Reframing Heterosexist Rhetoric: Playing Offense Instead of Defense

Christian arguments about LGBTQ issues follow a pretty rigid rhetorical structure, and you can probably lip-synch to most of them. Too often, Christians in favor of full inclusion or marriage equality wind up playing defense with scripture, letting their opponents rattle off a series of proof texts while they scramble to offer one alternative interpretation after another. It’s like playing rhetorical Whac-a-Mole! There are some very good ways to play defense (I recommend both Mark Sandlin’s Clobbering Biblical Gay-Bashing and Matthew Vines’ moving sermon on the topic), but in order to shift the conversation, you have to play offense. This is part of what I was attempting to do by writing God Shows No Partiality: to offer biblical rhetoric to people who often abdicate the Bible to literalists and fundamentalists.

Classical education involved the study of rhetoric—an education which we desperately need today.

I apologize, in advance, that rhetorical metaphors often use combat and sports metaphors. In ideal world, we would have conversations around an open table where every voice is equal. But the very definition of rhetoric recognizes that language is always connected to power and privilege, and that there are social dynamics hiding beneath the things we say (and do not say). (The word “dynamics” comes from the Greek word for “power.”)

Any given debate is an attempt to control or shape a public narrative. This applies to everything from formal arguments in a court of law to the most juvenile trolling comments on the internet. Discussions among equals happen when we share power in shaping the narrative; we may disagree about some things, and we may advance certain arguments, but ultimately we’re cooperating in telling a story about the way the world is. Debates happen when we wrestle for control of the story.

If you read through the comments on my previous post, How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking About Homosexuality, you’ll see that commenters who disagree with me seldom spend much time addressing the scriptures I cite, or my comparison of anti-gay attitudes to the parallels with the anti-Gentile attitudes in the gospels and Acts. This is because they believe they control they narrative, or frame, of the biblical argument on this issue, and addressing the points I am actually making would give me control of the narrative.

So, in the spirit of playing offense, here are some questions for dialogical opponents, along with scriptural references. I offer these not because they are definitive or exhaustive, but simply to illustrate how to reframe and refocus an argument. I will also say that I deploy these kinds of questions only when it’s clear that we’re not actually having a discussion, but instead wrestling for control of a narrative:

  1. How is your objection to homosexuality different than the Christian Pharisees who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised? How is it different than their insistence that Gentiles follow Jewish dietary laws? (Acts 10, 15)
  2. Which is more difficult: changing one’s sexual orientation or cutting off one’s foreskin? Which is more difficult: changing who you love or refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols?
  3. Paul describes women with short hair as being “against nature” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). He also says that Gentiles being grafted on to Israel’s tree is “contrary to nature” (Romans 11:24) This is the same word he uses in Romans 1:26. Is being “contrary to nature” a bad thing? Is a woman having short hair worse than, better than, or equivalent to homosexuality? What about a man with long hair?
  4. What does Jesus mean when he says that the Pharisees “lock people out of the Kingdom?” (Matthew 23:13). How did they go about doing so, or what does this phrase mean? Does anyone “lock people out of the kingdom” today, or was it just something that happened then? Who does it today?
  5. What does Jesus mean when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:29-30)? Was he only talking to Jewish people? Is your opposition to committed same-gender relationships increasing or decreasing a religious burden on people? How would Jesus talk about requiring something of someone else, like celibacy, that you don’t do yourself (Matthew 23)?
  6. Jesus complained that the Pharisees were more concerned with what goes into a person than what comes out of them (Matthew 15:10-20). How is your concern with homosexuality different than their concern with unkosher food? What makes someone pure: the food that they turn into poop, or the language that comes out of them? What makes someone pure: where they put their genitals, or how they talk to other people?

I find that, in general, questions are more powerful than statements. Questions can be open and welcoming, inviting further discussion. But questions can also be power plays that people use to draw you into their way of framing an issue. I have also found that simply exposing the rhetoric operating in any given argument helps to shift people from debates toward discussions—it makes us into equals again. “How do you interpret [such-and-such a scripture]” can be met with, in a non-antagonistic way, “Do you really want to know how I interpret that scripture, or are you just offering it as a proof text?”

One commenter cited scriptures prohibiting sexual immorality, as though we had already established that same-gender romantic love was a sin. At best, this is begging the question (assuming the conclusion), a simple logical fallacy. But the goal of citing those scriptures is to shame one’s debate opponent instead of actually engaging the argument. By arguing for inclusion, I become an enemy of God and false teacher, promoting sexual immorality. Which might be true—if I’m wrong. But if I’m right, advocates of exclusion become the Pharisees of Matthew 23, “locking people out of the Kingdom of God.” Now we have a different way of looking at what’s going on.

This will sometimes be met with complaints that “You’re being just as X as the other side.” This, too, is sly, shaming rhetoric. I am sure that Paul’s opponents in Corinth and Rome also accused him of being “divisive” and “judgmental.” It is also an attempt, by so-called  neutral Christians, to capture the moral high ground, to claim a pastoral and more Jesus-like perspective. In the debates between those who say “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos,” they sanctimoniously claim, “Well, I follow Christ.” This is an attempt to assume the position of referee or commentator while pretending you aren’t actually playing the game. In my own experience, they are the bossiest kids on the playground, and they usually side with the bullies.

Jesus had a knack for seeing through questions to the narrative and rhetorical tricks behind them (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 12:18-34). While he probably had divine insight into people’s hearts, he also lived in an age where rhetoric was part of a typical education, and he had such a firm sense of his purpose and his mission that he couldn’t be drawn into someone else’s narrative.

If someone actually wants to discuss how the Bible is an inspired document, or how to interpret various texts, or how Christians should think about the authority of scripture, I am more than happy to discuss any of those things—as equals. But if we’re just going to compete over who controls the narrative, and which of us is doing what by speaking, I’m going to play offense, not merely defense.

5 thoughts on “Reframing Heterosexist Rhetoric: Playing Offense Instead of Defense

  1. What is sin and who gets to define it? What does it mean to be saved? From what? What part does repentance play in salvation? What is your understanding of repentance? Can anyone be saved without repentance?

    • If I might offer a response before Dave gets around to it, I would observe that those are all great questions, Roger. And each of us must answer them for ourselves – and we all do. Even if we adopt someone else’s answers, we end up living by whatever answers we give – or not, since we are not always faithful to those things to which we aspire, are we? Ultimately, we must fall back on the knowledge, according to Paul in Romans 8, that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and therefore, we must all come humbly before the throne of grace – each day of our lives and after our lives on earth are finished – seeking the mercy that God makes available to us. Doing so with some regularity actually shapes us into the kind of people God intended us to be from the foundation of the world – lovers of God and of our neighbors as ourselves.

      • I read your response, but noticed the answers to my questions were conspicuous by their absence. The reference you mentioned was Paul speaking to and about God’s elect and I wholeheartedly agree. However I think you must also agree that while God does love all of us, He is nonetheless infinitely holy and therefore cannot abide sinful man without the atoning blood of Jesus. My questions still remain…

  2. Hi Dave,
    I just came upon your blog this morning and didn’t have time to read more than your entry “How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality” and a few of the comments. I plan to take more time to read through your other blog posts. However, just a couple of quick thoughts regarding scripture.
    First, though there is mention of what many call “homosexual activity” in Leviticus 18 and 20, when viewed in context, the issue is clearly not a condemnation of “homosexual conduct” apart from other types of conduct but, instead, homosexual abuse in the context of other types of abuse, all of it based on the abuse of power of the head of a family by subjecting other dependents to his desire to confirm his power over them through sexual means. This relates to stories from history and modern times that speak of the soldiers of conquering armies seeking to solidify the message of their subjection of the conquered peoples through raping them – particularly the women, but not neglecting the men, when necessary. It also relates to prison rape, where it is purely a power play and has nothing to do with love or mutuality. This is exactly the same issue in Genesis 19, where the men of the city – who are clearly not “gay”, since it says that all of them surround Lot’s house, and we already know that Lot’s daughters are betrothed to two of them – demand to “know” Lot’s visitors, making it clear that they first, wanted to see if the two visitors meant Sodom harm and, second, to give them a foretaste of what would happen to them if they tried to bring harm to them or their city. In short, because interpreters of these passages are so uptight about sex, they focus on the sexual element of the stories rather than the true issue, which is the abuse of power rather than the recognition of equality under God and the call to love one’s neighbor, a basic element of the Law, at least according to the Law of Moses and Jesus’ interpretation of it.
    Second, the Sodom story also brings up the issue of hospitality, the necessity of the showing of which scholars tell us was absolute in ancient times. I used to think basing the accusation against the Sodomites on the necessity for showing hospitality was a very weak argument to make as a claim of the nature of the “sin of Sodom” as compared to the accusation of homosexual rape. However, it has since come to me that the acts of God in Genesis 1, showing not only that God was Creator but also that God used God’s creative power as a means of establishing a hospitable place for living things, particularly the living thing that would carry God’s image. If God’s premier act of creation was the establishment of hospitality for both saint and sinner, then at least a principal aim of people who claim to be made in the divine image is rightly to create a hospitable place in one’s own sphere of influence in which others feel “at home, safe, well-cared for, finding their needs met before they even know to ask” (my phraseology, not a quote). What transpires after our having established this welcoming atmosphere is undetermined, but it cannot rightly be inconsistent with this; i.e., it must be gracious, as God is consistently gracious to good and bad alike.
    From the little I have read of your work, I believe you have done and are continuing to do that. Thank you for listening to God’s gracious Spirit and for extending that grace to others.
    Douglas Asbury
    Pastor, Riverside (IL) UMC

    • Pastor Asbury, in this post, Dave writes disparagingly of what he calls “shaming rhetoric”. It’s not a criticism I hear often, but I see value in his identification of this.

      So when I read your words that “… because interpreters of these passages are so uptight about sex, they focus on the sexual element of the stories rather than the true issue, which is the abuse of power rather than the recognition of equality under God and the call to love one’s neighbor …”, the phrase ‘shaming rhetoric’ rung in my ears. Have you thought about whether you using shaming rhetoric here? You appear to apply this comment to Lev. 18 and 20 and to Gen. 19. Granted, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not simply about sex, so you have a good point there. But Leviticus 18 and 20? How can one discuss those chapters in a balanced way without focusing on sex? In the NIV translation of Lev. 18, fully 16 of the 30 verses include the word ‘sexual’. In the NIV translation of Lev. 20, 9 of the 27 verses include the word ‘sexual’. For someone to reflect on those chapters without focusing on sex, would leave me wondering whether they have missed the point!

      Sure sex gets us mortals into trouble and the New Testament strongly cautions Christians to control and channel their sexual passions in appropriate directions. But there is nothing shameful or inherently uptight about sometimes recognising and indeed focusing on what the Bible says about sex.

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