Inclusion as shalom: a review of C. Norman Kraus’ “On Being Human”

The church’s very authenticity as the body of Christ is at stake in its response to its LGBT members, writes C. Norman Kraus in On Being Human: Sexual Orientation and the Image of God (Cascade Books, 2011).

In this attractive addition to a growing library of discussion about homosexuality underway within some branches of the Mennonites church, Kraus, who is professor emeritus of Goshen College, argues for inclusion in the church for those of all sexual orientations, with the same moral guidelines (mutual affirmation, respect, and affection) for the sexual fulfillment of all. He considers the matter through the lens of the “image of God,” as seen in the Creation accounts and throughout Scripture.

Our creation in God’s image points us to relationship, he says. “God’s will for the human family is defined in the Bible as shalom, which is a human reflection of the Trinitarian image of God; and while the inherent spiritual and social meaning of shalom does not change, its cultural shape and assumptions do change…”

Kraus’ six-chapter essay begins with “orientation.” While there is debate over orientation, Kraus finds the science on the matter compelling and insists that the church must take this developing knowledge seriously. Individuals do not choose their orientation. Furthermore, the understanding of sexual orientation as an essential part of being human – part of the created order — is theologically grounded; homosexuality does not deserve the moral shame and stigma it has been burdened with.

The work of theology, of interpretation and faithfulness to Scripture, is a work of deconstruction and reconstruction. (In the historical narrative, we see this in Jesus’ new visioning of the law; the early church’s huge shift to include “unclean” Gentiles; changes around slavery and race, which involved theological arguments not unlike today’s around homosexuality; and elevation of women in the face of literal scriptural indictments.) Kraus argues, in fact, that it is precisely the church’s work to present a “kingdom alternative” in culture, not as a power option but to “spell out the pragmatic implications of love toward those we instinctively fear.” This is the church’s spiritual genius.

Kraus challenges the Augustinian theological tradition, especially its view of creation, the fall, and sexuality, which has defined heterosexuality as God’s intention and same-sex sexuality as a moral deficit by default. This tradition has undergirded (though inconsistently) much of the church’s approach to sexuality.

At times, the essay feels repetitive, and there are some minor typos in the book, but I very much appreciate its reiterated argument and the use of the “God’s image” lens on the subject. Especially valuable, at least for me, is Kraus’ explanation of Jesus’ statements about marriage and eunuchs (Matthew 19:1-12) as a critique of a cultural priority on progeny; it’s the first I’ve encountered that brings these teachings together in a way that makes sense to me.

A further bonus of this small volume are the other voices that appear in it. The writers of the foreword (Martin Lehman) and three “complementary reflections” (Cynthia Lapp Stolzfus, Mary Schertz, Richard A. Kauffman) all agree with Kraus and his call to full inclusion, but each contributes uniquely and compellingly to the conversation. Lehman has stories, as well as a reflection on Elohim (the plural name of God) and “the presence of God as social being” so pervasive in the New Testament. Stolzfus responds with encouragements as pastor of a congregation that has welcome lesbian, gay, and bisexual members for 25 years.  Schertz urges that we also take the cross of Jesus – “suffering love” — seriously in these deliberations. (Also intriguing – as an argument for diversity – is her suggestion that it is “more difficult for the Spirit to move in groups of people who think alike.”) Kauffman proposes the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a tool for theological reflection on this topic and any other, which makes explicit that  besides biblical revelation, sources of truth include tradition, reason, and experience.

C. Norman Kraus offers this books with an invitation for analysis and dialogue. I hope it will accomplish precisely that. I hope it will hasten recognition within the church of our common fallenness regardless of orientation and sexual fulfillment under identical moral guidelines.  That it will, in other words, conserve and foster the biblical vision of shalom.

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Disclosure: I requested, and received, this book for review from Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock.

16 thoughts on “Inclusion as shalom: a review of C. Norman Kraus’ “On Being Human”

  1. The Matthew 19.1-12 passage intrigues me. Jesus himself never married, so he has an understanding for those who don’t. He says nothing about same sex marriage, probably because there was no such thing in his day. I guess this is where we would then apply Kraus’s statement that “while the inherent spiritual and social meaning of shalom does not change, its cultural shape and assumptions do change…” Does Kraus say anything about same sex marriage in this book? It seems to me that many Christians can accept the sexual orientation but have trouble accepting same sex marriage. Elfrieda

    • Thanks for the comment, Elfrieda. Re. Jesus on sexuality and homosexuality, Mr. Kraus says, “I am persuaded that he did speak a relevant word,” referring to the Matt. 19 passage. I would agree.
      Re. your question, he doesn’t really spend much time on same sex marriage per se, but certainly it follows from his overall argument. He argues that image is relational and that sexual attraction is positive erotic response, whether hetero or homosexual. The ethical standing of such partnering in terms of the church needs to be “theologically grounded,” hence his essay. The position he argues “levels the moral playing field…” and “implies recognition of same-sex erotic expression under the same moral rubric as that for heterosexuals: monogamous consensual covenanting relationship.” I might have spelled out that conclusion more clearly in my review of the book, so thanks for asking!

  2. Thanks for raising this sexuality issue, Dora. We had a Young Adults meeting the other day and the issues of sexuality dominated the whole evening. Given what I heard- it will carry on. As I listened, [occasionally aghast] it seems to me we live in a culture that has sexualized everything to a degree that may be somewhat unique. The concept that every person has the right to sexual fulfilment seems counterintuitive to me but is a presupposition for many people. The above statement “for the sexual fulfillment of all” appears to reflect that. I have a hard time allowing that to be an unchallenged presupposition at the least and actually disagree both theologically and biologically.
    On the other hand, as Kingdom people we have no room in our ethical code for homophobia in any form and Jesus’ example is the example a person willing to walk compassionately beside anyone.
    This is a conversation that needs to come out of the self-serving silos in which it is most often carried on.

    • Thanks, James. I’m in the awkward position of defending a book I reviewed — awkward simply because I may get the nuances wrong. Perhaps I’ll have to invite Mr. Kraus to jump in if further explanation is needed; I had a note from him after the review appeared. — But the statement “for the sexual fulfillment of all” connects to moral guidelines, not to rights demanded, as I understand it. (Though surely LGBT falls under human rights.)– I’m not sure what you mean by “self-serving silos” but I’m convinced that we need to participate in the conversation. (As an aside, there’s a much wider Christian literature developing on the subject than indicated by the resources the MBH listed, from mainly one perspective, when it did an issue on the subject a year or two ago.)

      • It would be very interesting to have Mr Kraus respond and would be a good impetus to read the book🙂
        Re: the silos. It seems to me that this is one of those topics that people of like mind find really easy. It isn’t- but on both sides people think that their conclusions are morally self-evident. That is what makes real conversation challenging. I see you as a person with feet in both worlds and I think that gives you a good position in be a conversation catalyst. Make sense?

  3. Thanks for the explanation, James. You’re right, the conversation is challenging. I would like to be a conversation catalyst, of course. I identify as fully “affirming” on the matter, which puts me at odds with many in our church community, however — and probably with friends/writing colleagues like you!🙂 Feet in both worlds sometimes hurt from the stretch!

  4. C. Norman Kraus
    I have changed my mind on this subject during these last 30 years, and the underlying reason for the change is theological. There are, of course, a number of texts in both the Old and New Testaments that * same-sex sexual behavior; but does that give us the right to read the Bible as a homophobic document? I think not. There are many individual commandments that we do not apply literally. What I have tried to do is explain how and why we have come to read the Bible as we do. That is a theological question, which is very important to the church. James is quite right that our culture has physicalized sex, but in its deepest sense our sexuality is an erotic spiritual gestalt that defines our humanity. It conditions how we relate in social intercourse as we mirror the image of God. This is an angle of the issue that our “silo” conversations have not given its deserved attention.

  5. Seems to me that most people vacate the “feet in both worlds” stance for exactly that reason. Theologically, however, I think that is where Kingdom people are supposed to be.
    “At odds” eh? After all the exchanges we have had over the years I know we have do differences but on this issue I would be reading between the lines to define those. What I am “reading between the lines” leads me to suspect we are far more in agreement than disagreement, even on this issue.

    • Hi Norman
      I appreciate your engagement here and the opportunity to exchange thoughts. Through the magic of ebooks I have your book and am well into it and will respond to it when I have finished. One point however rises from your interpretation of my comments- I said “we live in a culture that has sexualized everything to a degree that may be somewhat unique.” That is different from your response to me- “James is quite right that our culture has physicalized sex.” I don’t necessarily disagree, however, these are different assertions. I believe that western culture has excessively sexualized the human identity and relationships. That does have implications for how I engage this question.

    • This is to your previous comment (but somehow WordPress not putting it there):
      Makes me glad to hear…
      (Interesting, btw, your piece on Siberian Menno communityhttp://www.mbconf.ca/home/products_and_services/resources/publications/mb_herald/december_2011/columns/intersection/)

  6. It has been a while since I began to read Norm Kraus’ book so here is a belated post. It is difficult to do justice to a thoughtful argument in the parameters of a short blog response but with that disclaimer here is my take on the book’s argument with a preemptive apology for its length.
    First, I agree with a great deal in the book especially as it relates to the full equality of men and women within creation. I also agree with him when he proposes a level “playing field and asks gay an lesbian brothers and sisters to enter the church with the same moral and spiritual expectations as the heterosexual majority.” p80
    On the other hand, I am among those Kraus identifies as believing that “sexual orientation is not chosen and is thus nonmoral. But sexual behavior is chosen and thus open to moral evaluation.” p13 Even though he identifies this stance, in my opinion his main argument does not adequately address this position. The bulk of his argument is directed towards those who hold the Catholic conflation of sex and reproduction. Much of the book speaks pasts those like myself who need no convincing on that point.
    Where it seems to me that the argument breaks down is when Kraus tries to extend the insights he as taken from the creation story and apply them to the SGLBT question and concludes that “sexual orientation, now understood to exist on a continuum of gender identities, should be considered an integral component in the metaphor of humans in the image of God.” p72 I don’t believe that this conclusion follows from the Biblical text- even if I would grant that some parts of the Bible are culturally limited.
    Kraus writes, “It is generally an accepted ethical dictum that the empirical does not in itself establish the moral ought.” p27 And yet this seems to be exactly the book’s primary argument in coming to the above conclusion.
    I agree when Kraus rhetorically asks, “Is an authentic Christianity in the modern era ineluctably linked to accepting the notions of ancient science?” p14 Of course it must not be- but neither should our faith be driven by the shifting sands of modern science- especially psychology. From my perspective he has rejected the former but succumbs to the latter.
    I agree Kingdom people must be proactive is the dignified treatment of every man woman and child and this necessarily includes those who identify themselves as SGLBT and that Christians have been and often continue to be cruel does need to be addressed.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read Mr. Kraus’ book, James, and for setting your response down here. The author’s intention is to open dialogue, and I think you’re responding in that way, though you clearly haven’t found it quite convincing. — So without responding directly to your points, I’ll just say that I hope that many will read the book, and engage with it. The time it takes with “made in God’s image” is a contribution to a much more comprehensive argument that can be made — and is being made in other places — for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians within the church, and by that I mean also those within committed same-sex relationships. This is what I appreciated here. In our congregation we recently did a 4-part series on sexuality, beginning with the Genesis “in God’s image” text. Admittedly it was an introduction, so I’m not criticizing the class per se, but my discussion partner in that class remarked that we hadn’t quite nailed “made in God’s image” and I had to agree; the “answers” to what it means were familiar but felt superficial somehow — the implications not teased out. So I was ready for some deeper consideration of that, which is what Mr. Kraus provides with his trinitarian/shalom perspective.

  7. I appreciate the spirit and approach that James (it would be good to know your last name!) has taken in his comments. Your probing comments are quite helpful in “continuing the dialogue” (the title of the first book I edited on the subject). His concern that we should not be driven by the “shifting sands of modern science” is well-taken, and that is, of course, the concern that those in agreement with NARTH emphasize.

    The problem with this position as I see it is that if the orientation is not a mental deficiency or moral perversion, then the affectional impulses which stem from it should not be judged as immoral, i.e. a temptation to immorality. They must, of course, as must all affectional impulses, be socially regulated; and my argument is that the same social and religious disciplines preventing self-destructive violence and abuse of others applies across orientational lines. This is by no means the same as saying that the empirical “is” establishes the moral “ought.” Rather it implies that when scientific research corrects the view that such affections are in themselves a moral human defect, then the moral and religious disciplines should be adjusted to correspond to the new understanding of human reality.

    Your second objection calls for a more involved and complicated explanation than we can go into here. You write, “Where it seems to me that the argument breaks down is when Kraus tries to extend the insights he as taken from the creation story and apply them to the SGLBT question and concludes that ‘sexual orientation, now understood to exist on a continuum of gender identities, should be considered an integral component in the metaphor of humans in the image of God.’”

    I would maintain that the “Biblical text” doesn’t speak to this issue at all. It is, as your statement puts it, a matter of belief in a conclusion drawn from multiple sources (“I don’t believe that this conclusion follows from the Biblical text.”) Obviously part of the difference in the modern picture has to do with how one deals with the evolutional development of the human body and culture. And theologically here the question is how the Creator God is related to evolution. Perhaps we hold different belief positions on this question. I take the evolution of the psycho-somatic human body to be the best paradigm to work with. And as I at least infer, I do not hold to the classical Augustinian paradigm of original sin and its consequences, which sets us up for the traditional view of sexuality.

  8. Hi Norman
    My name is James Toews and I know Dora as my long suffering editor- being a periodic column writer in the MBH. I also appreciate your gracious response to my comments and fully affirm the need for a continuing dialogue. It is an honour to interact with you personally.

    As one who sees orientation as morally neutral I still have a hard time moving from this to a model which brings orientation, whatever it is, into our understanding of the image of God.

    I also don’t believe that an evolutionary paradigm solves the problem. It seems to me that narratives that attempt to reconstruct an evolutionary moral code are as prone to extravagant extrapolations of the actual evidence at hand as the most ardent faith based explanations. Both try to find evidence to support their understandings of morality. Frankly I think that the conclusions that follow from an evolutionary model of morality are very frightening for the SGLBT community and there is deep comfort in the Biblical position that every human being is created in the image of God and that the mistreatment of any human being is the deepest violation of the divine moral code. That is not self-evident in an evolutionary model.

    Finally, as an Anabaptist, I view the Augustinian explanations of the grand scheme of things with a great deal of reserve. I share your skepticism of the view of human nature that Augustine brought into Christianity. That discussion of course would take us far afield🙂 but may well be where Anabaptists have something very valuable to add to the conversation.

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