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Victorian Values Biblical Sexual Ethics

Cold Hearts that Cast the First Stone

 

by Alastair McIntosh

 

 

Published in The Herald, Glasgow, "Open Forum," 17-11-97, p. 15

 

Recent reports about the Rev Helen Percy’s relationship with an elder of her kirk reveal more about the tremendous social forces under which sexuality still operates in Scotland, than it does about the biblical position on such matters.

 

People under pressure from such negative forces as fear, guilt and what might have been disturbing early-life experiences often act imprudently. So leaving aside the ethics of any cover-up lies and manipulation, what does scripture itself have to say about sexuality?

 

Surprisingly, in both Old and New Testaments, Victorian “family values” prove to be a politician’s myth. Any obscenity laws intending to protect the family would have to have large tracts of the bible banned.

 

Take the Old Testament first. It is resplendent in contradiction. Deuteronomy 21 lays out rules for polygamists to ensure that inheritance rights of the male firstborn are not entangled where there’s more than one woman’s firstborn. Abraham had two wives; Solomon had many. The body of the Levite’s daughter is sexually abused for political purposes in Judges 19. The obscenity of this is compounded in Judges 21 where, to bring reconciliation amongst the Israelites, genocide is perpetrated to steal four hundred virgins from another tribe.

 

Compounding such ugly licentiousness with the opposite extreme, Leviticus 21 rabidly states that a priest’s daughter who turns prostitute is to be burned. Leviticus 20 provides a handy list of sexual crimes carrying draconian punishments. However, the case of Helen Percy and Sandy Nicoll falls outside this particular piece legislation, because she is unmarried. Generally in the Old Testament, the concept of adultery applies to the adulteration of that “property” which is another man’s wife, especially that of a man from within one’s own tribe. It was a sin of women more than of men.

 

However, not all is lost for those latter-day Pharisees who wish to purge the Church of its “sinners”. Under Leviticus 20:18, guilt could still be established in the Percy/Nicholl case if, at the time in question, Miss Percy had been having her monthly “sickness”. This would allow the couple to be “cut off from among their people”. And it would give the Church a possible defence from unfair dismissal legislation under the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978.

 

Does the New Testament offer more black-and-white guidance for zealots who would presume to pry behind the especially titillating curtains of the manse? Their obvious Pharisaic recourse would be to St Paul. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul warns the early Christians to have nothing to do with fornicators, drunkards and other sinners. However, the Church of Scotland has already ruled Christ to be a higher authority on such matters. Had it not done so, Helen Percy would never have become a minister in the first place because St Paul also says, in 1 Corinthians 14, that “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”.

 

What then was Christ’s teaching on family values? Far from upholding family structures designed to perpetuate patriarchal property-rights, Jesus repeatedly warns of the need to break free from conventional family ties in order to serve the spiritual family. In Matthew 10 he says that he comes to set relatives against one another and that “a man’s foes shall be they of his own household”. His contempt for property rights is shown in Mark 10, where for the rich young man, he adds an eleventh commandment - to give it all away to the poor.

 

Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching against divorce is clear. In Matthew 5 he states categorically that divorce equals adultery. But curiously, he adds the impossibly stringent injunction that even to look on a woman lustfully is to commit adultery in the heart. At a stroke he thereby implicates nearly every heterosexual man. If there’s one way to destroy a sin it’s to make it banal. So what was the actual attitude towards the incarnate expression of love of this God-man whose own mother, according to Matthew 1, was suspected of pre-marital adulteration until vindicated by angelic alibi?

 

In the fabulously sensual account of Luke 7, we find Jesus having his feet incessantly kissed, washed with tears, massaged with scented oil and dried with the long hair of a woman who “was a sinner”. When the Pharisee who was their host saw, he concluded that Jesus must be a false prophet. Jesus responded by saying that, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loveth much.”

 

Then in John 8, the Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. Jesus says to let he “that is without sin amongst you” cast the first stone in executing the mandated death penalty. They skulked away.

 

What then, might such a Jesus have said if sitting on the church courts weighing the fate of Helen Percy? Would it be “off-with-her-dog-collar”, or forgiveness, not seven times, but seven times seventy times?

 

As we move towards a new Millennium, might we look towards the churches in Scotland being openly for and of the “sinners” like Helen Percy and Sandy Nicoll? Might the eleventh commandment, in which it would seem Helen Percy had much to commend herself, become more important than the seventh, as it seemed to have been for Jesus? The Church of Scotland, for one, has already taken great strides towards becoming less a church of the Pharisees.

 

It’s courts might ask ... might the “fallen”, like Percy and Nicoll, more than the self-righteous, not understand a thing or two about Christ’s central theology of forgiveness? And might not their real-life tainted ministry be preferable to the sycophantic, clinical purity of the ice-cold heart, that qualifies any who presume to cast the first stone? Might such acceptance not point towards the Church’s salvation rather than its disrepute? After two thousand years of waiting, is it not time to turn upsidedown the idea that, for the “unrighteous”, the churches are “nae fur the likes o’ us”?

 

Alastair McIntosh is a Quaker and a sinner.

 

 

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