Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Morality Of Huckleberry Finn And Gay Rights

The morality of homosexuality and what Christendom's reaction to all things gay ought to be has been the topic of many a heated debate and I'm going to throw in my official position, so that it's clear, when I rant about specific proposals and laws, exactly where I'm coming from.

When I was in college, I read a paper that has stuck with me these last 14 years called The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn by Jonathan Bennett. Bennett contrasts the moralities of Huckleberry Finn with that of Heinrich Himmler and Jonathan Edwards.

I'm going to skip over Himmler for two reasons. First, it's a pet-peeve of mine to pull out the Nazi card and while Bennett is speaking in the abstract and not making insinuations about anybody who holds any political beliefs, inferences are going to be made and I think when people casually throw terms like that around in political arguments, they dangerously forget the unique and profound evil that the Nazis darkened the world with last century.

Second, it doesn't really fit into my argument anyway.

The crux of what I'm getting at is in the juxtaposition between the morality of Jonathan Edwards and Huckleberry Finn.

So here we go.

What Bennett explores here is the relationship between what one understands intellectually to be morally correct and what one's sympathies or conscience tells him.

Bennett argues that putting sympathy and love for others takes precedence over the law. He demonstrates his point by juxtaposing Huckleberry Finn and Jonathan Edwards.

When Huck was on the raft with Jim, he truly believed that morality dictated he turn his friend in. By hiding Jim and helping him escape to freedom, he was stealing, lying and going against the wishes of his caretakers.

Wow. That's three of the top ten right there: the fifth, eighth and ninth commandments. (I'm going by the Protestant list here.  If you're Catholic, then the commandments are numbered differently.)

Morality, or at least the law as Huck understood it, not only dictated, but commanded, that Huck betray his friend Jim and bring him back to a life of slavery.

Of course, this is nonsense and deep down, Huck knew it. In the end, he did the right thing and, breaking three of the ten commandments, helped his friend Jim to freedom.

He listens to his conscience, or as Bennett calls it, his sympathies rather than the law.

Contrast this with what Jonathan Edwards says in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. 

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you…you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
…when you shall be in this state of suffering, the glorious inhabitants of heaven shall go forth and look on the awful spectacle, that they may see what the wrath and fierceness of the Almighty is; and when they have seen it, they will fall down and adore that great power and majesty.
What Edwards is getting at here is that for us to feel pity for anyone who might burn in hell for all eternity is a human flaw.  Once we are perfected, in the next life, we will rejoice in the torment of our fellow human beings who are burning in hell.

To Edwards, compassion is a human weakness, a vice even.  It is in fact a part of our sin nature.  God does not feel compassion for those burning in hell because He is holy.  Our frail human minds do feel pity because we are sinful.

This is not righteousness.  It is sadism.  

Where Huck listened to his conscience rather than the law, Jonathan Edwards advocates the opposite.  To him, the human conscience, the still small voice that tells us to have compassion for others is not only to be ignored, but defeated as if it were a vice.
This is not just bad morality.

Here is what my conscience, or my sympathies if you like tell me about homosexuality.

It is not a choice, nor is it immoral, nor is it unnatural.

On the other hand, my conscience tells me that the church's attitude toward homosexuality is nothing short of shameful.

So what do we do with what the law has to say about the matter?  There are nine passages that fundamentalists will point to when arguing that homosexuality is immoral: 4 in the Old Testament (Genesis 19:1-25; Judges 19:22-30; Leviticus 18:22; and Leviticus 20:13) and 5 in the New Testament (Romans 1:24-28; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; 2 Peter 2:6-10; and Jude 7).

Should we just ignore these references?  Would Jesus Christ actually just ignore the parts of the Bible that say that homosexuality is immoral?


Because putting compassion in a place of more importance than the law is not a concept that Jonathan Bennett or Mark Twain came up with. 

I seem to remember some other damn dirty hippie who had something to say on the subject.

Matthew 22:36-40 (New International Version)

36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'[a] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Love, conscience, compassion, or as Bennett calls it in his essay, sympathies trumps the law.  It's that simple.


He would oppose prejudice and discrimination in all of its forms, anywhere he found it.  Anybody who tells you that Jesus Christ would oppose marriage equality or would support the Defense of Marriage Act has obviously been skipping over all the best parts of the Bible.

So, what does this mean to me?  What would Jesus Christ want us to do?  What does loving my neighbor as myself mean?

To me, from where I stand, my conscience tells me that love means pitching a screaming fit any time anybody tries to make somebody I care about move to the back of the bus.

So expect me to continue to make a great deal of noise as long as this fight continues.

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