An Open Letter to Political Columnist George F. Will of the Washington Post
You have a huge platform through television, Newsweek and the Washington Post to be a major influence in shaping
public opinion. I find myself impressed by your insights into the world of baseball and a bit less impressed by
your right-of-center political musings. I am, however, absolutely amazed at the profoundly uninformed positions
you have recently offered the public on the questions that are currently the content of ecclesiastical debate in
our churches. You seem to have no understanding of what it means to seek to bind together an ancient faith with
the insights of our contemporary world.
I appreciate the fact that you are a fellow Episcopalian and, as such, are vitally interested in the issue of the
consecration of the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson to be the Bishop of New Hampshire. The fact that this event was covered
by the media of the world indicates that it was regarded as a significant moment of history, a turning point in
the life of the Christian Church. Indeed, I believe it was the enabling vote at the General Convention of the Episcopal
Church that allowed this consecration to go forward that opened our church decisively to the full inclusion of
homosexual people. It also struck a mighty blow at cultural homophobia. As such it has inaugurated a great consciousness-raising
and welcome discussion that has now reached far beyond the boundaries of the Episcopal Church. That is a major
accomplishment for a relatively small church.
Yet you, George, in your Washington Post column, have characterized this debate as one that pits the "cultural
trendiness" of the Northern Hemisphere nations against the "doctrinal clarity" of the Southern Hemisphere
nations. I regard that analysis as breathtakingly naive and suggest that it is revelatory of nothing more than
your own deep and abiding prejudice. For you to speak publicly about this issue, when you are as poorly informed
as your words reveal you to be, calls either your competence or your integrity, perhaps both, into question. Because
you added a gratuitous comment about me by name in your Newsweek column (November 10, 2003), I think it appropriate
that I respond to you in an equally public way.
You pose the issues of this debate as between modernism in religion and the true faith of antiquity. You suggest
that two thousand years of Church teaching about sexuality and family are being imaginatively construed in
"a certain interpretive trajectory." You quote approvingly a Fairfax, Virginia, Episcopal priest who,
referring to the debate at the National Episcopal General Convention last summer, said, "When the plain teaching
of the Bible was referenced, eyes rolled, and with expressions of polite exasperation, we were told that it was
time to move on. The Bible simply had not kept up." You appear to be saying that those who quote the Bible,
as if it provides the last word on moral issues, are to be commended.
Well, George, perhaps you need to understand why it is that people who quote the Bible to under gird their own
inability to embrace reality might need to be enlightened.
The Bible was quoted to support the divine right of Kings when the Magna Carta made its appearance in 1215. History
has demonstrated that the Bible was wrong on that issue and today no king rules on this planet by divine right.
People have embraced democracy. You might think that represents "cultural trendiness," but I believe
it represents an emerging consciousness that the writers of the Bible, bound to their time in history, could never
In the 17th century the Church, acting out of what you call "doctrinal clarity," imprisoned Galileo and
almost executed him because his study of the motion of "heavenly bodies" led him to the conclusion that
the earth was not the center of the universe and that indeed the earth rotated around the sun. The "fathers
of the Church" in their attack on Galileo quoted a verse from the book of Joshua, in which the sun was made
to stand still in the sky to enable Joshua to kill more of his enemies, as sure proof that the sun rotated around
the earth. I think eyes should roll in a space age when this "clear teaching of the Bible" is referenced.
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin challenged the "clear teaching of the Bible" in the story of creation.
But no matter how many passages of scripture have been quoted since The Origin of Species was published in 1859,
our modern world is quite sure that it is Darwin rather than the Bible that is closer to the truth. That is unless
you now want to regard DNA evidence as a bit more of your "cultural trendiness."
We could go on and show how "doctrinal clarity" led the Church to participate in, and to justify with
biblical quotations, the institution of slavery as well as slavery's two bastard stepchildren, segregation and
apartheid. Are you not aware that even the popes in history have been slaveholders? Is our present integrated society,
which has opened the door to people like Colin Powell to serve in an office that was previously denied to any African-American,
just another example of "cultural trendiness?" Women in this country were certainly treated up
until relatively modern times with what you call "doctrinal clarity." The Ten Commandments defined the
woman as property that, along with the ox and the ass, was not to be coveted. With full biblical encouragement,
Church in the Middle Ages regarded women as anything but equal, and even today the Southern Baptist Church, has
directed women to be subject to their husbands. The word "obey" required of the woman alone, was not
taken out of the Episcopal marriage ceremony until 1928. Women could not enter our universities in any significant
numbers before the 20th century. Women did not receive the power of the vote in the United States until 1920 and
even that was accomplished against the opposition of the Bible quoters. The Supreme Court of the United States
ruled in 1876 that a woman could not practice law in the State of Illinois because "God has designed her for
the more domestic role." Is that what you are now calling "progressive cultural aggression" which
you suggest is challenging "the conservatism of institutions?" I consider it a step into enlightenment.
Shall we examine the way children were employed in the sweatshops of the 19th century or abused in the boarding
schools of England with official church sanctions until Charles Dickens began to raise the secular
consciousness of his nation?
You note approvingly in your column, that when dissident Episcopalians met recently in the town of Plano, Texas
to nurse the wounds of their defeat at the General Convention, that they received a letter of support from the
Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger. Would you have our church in this 21st century approve the incredible negativity that
emanates from the Roman Catholic Church about women? Do you think that this Church, which has spawned a veritable
culture of abuse and cover up, is qualified to lecture anyone on issues of either morality or "doctrinal clarity?"
You see, George, the battle over the full acceptance of homosexual people in both Church and society is like all
of these other movements. It pits an old and dying definition, supported by appeals to scripture, against an emerging
new consciousness. Slavery was sustained as long as African people could be defined as subhuman, childlike and
without sufficient intelligence to be full citizens of this land. Slavery and segregation collapsed when that definition
was mortally wounded by a new consciousness informed by new data. Are you suggesting that this was the result of
The same thing happened in the feminist movement. The breaking of the traditional female stereotype began when
women challenged the male-imposed definition of what it means to be a woman. Women insisted on the right to define
themselves. This new definition led women not only into education and the workplace but also into positions in
the cabinet of the President of the United States in 1933, and into the House of Representatives, the Senate, the
governors' mansions and the Supreme Court as the 20th century unfolded. Certainly we will elect our first woman
president in this century. This is not "cultural trendiness," George, this is the direct
result of a new consciousness that neither you nor anyone else will ever turn around.
The battle for the full inclusion of homosexual persons in both the Church and the social order is the result of
a similar new consciousness attacking an old and inadequate definition. Homosexual people were once defined, with
biblical under girding, as sinful people. It was assumed by this negative definition that gay and lesbian people
either chose to be homosexual, as an act of moral depravity, or that they were mentally ill and could not help
themselves. That definition has simply been rendered inoperative by new knowledge. Most educated people today accept
the fact that sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is something over which people have no control.
Human beings simply awaken to it, they do not choose it. Homosexual orientation is also now generally recognized
as consisting of a stable percentage of the population at all times and in all places. This means that it cannot
be externally caused as assumed by the old definition. The scientifically
documented presence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom argues against it being classified as "unnatural,"
unless you attribute to animals the ability to make moral choices. These are the factors that have created the
emerging new consensus, and if they are correct, as more and more scholars now believe, then homosexuality must
be seen as being in the same category as race, gender or even left-handedness. They are the "givens"
not the choices of the individuals. To discriminate against a person on the basis of something the person is must
be seen as nothing more than prejudicial ignorance that leads to the willful destruction of another's humanity.
That makes it an overt act of bigotry. To quote the Bible to render bigotry acceptable is neither new nor is it
any more convincing in this situation than it has been when used earlier in our history to justify other evils.
For you to suggest further that nations of the Third World, where such things as polygamy, female circumcision
and second class status for women are still widely practiced, ought to be listened to and respected when they speak
out of the context of a discredited and dying definition of homosexuality is bizarre. What our church has done,
George, is nothing less than to challenge the ignorance and prejudice that has allowed people like you and me to
participate in the oppression of countless numbers of people throughout history, whose only "sin" was
that they were born with a sexual orientation different from the majority.
Our Church has done an audacious thing. We will not now tremble at our own audacity. This is rather a cause for
rejoicing that another in a long list of human prejudices has begun to fall. The fact that we have justified our
destructive behavior in the past with quotations from the Bible does not excuse our negativity. This is not "cultural
trendiness," George, nor is it a denial of "doctrinal clarity." Maybe it is time for you to examine
these issues more thoroughly before you place your uninformed biases into the public arena.
-- John Shelby Spong
Question And Answer
With John Shelby Spong
John from Fresno, California, asks:
Which of the Jewish New Testament authors was the most anti-Semitic?
I doubt if any of them would plead guilty to that charge but many of them have had their words quoted in anti-Semitic
ways. You need to recognize that most of the books of the New Testament were written before
Christianity ceased to be a part of Judaism. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism whose members were
called, "the followers of the Way." They were for the most part revisionist Jews who believed that God
had acted in a new way in the person of Jesus. Their opponents in the synagogue were the orthodox party who believed
that God had made the Divine revelation complete in the Torah and that no further revelation in Jesus or anyone
else was necessary. The two sides, both Jewish, said dreadful things about one another. Since Christianity grew
out of the revisionist Jewish camp, we still carry in the New Testament some of the language the revisionist Jews
used against orthodox Jews. This means that we have read it in public worship through the centuries and have called
those readings the "Word of God!" To the ears of modern people this is heard as Christians saying bad
things about the Jews when in fact it was one side of a very tense debate inside Judaism.
Having said that, the worst sources are, in my opinion, Matthew, where Pharisees are characterized as whited sepulchers
and where the Jewish crowd at the cross says, "His blood be upon us and upon our children," and
the John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, who refers to the orthodox party pejoratively but simply as "the
Jews," and even has Jesus suggest that the Jews are the children of the Devil.
The death of Jesus has historically been blamed on the Jews. That is frankly an error of fact that has been terribly
detrimental to the Jewish people. The Romans, upon the order of Pontius Pilate who alone could have
made the decision to execute, killed Jesus. When the Christian creeds say, "he suffered under Pontius Pilate,"
the assumption seems to be that Pilate was some kind of innocent bystander. The fact is that he suffered at the
hands of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
Anti-Semitism has been a tragedy in Western Christianity. Its venom has been pumped constantly into the blood stream
of our civilization. As such it constitutes the darkest chapter in Christian history. It rises, however, primarily
from the misunderstanding between rival factions among the Jews before the New Testament was written. One of those
factions was destined to become the Christians. Echoes, arising from this internal warfare, constitute what we
are hearing when anti-Semitic rhetoric seems to break forth in the New Testament. Though these verses have certainly
fed the cause of anti-Semitism, I do not think that was the original intention of their authors.
I will soon, in this column, begin a series of essays that will seek to identify all of the biblical sources of
anti-Semitism. In those essays I will address this question far more thoroughly.
-- John Shelby Spong
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