Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Leroy's Moral Maze...

I've been watching the progress of the action taken by Martyn Hall and Steve Preddy against Peter and Hazelmary Bull with interest.  I think that it's an important and intriguing case and the argument surrounding the conflict of religious versus civil liberties is a crucial one.  It is a topic that divides people in the Christian world and one that I often struggle with.

If you can't be bothered to read the previous link, or if you're not that interested, I shall sum up the situation briefly.  As usual, I refuse to be held accountable for my lack of research, understanding or accuracy; I'm just saying what I think rather than saying that what is written here is some kind of truth.  It is conjecture.  My whole life is conjecture!

The basic story is that Mr & Mrs Bull own and run a guest house in Penzance, Cornwall called the Chymorvah Hotel.  Mr Hall and Mr Preddy are a same-sex couple living in a civil partnership, an arrangement that is seen in law as having the same rights and responsibilities as civil marriage. (See the Civil Partnership Act 2004 for all the details or just go to good ol' Wikipedia for a potted version).  Mr Hall and Mr Preddy fancied a break in Penzance - they seem like a well travelled and outward looking couple - and they booked a room at the Chymorvah Hotel.  According to them, they checked if they could bring their dog, which caused no problem apparently, but when they asked for a double room they were refused by Mr and Mrs Bull who cited their Christian faith as being incompatible with allowing an 'unmarried' couple to share a room in their hotel.  Mr Hall and Mr Preddy were obviously quite upset by this and sought to take legal action, action which they yesterday won at Bristol County Court with Judge Rutherford finding that they were directly discriminated against, something that is against the law in the UK.

Simple enough, you may think.  But actually, the story doesn't end here.  Judge Rutherford acknowledged the sincerity of the Bulls' beliefs and that in actual fact many Christians (and people not of the Christian faith, come to that) share them:

"I am quite satisfied as to the genuineness of the defendants' beliefs and it is, I have no doubt, one which others also hold...It is a very clear example of how social attitudes have changed over the years for it is not so very long ago that these beliefs of the defendants would have been those accepted as normal by society at large.  Now it is the other way around."

Judge Rutherford left the door open for the Bulls to appeal based on the fact that religious freedom is also a legal right in this country.  I find the Judge's dilemma very interesting indeed, and I think that this is a crucial argument that the church and secular world in the UK need to engage with.  The question in itself is intrinsically problematic: Should discrimination against a religion's freedom to discriminate be allowed?  Phew.
Let's look at the back story here.  It is a commonly held belief that Christians don't like gay people.  Usually, one of the first questions people ask me when they discover that I am a Christian is "Do you hate gay people?".  I've seen the change in expression on a gay guy's face when he found out I went to church.  How did this preconception come about?  To answer that, we need to read the famous verse in Leviticus 18 (verse 22 to be precise):
"Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."
Unlike a lot of the Bible, it's quite hard to read around that and find an alternate meaning that isn't quite as controversial to the sensibilities of a 21st century middle class Westerner.  I'd say that was pretty explicit.  The sexual actions of gay people are detestable; that's what it says.  The way it is written even puts those exact words into the mouth of God Himself.  Blimey.
(Fortunately, we don't have to deal with such a moral maze with the commandment in the previous verse that says "Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God."  I think we can all agree that sacrificing anything to Molek is a bad thing, and I will defend to the death the rights of hoteliers to prevent people from sacrificing children to Molek in their establishments; it's just not cricket.)
I struggle with this stuff.  The truth is that I don't agree with it and probably never will.  I don't agree with vilifying and condemning people because of their choices.  I don't see how we can pick and choose what we get in a huff about and what we choose to ignore.  I also get confused about the amount of apparent contradiction in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.  You only have to read on a couple of pages in Leviticus to find yourself reading "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.", which seems to be in altogether a different spirit from Leviticus 18.  
In fact, the more I read Leviticus, the more confused I get; which commandments here are definitive and which do we take with a pinch of salt as we view them through the smug-tinted glasses we view everything from our vantage point in the 21st century?  
For example, Leviticus 19:26: "Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it". Whoops.  So anyone that likes a stake medium rare or rare has broken that one.  
OK, what about Leviticus 19:27:  "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard".  If you wear a short back and sides, you've broken that one (a style Mr Bull seems to sport, along with most men in England) and it seems that a goatee is out of the question.  
The next verse says that you can't have tattoos, which is surprising if you look at the fashion amongst trendy church types at the moment; it is almost de rigueur for a trendy youth pastor to be inked up somehow, along with some blonde highlights and some age inappropriate clothing.  Check this out:
I'd love to chat with that dude about the book of Leviticus.  I'm guessing that he didn't read it all.  I doubt (but I can't be certain) that he is a mainstream Christian, but it kind of sums the problem of Leviticus up for me.
In fact, come to think of it, I might go and get a cool tattoo of Leviticus 19:28 as a symbol of my wrestle with faith.  That would be an interesting conversation point at church.
But, to be fair to Leviticus, lots of the directives make sense. 
“Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness". Fair enough.  
"Do not defraud or rob your neighbor".  Jolly good.  
"Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God". Hear hear.  
"Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material."  Eh?!  Dammit!  My clothes are all filled with sin! NO!
My point is that it is very hard to know when to stop and start following commandments in Leviticus; some of them make perfect sense and are in fact what a large proportion of our laws and human rights are modelled on.  Don't kill people.  Don't steal.  Don't slander.  Don't be an arse.
But how come we get to pick and choose?  How come we can shave our sideburns without fear of persecution but we can't allow a gay couple to stay in the same room in a guest house?  Who decides that it's probably OK for a Christian to get a cool tattoo as long as it's about how gay people are bad?  
It's an unfathomably difficult subject; according to the Bible, all of these commandments were issued by God Himself - the last verse of Leviticus 19 says "Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD." - and yet, thousands of years having passed, for some of them we seem to be able to exercise discretion based on changed standards and progress in society since the times of Moses.  
But not all of them.  Many Christians believe that gay marriage is wrong, but society as a whole believes it to be acceptable - it is protected by law in our country and the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 was supported by all the democratically elected parties in the Commons.  In the New Testament, in Romans chapter 13, it says "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God".  I think that throws yet another massive and confusing spanner in the already confounding works.  Should the Bulls even be challenging the court's decision on this?  If they do, are they going against the beliefs they are fighting for the right to have?
Man alive!  My head hurts.
I am nowhere near learned or theologically savvy enough to unpick this stuff and offer an even halfway satisfying answer to any of it.  I think what I want to say is that it is really confusing, and there is nothing more annoying to me than a Christian standing resolutely in a camp as though they are sure that they are right, that the whole, mighty weight of the Bible's righteous teaching is behind their stance.  How can one do that?  How can one cite Leviticus as a reason to turn away a gay couple from a hotel, yet have a hair cut and eat a rare steak in the same chapter of the book that says we should follow all of the commandments in the same way?
Of course I sympathise with Mr & Mrs Bull and the dilemmas they face as Christians in a secular world, but I also sympathise with the rights of Mr Hall and Mr Preddy to live their lives as they see fit and to be respected as equals by others.  At the end of the day, I consider myself to be a Christian, a follower of the teachings of Jesus.  The Sermon on the Mount (See Matthew 5 to 7 if you're interested) is the cornerstone of my faith and is how I try to live my life.  A lot of what Jesus says here is in my eyes incompatible with some of the stuff that I hear Christians saying about a lot of controversial issues (homosexuality, Islam, crime and punishment, etc.) and doesn't fit with the secular stereotype of the intolerant and judgemental Terry Jones type Christian.  
Intolerance is a no-no.  Judgement isn't allowed.  Revenge and point scoring is not good.  Showing off your piety and holiness as if it makes you better than others, well that's not on.  
But forgiveness, charity, generosity of spirit and - above all else - love are good and what God is all about.  I'm paraphrasing the Sermon with incredible ineptitude, but I hope you get the drift.  All I can hope to do, as an ignorant and fallible follower of Jesus, is hold on to His words as they're reported in Matthew and hope the rest of the stuff that I don't understand will fall together and make sense at some point.  All of which sounds wishy-washy and unsatisfying, but I think that it's important that as Christians we admit this fallibility and discuss it with each other and with non-Christians.  Not to do so will result in extremism, intolerance and a blinkered vision that history has proven over and over again to be very, very dangerous.  
I don't mean to dilute what we believe in, but I do think that we have to admit we don't always know exactly what it is we believe.  We know we follow Jesus and we believe Him to be the son of God, but after that almost everything is down to debate and discussion and is not up to us here on Earth to decide on definitively.  It's hard to look at the fragmented and split church as it stands today and even harder to read its history and then argue that we all as Christians know exactly what we're on about and what God wants us to do. The beauty of Christianity is that there is room to argue and to disagree with each other.  In the meantime, we have all to look after our own shop and try to be good.  Whatever that means.
And, finally, I would suggest if you're the kind of person who doesn't like people getting up to stuff in your house you probably shouldn't be running a hotel; if you're a vegan you probably wouldn't be advised to work in a butchers.
As Christians, we need to know that “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven".
Which, beyond giving some stuff to Oxfam from time to time, I'm clearly not going to do.