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Not Minding My Own Business: Leviticus, Morality, and Not Killing Gay People

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By Derek Penwell

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post .

Minding my own business. That's all I was doing. A little catching up on social media, when I came across an article about a Colorado pastor, Kevin Swanson, who warned on his radio show that inside of ten years, gay people will likely be burning Christians at the stake—because, you know, that's how the gays do . . . at least since Nero.

What really caught my eye, though, was a quote from another person on the show, who suggested (wrongly) that people can be indoctrinated (though he doesn't say how) into a lifestyle (homosexual) for which the Bible demands "capital punishment."

I'll admit that, at first, reading someone make what appears to be a serious claim about the Biblical mandate for icing gay people struck me as over the top at best, and loopy at worst. Would we do it by stoning, or would our Post-Enlightenment sensibilities require a more civilized method . . . say, electrocution, lethal injection, or firing squad (which can still be done in a modern society, while retaining the small town quaintness prized by folks who tend to listen to radio shows in which groups of otherwise law-abiding people are charged with being pedophiles)?

"But," I thought, "to their credit, it is in the book." Well, sort of, anyway. Leviticus 20:13 does talk about putting to death "a man who lays with a male as with a woman"—though, I should be quick to point out that, according to the context of the passage, this is a reference that suggests a prohibition against ritualized temple prostitution, and certainly not the same gender love against which Mr. Swanson and his guest prattle.

Still, unlike many people who oppose homosexuality, these radio folks are consistent. "If the Bible says kill 'em, then we ought to by-God kill 'em." Refreshingly honest, if a bit Medieval.

They aren't saying we should follow Leviticus in all instances that agree with stuff we already believe, but ignore stuff in instances where it clearly says things that embarrass us—like some of their compatriots who claim to read the Bible literally as a divine rule book, but who would blanche at the thought of having to take it completely seriously.

The radio guys say that we should follow Leviticus. Period. If it says "put to death," then who are we to second guess?

All of which got me thinking: "If Leviticus is such a great place to find our moral bearings, as Mr. Swanson and company suggest, maybe we ought to take a closer look at it."

You could go back to the beginning of the chapter just prior to the string-up-the-gays passage. That looks promising: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien" (19:9-10).

Of course, that sounds kind of socialist; but as long as we're looking for moral wisdom in Leviticus, it sounds a bit more like Jesus than "wipe them out."

Or how about this one: "You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God" (19:13-14).

Don't let the "job creators" take advantage of working people? Don't make the lives of folks who already have it tough that much tougher through your selfishness or insensitivity? That's not going to work for people who think that Christianity has a stake in Capitalism as God's economic system of choice. Still, it does have that "least of these" feel about it.

Here's a place to plant a moral tent peg: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (19:33-34).

I can sense sphincters clenching from here. But if we're going to look for our moral bearings in Leviticus, why not start with these verses? They sound much more like the Jesus who said, "Blessed are you who are poor . . . you who are hungry . . . you who weep now" (Luke 6:20-21) than "kill them and make an example of them."

The problem is: if I did start looking to these passages in Leviticus for moral guidance, it would be more difficult to while away my free time minding my own business.