Discomfort and Moral Decision Making

Galatians 3:27-29
June 27, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Some time ago, in the pre-pandemic years when people went out to eat, I was at a fancy restaurant for a family celebration of some sort when the couple at the next table ordered Sannakji.  A few minutes later, the server brought out a dish of raw baby octopus, their tiny tentacles spilling out over a plate doused in sesame oil, and as I watched, the couple popped those fleshy heads into their mouths with glee.  I cringed at the sight, and I still get shivers imagining those little tentacles going down someone’s throat.  My opinion was reinforced when I looked up the name of the dish for this sermon, and I read in Wikipedia that though the octopus is killed before it is served, sometimes the tentacles will continue to move on the plate, and that “Because the suction cups on the arm pieces are still active when the dish is served, special care should be taken when eating sannakji. The active suction cups can cause swallowed pieces of arm to stick to the mouth or throat [which can present a choking hazard for some people.]”  

Now, maybe you enjoy a dish of raw octopus but the thought of eating that fleshy head and those raw tentacles makes me shudder…. but fortunately for me, the Bible agrees with my discomfort.  Leviticus 11 says, “Anything that doesn’t have fins and scales, whether in seas or streams, whether small creatures in the shallows or huge creatures in the deeps, you are to detest. Yes, detest them,” Leviticus says, “Don’t eat their meat.”  

Given the biblical prohibition against eating octopus and my own emotional discomfort with consuming their raw flesh, I have decided that eating octopus is a moral sin and since as your minister my job is to keep you on the straight and narrow, I am going to declare that from this time forward no one in this church is allowed to consume octopus.  I will no longer baptize, confirm, or admit into church membership anyone who commits the moral sin of eating octopus — raw or otherwise — and before I administer communion to you next week, you will have to swear to me that an octopus has never touched your lips.  

Or calamari for that matter because eating squid gives me the willies too. 

I am, of course, not serious, but I am serious about the fact that for too many Christians, this is the process by which they make their moral judgements.  They say that they are basing their ideas about what is morally acceptable and what is not on the Bible, but I think that more often than not, their moral decision making begins with their own personal discomfort and they look to the Bible only to justify what they already believe.  To prove my argument, let look at how Christians’ ideas about what is morally acceptable and what is not have changed over the 2000 years of the church’s existence even though the Bible has not changed. 

For example, in the 1800s, Christians argued about whether it was permissible to own slaves and both slave owners and abolitionists turned to the Bible to support their views.  Slaveowners actually had the stronger biblical argument since most of the families in the Old Testament owned slaves and the New Testament reminds slaves to be obedient to their masters.  Nevertheless, after the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves — and the passage of a bit of time — eventually all Christians came to accept that owning another human being is morally repugnant.  In fact, today, even conservative Christians who claim to be biblical literalists condemn slavery as contrary to the will of God and many evangelical Christians are on the forefront of trying to end modern human slave trade and sex trafficking.  

Now, the Bible hasn’t changed.  The scriptures that 19th century pro-slavery churches used to argue for slavery are still in our Bible and yet with the exception of some fringe groups, no Christian today would use those scriptures to build a moral framework that excuses human trafficking as God-ordained.  Christians may say that they use the Bible to make moral decisions but the fact is, many Christians use the Bible not to make their moral decisions but to justify the moral decisions that have already made.  And too many Christians base their ideas about what is morally acceptable and what is not on the most fallible standard of their own personal discomfort. 

Slave owners in the 1800s justified slavery through biblical exegesis but when it came right down to it, they wanted to believe that slavery was morally acceptable because they were comfortable with it.  They had grown up in a culture where White people owned Black people and they were accustomed to those roles.  To eliminate slavery would mean that a slave owner might find himself in the uncomfortable position of working as an equal alongside a Black man.  The word “uncomfortable” is of course, mild for the disgust and fear that such a thought incited in them but whether you call it discomfort or fear, slave owners’ defense of the status quo originated in their emotional reaction to changing the status quo and the Bible was only the tool they used to justify their unwillingness to learn a new way of being. 

Given that the institution of slavery in America ended over 150 years ago, you might think we would have learned our lesson but Christians have continued to repeat that mistake.  In the 20th century, churches degreed that interracial marriage was a sin and they justified their moral repugnance by quoting biblical passages prohibiting the “mixing of two kinds of seeds.”  The reality was, however, that interracial marriage just made them uncomfortable.  Most people in the 20th century lived in homogeneous towns or segregated cities, and many White people didn’t personally know anyone of color and so people of a different race felt alien to them.  White Christians couldn’t imagine what it would be like to love someone who looked so different from themselves and they didn’t want to imagine it so they went to the Bible again to create a moral code that would keep thing things familiar and safe.  

But again, the culture moved on and while there are still too many Christians who condemn interracial marriage, the majority of Christians have come to accept interracial, not because the Bible changed but because society changed.  As cities became increasingly cosmopolitan and the media included a greater range of racial identity, people became familiar with the idea of interracial interaction, and they saw that the world would not collapse if a Black woman and White man married.  Christians concluded, in spite of the biblical prohibitions against mixing seeds, that God blesses the union of people of different races and so interracial marriage became morally acceptable.

But did we learn from that lesson?  No, history repeated itself again and in the 1980s as gay right activists began the movement to legalize gay marriage, out came the Bibles and churches flung a handful of verses in the faces of LBGTQ people saying that God condemns homosexuality.  While that battle is on-going, the most recent Pew Research poll shows that today, nearly two-thirds of white mainline Protestants and Catholics favor same-sex marriage and although only 29% of white evangelicals support it, that number is growing due to the more open attitudes of younger evangelicals.  Why are younger evangelicals more accepting of gay marriage?  Because younger evangelicals are more likely to know someone who is gay, and watch more media showing a greater spectrum of sexual and gender identity, while older evangelicals are still watching re-runs of “Murder, She Wrote.”  Those six verses that Christians used to condemn same sex relationships are still in the Bible but increasing numbers of Christians believe that God accepts and blesses same sex relationships in spite of the ancient bigotries of Leviticus, not because the Bible has changed but because their own personal comfort level has changed.

And let me be clear:  this is a good thing because just like my using the Bible to justify a moral condemnation of the eating of octopus, a person can use the Bible to justify almost any personal discomfort they want.  There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible and so if you dig hard enough and are willing to do some fancy footwork, you can use the Bible to condemn anything from a person’s gender identity to the wearing of sneakers if you want.  (Mark 6:9 “Jesus said to them, ‘Wear sandals.’”)  And if you doubt me, I threw out the example wearing of sneakers off the top of my head when I wrote that sentence and only then, went to the Bible to see if I could find a verse to support it, and there it was.  “Seek and you shall find!”

We condemn others as immoral when what we really mean is that their behavior is unfamiliar, makes us feel squijjy, or is beyond our understanding.  And then rather than admit that it is our discomfort motivating our stance, we turn to the Bible to make our “discomfort” into a righteous virtue.  Our moral prohibitions are too often just security blankets that we wrap around ourselves to keep us from growing and having to change.  

Does that mean the Bible is irrelevant to our moral discussions?  Not at all.  The Bible is a two thousand year record of people of faith trying to come to grips with God’s expansive grace just as we are today.  We can and should turn to the Bible to observe that struggle; to see how sometimes they fell short of God’s vision for them and how sometimes surprisingly they rose to God’s vision and became giants of faith.  The apostle Paul was one of those giants and the reason I love to read Paul’s writings is because I can see in his letters how he himself is wrestling with the implications of the gospel he had embraced.  When Paul was first establishing churches throughout the ancient world, he convinced the leaders of the new Christian movement to allow Gentiles into their communities.  For Jews, Gentiles were alien in their behaviors, their food preferences, and their dress.  Paul encountered all kinds of difficulties with church members who tried to set up rules and moral injunctions based merely on their discomfort with these differently oriented people, and Paul himself was often trying to figure out what was permissible and what was not but Paul had the honesty to constantly return to his founding belief that our call is to create a community that reflects the will of Christ, and Paul knew that Jesus was very uninterested in  our personal level of comfort.  If anything, Jesus often asked his followers to do things he knew would make them uncomfortable.  Jesus talked with women even though good Jewish men would never do such a thing.  He drank with sinners and welcomed people with leprosy into his company.  Feeling squeamish must have been a daily experience for his disciples as Jesus constantly did things that they were just not used to doing and as he talked to people that they preferred to hold at arm’s length.  When one of his followers asked Jesus for a moral code to guide him, Jesus said, “Love God and love your neighbor,” and then moved on as if that was sufficient for one’s faith.  And so it is.

In Paul’s quest to put Jesus’ expansive grace into practice, he penned an eloquent description of what life with Christ looks like:  When we are clothed in Christ, he wrote, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Every one of those categories that Paul lists is a way that first century people used to segregate one group from another; boxes into which they sorted their community to ensure that they did not have to mingle with a person who might make them feel uncomfortable.  And in spite of 2000 years of Christianity, they are still the boxes we use today — ethnic groups, racial distinctions, economic class, sexual orientation, and gender identity.  How can today’s Christian church justify their discrimination against trans people when Paul says that in Christ there is no male and female?  Well, they are justifying it because frankly, gender expansive identities give them the willies and so if it makes them uncomfortable, they decide, God must be against it. 

And if you insist on using the Bible to justify your own discomfort, then I invite you to join my church where the eating of octopus and squid is forbidden.  It’s right there in Leviticus.  

Or, you can be a member of the church of Christ where Christ challenges us to set aside our personal discomforts and be willing to experience new ways of being and new ways of thinking, where the only rule is that we learn to love God and our neighbor — Jew or Greek, slave or free, gay or straight, Black or white, Asian or Latino, male or female or trans.  May our moral decisions be based not on what gives us the willies but only on the expansive compassionate heart of God.