Saturday, June 14, 2014

Finding meaning

After studying law for three years and practicing for nearly twenty, I attended seminary. After three years of theological studies I was ordained. I find remarkable similarities in the interpretive tasks of both professions. Judges and theologians both deal with venerable documents, hoping to keep them alive.

Courts around the country, including Wyoming’s, are engaged in what’s called constitutional construction, interpreting words written decades ago to decide whether same-sex couples may marry.

Many Christians are attempting the same, giving theological meaning to words contained in older texts, i.e. the Old and New Testaments.

Our Constitution governs affairs of people living in far different times than when it was written. The Constitution decides questions not asked of its original drafters.

The 14th Amendment for example reads (in pertinent part), “No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

It originally answered the question of whether states could deny civil rights to blacks following the Civil War. Its drafters never considered the possibility it would be employed to allow people of the same-sex to marry. Yet, courts interpreting the 14th Amendment find it grants gays and lesbians the same right to marry historically extended only to heterosexuals.

Construing the meaning of the Constitution from generation to generation is how our democracy survives. Construing the meaning of scripture from generation to generation is how Christianity survives.

Interpreting the Constitution is the job of highly educated judges. Likewise, honest scriptural interpretation requires training and education. There are two ways interpreters approach the task. Exegesis means “to lead out of.” Exegesis requires objective analysis of the words, the language, the times, and the culture in which they were written.

Eisegesis is a subjective, non-analytical reading. Eisegesis means “to lead into.” Interpreters begin with their own opinions and lead the text to support them.

Judges looks first to the words of the framers of the Constitution. Exegetes look first to the words of Jesus. But Jesus was silent about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Perhaps his silence is the loudest of all messages.

Many same-sex marriage opponents rely on six of the approximately 31,000 verses in the Bible to make their case; two in Leviticus and two each in Paul’s letters at 1st Corinthians and Romans.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”  (Leviticus 18:22) Eisegetes end with those ambiguous words. Exegetes begin with their authors, the ancient Hebrews. None is around today to ask. We must rely on scholars. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, a prominent, conservative Jewish scholar, was a leading authority on Leviticus. His book “Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics,” asks, “Does the Bible prohibit homosexuality?”

“Yes,” Migrom wrote, “but the prohibition is severely limited.” It doesn’t include lesbianism and applies only to Israel. “It’s incorrect to apply this prohibition on a universal scale.”

In 1st Corinthians, Paul is clear. “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (NIV)
Clear…unless you read different translations. The NIV doesn’t mention lesbians. The NRSV, among others, doesn’t mention homosexuals. Many scholars believe Paul used the word "paiderasste” in both Corinthians and Romans referring not to committed, responsible relationships between same-sex couples, but to male prostitution.

Paul’s words are even less clear considered in the broader context of all scripture including the words of Jesus. Jesus established a standard for interpreting the 613 scriptural laws. Interpretation of the law, Jesus said, hangs on the Greatest Commandments. Love God and love one another.

Recently 30 faith leaders from across Wyoming came out publicly for marriage equality. Each has studied scripture and reached the conclusion that same-sex marriage does not violate scripture. Judges in many states are answering the legal question, finding bans on marriage equality violate the Constitution.

It’s curious that while using their own profession’s rules to interpret ancient texts, each is reaching the same conclusion.

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