Wendell Berry expounds on gay marriage

A Kentucky farmer, essayist, writer and activist, sometimes described as a modern-day Thoreau, criticizes theological strategies used to marginalize gays.

By Bob Allen

Christian opponents to same-sex marriage want the government to treat homosexuals as a special category of persons subject to discrimination, similar to the way that African-Americans and women were categorized in the past, cultural and economic critic Wendell Berry told Baptist ministers in Kentucky Jan. 11.

Berry, a prolific author of books, poems and essays who won the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and was 2012 Jefferson lecturer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, offered “a sort of general declaration” on the subject of gay marriage at a “Following the Call of the Church in Times Like These” conference at Georgetown College. Berry said he chose to comment publicly to elaborate on what little he has said about the topic in the past.

“I must say that it’s a little wonderful to me that in 40-odd years of taking stands on controversial issues, and at great length sometimes, the two times that I think I’ve stirred up the most passionate opposition has been with a tiny little essay on computers (his 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” published in Harper’s led some to accuse him of being anti-technology) and half a dozen or a dozen sentences on gay marriage,” Berry said.

Berry said he could recall only twice before when he commented publicly on the issue, in a single paragraph in a collection of essays published in 2005 and in an interview with the National Review in 2012.

“My argument, much abbreviated both times, was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples,” Berry said.

Berry said liberals and conservatives have invented “a politics of sexuality” that establishes marriage as a “right” to be granted or withheld by whichever side prevails. He said both viewpoints contravene principles of democracy that rights are self-evident and inalienable and not determined and granted or withheld by the government.

“Christians of a certain disposition have found several ways to categorize homosexuals as different as themselves, who are in the category of heterosexual and therefore normal and therefore good,” Berry said. What is unclear, he said, is why they single out homosexuality as a perversion.

“The Bible, as I pointed out to the writers of National Review, has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality,” he said. “If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.”

“Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so,” he said. “Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Another argument used, Berry said, is that homosexuality is “unnatural.”

“If it can be argued that homosexual marriage is not reproductive and is therefore unnatural and should be forbidden on that account, must we not argue that childless marriages are unnatural and should be annulled?” he asked.

“One may find the sexual practices of homosexuals to be unattractive or displeasing and therefore unnatural, but anything that can be done in that line by homosexuals can be done and is done by heterosexuals,” Berry continued. “Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody’s sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people’s private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both.”

“The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals,” Berry said. “If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government – small of course – to keep them from getting it.”

Berry said “so-called traditional marriage” is “for sure suffering a statistical failure, but this is not the result of a homosexual plot.”

“Heterosexual marriage does not need defending,” Berry said. “It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now.”

“But the difficulty is not assigned to any group of scapegoats,” he said. “It is rooted mainly in the values and priorities of our industrial capitalist system in which every one of us is complicit.”

“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians,” Berry said. “When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred,” Berry said. “Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”

“Perhaps the most dangerous temptation to Christianity is to get itself officialized in some version by a government, following pretty exactly the pattern the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus,” Berry said. “For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar.”

26 thoughts on “Wendell Berry expounds on gay marriage

  1. The Bible, as I pointed out to the writers of National Review, has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality

    Indeed. Because homosexuality was rare in Jewish culture, being considered an abomination in the sight of God under the Mosaic Law, which Jews were expected to follow.

    But this doesn’t mean that homosexuality is considered any more acceptable to God than adultery or fornication. None are allowed under the law, or as Christian practices. All are considered sin.

    It is a clever sentence by the writer, because he makes it appear as if fornication and adultery are bad, whereas homosexuality is acceptable, or a lesser sin, or a minor misdemeanour.

    On fact, he uses this as an argument and goes on to list what he sees as far more cardinal sins, as if to ask why there is such an emphasis on what he is pushing a s a minor sins when there are clearly greater sins.

    But this isn’t how it works. All sin is sin, and none, apart from the unforgivable sins of rejecting Christ or blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, is considered greater or more minor than the other.

    From a purely Christian perspective, the issue of homosexual marriage isn’t about examination of copulative preferences, as he erroneously argues, but of the Biblical understanding of what God has ordained marriage to be.

    An unbiased reading of scripture would quickly reveal that God’s attitude to what constitutes marriage does not include male with male or female with female couples, or any other permutation but male with female.

    Even the concept of multiple wives and concubines was not, strictly speaking, God’s intention for marriage, although, it seems, amongst Old Testament saints, he permitted it for a season, but certainly not as a Christian practice, which Christ made clear, recovered the original Adamic plan for marriage as being between a man and his wife.

    Christians have not isolated homosexuals. Christians have been consistent to the Word of God. Homosexuals are, by nature, isolated by their own desires and practices according to scripture.

    This has been, and will continue to be, for Bible believing Christians, a difficult stand, because the forces of secular humanism, liberal reason and homosexual logic are against them, but the important thing to note here is that the very concept of same-sex marriage is against God’s will.

    He will never ratify a marriage between members of the same sex as holy matrimony in His sight, regardless of the laws the government might bring in.

    So, to refute his first sentence, it is the homosexual opponents to exclusively heterosexual marriage who want to ostracise Christians for making a stand for what they see as the understood Biblical principle of marriage being between akan and his wife, which they are obliged to adhere to under God, regardless of the pressure placed on them by gay and lesbian lobby groups.

  2. Pro gay conservatives? Is that a contradiction? Apparently not.

    Andrew Klavan speaks:

    As I recall, I saw Laura Bush say she supported gay marriage on Huckabee. (She was on Huckabee at the time, I mean. She didn’t support gays getting married right there on Huckabee, which would be indecent.) This is just about the one issue on which I think the right is wrong and I’m glad to see more conservatives leading the way to more tolerance instead of letting the slavering, hateful radicals of the left steal the show.

    Oh, gee, let me be clear. I agree with Foxman that the world would be better off if marriage were purely a religious issue and the government only approved civil unions – which I actually think would strengthen both marriage and religion. And I also agree the Bushes aren’t paragons of conservatism. But this is ultimately picayune stuff. The basic idea is that two gay people should be able faithfully to love one another with the approval of society. I know plenty of powerful and highly placed conservatives who agree with this. The end of western civilization? C’mon. It’s a change typical of western civilization.

  3. Blah blah blah…..gays are oppressed….Christians suck…..The church is wrong……same old crap, as always.

  4. ““When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.””

    There’s nothing new under the Son.

  5. Bones,
    war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation… blood thirst

    I think that’s rather an extreme claim. I thought it was the gays community putting pressure on governments to grant them same-sex marriage, not a pogrom.

    The comparison to the holocaust is extremely weak.

    And, historically, you got it the wrong way round – it was the Roman Catholics who attempted to annihilate all opposition, especially the Muslims and Protestants. Their problem was that they eventually fought back.

  6. You must have forgotten Northern Ireland.

    The Protestants hung some of my Catholic ancestors.

    But that was being too extreme.

    Only Catholics and Muslims are extreme.

  7. I thought you were the king of extreme claims, Steve.

    Aren’t we going to arrest you for being anti-gay?

    Wasn’t it you who said this was a sign of the ‘end tmes’ (A fictional interpretation of Revelation of course!)?

  8. Extremism is often in the mind of the person being challenged.

    Here, President Obama is confronted by his own words in a different context.

  9. Its clear that the ancient middle-eastern societies around Israel were all accepting of Homosexuality, as were the Romans and Greeks.

    The Jews were almost alone in prohibiting it with such vehemance.
    As Steve said, it was considered an abomination. Just one of a long list of abominations, including this in Leviticus 19 :

    19‘You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.

    Was there a natural reason for these laws, or are they symbolic? Is there something fundamental about the nature of textiles that means they should never be mixed, or is the law meant to point to something else?

    In this case, I think those laws are symbolic. They enforce a ritual of keeping things separate – even where they naturally would be mixed. They are there to encourage a habit of separation, and they also make the Jews distinctive from the other peoples. It is in keeping these rituals of separation, including the observance of the Sabbath, that the Jews have survived and prospered as a people through long periods of adversity.

    Is the law prohibiting Homosexual relations also symbolic – it certainly made the Jews distinctive – or does it arise from the fundamental nature of sex in creation, that only the Jews understood?

    How do we decide?

  10. Well, then, is the law prohibiting adultery symbolic? Symbolic of what?

    Is every other sin revealed in the law symbolic?

    I don’t think you can have any doubt about the decision here. To the Jew homosexual relations was an abomination, just as adultery and fornication were considered sins.

    If the symbolism is merely to distinguish Israel as a separate group, what has homosexuality to do with it, since it is not something many men or women engage in typically, unless you lived in Sodom or Gomora.

    Surely what separated Israel from the Gentiles was the covenant, the promises and, for men, circumcision.

    Which brings us t another reason men were not to lie with men. Their circumcision had as much to do with sexual relations as it did with their religious affiliation with God. Engaging in homosexual practices was morally abhorrent to Jewish, circumcised men, who were, and some still are, very fervent about their faith.

  11. What, you mean same sex adulterers! Good one, Bones! Same sex fornicators are allowed to marry too! 😉

  12. You’ll have to come back over here to live Steve. Our atheist PM is legislating so its ok for Christians to discriminate against and hate gays.

    Anti-gay rights to stay

    Prime Minister Julia Gillard has assured religious groups they will have the ”freedom” under a new rights bill to discriminate against homosexuals and others they deem sinners, according to the head of the Australian Christian Lobby.

    Under current law, faith-based organisations, including schools and hospitals, can refuse to hire those they view as sinners if they consider it ”is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion”.

    Ms Gillard has met Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace several times, and he says she assured him ”she has no intention of restricting freedom of religion” when it comes to religious groups’ legal rights to discriminate in hiring and firing.

    The Prime Minister said through a spokesman: “We don’t comment on discussions with stakeholders.”

    Discrimination by religious organisations affects thousands of Australians. The faiths are big employers, and the Catholic Church in particular is one of Australia’s largest private employers.

    They rely on government funding but because of their religious status are allowed to vet the sexual practices of potential employees in ways that would be illegal for non-religious organisations.

    Labor often claims to represent progressive values and is led by an atheist, but the government has gone out of its way to placate religious organisations on this issue.

    The woman who will be steering the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill through the Senate, Finance Minister Penny Wong, is a committed Christian and a lesbian.

    Senator Wong said this week that Labor was ”seeking to balance the existing law and the practice of religious exemptions with the principle of non-discrimination”.

    It is believed that senior Labor ministers have been making similar promises to the Christian lobby since Kevin Rudd was prime minister.

    Before she was elected in 2010, Ms Gillard promised Mr Wallace in a filmed interview that she would protect the school chaplains program and that under her government ”marriage will be defined as it is in our current Marriage Act as between a man and a woman”.

    She said that ”we do not want to see the development of ceremonies that mimic marriage ceremonies”.

    The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is adamant that the church should retain its rights to discriminate, but Anglicans are divided.

    The more conservative Sydney diocese claims its right to discriminate against gays and lesbians and others whose ”lifestyles” offend religious beliefs, Bishop Robert Forsyth of South Sydney said.

    But social welfare charity Anglicare practises the opposite, South Australian branch chief executive, the Reverend Peter Sandeman said.

    ”Jesus didn’t discriminate in who he associated with and helped and neither should we,” Mr Sandeman said. “At Anglicare South Australia, we introduced a formal policy welcoming and supporting inclusion and diversity nearly a decade ago.”

    Jews ”don’t have a position on this”, Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim said.

    The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils did not respond to questions.

    Labor’s Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill was an attempt to consolidate the law, ”not completely re-invent the anti-discrimination system”, a spokeswoman for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said.

    ”We are proud to be introducing important new protections from sexual orientation discrimination. While there are some exemptions, this doesn’t detract from these important changes”.


  13. I take it Steve, you have no problem with Polyester-Cotton shirts, boiling a baby goat in its Mother’s milk (if it should ever take your fancy), or co-planting crops in order to ward off insects?

    If so, how did you decide that it is now OK to permit these things?

  14. I don’t actually think about it much, wazza, since I’m a Christian, and, therefore, uner the New Covenant, not the Old.

  15. So you can totally disregard the laws of the old covenant. Why then did you say

    “None are allowed under the law”

  16. “…just as adultery and fornication were considered sins.”

    Interesting that.

    From what has been said, it is clear that adultery was not the only valid reason for divorce. Besides, the word adultery had a peculiar significance in Jewish law, which recognized polygamy and concubinage as legitimate. Thus a Hebrew might have two or more wives or concubines, and might have intercourse with a slave or bondwoman, even if married, without being guilty of the crime of adultery (Lev 19:20), for adultery, according to Jewish law, was possible only when a man dishonored the “free wife” of a Hebrew (Lev 20:10 ff).


    I think the Old Testament has a different understanding of adultery to you.

  17. OK, Bones, so why not just go out and have sex with another woman who’s not the free wife of a Hebrew and see what your wife calls it – if you survive!

  18. Wazza, I was referring to the post which inferred that the sin of homosexuality should be considered less than adultery or fornication. Sin is of the law, therefore in that context no sin is allowed under the law.

  19. So.. Homosexuality is a sin just as wearing polyester cotton shirts is a sin, ie. they are both prohibited under the law.

    One sin is not any worse than another. However we dont have to worry about either because we are under the new covenant. Is that your position?

  20. Well, wazza, I think you might be on the wrong track there, or, like Bones, playing with semantics.

    You can’t leave out all the other sins, such as murder, theft, idolatry, lies, fraud and the like, and narrow it down to a couple of choices to spring your argument on someone.

    You need to ask yourself whether it is still considered acceptable in God’s sight for one man to sodomise another, even by consent. But, actually, that is a side issue. Is it acceptable in God’s sight for a man to claim to be married to another man?

    Just because we no longer live under Mosaic Law doesn’t mean we have a license to sin.

    So what is sin for Christian? I thought Jesus upped the ante on the Sermon on the Mount (no pun intended).

  21. So how do you define sin for a Christian, Steve?

    We’ve established that homosexuality is a sin just as bad as murder and also just as bad as wearing polyester-cotton under the OT law.

    For some reason you never cast your mind to the sin of wearing mixed fabrics – as you are not under the law. But you often cast your mind to the sin of homosexuality (admit it) and disapprove even though it is part of the very same law you claim not to be under.

    How can you define a sin without making a new law?

  22. I cast my mind to lots of things, but of Greg or yourself, or Bones or anyone else puts up a post focusing on a specific issue, or the thread moves into it, then we all discuss it.

    Besides which, because of the homosexual lobby’s push for what they call marriage-equality it is topical.

    Plus there are gay-led churches and ministers who are redefining certain aspects of theology to suit their own designs, which makes it an issue for every Christian, especially if, in their remodelling of doctrine, they steer people into error.

    I don’t think ‘we’ have established anything about polyester/cotton garments. That is entirely your fabrication. And a weak one at that.

    I think you’re confused over the Mosaic Law, frankly, and making assertions which are removed from reality. You’re also missing the significance of what has been revealed to us in the New Testament, which is our main reference for Christian conduct, although the Law and Prophets are also relevant as examples.

    You are obviously trying to steer the argument towards eliminating homosexuality as a sin, which can’t be done, either under the Old or New Testaments.

    Marriage between homosexual men will never be ratified by God. That is the issue you need to face.

    It will almost certainly become universal law amongst Western governments that men should be allowed to marry men and women marry women, but that is a secular issue which will God will never concur with. Therefore God’s followers cannot hold to it in a Christian sense.

    1 Corinthians 6
    9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites,
    10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
    11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
    12 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

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