Winnie Varghese and Social-Justice Salvation

The “overarching theme” of the Bible is not “a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice,” but “a preferential option for the repentant and the faithful, and the mercy to offer them salvation.”


Having been in this fight for so long, we sometimes forget – those of us who write about these things and those who read them – that our side of the debate is not obvious to everyone, and that from time to time we need to articulate our positions again, both because there are people who are open to considering them, and because we need to keep our skills sharp.

This interview with Winnie Varghese, a lesbian Episcopal priest at St. Mark’s in New York City’s Bowery district, reminded me of that. Two passages in particular, beginning with this one:

I was raised in the US in a very liberal Christian family, as my parents, who were young adults right after [Indian] Independence, grew up with an understanding of Christianity that was framed by the many Independence movements of the 20th century. The Bible is organised around the story of the Exodus, which is that God saves God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and we learn that God is on the side of the oppressed. In fact, the theme throughout the Bible, whether the Old Testament, or the New, is that of God redeeming people, not because they are good, or doing the right thing, but because they are marginalised.

It astonishes me that an ordained priest in a church that prides itself on rigorous religious education for its priests, actually has this understanding of the Bible; or if this is in fact not her understanding of it, that she would decide deliberately to push this nonsense as what the Bible is. Shorter version: This “priest” is either very ignorant about the Bible, or very duplicitous, although I suppose it could be both.

So off we go:

First, the Bible is not “organized around the story of the Exodus.” It is organized – as is, Christians believe, the whole of human history – around the birth of Jesus Christ, His revelation to us as God incarnate, and His role as our Savior and Redeemer.

Neither does Christianity teach that God redeems people “because they are marginalised.” What Christianity teaches is that God redeems people because they accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Why they should do so – because they are sinful and repentant – is almost secondary if one is looking for a single, simple lesson to take from the Bible. But it is most certainly not that redemption is offered because one is “marginalized.”

Here’s the second passage. In answer to the question, “What about the notion that homosexuality is a sin?” Varghese replies:

In the Levitical Code in the Bible, there are many acts that are prohibited, like wearing fabrics of two kinds in one garment or eating shellfish. These may seem absurd to modern people, but these were specific things that communities did to distinguish themselves from other communities, but which most Christians do not follow now. So it’s not difficult to take the Levitical Code — where a sexual moral code is discussed — and say that that’s from another time and another culture. The Code, for instance, says things like, if your child talks back at you, stone her. We don’t observe those practices now.

If we look at the Bible’s overarching themes, the most consistent one that runs through the text is a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice, which is what people of a sexual minority need today, as they are marginalised and denied justice legally, and in terms of human rights.

This can be summarized as “the shellfish argument,” but the more complex issues of the Levitical codes aside, it never ceases to amaze me the simple failings of logic made by people who offer this “defense” of homosexual behavior.

The first failing is the notion that because items A, B, and C in a list are no longer applicable, then item D is therefore no longer applicable either.

To make my point, remove the list of prohibitions entirely from the context of Christianity, or even faith in general. Let’s say you’re writing a manual for automobile drivers, and the year is 1912. Your manual might very well include the following:

– Do not wear a veil to protect yourself against flying road debris; yea, verily I beseech thee, wear sturdy goggles.

– Do not attempt to start the motorcar with a crank made of wood; alas these will soon splinter, and cause you only grief.

– Do not honk your horn when approaching a horse-drawn buggy from behind; this may spook the horse and cause injury to the buggy’s riders.

– Do not operate your motorcar while intoxicated; it will impair your judgement and could result in serious injury or death to you and your passengers.

If I’m an advocate of the patently idiotic position that drinking and driving is a great idea, how seriously would I be taken if I insisted that, because cars now have windshields and thus no need for drivers to wear goggle; that cars are now started with keys and thus no need for cranks; and that horse-drawn buggies are virtually extinct, obviously the prohibition against drinking and driving is a quaint anachronism that can – and should – be reversed?

Why, then, does anyone take seriously people like Varghese, when their advocacy for homosexual behavior follows the same pattern?

The second failing is to offer the one example in Leviticus, make the case that it is “problematic,” and then proceed as if the case is closed – as if nowhere else in the Bible is homosexual behavior ever mentioned. Homosexual behavior is mentioned several other times in the Bible – Old Testament as well as New – and it is univocal in its prohibition of it as sinful.

The third failing is, again, a thoroughly incorrect characterization of the “overarching theme” of the Bible. It is most certainly not “a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice.” Certainly the marginalized are lifted up, to the extent that by “marginalized” we mean the poor, the downtrodden, and the powerless; but the overarching theme of the Bible as regards the treatment of different kinds of people, is that no one of faith gets preferential treatment. The Gospel is the ultimate societal flattener: Repent of your sins and place your faith Jesus Christ, and you are saved, no matter your station in life or the magnitude of your sin.

So the “overarching theme” of the Bible is not “a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice,” but “a preferential option for the repentant and the faithful, and the mercy to offer them salvation.” To focus more narrowly on sexuality, the overarching theme of the Bible, as Kendall Harmon has always reminded us, is one that repeatedly and pointedly prohibits sex outside of marriage, and one that very clearly defines and blesses marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Finally: As long as we’re brushing up on things like spotting flaws in the other side’s positions, it’s always a good practice to apply some simple math whenever you feel like you’re reading an explanation of the Bible and Christianity that just doesn’t seem to add up. For example, Varghese uses approximately 1,000 words to explain to a lay audience what the Bible and Christianity, at their core, are all about. So go to the linked article, open your browser’s “Find” tool, and count how many times the word “Jesus” appears.

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