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Note: I should preface this by stating that my interest in theology is primarily an epistemic one. That is, I’m interested in how we form beliefs, and how the beliefs that we already have influence our perspective on new information. Miranda Fricker uses an example from To Kill a Mockingbird, though out her book, Epistemic Injustice, where, in the face of counter veiling evidence, the white jurors of the story simply could not let go of their notion of what it was to be a black man. Because of their prejudicial background beliefs, they could not see the truth.

In the following, I suggest that long-standing misinterpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has had a similar prejudicial effect on the way that much of Christian society views homosexuality.

When it comes it politics, in a pluralistic society, I tend to think we should leave theological arguments off the table when possible. Political issues can be divisive enough, even from a more philosophical starting point—so why throw fuel on the fire? But, with the Catholic Church in Minnesota sending out anti-same sex marriage DVD’s to every Catholic in their state it’s clear that opponents of legalizing same-sex marriage are strongly motivated by their religious ideals. Despite what I see as a distinction between marriage as a civil institution and marriage as a religious institution, I realize that, for some folks, secular arguments on this issue will never be enough.

For many, the Bible and homosexuality is a done deal with no room for even the possibility of reconsideration without simply ignoring certain Biblical passages. However, I am not so sure.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably the most recognizable biblical narrative that’s historically been used to condemn same-sex sexuality; theologians like Augustine and Luther held the view that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin was homosexuality. Because it’s a narrative—and one with fire and brimstone no less—as opposed to a mere prohibition, it seems to carry more weight in the cultural psyche. But when we look at the text itself, it’s not clear that sexual orientation had anything to do with Sodom’s sin.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story in Genesis 19, God sends two angels down to Sodom to see just how bad the city is; depending on what the angels find, God plans to destroy it. This fellow Lot (Abraham’s nephew), meets the angels at the city gate, and invites them to stay in his home for the night. Subsequently, all the men of Sodom show up at Lot’s house, and demand the angels be sent out so that they may “know” them (i.e., have sex with them). Lot pleads with the men of the city, and offers up his two virgin daughters to them instead. The wicked men of Sodom refuse Lot’s offer, and attempt to attack Lot in rage. The angels save Lot, and then warn him to take his family and run for the hills because God is going to destroy the entire city.

There are two reasons people tend to think that the men of Sodom were gay: they try to rape two men, and they turn down the offer of two women. The standard line of reasoning then goes, since God destroyed all of them gay sex must be sinful. There are a couple of serious problems with this interpretation though.

First, the men of Sodom tried to rape the two angels. They didn’t try to have consensual sex. That’s a relevant distinction. Second, God saved Lot. Lot offered up his own two daughters to be raped. If the sin was a violation of sexual ethics, and Lot was worth saving, but the men of Sodom are not, then it seems like the difference between heterosexual rape and homosexual rape is the difference between salvation and total destruction. That seems morally problematic.

The other serious problem is that there’s another story in Judges 19, it’s relevantly similar, and it just can’t be interpreted the same way people tend to look at Genesis 19. Like the story of Sodom, non-natives seek refuge for the night in a town; the non-natives are told that they should not spend the night in the town square; the non-natives are taken in by another non-native; the native townsmen surround the house and demand that a man be sent out so they can rape him; two women are offered to the crowd instead; and the crowd refuses the offer. But unlike the story of Sodom, a woman ends up getting raped anyway by the same crowd that originally wanted to rape a man.

If there’s anything Judges 19 tells us, it’s that a story, in which men intend to rape men, is not intrinsically tied to homosexuality. The threat of rape in is not motivated by sexual desire, but the desire for domination. It’s a way of saying, “We don’t want you here—and if you insist on staying, we will make it so miserable for you that you will no longer want to.”

There is another similarity in each of these stories though—and that is the “good guys” each offer shelter for the night to complete strangers ; each is an immigrant to the communities in which they reside ; and each offers up someone (presumably) valuable to themselves for the sake of protecting their (male) guest . Their hospitality is set in direct opposition to the hostility of their larger communities towards strangers.

When the men of Sodom refuse Lot’s offer of his daughters, they don’t just say no. They disparage him because he’s an immigrant in their community: “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!” Lot has usurped the social order by deigning to refuse the native class what they demand- and they want to put him in his place.

When Lot is the “good guy” of the story, and the men of Sodom are the “bad guys,” might we understand it better in terms of immigration policy than same-sex marriage? Should those who want to take scripture seriously and apply it to their lives be thinking of this in terms of Arizona’s new immigration law rather than in terms of marriage? Is it possible that a long-standing misinterpretation has prejudicially influenced people who take Genesis as part of their scripture? I the text gives us good reason to think so.

And now, just for fun:

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Ok, so obviously the Last Airbender movie has already come out in theaters, but I said I would do a post so here it is. A friend and I wrote this up to post on facebook before the movie came out, and I just never got around to posting it here as well.

For those of you not familiar with the upcoming film, The Last Airbender, it is based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The cartoon’s characters are Asian and Inuit, and the setting, while fantasy, is unequivocally Asian (e.g., the characters fight using martial arts, they dress in clothing traditional to a variety of Asian cultures, there are multiple references to Buddhist beliefs, as well as those of other East Asian religions, the architecture throughout the cartoon resembles East Asian architecture, etc.).

Despite these facts, three of the four main characters in the film version have been cast as white. Regarding the fourth, not only is the only non-white actor a replacement for the very white Jesse McCartney who was originally cast (but had to drop out of the film due to scheduling conflicts), he also plays a villain. One of the actors, when asked about the controversy said that when he pulled his hair back in a pony tail and “gets a tan” he hopes that people just won’t think it’s that big of a deal anymore.

Here’s the deal: we believe that taking a movie that would have been a prime opportunity to cast people of color in the lead roles, and “white-washing” it, is a symptom of racism (whether conscious or institutional) and we’re just not down with that.

Below are some of the common arguments for why casting mainly white actors/actresses is not racist, and our responses:

They weren’t trying to be racist- they just wanted to “Americanize” the film.

First, despite the Asian setting, the cartoon is American. It airs on an American channel. The fact that it was successful enough to be made into a movie should be evidence enough that Americanizing it is a redundant concept. But further, the notion that casting white actors/actresses is “Americanizing” is just a coded way of saying American=White. That’s racist.

The cartoon characters have specific eye colors you usually don’t see in Asians, that’s why they needed to cast white actors/actresses.

Color Contacts. Enough Said.

There just aren’t very many talented Asian actors/actresses; that’s why they ended up casting white people.

First, the casting call for the roles read “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” The wording of the casting call itself is suggestive of a racial preference (other casting calls have historically just said “Any ethnicity” if there actually were no preference) – why not “Asian or any other ethnicity”? Second, the white people they cast don’t have a lot of experience (this is the first film for Noah Ringer, who plays the main character). Anyone seen Twilight? Jackson Rathbone didn’t exactly get rave reviews for his role in that, yet he landed a role in this movie. We just don’t buy that these actors/actresses are better than every Asian actor/actress available. Third, when Hollywood has come under criticism for not casting people of color in the past, the response has generally been that there just aren’t enough roles that people of color can be cast in. It’s one or the other- either there aren’t enough people or there aren’t enough roles- it can’t be both.

I never really thought of the cartoon as being “Asian”- the main character looks white.

Not all Asian people look the same. If you take the context of the cartoon into consideration (e.g. the dress, the food, the writing, the architecture, and the philosophical and religious elements) it just seems pretty absurd to say that Aang was meant to be a white character. For more see this YouTube video that contrasts images from the cartoon, with Asian and Inuit images.

Kick out the old folks?

Are early retirement incentive programs ageist? I know they can be useful for companies to save money in times of financial trouble, and can increase turn over, which can be helpful for new people entering the job market, but it does seem like it might be ageist on two counts:

1. Older people may be pressured to retire before they really want to; it sends a not-so-positive message about older employee contributions when they are essentially being paid to quit working; for people who do not take an ERI option, the resulting work environment may be less friendly towards people their own age simply in virtue of there being less of them.

2. It may be a way of taking advantage of younger people- getting them to do the same work that people who retire did, but for far less pay.

It seems to me, that both pay and employment ought to be contigent on performance, rather than age.

Despite, these realizations, (which, as Feminist Philosophers pointed out here, seem like they shouldn’t be realizations for an institution that claims to have moral authority), that the Catholic Church needs to avoid defensiveness over the sex abuse scandal, it seems like there is actually quite a bit of defensiveness going on.

We have Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, saying that the sex abuse in the Church is a “homosexual crisis.”

We have facebook events dedicated to getting people to change their statuses to show solidarity with the pope against “unfair attacks.”*

And, we have an Archbishop who writes this:

“A study undertaken by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice reported last November that the height of reported sexual abuse cases by priests occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. This clergy abuse was concurrent with the so-called ‘sexual revolution,’ resulting in a high incidence of sexual promiscuity, divorce and drug use within our culture.”

I don’t understand his association of the abuse with the time of the “sexual revolution.” Abuse is not analogous to consensual sex or liberal views of sexuality. Abuse is abuse. It’s about domination and power. I’m not certain how the divorce rate is relevant either, because divorce rates have risen to be sure, but maybe, just maybe, this is because women’s equality has risen and there is now less pressure to stay in a terrible marriage just because getting married and staying married is “what women do.”

Of course, he does say that he’s not offering context to exonerate anyone, but offering context is still a form of excuse- it’s saying, “Well, I know what I did was wrong, but it’s less wrong than it seems.”

*Clarification: I have no idea if the attacks are unfair or not, and I don’t think saying they are unfair is, in and of itself, being defensive. However, I do think saying they are unfair before we know if they are fair or not, or assuming any attack against the pope is unfair just because he is the pope, is being defensive.

Terminology and Abortion

I recently read Epistemic Injustice by Miranda Fricker, and it got me thinking about terminology in politics– the way we use certain phrases, terms, or arguments to establish credibility or diminish the credibility of others. I think, though, that we also use terminology to establish or diminish the credibility of ideas themselves, and not just of individuals putting forth ideas, e.g., calling health care “socialism,” or terming tea-partiers “tea-baggers.”

Recently we saw that support for gays and lesbians in the military drops when they are referred to as “homosexual” rather than “gay or lesbian.”

Which leads me to a conversation I had recently, with a woman who kept referring to pro-choicers as “pro-abortion.” Similar rhetoric surrounded the controversy of Obama giving a commencement speech at Notre Dame. While this might not be particularly popular with my fellow liberals, I think we need to stop using the term “anti-choice.” The thing is, I don’t like being referred to as “pro-abortion” because I’m not. I don’t think that term adequately reflects the nuance of my position on the issue. But, regardless of accuracy, the abortion debate is divisive enough without fighting over what to call each other. If we don’t want to be called “pro-abortion” (and I don’t) then I don’t think we ought to call pro-lifers “anti-choice.”

I think when we use terms to manipulate the debate, or to debase others, we’re really lowering the level of discourse. And the abortion debate doesn’t need to go any lower. If we can’t even respect what each side wants to be called, how can we respect each other enough to have a real conversation or come up with real solutions?

Maybe I’m just naive, but I think pro-lifers and pro-choicers can (and should) work together to minimize the number of abortions that happen. Ultimately, whether it’s financial reasons, lack of sexual education, social stigma (of being a single pregnant woman, pressure to adhere to beauty ideals, etc.), health risks resulting from lack of medical care, or just plain fear- there are external factors that can play into a woman’s decision to abort, and those are factors that we can do something about. It’s a divisive issue, but there’s a lot of common ground that tends to get overlooked.

There’s probably people on both sides who think that meeting in the middle will compromise their values; but from a pro-choice perspective, these issues are fundamentally issues of equality and justice for women- and if external factors largely determine a woman’s choice, then it’s not really a choice at all. From a pro-life perspective, again, equality and justice, not to mention actually preventing abortions. If we work together we’ll be much more successful in these respects.

Here’s some good advice from a sidewalk!