demeaned. Aristotle claimed once that people in business should not be allowed to have a vote in the political assembly, because by definition their vision of things was too limited. Our society not only denies that; it has exalted the limited vision of businessmen into the only moral and political philosophy of the age that is worth considering.

In the world of justice, vision is a starting point, but it is a difficult one to achieve in practice. I think we all need to consider that the search for justice and equality in this age is far more daunting than the sexual crises we are led to believe constitute the problems of the age. Our preoccupation with sex is not unrelated to our preoccupation with individualism. Further, it is in the interests of the very wealthy to promote the view that something like gay marriage or access to contraceptives, or sex outside marriage, are the real injustices we have to face. And of course if there were not challenges in those areas, no attempt to blind citizens to other inequalities would ever work. But there is a real effort to keep the focus off the monumental injustices of the untaxed growth of capital.

To some extent conservative forms of Christianity have helped in this process. To put it bluntly: God, they understand, will judge us far more harshly at Judgment Day for our sexual misconduct than for our inaction with regard to poverty. So it is not surprising that the reaction of conservative religious leaders—even Catholic bishops—to Pope Francis’ many denunciations of global capitalism has been one of horror.

It is perhaps uncomfortable for religious leaders, used to going on about salvation through faith in Jesus, to realize that the Jesus they claim to have faith in spent far more time denouncing wealth and power than denouncing sexual misconduct. Jesus himself was understood in the Gospel of Luke as a sign and symbol of a challenge to the power structure. Mary, Jesus’ mother, speaks the following words in the Gospel of Luke, to bring to mind how Israel’s past will intersect with and inform the future:

He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Today, it seems, God is on the side of the proud who sit in their thrones, while others eat crumbs they don’t even really deserve. The lowly need to get out and get jobs. If there are any.

I don’t want to end on a note of cynicism, but a note of encouragement and hope. The spiritual life is one not only of seeking justice at the personal level, in my life, in my family’s life, in my community; it is also one of seeking justice, and a vision of justice, for our society and the world at large. We cannot neglect the mind in the spiritual life because a vision of justice depends on that in our journey. And we cannot neglect the journey itself either simply because we feel that only our own small world is all that counts. We need to build on our own partial ethical concerns toward a larger social reality. Impartiality is not perhaps entirely possible, but sitting in a corner with folded hands is not an inevitability either. Vision, compassion, and courage are the prescription for the injustices we face.

Capital in the Twenty First Century, by Thomas Piketty

Piketty’s massive book (almostt 700 pages), supported by massive data of an extraordinarily impressive variety, drive home a conclusion that today’s conservatives and, frankly, many liberals, cannot be happy about: the inequality in societies across the globe is increasing at a frenetic pace, despite occasional bumps in financial history (the 2008-9 debacle, e.g.,).

The heart of Piketty’s argument is that the growth of capital, which includes dividends, rents,  inheritances, land, buildings, etc., is constantly outpacing the growth of income, and does so by virtue of the nature of the beast itself.  And while just a few of the 1%ers live directly off capital, who can make upward of of $200,000 and more per annum.  All of these individuals pay taxes at a much reduced rate, and the wealthiest pay much less or nothing at all.

The only way to change the picture is to reform banking rules so that corporations cannot hide their profits in tax havens outside a given country.  That is a possibility in the EU; it seems much less likely in the U.S., where devotion to banks is equal to devotion to firearms.

Piketty’s proposal is a modest 4-5% (at best) tax on capital, which would greatly help the economies of many struggling countries (and the U.S., not to mention Kansas, is one of them).  But you cannot tax what monies companies take outside the U.S.  And so we have a conundrum.  The wealthiest are not about to be taxed for any reason, and their patriotism and nationalism ends with the I.R.S.

In the meantime, addressing inequality by raising the minimum wage can be seen as at best putting a band-aid on the larger issue.

Piketty’s book is one I highly recommend.  It is surprisingly not filled with a lot of jargon, but it is long and detailed and takes a bit of work.  Piketty has thoughtfully included all his graphs and charts online so the reader can study them at his leisure.

Piketty does intersect with some of Karl Marx’ ideas.  But his analysis and his proposals are not Marxist in the end.  They are progressive in a way no one seems to be thinking about these days, which is a shame.  Fox News has generally treated Piketty as something approaching the Antichrist.  Which is a recommendation in my book.

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, by Christopher R. Browning

A friend sent me this book out of the blue.  It was off the beaten track for me, though I have read things on and off over the years about the Holocaust.  The book did not at first capture my interest, and so I was very slow getting past the first 10 pages.  But eventually I made a go of it, and I am very happy I did.

The book examines the behavior of ordinary policemen working under Nazi orders in Poland.  There is an amazing wealth of information about the conduct of these men, left by the Nazis themselves.  And their conduct was brutal and awful by any standard in the universe.  Rounding up Jews, shooting women, infants and the disabled who could not keep up with the forced marches to one-on-one massacres–it was awful to read and to imagine.  Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by about 500 policemen, only some of whom were Nazi party officials.  Most of them were just ordinary folk.

Browning makes a very good case for a multi-layered social-psychological view of what happened.  He resists the one-size-fits-all antisemitic racism that others have argued explains all of it.  He points to the notable experiments of Stanley Milgram which showed just how much people can be led to do really awful things by reason of authority or social expectation.

The book has a peculiar relevance to the current issues surrounding police conduct in relation to blacks and minorities around the United States.  It suggests that simply pointing to racism may not fully or completely answer the question why police officers do what they do.  There are also issues of training and expectations among officers, of acculturation to a society in which fear and racism both play important roles as conditioning factors.  I recall that three of the six policemen in the Freddie Gray episode were themselves black.  The problem in the end is the way people are treated and why they are treated that way.  How do the police see themselves?  How do they evaluate their conduct?

A few thoughts at the end of an interesting book.

The Bible and Homosexuality: Summary of Comments from John Boswell

Source: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Material taken from “Ch 4: The Scriptures”; and “Appendix 1. Lexicography and Saint Paul”.
Boswell suggests that there are just five passages in Scripture that have ever been taken as clearly implying the condemnation of homosexuality, two from the Old Testament, three from the New Testament. Before looking at these he makes several preliminary points:

1. Most early Christian misgivings about homosexuality did not rely upon Scripture, but other arguments or sources.

2. There is no word like “homosexual” in the Bible, in any manuscript, whether in Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic. “Homosexual” in English refers to a type of person, and there was no such concept or word in the ancient languages. The word and concept are of modern vintage (since the 16th 17th centuries). Note that the word “sodomite” is ambiguous and could refer to either homosexual or heterosexual behavior, and thus only inaccurately or misleadingly translates a concept of “homosexual”.

PASSAGE #1: Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom):

. . . the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

The interpretations of the passage as concerned with homosexual offenses are generally very late in history. None of the references to this story in the Old Testament suggest that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality or the like. Most scholars today believe that the offence that led to the destruction of Sodom was inhospitality. Lot was violating the custom of Sodom by entertaining unknown guests within the city walls at night without obtaining the permission of the elders of the city. When the men of Sodom gathered around to demand that the strangers be brought out to them, “that they might know them,” they meant no more than to “know” who they were, and the city was consequently destroyed not for sexual immorality but for the sin of inhospitality to strangers. (The verb “to know” used here is not used in a sexual sense; Boswell notes that contrary to popular belief, only something like 10% of the uses of this word in Hebrew have any sexual connotations.)

An interesting confirmation of the thesis that in ancient times everyone thought Sodom was destroyed because of inhospitality comes from Jesus himself (in Matt. 10:14 15 and Luke 10:10 12):
Matt. 10:14 15

“And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

Luke 10:10 12

“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

References in the Old Testament also confirm that the destruction of Sodom was not because of homosexuality. Thus Ecclesiasticus (16:8) says that God abhorred the Sodomites for their pride; the Book of Wisdom suggests the same thing (19:13 14), as does Ezechiel (16:48 49).

There are sexual overtones to the story, as there are in parallel stories in Judges 19:22 ff, and Joshua 6, but the major concern is always inhospitality.

The origin of the emphasis on the story of Sodom as concerned with sexuality is probably datable to the reaction of early Jewish and Christian moralists to the sexual licentiousness of pagan culture. Evidence to this effect is found in the Jewish apocryphal writings, and in early Christian writings such as the Epistle of Jude.

Even Origen (185-254 A.D.), inclined to puritanism, dis¬cusses the sin of Sodomy as the sin of inhospitality. St. Ambrose (339-397 A.D.) followed him on this. Ambrose was concerned about the offering of Lot’s daughters as a bribe, but did not suggest homosexuality as the issue. John Cassian (360-435 A.D.) explicitly rejects the homosexuality interpretation, as does Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.).

It should be noted that “sodomite” is used to translate various sexual sins in the King James version. The term as originally used did not specifically mean “homosexual”, since sodomy often referred to any sexual act that was unnatural whether heterosexual or homosexual. The word in Hebrew which “sodomite” translated was kadash; according to Boswell the term meant or referred to prostitutes in sacred temples. There is no implication of homosexuality at all. The history of the condemnation of sodomy by reference to Scripture depended on mistranslations of terms.

PASSAGE #2: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (toevah).
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination (toevah): they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
The word for “abomination” in Hebrew is toevah which does not designate something intrinsically evil, but something which is ritually unclean, such as eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are mentioned in the same part of Leviticus as the passages above. Often toevah is employed to mean “idol”. There is thus the question whether these prohibitions stem from moral absolutes, or from concerns to keep Jews separate and distinct from the nations.

The Greek Septuagint translation eventually distinguished between violations of law or justice (anomia) vs. infringements of ritual purity or monotheistic worship (bdelugma). The Levitical prohibitions fell into the latter because they were specific to the Jews, or tied up with rules about idolatry, etc.

It should not be surprising that converts to Christianity from outside Judaism would not take these laws any more seriously than they took the dietary laws. Conflicts arose about these matters, which were settled by the so called Council of Jerusalem. The decision was that no obedience to Mosaic law was required, except for four things: abstinence from idol pollution, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication (porneia). None of these entailed homosexuality.

PASSAGE #3: 1 Corinthians 6:9

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (= malakos arsenokoitai). . .

The word “homosexuals” translates two Greek words:

a) malakos = “soft”, very common Greek term, often has connotation of “licentious, lacking in self control”. Never used of gay people or homosexual acts in Greek literature. The Greeks did not think of homosexuals as “effeminate or soft”, but generally as manly. One of the guests in Plato’s Symposium speaks approvingly of the Athenian army founded on male-male homosexual relationships, because such relationships bring out the “virility” in men, and help to create a stronger army. Hence the fallacy of assuming that if a word to designate “effeminate” is used here, the reference must be to homosexuals. Indeed, the term malakos is often used of heterosexual acts. Generally interpreted by the church as referring to masturbation, until the modern era, when “homosexual” began to be the preferred translation/interpretation.

b) arsenokoitai = quite rare, meant “male prostitute” to St. Paul, and never meant homosexual until the 4th cent. St. Paul may have invented the word; it has not been found previous to him. The word literally means “a male who takes the active position in sexual intercourse” (and not “having sexual intercourse with a male”, as Greek dictionaries commonly have it). There is evidence from other sources, several centuries later, that this term meant a male prostitute, and did not mean homosexual (Aristides [early 2nd cent. A.D.] and Eusebius [265-339 A.D.]). Only late in the 4th century was the term used to mean “homosexual” and many other things, the term itself probably having considerable ambiguity.

PASSAGE #4: 1 Timothy 1:10

(. . .the law is laid down not for the just but for the lawless . . .) immoral persons, sodomites [arsenokoitais], kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. . .
Again, the crucial term is arsenokoitais, and Boswell’s suggestion is that it should be translated as male prostitute.

PASSAGE #5: Romans 1:26 27

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against [para] nature: And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.

Three points: first, this is part of an argument, and functions as an analogy to something else. Paul’s point is that there was a time when monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans, but they rejected it (vv. 19-23). The present passage offers an analogy, and is not primarily concerned with a moral analysis of homosexuality.

Second point: the passage in question does not condemn homosexuals, but heterosexuals who have abandoned their commitments and true calling. The analogy is between those who are naturally inclined to monotheism, and those who are inclined sexually toward those of the opposite sex.

Third point: Paul refers to “natural use” and says these acts are “against nature”. Close textual study of Paul’s use of “nature” reveals that he did not have a natural law theory, and did not use “nature” in a moral sense, but only in the sense that nature referred to some “character of a group of persons” (thus: “Jews are Jews by nature”). The word translated as “against” is para. But para does not mean “in opposition to” (in which case kata would have been the word of choice), but rather “more than”, “in excess of”. The sense is that these acts are not contrary to nature, but unusual or unexpected in the natural order of things. There is no suggestion of a “violation of natural law.”

Several final notes:

1) Jesus’ comments on sexual mores are extremely few, especially in comparison with the frequency of his observations on such matters as wealth and demonic possession, which were largely ignored by later Christians. Indeed, while most Christians “read” Scripture liberally in interpreting comments about the wealthy getting into heaven, they read it like fundamentalists when interpreting comments about homosexuals, even presuming the obscure words used by St. Paul in fact referred to them. Consistency of interpretation and approach to Scripture on moral questions is extraordinarily important.

2) It is not true that Scripture has only negative messages about same sex relationships and friendships. There are extreme positive images of same sex relations in the O.T., which would often be quoted by “gay” spiritual writers in subsequent centuries: Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. In the N.T., there is the unusual relation of Jesus and John.