You remember the set-up for the old story. A single joke-book circulates in a prison. Since everyone knows it by heart, there’s no need the recite the whole joke. Prisoners can just call out the joke’s number to provoke raucous laughter. Or not—because some people just can’t tell a joke.
Some days I wonder whether we shouldn’t adopt a similar system for church arguments about homosexuality. Not the raucous laughter (though there are plenty of causes for it), but the numbering. Instead of reciting the familiar arguments once again, we could simply call out the numbers to cue support from those on our side. Number 1 could be “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Number 2: “God doesn’t discriminate.” Number 3: “Sex is only for procreation.” And so on. We could get clever, of course, and assign separate groups of numbers to arguments pro and con or to thematic clusters. I can even imagine some seminary librarian proposing a sort of Dewey Decimal System to organize the arguments. This would allow long series of arguments to be cited by combining just a few digits. But since I’m a minimalist, I’d be quite content with a randomly ordered list.
I’m confident that such a scheme of numbers would find a large and appreciative audience. After all, something like it is already quite popular. We deploy the more or less arbitrary system for numbering biblical verses in order to invoke whole arguments. Very often in public “discussions” of homosexuality, someone will stand up and begin to call out numbers. “But what about Genesis 19!” “Leviticus 18!” “Romans 1!” (Those citations refer respectively, and for those of you who have skipped out on church debates, a disturbing story about God’s punishing the sins of a lost city, some prescriptions in the Israelite holiness code, and the Apostle Paul on the consequences of pagan idolatry. Or so the passages read to me.) Calling out the numbers is not meant to start a conversation about what these biblical passages might mean—or about how different Christian communities have decided to determine the applied meaning of any verse in their version of the Bible. The verses are often cited in church as self-contained, self-evident units of speech—just like a joke. Like a joke, they are counted on to produce a predictable reaction. In some church circles, the reaction is predictably to confirm the belief that the gay agenda is a demonic assault on God’s holy people.
Numbering all the familiar arguments about homosexuality would extend and perfect this habit of citing scriptural verses without worrying much about what they mean. It would also help us to avoid an awkward question—all the more awkward for being so obvious: Why do we repeat these arguments so energetically, so incessantly? In the joke about the prisoners, the repetition is easy to explain. They are locked up, they have nothing better to do, and they share only that one joke-book. But what explains the constant number-calling around homosexuality in so many American churches? Why do we rehearse arguments most anyone active in church has already heard dozens of time? Why do we behave like prisoners?
I don’t think that long-term veterans of church debates have much hope that undecided people will be persuaded by the repetition. Most of us know that persuasion happens in other, more private ways. It happens, for example, when someone close to you—a child, a sibling, a parent—declares themselves to you, ‘comes out’ to you, often in a moment marked by anguish and anxiety. “Here is a secret about how I love. Will you still love me after hearing it?” Or persuasion comes about when a respected church leader—a pastor, a teacher, a musician—can no longer keep a false silence in good Christian conscience. These are the speeches that persuade, not the arguments-by-number. So why do we repeat them?
One strategic justification is that we progressives are regrettably obliged to answer the barrage of speeches from the other side. If they quote those predictable Bible verses against us, we must reply with counter-interpretations. If they brandish natural law, we must correct their reading of Thomas Aquinas or do them one better by producing the latest discoveries of same-sex behavior in the animal kingdom. Otherwise, so the justification goes, they will dominate the field. I see the strategic point, but I worry that the field has by now become a blasted heath, occupied only by professional combatants. Or I wonder whether an arms race ought to be the model for Christian speech.
Whatever its practical wisdom, the strategy of instant retaliation still ducks the question about our motives. Why is it that so many Christian debaters behave like the prisoners, locked in, by training or by conviction, to a sterile repetition? Why do they cut up their supposedly sacred book into perfectly familiar and battle-worn clichés? Is it for…amusement? Some church-goers do seem to relish a good fight. Quarreling entertains them. Some exchanges in church come to resemble amateur theatricals—or, more precisely, long-running soap operas. They keep running because they still attract viewers—and so sponsors.
There’s the second motive: habit. Repeating fighting words about homosexuality in church has become in the last half century a familiar ritual—and, in some communities, one of the defining rituals. Some believers prove themselves Christian—know themselves to be Christian—because they say angry words about homosexuality. Ritual speech about homosexuality, like so much ritual, reinforces identity. It sometimes seems to do so more powerfully than other Christian rituals—like baptism or eucharist.
And so the third motive: fear of the loss of identity. To stop repeating these arguments would be to give up on one of the few rituals that still appears to work in a religiously pluralistic nation, that actually motivates believers to take action—or to give money. (Look at the roster of church-related donors to the California campaign to rescind same-sex marriage.) In recent decades, many of the most authoritarian Christian denominations have staked a large part of their authority on the reiterated condemnation of homosexuality. To back away from it, to give up chanting the refrains of condemnation, would be to risk the claims of authority altogether.
These are powerful motives. Like the stubborn demons of which the gospels speak, they are not easily cast out—in ourselves or in others. All the more reason, then, to put away the joke book. Repeating the clichéd arguments doesn’t begin to touch these deeper motives—doesn’t address the impulse to quarrel about something, anything, rather than listen again to the demands of the book we keep quoting. It is not a joke book, and it is not meant to be cut up into proof texts for smug citation.
If we contenders want to number things, let’s count the decades—or lives—lost to calling back and forth from one cell to another, while we hold the barred doors tightly closed from inside.