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