Friday, February 16, 2007

God Bless Mother Nature

I am so ready to be done with this book I've been reading for the past million months! I'm at a point now where I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm longing to sink my teeth into a good fictional story after all this historical research! That having been said, this book really has opened my mind to many relevant issues and factors that impact how gay people are treated in today's society. Surprisingly enough, it wasn't always this way and the author takes you through the growth of intolerance toward minorities (Muslims, Jews and gays) in Europe up to the 14th century. (*semi-spoiler alert*-It's actually not the fault of the Christian church which had co-existed happily with gay members in government and clergy for over 1,000 years!)

One of the ideas that I learned about was the concept of nature. As you may have heard before, gay people are often criticized as "unnatural." There are many ways to define "nature"- the most common would be the "essence or the character of a person." For example when Miss Coco Peru says in my favourite flick Trick: "Oh Gabriel.. Gabriel Gabriel Gabriel. Look, I'm not one to gossip. It's not my nature. Truth. Truth. Now that's my nature." Another example would be when a straight actor plays "gay for pay" we would say it would be "going against his/her nature." Alfred Kinsey stated "The only unnatural sex act is the one which you cannot perform." By this definition of nature, most people would agree that being gay could be natural for a given individual. (Unless of course one believes in reparative/conversion theraphy- the kind that cured Rev. Ted Haggart in less than one miraculous month!)

This is also the definition of nature that the apostle Paul uses in his letter to the Romans (1:26-27). Reading the passage in context (What a radical concept, eh? I have to wonder if spiritual leaders who quote this have ever taken a single post-secondary literature class!) Paul is criticizing the Roman people for general unfaithfulness. Paul implies (vv.19-23) that monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans but they rejected it. He refers to homosexuality as an analogy to this theological sin (it's not his main topic here). Furthermore, Paul isn't even talking about people who are homosexual. Rather, he's talking about acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons. The point of the whole chapter is that these people had rejected their true calling, their nature. They didn't lack proper inclinations but chose to ignore the ones they had: "they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God (v.28)." (Boswell, 108-109)

(Sidebar: It's curious to me how mainstream Christians will gloss over what Paul says about slavery and the place of women in the ministry (because it doesn't match with their personal opinions) but will readily trot Paul's words about homosexuality at the drop of a hat. Could this be because it does align with their own personal bias? I'm just sayin'!)

Another definition of nature is that "creative and controlling force in the universe" we think of when we use the capital "N" or personify it as "Mother Nature." In the past/present, the Church taught that sex was naturally for only procreational purposes (within marriage). Homosexual couples, sexually active infertile/unmarried couples and even those who masturbate would fall outside of this teaching. However, "Marriage in the New Testament was not 'nature's' way of peopling the world, but man's way of avoiding fornication by compromising with the awesome forces of uncontrolled sexual desire (Boswell,148)." Actually in the New Testament, celibacy was highly praised as being most like Christ and more able to serve Him. However celibacy would be considered by most to be "unnatural" by definition. My question here is how can "unnatural" celibacy be seen as moral but "unnatural" homosexuality be called immoral? And why the stronger negative reaction to homosexual couples than sexually active infertile or unmarried couples?

Church theologians have also tried to say that homosexuality acts are immoral because they have abandoned the "natural use" of their body parts (Boswell, 109). This argument falls apart quickly for me. Although most hands aren't "naturally" supposed to be used to draw a face or make music, when they do, we say they are "naturally gifted." And while most hands might not "naturally" be right-handed, we wouldn't consider them "unnatural" if they happened to be left-handed.

In 1120 AD the Church Council of Nablus wrote the first law where homosexuality was labelled a “Crime against Nature.” In the Renaissance, such texts found their way into the laws of many countries, leading to widespread oppression of homosexuals on the basis that it is "unnatural." However, one should point to documentation of frequently occuring homosexual behavior in nature. There is an ever-growing extensive list of animals that naturally display homosexual behaviour. For example, in early February 2004 the New York Times reported a male pair of Chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo in New York City were partnered, and when given an egg which needed incubation, successfully hatched it. One can try to explain this case away by blaming it on the NYC environment but researchers at Rikkyo University in Tokyo found twenty such pairs at sixteen major aquariums and zoos in Japan. And in Germany a zoo attempted to break up the male couples by importing female penguins from Sweden and separating the male couples and were unsuccessful. The zoo director stated the relationships were too strong between the older couples (source).

Having said that, just because homosexuality exists in nature doesn't make necessarily it moral. Promiscuity, bigamy, murder, theft and incest all exist in nature and, although natural, most of us would say these would be considered immoral. I would also argue that all the seven deadly sins are natural but considered immoral by many. In addition, I would also assert that bigotry in all of its various forms is both unnatural and unethical.

In closing, the morality of homosexuality simply can not be argued from the point of nature by any definition. I like how Saint Thomas Aquinas compared the nature of homosexuality to hot water. One would say that although water is not naturally hot, it is quite natural for water to be hot under certain circumstances. By the same token, while it might not be "natural" for humans in general to be homosexual, it is quite "natural" for a few to be homosexual (Boswell, p326). While this topic may get me into "hot water," I hope that at least it can get some of us thinking! As always I invite and welcome all divergent thoughts in the comment section!

Not Like the Others

Since I've immigrated to Canada, many of my friends have asked me to compare life here to my life in the US. This is approaches the old "apple/oranges" saying as now I'm living in a metropolitan area and in the US I was living in a very rural area. Having said this,
I have noticed some differences, some trival and some more substantial.

The most immediate contrast of course would be the use of metric measurement. Waist sizes are still in inches and at the store they still have some items in ounces. Those examples aside, most things here in Canada follow the metric system (which is in keeping with the entire world, the exceptions being Liberia, Myanmar, Thailand and USA.).

Another difference would be attitudes towards sexual minorities. Since moving here we have dealt with many governmental and non-governmental agencies. They have all treated us just like any other couple in their system. Contrast this with our experience last month, when my partner was applying for a US tourist visa. He was advised not to claim me as a "family member" or disclose his orientation to US government officials. Apparently this would label him (and me despite being a US citizen) "undesirable" and cause further problems traveling there in the future. After waiting outside in the cold for 1/2 hour, inside for 2 hours and having to retake his photo which wasn't current enough, he was denied a tourist visa because he could not produce enough ties to Canada. This was all in an attempt for him to be able to meet my parents and see the great country where I grew up!

The final example came to me while I was hanging out with my good friend watching the documentary Jesus Camp. I highly recommend this film to everyone. On one level, one can watch it to learn about a segment of the population that is widely misunderstood (US evangelicals). On another level, it shows what life was like (for me anyway) in the Midwest (flat landscape, religion as a lifestyle, strip malls). In my never-to-be-humble opinion, this was a very balanced account that I could relate to as a Christian. Interestingly enough, the only person in the project who thought they were unfairly portrayed was Rev. Ted Haggard, someone whose credentials have been called into question recently.

Despite what some would have you believe, there are many Christian people in Canada. There are tons of churches, both big and small. The difference appears to be in the denominational make-up. A recent article in the bi-weekly Xtra gave statistics that aptly demonstrate this point.

In 2001, there 2.5% of Canadians were Baptists. In the US, the percentage was 16.9. Back up in Canada,"other Christians" including Apostolic, born-again and self-declared evangelicals were at 2. 6 percent — that's a maximum of 5.1 percent of the Canadian population who could be said to be evangelical. Looking south to the US, the other denominations that could be described as evangelical add up to at least another four percentmore than 20 percent of the American population.

Those stats right there really put things into perspective for me. I had the sense that Canada was more tolerant and liberal! The rest of Canadians considered themselves Roman Catholic (43.2%), United Church of Christ (9.6%) or Anglican (6.9%). In the US there were fewer Roman Catholics (24.3%). (I looked for more of a US breakdown but couldn't find anything!)

Much of the US evangelical movement that gave the Republican party control of both houses of Congress and the White House (and indirectly influenced the Supreme Court nominations) resides in the South and Midwest regions. This has sometimes been referred to as the "Bible Belt." It is my hope and prayer that God will soften the hearts and minds of these good people, many of whom are not just my friends but also my family. We continue to learn more from research and by telling our stories to those that we love.

I want to close with this quote the character Pe're Henri says at the end of the movie Chocolat. I just keep returning back to it again and again. "Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about his divinity. I'd rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life, here on Earth. His *kindness*, his *tolerance*... Listen, here's what I think. I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we *embrace*, what we create... and who we include." (source)

That, my friends, is a beautiful idea. What if instead of defining what Body of Christ is by what we don't do and who we exclude, as Christians we send the message out there into the world that the Church is about loving others and serving mankind? It might just be what Christ had in mind all along!