Monday, January 27, 2014

Sexual Orientation and the Bible

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Luke 4:9-13

In Luke’s version of the temptation story, the devil quotes scripture when he presents the last temptation. This is worth noting because the original story must have come from Jesus himself. There were no other witnesses. He was alone in the wilderness, fasting and praying. Shakespeare authored the famous quotation: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” But the idea originated with Jesus.

The importance of this detail is not diminished by the fact that the struggle was taking place within Jesus’ mind and soul. The devil or “tempter” was not some external spiritual being, but an inner experience of the spirit. It is useful to remember this story when we contemplate what the Bible says about homosexuality. It is widely accepted that “the Bible condemns homosexuality,” but the reality of the biblical witness is more complex and nuanced.

The problem is not with the scripture, but with how it is used, by whom and for what reason. The use of scripture to control and manipulate others is a great temptation for people of faith, and it is made even more tempting when it appears to come with deep sincerity and the best of intentions.

The problem is not new. In the decades leading up to the Civil War the Abolitionists and the slave owners both cited scripture. The Abolitionists built their case on the teachings of Jesus and on the broad themes of the prophets. The slave owners countered with the numerous specific references to slavery in the Bible. There are, in fact, 375 references to slavery, 82 of them are in the Gospels and another 58 are in Paul’s letters. Not once is the institution of slavery condemned.

If we reduce everything to biblical literalism, then the slave owners win, 375 to 0. But one would be hard pressed to find a Christian today who would argue in favor of slavery, and no serious student of the Bible would agree that the Bible is pro-slavery. The great themes of the Bible move in the opposite direction, toward freedom and mutual respect. Jesus’ simple commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (taken from Leviticus 19:18) outweighs all 375 references.

The assertion that the Bible condemns homosexuality is built on just 7 references. Three are in the Hebrew scriptures and four are in the New Testament. These are the passages typically used to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

The late Walter Muelder, who was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology for many years, and a pioneer in the discipline of Christian Social Ethics, was adamant that when we go to the Bible for ethical direction, we cannot pick and choose. Seven passages are not enough to construct an ethic. They are not irrelevant. But they cannot be determinative. On the other hand, if you believe in biblical inerrancy, and you believe that each verse is equally inspired and authoritative, then you cannot question the authority of even a single verse, let alone seven passages. I think it is a useful exercise, just to be clear on what those passages actually say and mean, rather than to assume that we know.

The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49

The first, and certainly the best known passage, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. My guess is that when most people think about the sins of Sodom, they do not think about having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” and an unwillingness to “aid the poor and needy.”

But there it is.

We go to the Bible, looking for self-righteous moralisms and end up with social justice. Again. When it comes to the question of how we should be living our lives, it’s always about social justice. Or as Jesus summarized it in the Great Commandment, it’s about loving God and neighbor. (Loving God means loving your neighbor. And loving your neighbor is loving God.) We should keep Ezekiel’s commentary in mind as we review the narrative in Genesis.

The story begins with a happy episode. Three strangers come to visit Abraham and Sarah, who are living in a tent by the oaks of Mamre. The men are messengers from God, angels, who have come to reaffirm the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. They speak with Abraham outside of the tent. Inside the tent, Sarah laughs, because it seems preposterous that at her age she could have a child. And there is a wonderful interchange in which the men chastise her for laughing. She insists that she did not laugh and the episode ends with one of the men saying, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Then the men set out toward Sodom, and Abraham goes with them to show the way. God tells Abraham that the men are going to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy the cities, because there has been such a great outcry over their sin. Abraham then begins to bargain with God. What about the righteous who live in those cities, will the LORD sweep them away with the guilty? Abraham drives a hard bargain, and God agrees that if they can find ten righteous, then the cities will be spared.

After the bargain is struck, “the LORD went his way,” and Abraham returned home, and “the two angels came to Sodom.”

At this point, things go downhill in a hurry. The strangers (angels) are met at the gate of the city by Lot, who insists that they spend the night with him. He makes them a feast, and they enjoy the meal together, but before they can lie down for the night, a crowd gathers outside. “The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.” The crowd demands that Lot send out the strangers, “so that we may know them.” In other words, so that we may have sexual relations with them.

Lot goes out to argue with the crowd and even offers to let them rape his two virgin daughters, rather than give up the men who have come “under the shelter of my roof.” But the crowd is undeterred and threatens to do even worse to Lot if he does not give up the strangers. At that point, the strangers reach out and pull Lot back into the house with them, and strike “with blindness” all those in the crowd, “so that they are unable to find the door.”

In the morning the strangers send Lot and his family away to safety, and fire rains down on the cities until they are destroyed.

It is a dark tale. There are rays of light, but they are not easy to find. No one would count this among their favorite Bible stories. It is not the Sermon on the Mount, or the Good Samaritan. It isn’t the Twenty-third Psalm, or the Ten Commandments. It isn’t Micah or Amos or Hosea or Ruth. It isn’t even on a par with Esther.

The story is not just Patriarchal; it is deeply misogynistic. It’s good that Lot offers hospitality to strangers, and it’s good that he tries to protect his guests. But in his attempts to dissuade the men of Sodom from attacking the strangers, Lot offers to let them rape his daughters. And the story implies that the gang rape and humiliation of women is not as bad as the gang rape and humiliation of men.

It is difficult to claim ethical guidance from a story which is fundamentally immoral. One of the challenges in reading and interpreting the Bible is separating the timeless truths from the stories that simply reflect the prejudices and limited perspectives of a primitive people. The story of Sodom clearly falls into the latter category. We need to recognize it as such, and let it go.

Alternatively, we can focus, as Ezekiel did, on the guilt of Sodom that (apparently) first led to God’s judgment: “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” That is a biblical truth which stands the test of time.

Two Verses from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. Leviticus 20:13

Little Good Harbor sits on the southeastern coast of Georgetown Island. It is a charming place with an equally charming name. It is a small harbor, but contrary to what one might expect from the name, it is not very good. It is too shallow and has too many rocks. Though it looks inviting, it is almost useless. So it is of “Little Good.”

The Priestly Code of Leviticus is in many ways the Little Good Harbor of biblical wisdom. It is not as shallow as Little Good Harbor, but there are lots of rocks. In the storms of life it does not provide safe haven. The idea of a guide for living that sets God’s people apart, is a good one, but the actual code is deeply flawed.

Leviticus has two almost identical verses of condemnation. The first passage, verse 22 of chapter 18, says simply, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second passage, printed above, adds the penalty of death, and notes that those who commit such acts are responsible for their fate; “their death is upon them.”

The condemnation is clear and unmistakable.

Here, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see reflections of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. To lie “with a male as with a woman” was to treat the male as if he were female. This was the ultimate humiliation. Judaism and Christianity have moved toward gender equality, but the subjugation of women remains deeply imbedded in Middle Eastern culture. The condemnation of male homosexuality is a reflection of the patriarchal devaluation of women.

“Abomination” is a strong word. And it is not used often. In the Priestly Code of Leviticus, it is an abomination to eat an eagle, an osprey, or a vulture. It is an abomination to eat a burnt offering after the second day. And it is an abomination to eat anything unclean. Eating such things may be unappetizing, but it hardly seems “an abomination.”

The death penalty is serious. In Leviticus, it is mandated for murder, for adultery, for blasphemy, for cursing one’s mother or father, and for “wizards and mediums.” In Exodus and Deuteronomy, the death penalty is invoked for breaking Sabbath, as well as for outsiders who come near the Tabernacle. Looking back across the millennia, that seems a little harsh.

We know from historical research that the death penalty was seldom used for these crimes. At this point, the Torah uses the language of death, not literally as a legal sentence, but metaphorically, to indicate the seriousness of the offense. Just as in our less enlightened moments we might say, “anyone who does that ought to be shot!”

When we read that it is an abomination and that it calls for the death penalty, we read it as a very strong condemnation. But that reading is at least somewhat tempered by the recognition that many of the other offenses that are described with that same harsh language do not seem as “abominable” to twenty-first century readers.

Leviticus is tough going. More than one well-intentioned and sincere Christian setting out to read the whole Bible from cover to cover has struggled through the long narratives of Genesis and Exodus, only to come to a grinding halt when confronted with the strange list of arcane laws that make up the Priestly Code of Leviticus. In order to understand it, we need to avoid getting lost in the details.

If we set out to construct a sexual ethic on the foundation of the two condemning verses in Leviticus, then we need to explain why we are picking and choosing those verses and not also including the admonitions about the ritual purification of women after menstruation and many other similar laws. And we need to explain our use of a code which is patriarchal and misogynistic. Its purpose is to set the people apart from the surrounding pagan culture, yet in its attitudes toward women it generally reflects that culture.

The premise of the Holiness Code is that God’s people should be holy as God is holy; that in our daily living we should remind ourselves of who we and whose we are. When the rabbis read these laws, they read them with that end in mind. The details are flawed, the product of a primitive world view and a pre-scientific understanding. But if we can focus beyond that, on the vision behind the details, then we can find light for our journey.

Paul told the church in Corinth that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. When it comes to the study of Torah, Rabbi Paul echoes the ancient rabbinic insight that God is found in the white spaces. Leviticus is about a people set apart and called to be different. The details may confound us, but the greater vision is of a life shaped by the calling of God.

Four New Testament References

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:26-27

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. I Corinthians 6:9-10

This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching I Timothy 1:9-10

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7

As a Christian, I find the New Testament passages more troubling. We claim the whole Bible as our sacred story, but we also want to believe that Jesus brought a cosmic change in our thinking. Rightly or wrongly, I think we expect more enlightenment when we read the New Testament.

The passages from Hebrew scripture are more easily dismissed. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly primitive. And no one takes Leviticus seriously.

Although Christians sometimes over-emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus’ teachings, he did bring a new perspective on many issues. He also deepened and expanded insights previously found in the Prophets. And he revealed great truths about human beings. But he did not change human nature.

Regardless of what we may believe about the inspiration of the biblical writers, we know that the actual words were written by human beings. The people who wrote the Bible (who put the letters and words on the page) were not perfect. And they were subject to the influences of the surrounding culture.

When Paul wrote his letters, he did not write them as sacred scripture. He was writing to specific people in specific places, offering advice and counsel intended for their situation. He did not know that two millennia later Christians would be studying those letters and reading them in worship as sacred texts. And the same is true for the unknown authors of the other New Testament epistles.

Of the four texts cited above, the last three can be dismissed rather easily. The last two, from the First letter to Timothy and from the Letter to Jude, were written fifty to one hundred years after Paul’s death, and do not carry the same authority as a letter from the Apostle. The Corinthians passage, like the passages from Timothy and Jude is written with ambiguous language which makes the meaning unclear. These texts are talking about some sort of inappropriate sexual behavior, but it is not clear what it is. What is certain, is that they are not talking about a loving, consensual, committed same sex relationship between two adults.

The Romans text is more difficult. We know with nearly one hundred percent certainty that it was written by Paul. That makes it hard to ignore if you believe as I do that Paul was the greatest Christian theologian, that all subsequent Christian theology is a footnote to Paul, and that his inspiration and brilliance were the driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

These two verses from Romans have probably done more to harm Christian attitudes toward homosexuality than anything else in the Bible. So what do we make of this?

First, Paul’s primary interest in this passage is not homosexuality, he is writing about what happens when we turn away from God. When we turn away from God, says Paul, we do “unnatural” things. The sexual relations which Paul describes are the result and not the cause or our turning away.

Second, his apparent reason for rejecting same sex relations is that they are “unnatural.” But our sense of what is “natural” is not fixed. In the nineteenth century, it was thought “unnatural” for blacks to be equal to whites. A hundred years ago it was “unnatural” for children with learning disabilities to be in public school. Fifty years ago a majority of Americans believed that marriage between blacks and whites was “unnatural.” Our sense of what is natural has changed. Is it unreasonable to believe that if Paul were alive now, he would see things differently?

Paul wrote about what he saw in the context of his own time and place. What may have been true in his time is not necessarily true in our time. One of the great biblical truths from Abraham and Sarah onward is that God always calls us into the future. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.”

Note: parts of this post were originally published in August of 2011.

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