Race, Sexuality, and Cultural Conformity

Yet again the church is being chided over its stance on human sexuality. We’re told that we need to keep up with the times or risk being lost to history. The culture has shifted on such matters, and, if we don’t make our own move in the same direction, we’ll find ourselves left behind. It is said that as society has evolved and progressed on several moral issues, it’s important for Christians to work now to see to it that we don’t end up on the wrong side of history.

Well, history can teach us many things. For one, we learn from studying the past that even as cultural trends shift over time from one thing to another and yesterday’s absolute certainty becomes tomorrow’s laughable contention, God’s word will endure even as societal mores ebb and flow.

This truth is quite apparent in our recent cultural dialogues about sex and gender. One of the most effective arguments used in recent years to promote the normalization of LGBTQ is to link it to the broader march of liberty. That is, rather than speak about it as a case of accepting unusual sexual practices, the reasoning goes that this is just the latest in the quest for human rights following in line with abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement.

This is a hard perspective to challenge. Who among us wants to oppose the expansion of freedom? This is America, for crying out loud! It obviously appeals to the more left-leaning set of our fellow citizens whose focus on progress, as such, is a defining criterion. We are on a quest to move from the darkness into the light, and this is, apparently, just one more step on that journey.

Even for the more right-leaning among us, this makes for a compelling thought. Yes, conservatives do tend to emphasize the received wisdom of the past and its traditional morality, and they self-identify as being “tough” enough to face hard-edged life compared to passing preferences. But, there is a strong libertarian strain within many conservative hearts that is loath to contradict the individual conscience.

One of the most potent ways we see this trend is when people point to the shift in attitudes in society regarding race relations. Where once it was quite common for the culture to see segregation as “natural” and for church leaders to use the Bible to reinforce this perception as godly, such a position has been, happily, pushed to the fringes of polite society. We then ask ourselves if we were wrong on race, is it not possible to conclude that we were wrong on sexuality, too?

After all, few publicly endorse the sort of white supremacy nonsense that was once the coin of the cultural realm, and we rightly long to see the remnants of its legacy assigned to the dustbin of history. Therefore, since many people’s objection to homosexuality had as much to do with a social construct as any Scriptural contention, doesn’t it follow that, just as we’ve rebuked our prejudice against ethnic minorities, we should now embrace the (newly minted) sexual minorities, as well? That’s a good question, but fortunately we’ve got a good answer.

Let’s not soft-pedal the issue. Our civilization grossly sinned when it came to its treatment of the various branches of our Adamic family tree. Think back to how churches and popular culture portrayed race relations. There are a lot of key metrics for this, but consider the perceptions of interracial marriage. It was, sadly, all too common to find people in decades past who thought it perfectly obvious that races shouldn’t live together, certainly they shouldn’t literally live together as man and wife.

One group lived on “this” side of the tracks, and the other lived on the “wrong” side, and only rarely were the twain to meet. While their 19th century predecessors spoke of African Americans as inherently less-than, their 20th century heirs were more circumspect about it, noting that it wasn’t a matter of better or worse but simply “different.” Birds of a feather, and all that. Prejudice was disguised as mere preference as communities and churches praised themselves for their enlightened views and practices.

This was more than a detached ideal. President Truman’s integration of the U.S. military was strongly opposed by many who found it unthinkable, African Americans who sought to move into white neighborhoods were met with resistance, to put it mildly, and the animosity of so many whites to the opening of public spaces to all ethnicities has become indelibly iconic for the tension of the era.

Somewhat counterintuitively, one of the most egregious examples of this moral failing is the one where we’ve seen some of the greatest improvement. For many people, the idea of interracial dating and marriage was so obviously wrong that even to consider it was anathema. Some even went so far as to argue that this was dangerously unnatural and that any child born of parents of two races would be disabled in some way. Just as it was plain that fish live in the sea and birds in the air, it was an all too unquestioned belief that different races belonged in different places.

While this formed some delightful dramatic tension for musicals like “West Side Story” and “South Pacific” and comedies like “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner,” for many people, this was anything but entertaining. We need look no further than the despicable murder of Emmett Till and and the court travails in Loving vs. Virginia to see how sinfully seriously this so-called miscegenation was taken, at least among equals, that is. It was viscerally repellent for far too many that a man of one race would be wed to a woman of another.

There is certainly a long way to go on this, but we’ve just as certainly come a good distance in the right direction here. Where once the prospect of an interracial couple in a public setting was cause for alarm, it now seems that every other TV commercial has a happy mixed-race family advertising the product of the day.

Thankfully, this is more than an artifact of Madison Avenue’s imaginations. The numbers of multiethnic pairings and children has grown dramatically in recent years as the extended race of Adam is recognizing its core unity. The revulsion which once dominated culture’s view of interracial marriages is thankfully fading into obscurity.

This shift in cultural impressions regarding interracial marriages reflects the Bible’s own view of inter-ethnic relations. Despite what your average Joe would have thought in the past and what fringe groups like the Kinists maintain today, there’s nothing in God’s word to oppose people of different backgrounds joining in holy matrimony.

What does the Bible say about interracial relationships? Not much. At least there’s not much in the way that would support the such a separation of the races. Frankly, the Bible rarely addresses people’s ethnicity. It simply wasn’t as big a deal in the ancient world. Cultural and religious differences, yes, but obvious and superficial characteristics that we use to divide one another were nearly irrelevant.

The passages which seem at first to support racial segregation turn out to be nothing of the sort. You’ve got Abraham’s and Rebekah’s desire that their respective sons not marry a local woman. There are the various Mosaic laws prohibiting marriage with neighboring nations and condemnations for Israelite kings for such entangling alliances. Then you’ve got the condemnations in Ezra and Nehemiah for the Jews who’d married pagans upon return from the Exile.

But, when you examine the context, you’ll find that these calls for separation had nothing to do with race but morality and religion. After all, the genetic differences between the excluded Canaanites and the prized Israelites were negligible. What’s more, in the cases of Rahab, Ruth, and possibly Bathsheba, you have non-Israelites found not only in admirable conjugal relationships but even in the ancestry of Christ. The absurd contention that God created the races as fundamentally different and opposes any mixing of ethnicities relies on 18th and 19th century fantasies rather than any biblical mandate.

So, if it was nothing but the “ick” factor in the case of race, a personal and cultural bias rather than formalized theological principle, is it not possible that the same individual and social revulsion drove earlier people and the church to reject the morality of LGBTQ? If people were against both things because they thought they were simply “gross,” couldn’t it be that our doctrinal objections in each case are equally unfounded? As culturally comforting, and conforming, as it would be to slide down this slippery slope, there’s far less basis in this idea than our current cultural elites would prefer.

It’s definitely true that in many cases, people’s views on race and sexuality were, and all too often are, nothing more than a societal bias of essentially shallow origins. However, as C. S. Lewis has told us in his analogy of “Horrid Red Things,” a child’s understanding of the universe may be woefully insufficient and quite wrong in many places, but, it does not follow that her prescriptions about the cosmos are necessarily in error in every way or about every situation.

We can be wrong for the wrong reasons, but we can also be right for the wrong reasons. To suggest otherwise is to commit a logical fallacy by assuming that a faulty messenger entails an errant message. Think of it like this. If I give to the poor or provide for my family out of vanity for how it makes others praise me or the sense of self-satisfaction it engenders in my own heart, I’m doing so out of a wrong motivation. But this hardly means that I should stop being generous or responsible with my labors.

Now, inevitably these corrupted catalysts will cause our actions to be flawed as a result. If I give to the poor only to satisfy my own ego, then I will only give insofar as my efforts fulfill my desires, not their needs. If I oppose homosexuality only to follow a cultural creed, then I will degrade the image of God in one no more guilty of sin than I. The problem in these cases is not that my goals were wrong but that I was seeking them for the wrong reasons.

What I need to do in such instances is the same as what the church and society need to do, work to bring our motivations and priorities more and more in line with God’s self-revelation in the Bible. In this way we can continue walk along the path set out for us by God and avoid the road that surrounding society would prefer us to follow.

Those who have argued for a racially segregated Christianity have only been able to do so by ripping Scripture from its context and intent to make it conform to their societal and personal biases. Those who now would embrace the morality of LGBTQ can only do so by ignoring that same Bible in favor our cultural preferences. The failing in each is the same.

Rather than being twin examples of the need for the church to evolve on moral issues to keep up with culture and history, questions of race and sexuality demonstrate the importance of looking to the word of God rather than the whispers of our neighbors in seeking moral clarity. Our calling as Christians is to be no longer conformed to the pattern of this world, allowing our cultural and individual preferences to guide us in our moral quests, but, instead, to have our worldview perpetually informed and driven by the revealed will of God.


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