Is the Society of Biblical Literature Trying to Foist on
Its Members a One-Sided Political Agenda?
By ROBERT A. J. GAGNON, Ph.D.
Jan. 13, 2005
Some members of the Society of Biblical
Literature are apparently very unhappy with the "values vote" of the last
Presidential election. The Executive Council of the Society sent an email
to all Society members today, through the Executive Director, Prof. Kent
Richards, informing them of a "resolution" that "circulated at the San
Antonio Annual Meeting," about which "Council determined that it would be
beneficial to survey all members." The email requests that members respond
before January 25 and supplies a link to the resolution and survey. At the link members can click on whether they
agree or disagree with the resolution and provide comments.
The resolution states categorically that "the
issues of gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research . . . . are not
major concerns in the Bible, and in fact are not even directly addressed
in the Bible." (Really? Stem cell research is not directly addressed in
the Bible? Who knew?) They add that values opposing gay marriage,
abortion, and stem cell research "tend to reflect the underlying problems
of homophobia, misogyny, control of reproductive rights, and restraint of
expression (including scientific research) in U.S. society today."
What this means is that if you oppose gay
marriage you are, according to the Executive Council of the Society of
Biblical Literature, a homophobe and probably a misogynist too. You cannot
possibly be concerned about the unhealthy dynamics of being sexually
aroused by, and attempting to merge with, what one already is and shares
as a sexual being, male for male, female for female. Nor can you have any
legitimate concerns for the effects on marriage and young people that a
full-court press for endorsement of homosexual behavior might bring. Nor
do you have a clue about what the biblical text says. If you oppose
abortion (apparently, at any time and for any reason) you are a misogynist
who is simply out to control a woman's reproductive rights. You have no
concern for the protection of helpless, unborn human life. And if you
oppose stem cell research you are a restrainer of free expression and
scientific research who couldn't possibly have any valid moral questions
about limited benefits from stem cell research versus promoting a culture
of death. Never mind that in promoting such a resolution the Executive
Council is itself seeking to restrain freedom of expression and thought in
its own circles through name calling of those with whom they disagree.
The resolution states that "the
moral issues dominating the biblical texts focus instead on concerns such
as the well-being of individuals, the integrity of community, care for the
powerless and the vulnerable, economic justice, the establishment of
peace, and the stewardship of the environment." Accordingly: "The Society
of Biblical Literature urges citizens and political agencies to direct
their energies toward securing these goals and values of well-being and
responsibility." But what if you are a society member who believes that
"well-being and responsibility" suggest, rather, that we should strongly
uphold the foundational requirement of sexual differentiation in marriage
and the rights of the vulnerable unborn human child?
No one in the Society of Biblical Literature
has refuted my exegesis of the Bible's witness on homosexual practice, or
the hermeneutical arguments that I have brought forward. And yet now
members of the Society of Biblical Literature, without providing such a
refutation, are going to assert categorically, by waving a magical wand,
that not a single author of Scripture would have thought homosexual
practice to be a particularly big problem? Even as a survey, the attempt
is borne of both ignorance and arrogance. It is, in a word, outrageous.
In what follows I include a response sent by
me, a response by one of my colleagues in New Testament, Prof. Edith
Humphrey, and the full text of the resolution.
To the Executive Council of the
Society of Biblical Literature,
The resolution that you have produced
certainly does not represent my views and, at a number of points, flatly
misrepresents the biblical witness. To suggest that the Bible shows no
great concern for an other-sex prerequisite in marriage demonstrates a
profound ignorance of the biblical witness especially as regards literary
and historical context matters. The evidence is put forward across 500
pages in my book The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and
Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press, 2001) and in other works (for which see
www.robgagnon.net). You might as well argue that a nonincestuous
prerequisite that eliminates even mutually committed sexual relationships
between a man and his mother was a "minor concern" of the Bible insofar as
it is rarely mentioned in Scripture and can be considered an expression of
love. So far as extant evidence indicates, every author of Scripture, and
Jesus, would have been appalled by homoerotic behavior, irrespective of
consent and commitment. There are, from a biblical perspective, important
structural requirements for sexual unions. Indeed, Jesus' whole view of
monogamy, the importance of "twoness" becoming one, is predicated on the
complementary binary character of human sexuality, in which the two sexual
halves reunite to form an integrated sexual whole.
Moreover, to indicate that there is
nothing in the Bible that expresses God's concern for unborn children is
also blatantly false. Here the evidence is more inferential than it is for
the case against homosexual practice but it is nevertheless enough to
suggest a grave moral problem with the killing of powerless human life.
Of course, issues such as helping the
poor, peace, and stewardship of the environment are also important. But to
say that such issues were major matters for the authors of Scripture and
Jesus in contrast to the allegedly minor matters of retaining an
other-sex prerequisite for marriage and opposing the taking of innocent
human life is nothing less than a lie. It is clear that the authors of the
resolution want to say that "homophobia" and "reproductive rights" are
valid grounds for choosing whom to vote for, while denying to any who are
opposed to homosexual practice and abortion the right to consider them
As regards the peace issue, not
everyone in the Society of Biblical Literature will turn a blind eye to
the gross injustices of Iraq's former regime or its potential to be a
long-term threat to international security. Not everyone will rush to the
judgment that the government that emerges years hence from the Iraq War
will be little better than its predecessor. Some will say, "The jury is
still out." Many SBL members see this issue as more complicated than do
the authors of this resolution.
If individual members of the Society
of Biblical Literature want to promote the misguided views put forward in
this resolution, they are welcome to do so. But don't put the full force
of an organization that I belong to behind it.
Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of
Here is the response of my colleague Dr.
I am dismayed that some members of the SBL think that
they can call on such a diverse body to endorse a position that they must
realize will tar a considerable number of their members with slurs like
"homophobic," "misogynistic" and "controlling." Would a resolution from
those who oppose gay marriage, free abortion, and the like have even been
considered in terms of a general mailing and requested vote?! Although I
imagine that the resolution will pass by a majority, its being made public
as "the opinion of the SBL" would be a triumph of an ideological hegemony
which pretends to be inclusive. There are various ways to "restrain
expression." Shaming and naming-calling those with whom one disagrees,
through the dubious means of this resolution, is just one of them. Let the
SBL stay as it is -- a weird and wonderful collection of folks who study
the Bible for various reasons. Totalizing language like this destroys any
hope of free discussion and dialogue.
Edith M. Humphrey
Associate Professor of New Testament Studies
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Here is the full text of the resolution:
The United States
election of 2004 witnessed the emergence of “values,” often referred to as
“Christian values” or “biblical values,” as key political issues. The
“values” most commonly identified in public debates were the issues of gay
marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research.
The Society of Biblical Literature, which is the largest international,
professional association of teachers and scholars of the Bible, calls
attention to the fact that the “values” so prominently and divisively
raised in this 2004 U.S. election are not major concerns in the Bible, and
in fact are not even directly addressed in the Bible. Rather, they tend to
reflect the underlying problems of homophobia, misogyny, control of
reproductive rights, and restraint of expression (including scientific
research) in U.S. society today.
With over 7,000 members representing a broad range of political and
religious leanings, the Society of Biblical Literature has fostered
discussions of such fundamental problems against the background of
biblical ethics and respect for all human beings. As many of our members
have indicated in publications and lectures, the moral issues dominating
the biblical texts focus instead on concerns such as the well-being of
individuals, the integrity of community, care for the powerless and the
vulnerable, economic justice, the establishment of peace, and the
stewardship of the environment.
The Society of Biblical Literature urges citizens and political agencies
to direct their energies toward securing these goals and values of
well-being and responsibility.
© 2005 Robert A. J. Gagnon