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Clobbering religious gay prejudice


book cover, Pieces of Ease and GraceIn 2011 I launched a book titled Five Uneasy Pieces: Essays on Scripture and Sexuality, edited by Fr Nigel Wright, an openly gay Anglican priest. That book offered an alternative reading of the so-called 'clobber passages'; the well known biblical verses that are at the core of religious discomfort over homosexuality.

Every gay person who has been raised in the Jewish, Christian or Islamic faiths, and who worries about rejection, knows the 'clobber passages'. The purpose of Five Uneasy Pieces was to turn the spotlight of careful theological analysis upon those passages to find what they are really getting at.

Speaking about sexuality and religion remains difficult and painful for some and impossible for others. That is where the follow-up volume, Pieces of Ease and Grace, comes in.

Ten of the 14 authors are ordained Anglican priests. The book is an attempt to promote the kind of respectful conversation, and the exploration and exchange of analysis and opinions, that Rowan Williams urged as the way forward.

Pieces of Ease and Grace is made up of successive chapters addressing same-sex relationships portrayed in the Bible. None of the authors suggests that the relationships described involve a sexual or erotic component. Nevertheless, they assert that the love portrayed in the stories was real and vivid.

Thus James Harding explores the relationship of David and Jonathan, not arguing that David and Jonathan were sexual partners but rather that the depth of their relationship de-centres marriage. The comradeship between the two men is given higher status than the opposite-sex relationships of the two men.

Richard Treloar offers a profound reading of the book of Esther, both as an exploration of the elements involved in weighing the revelation of one's identity (i.e. of 'comng out'), and as a salutary warning about the violence of privileging a majority identity and repressing the non-conforming other.

Alan Cadwallader takes up two stories in Matthew's gospel of those from non-privileged religious groups who live in same-sex households: the centurion and the Canaanite woman. Both stories, he argues, contain the discovery that faith is alive and well within those whose voice and stereotyped lifestyle are repudiated by the religious majority.

Ceri Wynne considers the story of the eunuchs in Matthew chapter 19 verse 12, arguing that the early Jesus movement explored the ambiguity and spread of people's identities, affirming that the worth of a human being is not to be judged on the basis of heterosexual identity, and that those who are familiar with different, ambiguous places may well have more to teach about faith than those who dwell comfortably without challenge.

Gillian Moses interrogates the stories of the household of Martha and Mary for the value that is attached to their relationship to each other, not just with the man Jesus. 

And Gillian Townsley revisits the women leaders of the church at Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, revealing how the various identities ascribed to these women — from non-entities to assistants of the male apostle — have been forged more by interpreters' world views than by the possibilities of the text. She challenges those who would interpret texts to renew their commitment to establishing Scripture's hospitable inclusion of the oppressed.

If these biblical reflections do not have the power of the 'clobber passages', they demonstrate the variety of intense human love experiences recognised in the Bible. The insistence that all but procreative heteronormality is mere trivia, is hard to reconcile with modern but also with ancient human experience.

'History tells us that biblical literalism was used to support both the practice of slavery and the denigration of women,' writes Peter Francis in his foreword. 'We have moved past slavery and we are moving past the oppression of women. It is time to move past literalistic readings of the Bible to create prejudices against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.'

But this is not a hostile book. Relationships, Francis asserts, are the primary way of expanding the circle of our awareness of the world. It is up to us whether we embrace, or reject, the ever-expanding circles of knowledge and empathy. He quotes a verse of poetry by the American poet, Edwin Markum:

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flought.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

This is what Pieces of Ease and Grace attempts to do: to draw a circle that brings into an important conversation people who are presently hostile, suspicious, uncertain or closed of mind. It is sorely needed.

Michael Kirby smilingMichael Kirby is a retired judge, jurist, and academic who is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia. This is an edited extract from his speech at the launch of Pieces of Ease and Grace (ATF Press, Alan Cadwallader ed.) at the University of Melbourne Trinity College, Sunday 12 May 2013. He talks about Five Uneasy Pieces in this video published last year at Eureka Street TV.


Topic tags: Michael Kirby, Pieces of Ease and Grace, sexuality, Rowan Williams



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Existing comments

A compassionate and reasoned piece by a great Australian; this gives me hope for a faith that unites and includes, rather than one that perpetuates the practices of dividing and excluding. Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing this extract.

Barry G | 21 May 2013  

Those who choose their desires and evil behaviour over loving relationships are not excluded from the Church. If this were the case there would be few in the Church. However, those who feel excluded because of their freely chosen immoral behaviour, have chosen to exclude themselves. Accepting the gift of salvation meanings turning away from behaving immorally, not making the immoral moral so that we can feel no guilt.

Chris Howard | 22 May 2013  

Francis has also reportedly said recently, "we ( the Church) should build bridges, not walls because this is what Jesus did".

Brian L | 22 May 2013  

So if you're a believer in "literal" Bible and traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality, you're just prejudiced against everyone who isn't "heteronormal". Excuse me, but who is drawing the shut-out circle here?

HH | 22 May 2013  

I was very glad to be present at the launch of 'Pieces of Ease and Grace' by Michael Kirby. Also there was the book's editor Alan Cadwallader. Like its predecessor 'Five Uneasy Pieces', this is a book of biblical scholarship, taking well-known and lesser-known passages from Scripture to show that there are plenty of stories and texts giving a different message or emphasis from the verses always used to 'prove' God's opposition to homosexuality. Michael Kirby is to be congratulated for his energetic support of books such as these - and as he points out, he comes from the heartland of the opposition in Australia, the Diocese of Sydney (and would support much that it does and says, apart from its stance on homosexuality).

Rodney Wetherell | 22 May 2013  

Excellent! I look forward to reading this. As a Uniting Church minister I didn't find 'Five Uneasy Pieces' particularly radical - it's been years since the 'clobber texts' have been used in Uniting Church debate. This sounds as though it goes further and examines potentially positive texts rather than answering the negative ones. And, HH, as books like this point out, there is no single 'traditional' Christian teaching on sexual morality. All of us pick and choose those parts of Scripture that resonate with us. But we love even the so-called biblical literalists. They are welcome in churches, as long as they welcome others.

Avril | 22 May 2013  

HH, you are creating artificial divisions and conflicts where they don't exist and don't need to exist. Traditional Christian sexual morality based on the bible - whether literal or extrapolated - is about FAITHFULNESS in relationships and there is no distinction between what you call "heteronormal" and heterosexual relationships. So no-one is excluded - EVERYONE is INCLUDED and the moral guidelines against promiscuity and against adultery are the same for hetero/homosexual relationships.

AURELIUS | 22 May 2013  

A beautifully written argument based on the interpretations of homosexual sympathisers, interpretations which serve their own beliefs. There is, however, a lack in this piece of any genuine interrogation of what the Christian position on homosexuality really addresses, namely, man and woman being the essential ingredients of God's creative process and as such this unique participation in God's work of creation has elevated the process of sexual activity above self-indulgenge to a level that is enshrined through the presence of God, the Creator, in the divine, not simply the pure human. This is what a sacramental church embodies - the spirit of God in its practice. Like it or lump this formalisation of the presence of God in religious practice is called a sacrament something abandoned in its entirety by many "christians" in this modern world. Homosexual marriage excludes God's plan inb favour of sexual self gratification, as do rape,prostitution and various other deviations from God's intention. And that is why the sacrament of marriage cannot not apply to the union of two persons of the same sex. It deals not with love but with creation but in saying that, it does not mean that love is not a driving component towards the state of marriage. Neither does it mean, however, that in our society we should exclude those who wish to exercise what they interpret as love in the incorrect intention of the procreative act which may appear to have the trimmings of marriage but which is, in fact, a de facto state. Our society has already reached a maturity where it regognises heterosexual de facto unions outside sacramental marriage as qualifying for the same civil rights as those of married couples. This is what should be done in relations to homosexual unions. Homosexual preferences should not be allowed to destroy for no good purpose the sacramental participation of man in God's creative intent.

john frawley | 22 May 2013  

I am very pleased to acknowledge the variety of intense human love experiences that exist in our world and I absolutely agree that there should be no 'prejudices against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters' but why are such love experiences now seeking to emulate the heterosexual marriage formula? To love the person one chooses is a basic human right, certainly; to demand social recognition of that right under the same guise as heterosexual marriage is not. Is is also a human right to 'acquire' children as a gay couple? What about that child's human rights? Why can't gay love be celebrated for what it is and not turned into something else entirely? Talk about social engineering!

Sonia | 22 May 2013  

Frankly Mr Kirby not being a Scripture alone [sola scriptura] man, I adhere unswervingly to Catholic magisterium and Scripture, on homosexuality.[though not with an open mind at both ends.] The attached link provides a response to some apparent scriptural anomalies on same. http://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/homo3.htm

fr john george | 22 May 2013  

Mr Kirby, much more specifically on homosexuality and christian anthropology: http://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/homo.htm#Index

fr john george | 22 May 2013  

Avril, I'm a Catholic, and you're not, so we radically disagree on how to legitimately interpret scripture and as to whether or not there is one coherent deposit of truths about morality safeguarded by an infallible magisterium. But this article implies that those, Catholic or not, who accept the traditional Christian and "literalist" Bible morality are ipso facto prejudiced against homosexuals. That position is itself one of outright prejudice, and the hosannas to tolerance and inclusion the article contains can't remedy that: on the contrary, they just add hypocrisy to the mix.

HH | 22 May 2013  

‘Five Uneasy Pieces’ was one important contribution amongst several to the scholarly and humane review of the small handful of verses in Scripture used to condemn homosexuality. Despite what Avril says, this is welcome and overdue analysis; it is certainly radical to people who don’t believe it or have never thought about it. But any serious, sincere reader of Scripture knows that it’s only one part of our appreciation of what Scripture says on this subject. There are stories, poems and all manner of other literary expressions in Scripture that speak positively and affirmatively about homosexuality, that acknowledge its reality, and that do not judge. Hence, this new set of essays is a logical sequel to ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’. The Bible is many texts with many implications for our appreciation of same-sex relations. It is available for all, we can all read Scripture and draw conclusions, without depending for our thinking on some magisterium to tell us what it means. The conversation remains open and these writings are part of that conversation. Scripture is an open book; in iconography the only time the book is shut is when God comes to judgement. It’s not up to magisteriums, fundamentalists, or anyone else to shut the book.


HH,It’s the notion that the magisterium is infallible that gets me! Being a Catholic, unlike poor Avril, I was under the impression that it is the Pope, when speaking ex cathedra, that the privilege of infallibility is given (another discussion all by itself). That aside, Avril is expressing a point of view that I know is shared by many Catholics, myself included.

Jeff Kevin | 22 May 2013  

"Simple Bible Believer" before extolling your magisterial authors as the only honest ones re scripture and others are unthinking. Do remember that there are both Catholic global libraries and Catholic university faculties of scripture encompassing enormous independent thinking on scripture. Never forgetting that the early Catholic Magisterial tradition preserved, identified,and codified the scriptures that have come down to us from early catholic canons of scripture,["NEVER SHUT"]while maintaining in tradition those things not mentioned in scripture[john 21:25] but handed on by apostles in oral liturgico/credal tradition. The magisterium doesnt prevent the rich Catholic traditions of personal meditation/reflection /thinking,but tradition stands as one of the twofold sources of revelation[scripture and tradition[cf vatican two;Dei Verbum] Never forgetting the magisterial role given at petrine commission[Mt:18:18] All Christians from the very beginning believed that Christian revelation was contained not only in Scripture, but also in tradition[INCLUDING MAGISTERIUM]. Acts II, 42, tells us that "they were persevering in the doctrine of the Apostles," that is, in the oral teaching of the Apostles which they taught to one another, and handed on to their children. Those who repudiate tradition have lost the complete doctrine of Christ

fr john george | 22 May 2013  

Thanks, Jeff. Yes, I'm perfectly aware there are, sadly, many Catholics who hold beliefs at variance with binding Church teaching. That's why I spend so much time on this blog - there seem to be quite a few around here - I'm amazed that people of obvious intelligence and learning in other areas can be so confused. Indeed you yourself, unless I'm reading you incorrectly, have just put forward yet another basic error - that infallibility is reserved to ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope. I recommend you read "Lumen Gentium" at para. 25, with special reference to the infallibility shared by 1. the bishops dispersed through the world teaching in union with the Pope on matters of faith and morals (the "ordinary magisterium"), and 2. ecumenical councils.

HH | 23 May 2013  

Catholic magisterium's teaching on homosexual acts are the same as for contraception, masturbation and heterosexual extra-marital sexuality. Why don't we make pre-marital sex and masturbation illegal?

AURELIUS | 23 May 2013  

I agree with much of Fr John George’s statements above and I’m not about to forget the tradition of biblical response over centuries, both before and after the Epiphany. However, Fr John George has leapt to the extraordinary conclusion that the people who wrote these books are “my magisterial authors” and that I think them the only honest ones, and incredibly that others are unthinking. It’s hard to figure out how he arrived at this assumption (actually) on the basis of my words. I would be last person to “repudiate tradition”, in fact I see these two books as part of tradition. As for the complete doctrine of Christ, isn’t it a splendid thing, the Complete Doctrine of Christ? It was a great day when our Lord stood in the synagogue and read from Scripture: he is asking us to follow his example.


Aurelius,your both legislative proposals are already criminalised in given circumstances.[premarital rape;public exposure]. To police or detect all/or any acts of 'solitary sin' would be an impossible/impractical law.

fr john george | 24 May 2013  

By way of reply to Chris Howard: Those who choose to judge others over loving relationships are not excluded from the Church. If this were the case there would be few in the Church. However, those who feel excluded because they judge others' immoral behaviour, have chosen to exclude themselves. Accepting the gift of salvation means turning away from judging others, not making the judging moral so that we can feel no righteous.

Jonah | 24 May 2013  

Michael Kirby, why is there no mention of Jesus' self sacrificial love, in your piece? Why have you preferred to = God's love to a Circle, rather than the Cross? Have you never heard: Those who truly know and love Christ, preach a Christ crucified? Have you never heard of Fractal Dimension?The Cross and not the Circle IS the fractal shape in all and of all things. Perhaps an animation of the Koch curve, may help deepen your understanding? http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d9/Blueklineani2.gif The Koch curve is a classic iterated fractal curve. It is a theoretical construct that is made by iteratively scaling a starting segment. As shown, each new segment is scaled by 1/3 into 4 new pieces laid end to end with 2 middle pieces leaning toward each other between the other two pieces, so that if they were a triangle, its base would be the length of the middle piece, so that the whole new segment fits across the traditionally measured length between the endpoints of the previous segment. Whereas the animation only shows a few iterations, the theoretical curve is scaled in this way infinitely. Beyond about 6 iterations on an image this small, the detail is lost.

Game Theory | 24 May 2013  

Game Theory, why is there no mention of Jesus' self sacrificial love, in your piece?


Let me answer your question, SBB, the Cross IS Jesus' self sacrificial love.

Bernstein | 27 May 2013  

Bishop John Shelby Spong's "Living in Sin" investigates the Biblical passages which have been used to exclude people from the life of the Church because of their homosexuality.

Cameron Gaffney | 27 May 2013  

Yes thank you Bernstein. I'm sure Justice Kirby has been taught that too since he was a young child. What we make of it is a daily challenge. My concern is with the piece of space age geometry that follows the original statement. It's not instantly obvious to most readers, including this one, what fractals and iterative scaling have to do with the new testament. If anyone is going around in circles it appears to be Game Theory.


Yes, the Christian world has Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church as its basic criterion.

Jessica Morrison | 28 May 2013  

The first Children's Crusade occurred around 1212 only 36 years prior to the Hamelin incident which, in itself, gives the theory some credibility. However, with the exception of the date, the story varies widely. Basically, a 12 year-old German (maybe French) boy has visions of Jesus telling him to go on crusade to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity. The stories end with them succeeding in their plans, never making it to the Holy Land or being sold into slavery. Yet, writers of the times grabbed the story and ran with it. The idea of hundreds of children going on crusade made for great stories. Not only does the date and the fact that the visionary was possibly German give the story some credibility, but the idea that these crusades were also accompanied by the "wandering poor" adds even more.The Pied Piper could very well have been one of these “wandering poor,” recruiting for the crusade. In the story, he states that he has traveled extensively. Also, he haggles over the price of his services indicating a need for funds. Finally, even his name could be interpreted as a description of being poor. Pied, referring to his multicolored clothes, could be describing multicolored patches on his clothes or simply rags that he wore for clothes. One of the endings to the 1212 crusade story is that the children never made it to the Holy Land. It is quite plausible that the Hamelin children shared the same fate. Many researchers believe that this new Children's Crusade did not succeed and Hamelin's children, along with those wandering poor, stopped in what is now Romania and started the settlement of Transilvania, just as the Grimm's stated. Possibly even becoming the founders of the Gypsy (or Romani) way of life.

Game Theory | 28 May 2013  

Never underestimate something that you don't understand, SSB.

Bernstein | 28 May 2013  

Simple Bible Believer, indeed, you may not have grasped the depth of meaning of the comment. As we only speak of things we know. Though, perhaps others who have a love of mathematics, and see God therein, may have found it agreeable.

Game Theory | 28 May 2013  

"For other foundation," says the apostle, "can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Nor are we to deny that this is the proper foundation of the catholic faith, because it may be supposed that some heretics hold this in common with us. For if we carefully consider the things that pertain to Christ, we shall find that, among those heretics who call themselves Christians, Christ is present in name only: in deed and in Truth He is not among them. But to show this would occupy us too long, for we should require to go over all the heresies which have existed, which do exist, or which could exist, under the Christian name, and to show that this is true in the case of each—a discussion which would occupy so many volumes as to be all but interminable. St Augustine.

Damaris | 29 May 2013  

Hi, In an attempt to respond to John Frawley who argued that it is heterosexual marriage that is a sacrament - we say that 'a sacrament is an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual reality'. I just want to offer as an alternative here the though that in the reading of any sign we need to interpret it. In other words, our intelligence has a role to play. That role might be argued to be to 'keep' that which is helpful in pointing to the signified reality, and to discard that which is superfluous. You seem to have chosen to keep most of the elements of heterosexual marriage in the interpretation of that sacrament as a sigifier for who and what God is. You are doing sacramental theology from marriage. Fair enough. But here, so am I. I think that what is revealing about sayiong that marriage is a sacrament (which I agree with) is that deep and intimate relationship, in which there is honesty, commitment and etc. is what God is all about. Real relationship is at the heart of things. Some say regarding sacraments that 'we shouldn't mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself'. I think That also means - Game theory - that the shape of things might be more like the shape of the Holy Trinity rather than the instrument of execiution humans supplied to kill love personified. I desperately try to believe that the shape of things that will last is God's resurrection community, not a lonely execution. Love is the law etc.

Fr. Dave | 18 July 2013  

FR Dave, it's also about conversion, is it not? ...The figure of Ruth is celebrated as a convert to Judaism who understood Jewish principles and took them to heart.

Game Theory | 20 July 2013  

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