Some of you may have heard about the recent push to reverse the decision to honor Dr. Charles Stanley at JNF Southeast for his anti-gay preaching. I want to share my reasons for supporting SOJOURN in this push, and explain my understanding of text interpretation and community leadership as it applies to Dr. Stanley’s position on homosexuality.
When I first shared my support of SOJOURN, a friend of mine challenged my stance with what I see as an instinct to protect religious freedom and interpretation. When considering Dr. Stanley’s statements on homosexuality, he asked:
“Is this a case of freedom of religious? Dr. Stanley is quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which clearly states that that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God. He is dedicated to speaking the word of the Bible, so is he obligated to promote biblical anti-gay claims?”
I took a minute to explore the implications of this approach. Does the biblical literalist argument actually legitimize someone’s discriminatory statement? Well let me ask you this: would Dr. Stanley encourage one to beat one's children (Proverbs 23:13) or stone an adulterer (Leviticus 20:10) or promote various other harmful verses in the Bible? Clearly this isn't wasn’t about what the Bible says — it is about Dr. Stanley’s own agenda and sense of what is moral behavior, and he uses the Bible to support that. We all interpret religious text shaped by our own beliefs, fears, and motivations for what we want the world to look like. This necessarily means picking and choosing what verses we focus on and how we enforce them. Dr. Stanley interprets the Bible through a homophobic lens, and teaches others to do the same.
The religious leaders I admire and support interpret text based on the evolving morality of civilization and the needs of their community. They bring out the insightful, accepting, ethical elements of the tradition and use them to guide us through life. If someone asks me or those who represent my community to honor a religious leader not living up to that standard, I must object, because it goes against my sense of morality and the broader social good.
If you watch this video of Dr. Stanley responding to concerned parents about their gay son, you will see that Dr. Stanley is promoting false science — he claims that we can make gay people not be gay through counseling! That is a dangerous assertion which denies the validity of an entire population. Not to mention the fact that parents who follow Dr. Stanley, like the ones in the video, are trying to manipulate, pressure and reprogram their children to deny a core piece of who they are. I am sure you can imagine how damaging that is to one's sense of self and hope of future happiness in relationship and family. In a beautiful open letter, Leanne Rubestein, president of SOJOURN, presents the harmful implications of this on mental health, include higher rates of suicide and drug abuse.
That said, I wouldn’t show up at Dr. Stanley’s church and start raving about homosexuality. People choose to follow him despite his bigotry, and they have the freedom of religion to do that. But in no way does that mean my Jewish community should honor him because of his support of Israel. To me, that makes a public statement that money flowing towards Israel trumps freedom of sexuality and the right to be ourselves. Clearly we should encourage support of Israel, but that doesn’t mean we can compromise the dignity of part of our community — and of the global community — because of that one issue.
Also consider this: there is a lot of textual support in the New Testament for Jews to convert to Christianity. Yet we would never honor a preacher who publicly proselytizes to Jews and makes public videos of why they should convert. Why then would we do so when homosexuality is under attack?
Jews can be a light unto the nations, and that means making difficult statements about what is right and wrong. Denying the legitimacy of homosexuality is just wrong. There is a clear civil rights progression towards equal rights for gay people, and I firmly believe that Jews should be behind this full force. I encourage each of us to point a critical eye to what Dr. Stanley promotes — the dominant religious culture of this country which accepts unquestioningly the immoral and outdated fundamentalist view of homosexuality. And at the same time, we must consider the best way to assert our ethics respectfully and compassionately, inviting those who disagree into dialogue and conversation.
This Shabbat, I invite you to consider what spiritual responsibility we have to protect the minorities among us. Jews are committed to the sacred act of tikkun olam, of repairing our world, by working toward freedom and equality for all. Considering signing this petition to reverse JNF's decision. Take a moment at your dinner table to consider what implications this for how we live our lives, what we speak out against, and what we remain silent about. Through self-examination, we can encourage our flames to burn brighter and spread our light across our nation and our world.