Friday, February 26, 2010

The Levitical Law, part deux

I got an interesting response to my last post as a comment on facebook from a facebook friend, Michael, whom I met immediately after Katrina. He is an accomplished photographer from California who came to New Orleans right after the storm to do animal rescue. He stayed with a bunch of us at Rev. Brad Drew's home which became an emergency-powered beehive of a headquarters. We all worked together with boats and ATVs to help people get into their homes. Michael is a great guy, and he worked tirelessly to help both humans and animals left helpless by Katrina. He has a few of his haunting pictures from Katrina here.

Anyway, he posed a great question concerning how we should understand laws from the Old Testament. He asked:

"King James Bible Deuteronomy 22:5 'The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.'" Just wondering if all abominations are equal. If so when do we pass laws to put women back in dresses?"

It's a great question, because it gets to the heart of the matter. I think the way we understand the law - especially those of the Old Testament - is a source of confusion to Christians (and Jews) and non-believers alike.

First, Michael asks if all abominations are equal. No, they aren't. They are all sinful and contrary to the way God designed the universe to work, but just as keying someone's car and slaughtering 10 million people in a genocide are both sinful and abominable acts, they certainly aren't "equal." Some abominations have far-reaching effects and bring about world-changing consequences, others not so much. And yet, all sins demonstrate our fallenness.

And as far as laws about women and dresses go, there is sometimes an assumption that the word "law" means "state enforcement."

In Old Testament Israel - especially before the establishment of a monarchy - there was a kind of theocracy. The state enforced religious laws. This is why we have, for example, many religious and ceremonial offenses in the Book of Leviticus that are treated as capital crimes. There was no distinction between secular and religious - as everyone in the community was expected to abide by the religious and ceremonial laws - in addition to the kinds of laws that every culture has (what we would call "secular" law).

So, obviously, we are not bound to laws regarding the temple - since there is no temple. We are not bound to laws regarding the treatment of slaves - since we have no slaves. We are not bound to the laws governing animal sacrifice - since we have no need for animal sacrifice. We are not bound to the laws regarding leprosy - since we now have medical treatments that did not exist at that time. Just as the laws regarding horses and buggies and oil lamps are no longer germane to American life, the civil laws of the people of Israel - even when written in Scripture - no longer apply. And yet, there are still underlying principles.

Furthermore, for Christians, the Old Testament religious and ceremonial laws distinguishing "clean" and "unclean" were fulfilled by Jesus, whose incarnation in the flesh in space and time, has declared all things clean. This is why the old dietary restrictions of the Old Testament are no longer applicable to us (see Mark 7:17-19 and Acts 10:12-15).

But this is not to say that the entire Old Testament law is obsolete. It is still wrong to murder, to lie, to worship false gods, to covet, and to steal. St. Paul teaches us that this law of morality is universal and inscribed on men's hearts (Romans 2:15). Jesus did not come to set us free to murder and steal, to make the moral law of the Old Testament a thing of the past. Does anyone really believe that to be the case?

So, no, not all laws are equal. Not all things declared to be abominable in the Old Testament remain so today. Crawfish, for example. And yet, there is still something to learn even from laws that no longer apply. There are still certain principles that are behind even those laws, and we would do well to pay attention.

The Deut 22:5 law about cross-dressing is not so much a statement on specific external fashion trends (pants vs. skirts). Rather, this law speaks against a sin that is internal, of which outward attire is only a symptom. The issue is that God created us male and female (Mark 10:6-9) - with all the implications this has for our life as men and women. That is our sex. Our sex is not our choice. It is the reality that we are creatures and we are not the Creator. God designed and made you to be the sex that you are, and being submissive to God means to accept this and live within your skin.

Some people rebel against this. Cross-dressing may be a manifestation of this sin. Then again, maybe it isn't. The motive is important. Homosexuality is, according to St. Paul, at its root a form of idolatry (Romans 1:24-27), for it replaces submission with God with an assertion of the self.

We see this rebellion in matters of sex in our own day and age in things we take for granted every day. For example, when you fill out a form and it asks you your "gender" instead of your "sex." "Sex" is a biological term, and can be "male" or "female." However, "gender" is a grammatical term, and can be "masculine" or "feminine" or "neuter." Sex is objective and based on biological reality. Gender is subjective and subject to feeling.

This is how it is that a man with all the physical equipment of the male sex can put on a pair of high heels, a wig, and some lipstick and may legally check the "F" box on the gender form - and in some cases, may even stroll into a women's bathroom or locker room.

So, even though the civil law of the nation of Israel no longer applies, there is a moral component, a commentary on sex and creation and the sin of rebelling against God's order that still speaks with relevance to us today. And once again, this is an internal matter, involving motives and desires even more so than fashion trends and fads.

For example, it is a common misconception (hopefully changing) that has been pushed by feminists and others with a gender-driven agenda or worldview that the only differences between male and female has to do with reproduction and excretion, that sexual differences are merely cultural constructs. The demonstrable falsehood of this myth is known by any parents of small children. With the power of imagination, a little boy will often turn a Barbie Doll into a four-wheel drive monster truck or a bazooka, and a little girl will convert a G.I. Joe with kung fu grip into unicorn-riding fairy daintily sipping imaginary tea. The differences between male and female are not surface matters of subjective psychological gender, but rather foundational characteristics of objective biological sex. God's law says that as creatures, we are obliged to submit to the reality of these created differences.

Michael's question about passing laws about women and dresses presumes that matters of sin and divine law are equally matters of civil law, of the state. I think this is a source of confusion for believers and unbelievers alike.

Would it be an abomination for a Lutheran pastor to sit on his altar, kick his feet up on a stool, and read the newspaper? Absolutely. That would be sacrilege and blasphemously disrespectful to that which is holy. Should Congress hold hearings and send a bill to Barack Obama to protect Lutheran altars from abomination? Of course not. This is not their realm. Similarly, if someone were to show disrespect to the consecrated host of Holy Communion, he would be committing an abomination and breaking God's law. Should such a person be put in prison? Should the State of Louisiana have a section in its criminal code governing the procedures of Christian Eucharist? Of course not. However, as a pastor, I would enforce this law (as opposed to government enforcement) by denying such a person communion, and barring repentance, formally excommunicating the person. That is the realm of the church, not of the state.

Not all laws are to be enforced by the state.

Jesus says it is sinful to look upon a woman lustfully (Matt 5:28) , to call people ugly names (Matt 5:22), and to make a big deal about how much money you give to charity (Matt 6:2). And yet none of these things are matters for the state. The laws concerning the right worship of God and of sins against the Lord are not necessarily issues of city, county or parish, state, or federal involvement. If a person were to go around killing Christians in the name of a demented form of atheism, or if a person were to go around killing abortion doctors in the name of a demented form of Christianity (both examples do happen) - then it is the state's business to address the issue of protecting life under the secular and civil law.

Where the issue gets messy, for example regarding homosexuality, is when it effects other people. For example, declaring homosexual unions to be a form of marriage does compel people who do not believe in its morality in a position of some kind of acceptance - say for instance to the landlord who does not want to rent a house to a gay couple. There is a conflict between the beliefs of the property owner and the desires of the ones who wish to rent his property. But where it really becomes a touchy issue is regarding the adoption of children. God created men and women different - in body and mind. It is a wonderful and glorious design for humanity. Husbands and wives complement and complete one another. Procreation is an act that involves both sexes - as is the nurture of children. In this broken world, we do have orphaned children and those being raised in broken homes, but the situation of a child having only a father or only a mother is never treated as ideal. The best situation for children is to have a loving mother and a loving father. Homosexual adoption takes even the possibility of having a parent of both sexes off the table.

I think a lot of people misunderstand how to read and apply the Old Testament laws, and this is is a huge distraction from the real issue. The small minority of Christians who believe the federal and state governments should enforce the Old Testament religious laws (such as declaring ham and cheese sandwiches to be contraband and sending bratty teenagers to death row) completely miss the point. And fortunately, such depictions of Christians by unbelievers are nearly always nothing more than mythical stereotypes.


Friend of the Predigtamt said...

Wondering: how about actual people who, due to some genetic luck of the draw, are classified as intersex?

These people are treading between sexes--and as a result--genders. Talk about a challenge!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Friend:

Yes, these are tragic (and thankfully extremely rare) cases. Please note that some of the photos on the wikipedia site, though clinical, are graphic.

The existence of people who must bear this very real physical cross of intersexuality exposes the current trendy form of "transgenderism" for what it really is.