Rev. Adam Hamilton, United Methodist pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, recently wrote a brief piece for the Washington Post where he compares the handful of passages that are often used to condemn all same-sex relationships with the over 100 passages that either condone or regulate the practice of slavery. He argues that the passages about same-sex relationships should be seen, and eventually will be seen by most people, in basically the same light as the slavery passages.
It will not surprise most readers that, on the whole, I agree with where he is going with this, and I have used this analogy myself, as have many people on the progressive side. I do think that when the handful of passages usually used to condemn all same-sex relationships are read in their historical and cultural contexts, it becomes much harder to use them as timeless condemnations of every type of same-sex relationship, especially those that express covenant love and monogamous fidelity.
That being said, I think making slavery an analogy for the gay issue can be misleading and offensive to those on the conservative side of the debate if we are not clear about how the analogy has points of connection and disconnection with the gay issue. We should be clear about what we mean with the analogy and what we do not mean. To that end, let me say where I think the analogy is helpful and where it is not.
It is helpful in pointing out:
...how Christians have changed their mind before over an issue that has had the backing of the majority of church tradition.
...how Christians have decided to relativize particular texts in the light of more general scriptural themes, such a love, justice, and mercy.
...how Christians have changed their position on a major ethical issue before by thinking more carefully and critically about how the Bible is not God's pure word dropped straight from heaven, but is instead God's word in human words that must be read with an informed mind and discerning spirit to discover God's will.
...how Christians have changed their mind on an ethical issue and the way they read Scripture by their experience of the people that they formerly oppressed or condemned.
It can be misleading and offensive if:
...people hear us saying that to be against Christian-sanctioned gay marriage makes you the moral equivalent of a ruthless slave driver.
...people hear us saying that since conservative Christians were wrong about slavery, then that means conservative Christians must be wrong about the gay issue as well.
It is this last point that needs the most attention. The slavery analogy, in and of itself, does not prove that conservative Christians are also wrong about the gay issue. The slavery analogy simple points out that it is possible for Christians to be wrong about something, even if they have the backing of several biblical texts and the majority of church tradition.
As I see it, the slavery analogy can be very effective in opening up a conversation about this issue, because it destablizes our sense of certainty in going with dominant tradition. However, it is up to those on the progressive side of the debate to then make the case why the traditional view is mistaken and why we think the progressive view accords with God's will.
In short, making the slavery analogy is a great way to begin a conversation on the debate about gay marriage from a Christian perspective, but it is an unfair and ineffective way to try to end the conversation.