Saturday, 27 February 2016

Beyond Legalism

When I wrote about the conservative Christian response to same-sex relationships a couple of weeks ago, I talked about how many Christians approach the Bible, including the New Testament, with a legalistic mindset.

By this I don't mean that they have a strict morality.  The equation of legalism with strictness is a mistake, as is the equation of non-legalistic morality with laxity.  What I mean is that people with a legalistic mindset see morality as a set of rules which must be obeyed.  Our ethical task is to interpret those rules correctly and then follow them.

I have suggested plenty of times in this blog that this is not Jesus' view of morality nor that of his apostles.  Jesus taught that the whole law and the prophets could be summed up in two commandments - love God and love your neighbour.  This is often called "golden rule" morality - "do to others as you would like them to do to you".

A few years ago I had a go at summarising this view in two posts entitled "Is there a Christian Law?".  Reading them now I think they are clumsy and I thought it would be worth approaching the subject a little differently following a few more years of thought.


Christians tend to be perplexed about aspects of the torah, the law of Moses as encoded in the Pentateuch.  Many of these laws are horrific, like stoning adulterers and disobedient children.  Some seem to diminish the humanity of certain people, like the ban on people with disabilities or menstruating women in the Tabernacle.  Others are just baffling, like the ban on shellfish or mixed fabrics.

Surely, we think, these are not intended for us!  We tend, more or less consciously, to operate on the basis that Jesus' death and resurrection have superseded them, so that while they applied to ancient Israelites they don't apply to us.  I'm not sure that this is the best way to understand them, because what we often do (like the EA publication I reviewed in my earlier post) is substitute a new Law based on readings of the New Testament.  This perpetuates legalism but dresses it in new clothes.

One of the pressing questions floating around in Jesus' day and before is the question of how the ancient Jews were to follow the Law.  Among Jesus' most vocal opponents were the Pharisees, a highly influential group within Judaism who may have somewhat resembled the people we call Orthodox Jews.  The Pharisees were the ultimate legalists - they believed that every letter of the law had to be followed literally, and that failure to do so was the reason Israel was weak and under foreign domination.  Jesus thought they were hypocrites, focused on appearances but neglecting true virtue.

I've been thinking recently that while we know Pharisaism is not Christian, we are less sure about its Jewish credentials.  Within its own context, were the Pharisees the true carriers of the Judaic flame, or were they out of step with Jewish tradition?  The more I read and think about it, the more I think it's the latter.  The ancient Jews did not necessarily use the torah as a rule-book, and such use of it was roundly criticised by the Prophets.

A good starting place for thinking about this is Psalm 119, a long acrostic poem in praise of God's Law.  Here's what the author has to say under the letter mem starting at verse 97.

Oh how I love your Law.
    I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me,
    and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than my teachers
    for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders
    for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
    so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
    for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
    sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
    therefore I hate every wrong path.

So obviously the author is a lover of the torah and sees it as the centre of his or her life.  However, he/she doesn't see it legalistically.  To understand the difference, try reciting this psalm with the Traffic Act in place of God's Law.

Oh how I love the Traffic Act.
    I meditate on it all day long.
Its clauses are always with me....
How sweet are its words to my taste
    sweeter than honey in my mouth!

The idea is absurd.  We don't love the Traffic Act, or any other piece of legislation.  There is no inherent beauty in signaling at intersections or giving way to the right.  These are simply conventions which make everyone safer if we all follow them.  We hardly give them a moment's thought.

Yet the torah is the object of the Psalmist's devotion, something on which he meditates, the centre of his spiritual life.  It makes him ecstatic, it gives him wisdom and power.  This deep reflection and meditation is a signal that there is far more depth here than mechanical obedience to a set of rules.  This is a transformational life practice.

We can see the results of such meditation in the writings of the prophets.  There are lots of examples, but I will just quote a couple to show you what I mean.  The first is the oft-quoted passage from Micah 6.

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah has mediated deeply on the Law with its many regulations and instructions and asks, "what is the essence of this?  What is the most important thing here?"  His conclusion is that the most important thing is not to do all the rituals correctly, to bring more and more sacrifices.  It is to follow three simple (but very difficult!) virtues - justice, kindness, humility.

This is the same thing Jesus and Paul do, although they choose a different summary, one drawn from two verses in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind" and "love your neighbour as yourself".  This wasn't a particularly radical position in Jesus' day, as we can see by the fact that whereas Mark 12 and Matthew 22 place this quote in Jesus' mouth, in Luke 10 it comes from the mouth of an expert in the law and Jesus merely expresses his agreement.  This summary is in no way incompatible with Micah's - they are two ways of expressing the same approach to obeying the law.

The prophet Amos takes this idea even further.

‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

God's rejection of Israel's offerings and worship is a persistent theme in the prophetic writings.  How is it that God can hate the very things he commanded?  They are merely following his instructions, carrying out the rituals and sacrifices that are described in detail in the book of Leviticus.  Can obeying God's commandments be wrong?

Yes it can, if it's done in the wrong spirit.  The Israelites have failed to understand what Amos, Micah and a host of other prophets knew - that the essence of the law is not following the details but acting justly, showing mercy and remaining humble.  They have dug beneath the external details to what lies within, they have seen the personal and social transformation to which the Law is pointing.  Without this transformation the observance of the details is worse than worthless, it is an abomination, a stench in God's nostrils and a ringing in his ears.

Jesus once again echoes this teaching.  It forms the core of his critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 23.

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.'

Sure, tithe your spices if you must - but such tithes are worse than worthless if you fail to heed the lesson of Micah.

But there's more, because at times it can be wrong to follow the letter of the Law, like this from Matthew 5.

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

The thing here is that 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' is a legal principle which appears repeatedly in the torah, yet here is Jesus urging his followers to ignore it and instead forgive those who wrong them and even invite further wrongs.  Why is this?  Because in 'meditating on God's law day and night' Jesus has come to understand that the purpose of the law is to teach us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to do to others what we would like them to do to us, and here is a much more powerful way to do that.  As either Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King may have said, 'an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind'.

Paul, a man thoroughly trained in the interpretation of the torah, provides us with a slightly different approach in 1 Corinthians 9. 

For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned?  Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever ploughs and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.

The quote from Deuteronomy is an instruction about how to care for working animals but once again Paul suggests that we misunderstand it if we simply take it literally.  Instead, if we understand it in terms of the purpose of the Law - to show us how to love God and one another - we see that its fuller meaning is about the right of people to benefit from their labours - in other words, it is about justice.  He then applies this not to oxen but to those like himself who serve and teach in the church and have a right to receive financial support in return.  Even then, he does not insist on receiving this - indeed, he is proud of having not claimed his rights even as he asserts them.  For Paul, there are more important things than simply following the letter of the law.

This is a powerful antidote to legalism.  To summarise, there are two things wrong with legalistic morality.  

First, it misses the point.  The detailed rules are meant as pathways towards understanding the principles on which they are based, the imperatives of love, justice, kindness, humility and so on.  Legalism means we can't see the wood for the trees.

Second, this failure can lead to us doing evil even as we attempt to do good.  It is possible to follow the law in a way that is unloving, unjust, unkind or proud.  We can obey the letter of the law even as we violate its spirit.

We have been warned, but the warnings are so hard to hear.

(More on legalism here.)

Sunday, 21 February 2016

National Conversation

So, apparently we're having a national conversation about tax reform.  Governments do this every so often.  It used to be called "consultation".

Such a "conversation" sounds like a really good idea.  I imagine that we would get tax experts to analyse our tax system and tell us how it is going now, what's good and bad about it and what options there are for us to improve it.  We could then get non-experts to translate this into terms ordinary people could understand, and there could be various ways for people to have input - web forums, face to face meetings, formal submission processes.  Then the government would narrow this down to its preferred options and see what reaction they get, before modifying and implementing.

Of course I have a fertile imagination.  Actually it's nothing like that.

Not that some people don't try.  The current government released a Tax White Paper last year called "Re:Think" and there are various plain-English resources to help people understand it, a twitter feed, an opportunity (now closed) for formal submissions.

We've been here before, of course, not that long ago.  Back in 2008 the Rudd Government launched a tax reform process which involved various consultation events including a Tax Summit, following which Treasury Secretary Ken Henry put together a detailed paper called "Australia's Future Tax System" with lots of quite good recommendations.


The problem is what happened next.  What was supposed to happen after Henry wrote his paper and made his recommendations was that it was supposed to be released, there would be more consultation about its recommendations, then the government would come up with a final package.  What happened instead was the Mining Tax, and we all know how that worked out.

The current government, still shell-shocked from its sudden change of leader, is a lot more cautious.  This means that what we are having instead is a series of "conversations" about individual options.  First of all the government, urged on by various State Premiers, floats the idea of increasing the GST to 15%.  The opposition gleefully beats them about the head, declaring that they want to ruin the lives of working families with this iniquitous tax hike.  The government is carefully non-committal for a while before finally ruling the idea out.

As a second step, the Labor Party has released a policy under which it will restrict negative gearing of rental properties to new-builds.  This is something that's been advocated by housing policy people for a long time, but not usually as an isolated measure.  Cue the alarmist response from the government - it will cause house value to plunge and ruin the lives of home owners around the country.

So not so much a conversation as a shouting match.  When you shout you can only say one thing, so the "debate" can only deal with one idea at a time.  You can't have a sensible discussion, you can only yell angry slogans.  There is lots of noise, but not much light.  If I was a betting man, I'd be saying we will end up with pretty much no change at all.

Tax reform is hard, because everyone can think of reasons why they should pay less tax, but no-one is ever prepared to put their hand up and say they'd like to pay more.  This is difficult in our current environment because both State and Commonwealth governments are bleeding money and need to either shore up their revenue or cut spending.

In its first year the Coalition government tried the second option and got absolutely hammered,  Rightly so, since the main targets were pensioners, unemployed young people, Aboriginal communities and the poor communities we help through overseas aid.  And it still didn't balance the budget.  Nasty as we can be sometimes, Australians won't cop the poorest members of the community bearing the burden of fiscal readjustment.


Before that the Rudd Labor government tried to fix it with a single big tax on wealthy mining companies.  The companies used some of their huge profits (no deficit issues there!) to blitz the government and Rudd got sacked.  The policy got watered down after that to the point where it yielded hardly any revenue, before the Coalition scrapped it.  Even if Labor had stuck to their guns, it wouldn't have solved the problem, because the mining boom went bust pretty quickly.

Pretty much any of the other options will face the same problem.  Changes to negative gearing will have to run the gantlet of the property industry and its well-funded lobby groups.  If you want to wind back concessions on superannuation for wealthy people, well, the superannuation industry has access to literally trillions of dollars to fight you with.  If you want to tax multi-nationals you need the cooperation of all the nations in which they trade to effectively police profit-shifting - what are the chances of that?

So I get that it's hard, but it doesn't help when our politicians continually undermine their own efforts by floating a piece of the puzzle before they have worked out the whole.  Otherwise we will be left with platitudes, like Scott Morrison saying repeatedly that he thinks we pay too much tax and the answer is to cut spending.  He knows very well that he can do no such thing.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Refugee Ultra-Solutions

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about Paul Watzlawick et al's Change and the idea of first and second order change.  The idea has kept on being useful since I remembered it, so recently I got my hands on a copy of the book to read it again.  Along with it I also bought a book by Watzlawick called Ultra-Solutions: How to fail most successfully.

This little booklet is an exploration of the kind of solution which "not only does away with the problem, but also with just about everything else, somewhat in the vein of the old medical joke - operation successful, patient dead...".  It is a light-hearted romp through the pitfalls of rigid or inadequate thinking, using as its framework the witches and their mistress Hecate who tempted Macbeth, and who continue to tempt us in our day to adopt strategies just as seductive and self-defeating as that followed by Shakespeare's tragic hero.

In each short chapter he deals with a mental pitfall. The search for security and certainty.  The idea that more of a good thing must mean better.  The idea that if something is bad, its opposite must be good.  The idea that there are only two options in any situation and we must choose between them.  The idea of the "zero sum game" in which someone can win only if someone else loses.  The idea that we know what other people are thinking.  The idea that disorder can only lead to more disorder.  The idea that our wise rulers must force us to do things for our own good, no matter what the cost.  The idea that if we keep searching and striving we will eventually achieve perfection.  Each of these temptations appears wise and good, but wreaks terrible destruction.

As I was reading it this week, I was also following and taking part in the story of the High Court's finding that Australia's offshore detention of asylum seekers is legal, and the subsequent debate over whether 267 asylum seekers, including 37 infants, should be deported to Nauru as a result.  Of course I think they should be allowed to stay, and on Monday I joined over 1,000 people on the steps of Brisbane's Anglican Cathedral to make the point publicly.

I struggle a lot with this issue.  On the one hand, it's encouraging to play a tiny part in something like the Sanctuary movement because it's a source of hope.  When people from all walks of life and of all ages, from the left or the right, agree that this simple act of humanity is the right thing to do, I feel that maybe kindness will prevail after all .  Then again, all the attempts to make this point over the past few years, whether for specific individual refugees or at a policy level, have been met with stony political silence and a continued ratcheting up of cruelty.  I find it easy to despair.

As I was reading Watzlawick, it stood out just how much our current refugee policy is an ultra-solution, how much Hecate and her witches are having their way with our political leaders.

They are searching for security and orderliness, fearing that a disorderly immigration process will create social chaos.  They don't realise first of all that life is chaotic no matter how much control we attempt to exert, and that out of this chaos creativity and new solutions can arise which are beyond the power of governments to predict or create - or indeed to prevent.

They believe firmly that refugee policy is a zero sum game, that the only way to prevent some asylum seekers from drowning at sea is to make others suffer on land.  They are unable to see that there may be a way to prevent both kinds of suffering at the same time.

They believe that there are only two options, the current punitive regime or an open border regime in which our country is overrun by uncontrolled immigrants.  They are blind to any idea that there may be a middle course in which the situation is managed without harsh policing.

They think they know what motivates asylum seekers and the people who run the "people smuggling" trade, and that they can manipulate their behaviour with the right set of sticks and carrots - mostly sticks.  They fail to take account of the fact that human motivations are diverse and rarely unmixed, and that the intense creativity of human beings will find ways around the barriers we put up faster than we can create new ones.

They believe that they are wiser than everyone else, and that they need to apply force to make everyone conform to their wisdom.  If their efforts are not working, they just need to apply more force until their solution is forced through.  Anyone who thinks differently is obviously a foolish idealist who has no idea of the real world.

They believe that if their solution has only partial success then they need to do more of it, or do it harder, or convince others to do it as well, to make their success complete.  They don't realise that the "success" of our detention regime depends on others not doing the same, that if everyone did it the system would break down completely.

The result is indeed an ultra-solution, a solution which cures the illness by killing the patient.

Mandatory detention has long been a solution in search of a problem.  These days when anyone proposes showing some level of mercy to those in detention, our leaders are quick to claim that they are doing what they do to prevent asylum seekers from drowning at sea.  This is a recent innovation.  John Howard, whose government was the first to introduce offshore processing, justified it with a typically belligerent assertion of security and orderliness: "We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come".  His Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock talked about the unfairness of boat arrivals "jumping the queue" for scarce refugee places.  The solution remains the same, only the problem changes.

The trouble is, in the process of solving whatever problem it is we think we are solving, we do so much collateral damage.

We subject adults and children to a harsh, frightening regime of detention.  We irreparably damage their mental and physical health, leaving a long term problem for them and for someone (we're not sure who) to deal with long into the future.

We store up enemies for ourselves, broadcasting the idea around the world that we are a cruel, racist nation.  When at some present or future time we ask for humanitarian treatment of our own citizens, we leave ourselves open to those who could help us reminding us of what we did to their citizens.

Indeed, we begin to turn ourselves into that cruel nation.  We stoke the fear of the outsider, the view of refugees as people who are probably not genuine, who are gaming the system.  The more we close our borders, the more we close our hearts, depriving ourselves of love and community in our search for security.  Our attempt to make ourselves safer makes us more fearful.

In the end we do have more to fear, because systems in our community which were once designed to provide support are now designed to intimidate and control.  Large parts of our immigration system have been transformed into a paramilitary organisation called the Australian Border Force, with uniforms and a mandate to deter and control.  Instead of the first question when we meet asylum seekers being "how can we help you?" it becomes "do you have a valid visa?".  Instead of its main contractors being human service organisations and multicultural community groups, they are security firms.

We are gradually depriving ourselves of the means of compassion.  Now situations which can easily be resolved while the person remains in the community become excuses for detention, apparently just because we can.  A system which was designed to deal with boat arrivals is increasingly being applied to people who have overstayed visas, or breached visa conditions.  The logic of deterrence is slowly spreading.

Hecate would like us to give up in despair and allow her to have her way.  However, so far it's not working.  Despite her pretensions to wisdom, she has been unable to prevent ordinary people from seeing that the solution makes no sense, from looking past the bluster, the simplistic thinking, the "either-or" of our current ruling philosophy.  We see around the country ordinary doctors and schoolteachers saying "no goal can justify making children suffer", ordinary families saying "well, someone could come and live with me".  We see that so many of us have friends and neighbours who are refugees and that it is only natural for us to help them - and for them to help us.

We can only hope and pray that eventually sanity prevails, that we can change course in time to save the patient.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Why Christians Get Confused About Same Sex Relationships

Traditionally-oriented Christians are often portrayed as homophobic because of their opposition to same sex marriage and the various things that go with it. While it's true that there are some Christians who really think that "God hates fags", in my experience they are relatively few.  Most of the conservative Christians I know, and most of the conservative Christian writings I've read on the subject, are quite clear that God loves LGBTI people as much as he loves anyone else.  They will also tell you, if you ask, that same-sex relationships or encounters are not in a special category of sin - they are no more evil than, say, heterosexual adultery or stealing.

However, after saying all these nice, loving things and providing an assurance of God's love, acceptance and forgiveness they will be immovable on one thing.  A same sex relationship, they will tell you, cannot possibly be right.  While there are lots of wrong ways to do heterosexual relationships there is also a right one, in the context of a permanent monogamous marriage.  Hence, people who enjoy straight sex are able to continue to do so.  People who enjoy gay sex, on the other hand, must refrain.  This leads so many of them into frustration, both sexual and otherwise.

Of course not all Christians hold this view, and there is a fierce debate going on in sections of the church about whether this traditional attitude should still apply.  The Uniting Church here in Australia now ordains gay clergy, and the Anglican church worldwide is in the grip of a polite but fierce dispute on the issue which has just seen the more liberal churches of North America censured by their more conservative counterparts elsewhere in the world.

If you scratch any Christian you are likely to find a legalist just beneath the surface.  This doesn't just apply to conservative Christians or Evangelicals, nor does it apply exclusively to Christians.  The main difference between "liberal" and "conservative" Christians is that the strength of the reaction will depend on where you scratch.  For example, the liberal Anglo-Catholics who run the Brisbane Anglican diocese are likely to be pretty relaxed about same-sex relationships, but try suggesting that communion should be celebrated with non-alcoholic grape juice.

What defines legalism is not its moral strictness, but the idea that morality is codified in a set of objectively defined rules or laws.  Hence the seventh commandment says "you shall not commit adultery".  A legalistic approach to this law defines the key term, "adultery", as sexual relations with a person to whom you are not married.  There will then be a further set of rules around what marriage is and what it involves.  If you find out what these rules are, and follow them, then you will be acting morally.  This is the approach to morality taken by most of the church and pretty much any evangelical.

A good example is a little booklet I've just read called Beyond Stereotypes: Christians and Homosexuality by the Australian Evangelical Alliance Working Group on Human Sexuality.  It was originally published in 2009 but has been distributed again just recently as a contribution to current debates on the issue.

The Working Group consisted of seven people, six of whom are ministers or theologians while one is a clinical psychologist.  Only six are listed as authors with the seventh, Kings Cross pastor Bill Lawton, clearly disagreeing with its contents.  His dissenting view is included as an appendix.

The main part of the book (minus appendices) takes up seventy pages, and opens with some general material.  This material affirms that we are all broken people saved by God's grace, that LGBTI people are made in God's image like everyone else and are just as much loved by God as the rest of us, and that we all need to repent of our various sins.  In particular, they are clear that the church needs to repent of its lack of love towards LGBTI people and its complicity in various acts of persecution.

It then tries to answer its central question - what is a Biblical/Christian view of homosexuality?  This is a considerable challenge, because there is not much to work with.  Jesus has nothing to say on the subject.  There are three passing references in Paul's letters. 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 contain lists of sins.  The one in 1 Corinthians includes something the NIV translates as "homosexual offenders" and the NRSV as "sodomites".  The list in 1 Timothy includes something the NIV translates as "perverts" and the NRSV once again as "sodomites".

The meaning of this term is hotly debated.  Some interpreters suggest it applies to any sex act between men, while others suggest it implies something more than that - for instance, pederasty.  This is an interesting linguistic discussion but ultimately unhelpful for a non-linguist like me.  It seems clear to me that interpreters choose the translation that suits their preconceived view - conservatives choose the wider application, progressives the narrower one.

A different kind of ambiguity floats around the remaining reference in the first chapter of Romans.  Here, the reference is clearly to same sex relationships, both between men and between women.  Some have suggested that the context suggests cultic practice rather than general life, but once again the choice made here seems to depend on the readers' preconceptions.  The more important point is that the context is not a moral instruction like those to Timothy or the Corinthians, it is part of Paul's case that everyone is sinful.  The conclusion it leads to is not that people should give up their same sex relationships but that a completely new righteousness has been revealed through faith in Jesus Christ.

How do the solid evangelicals speaking on behalf of the EA handle this ambiguity?  To my astonishment, they start with the harsh and unambiguous condemnation of male homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22, reiterated with the addition of a death penalty in Leviticus 20.  I was astonished because the idea that this might be relevant to us is such a difficult one to sustain.  Anyone who has waded through Leviticus knows that it forbids many things and mandates many penalties that we would never enforce, from the puzzling bans on mixed fabrics, mixed crops and certain hairstyles to the horror of stoning disobedient children.

The authors' response is a kind of modified version of the idea that the Law of Moses can be divided into categories - ceremonial, civic and moral.  They don't spell this out but they imply that the ceremonial law doesn't apply because it is specific to the temple worship which is replaced by Jesus' death on the cross, and the civic law is specific to the ancient Israeli nation.  They also appear to add a fourth category - laws which are based on ancient medical practice and which are superseded by modern science.  However, they regard the moral law as still in force, including the laws relating to marriage and sexual relations.

This scheme then leads them to interpret Jesus' silence not as neutrality or disinterest, but as a tacit endorsement of the Levitical law.  Their approach seems to be that when Jesus or the apostolic authors specifically contradict or modify a law (for instance, disobeying the Sabbath regulations, declaring all foods clean, denying the validity of divorce or negating the death penalty for adultery) we should consider that law as repealed.  Where they say nothing, we should assume the law still applies.

Hence, since no-one has modified the laws on homosexuality (and Paul has even made comments which could be interpreted as endorsing them), they are still in force.  Their conclusion - Christians cannot endorse same-sex relationships.  This doesn't mean we should be ungracious towards gay people or persecute them (Levitical death penalty notwithstanding), but if they are serious about their faith they have only two acceptable alternatives - heterosexuality or celibacy.

There are so many problems with this approach that it's hard to decide where to start, but their reading of Leviticus is as good a place as any.  At the most obvious level, it doesn't answer the original objection - the laws about mixed crops or fabrics and the mandated hairstyles are not clearly in any of the superseded categories.  But there is a bigger problem because not only is this law limited to men (lesbianism is not forbidden), but it appears in a list which regulates a polygamous marriage system.  Read it and you'll see what I mean.

Yet later in their book the Working Party affirms that "monogamous heterosexual marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for full sexual relations today".  How do they get from Leviticus to here?  It's not at all clear.  Monogamy appears out of nowhere.  If you want to make a legal case, you need to be way more pedantic than that.

However, this is a mere quibble.  My main problem is with their approach to the relationship between Christianity and the Law.  The picture they paint is of Jesus and the Apostles engaging in a kind of divine law reform program.  Some laws are made redundant by Jesus' death and resurrection.  Others are more or less explicitly removed from the statute books by the sayings of Jesus or the writings of his followers.  New laws are added to regulate the life of the emerging cross-cultural Church.  Punishments are tempered by Christian mercy.  From an ethical point of view the laws are significantly revised but they remain laws which must be obeyed.

The thing is, I'm pretty sure this is not what Jesus and the apostles were doing.  Otherwise why would Jesus say something like this from Matthew 5:17-19?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not one stroke of a pen, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This doesn't sound like a law reform program to me.  The Law is described as eternal and unchanging.  Every tiny detail must be respected and carried out.  Even the Pharisees, those fanatical upholders of the law, do not go far enough.

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

How is this possible?  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear.  It's not enough to obey the letter of the law.  You have to get at what's behind it.  It's not enough to refrain from having sex with someone to whom you are not married, because every time you look at someone lustfully you have already committed adultery.  Most men commit adultery every day.  We can't help it.  It's not enough to refrain from actually killing someone, because whenever you are angry you have already committed murder.  How many of us are innocent of this crime?

This is the message of the story of the woman caught in adultery, shoehorned into John's gospel.  When the arresting party/lynch mob challenge Jesus on the application of the law, citing the Levitical principle which says she should be stoned, he doesn't suggest the penalty is too harsh and that it should be mitigated.  Instead, he challenges them on their own record.  "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

His brother James states the general principle.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails at one point of it has become accountable for all of it.

And the practical outworking of this, as stated by Jesus in Matthew 7 and in a slightly different way by James, is that we are not in a position to judge others.  James puts it this way:

Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law you are not a doer of the law but a judge.  There is one lawgiver or judge who is able to save or destroy.  So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?

There is no repealing or revising of laws here, no suggestion that there is any failure in the law that needs to be fixed.  Rather, the failure is in us.  We are totally unable to fulfil the law.  The more we understand its depth, the more we understand how far we are from keeping it.

This is a hard message for us to hear, and even harder to apply.  The law is so deceptively easy-looking, because it seems to be objective.  I can look at the external circumstances and judge whether what I am doing is OK.  Do I have a receipt for this computer?  Yes I do, so I obviously own it and am not guilty of theft.  Can my wife and I produce a marriage certificate?  Yes we can, so we are not in an adulterous relationship.  My gay friends, on the other hand, are clearly in sinful relationships.  These distinctions allow us to order our lives.

The trouble is that they are false.  This is the point Jesus is making when he critiques the Pharisees in Matthew 23.

For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence....you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.  So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

The point is not that some parts of the law do or don't apply to our situation.  The point is that we need to stop pretending we can somehow approximate obedience to the law.  In particular, we need to stop drawing an arbitrary line which says that this breach is within the acceptable limits while this other one is beyond the pale.  Is my flawed marriage more acceptable than someone else's flawed same-sex relationship?  Is it OK for me to benefit from an exploitative industry as long as I have a receipt?  Is it OK for us to ordain people who have trouble controlling their anger but not those who are in same sex relationships?

This cup is so shiny!  Why does my stomach feel sick?  This tomb is so beautiful and well-maintained!  What is that smell?

(I have written more on legalism and my preferred alternative here and here).