I have just navigated some rather unpleasant websites to see exactly which Bible verses the religious right uses to make their case against gays. What I discovered is that I have more well-fitting pairs of pants in my closet than they have explicit scriptures in their arsenal. This makes six (scriptures). And the amazing thing is that I–who am not seminary trained, but just a pretty good reader–can knock out all of those scriptures in about as many paragraphs.
Right away, I can clear up Leviticus 18.22, Leviticus 20.13, Romans 1.27 and Corinthians 6.9. The first two scriptures–which are the only Old Testament scriptures–say the same thing: Men lying with men do something detestable, and should (according to Lev. 20) be killed. This is because, back in the day, idolators could be killed. And idolatry is at the center of this entire debate. When these “anti-gay” laws were written, the Israelites were a little clot of folks who were trying to keep their culture alive among some pretty established pagans. Mainly, there were the Canaanite peoples. And among the Canaanites were the Assyrians, who liked to dissolve the culture of anyone they vanquished by scattering that culture among other members of the empire. All of these Canaanite civilizations included homosexual practices. (Please note that during most of my spiel, I’m going to use the rather clunky phrase of “homosexual practices,” This is because in much theology of biblical antiquity, homosexuality was seen as a “practice.” instead of a relationship. That’s part of the whole disconnect that faces us today) Among many pagan peoples, such as the Babylonians, homosexuality occurred in religious rites. So, while the Israelites were resisting all of this idolatry, somebody codified what’s in Leviticus 18.22. But notice what surrounds the verse. Right before it is a law against child sacrifice. This is something that the Canannites also did; they burned their children to the fertility god, Moloch. Apparently, they beat drums to drown out the screams. Now look at what comes right after Leviticus 18.22: “Do not defile yourself in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.” In other words: Don’t become Canaanites. A similar scripture exists around Leviticus 20.
Flash forward to Romans 1.27. Here, Paul says that God, in his wrath, afflicted the Old Testament idolaters by making them commit “unnatural,” homosexual acts. Mind you that he’s writing to people in Rome. More than that, he is writing to Nero’s Rome. And if you’ve learned anything about that guy, you know that a loving, monogamous, homosexual relationship would function as sort of the oatmeal of his sexual smorgasbord. But even if we dispense with him, we know that lots of the regular Romans had sacred orgies–many of which were homosexual, if not actually omnisexual. And the Romans, again, were a huge empire that had swallowed a nascent church that was trying to preserve its emerging doctrine among some very well-established, and very well-armed, adversity. Paul says: Don’t become Romans. This is the important thing. Really. The homosexual prohibition was not anti-gay–not in our sense of the word. It was anti-cult. Paul’s laws were a way of maintaining an identity among the threat of cultural obliteration. They prevented a person from falling away from the church by entering pagan vices–which is what I Corinthians 6 describes. Pauls’ admonitions functioned, in fact, as ritual laws–which are distinct from moral laws–which is to say that they rattled in the same bin with the soon-to-be defunct Old Testament rule against eating from a pagan’s sacred grove.
It is true that, if you’ve been swallowed by an empire, and if you maintain your religious identity in the face of other rituals, and then, if you also impress others with your love and your goodness, you may impact those who jumble up against you. In the case of Rome, you might even convert your conqueror. But it’s very worth noting that when these insulating, ritual laws start to limit your own potential converts, it’s time to reflect and adapt. The early Christians did this with diet and circumcision–two subjects that receive far more attention in the Old Testament than homosexuality ever did. Paul himself was wise enough to know that these practices neither added nor subtracted from a person’s devotion to God. He proclaimed (ironically? appropriately?) that what matters most is love. And unless our gay brethren start, say, setting children on fire, I think we can solve the gay-rights issue by following Paul’s own example.
Now. The last two anti-gay scriptures are about Sodom and Gomorrah. The first is Genesis 19, which describes the event. But have you read this story? It’s like something out of Cinemax. It starts with hospitality. Abraham and Sarah host two angel-like “men of God.” Then the men go to Sodom to stay with Lot, who also hosts them. The Sodomites–who, in this case, are all men–bang on Lot’s door and demand that the angels come out so they can get gang raped. And Lot says, “No! These men are my guests!” This is important. Note that he doesn’t say, “No! That act is detestable,” or “No! Are you crazy? These men are angels!” But when the Sodomites insist, he does say another thing: “Here, crazy rapers. Take my daughters. They’re virgins. Go to town.”
Few people in this story come out looking good. That’s something to remember about the Bible. It’s self-censuring; it admits that its very heroes behave badly. Folks like the ancient Egyptians made a point of not recording their failures. Not so the Israelites. This is one of the things that makes their literature so whole. So: Lot offers his daughters up to what is literally a rapacious orgy. The Bible doesn’t comment. The Sodomites go after the angels instead, and all hell breaks loose. Lot and his daughters head for the hills (that’s where the phrase comes from)–and look at what happens next: The daughters get Lot drunk, and they rape him while he’s asleep. Now, even if we leave Sodom and Gomorrah aside as little ash-heaps, we’ve got nearly enough sexual sins in Lot’s own family to field a bingo card. But notice again: The Bible doesn’t judge. As a result of the rape, each of the daughters starts a line of peoples–the Moabites and the Ammonites. Later, these races do have a checkered past with the Israelites; everybody wars over the land of Canaan. But still, Ruth herself is a Moabite. And she, of course, is part of the line that gave us Jesus.
The point is that there are sex crimes galore in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Most of them go without comment from either the characters or the narrator. Instead, the focus is on hospitality. Hospitality–the ancient rule that requires you to shelter even your archest enemy–the rule that echoes in all the Mosaic laws that provide comfort for the stranger–it’s this rule whose infraction makes the Sodomites most wicked. And one could argue that by our denying comfort to the gay community, we are doing the same. In fact, I’ll push this further: If a society pressures a person to have sex in a way that she would not choose–be that with an individual or an entire gender–that’s rape too.
Finally, we come to Jude 1.7, which says that settlements like Sodom and Gomorrah, “giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh” will face destruction. “Fornication” is from the Greek fornix, which was the name of the underparts of bridges where prostitutes did their business. Sodom and Gomorrah were famously wicked places (that’s why the angels were there in the first place), so it stands to reason that they would have prostitution. In any event, fornication does not mean gay sex. Strike one. So let’s look at “strange flesh.” Another way to translate this is “the flesh of strangers.” Again, I point you to the sin of inhospitality. Don’t like the hospitality angle? Then here are other questions: Is this “strange flesh” a man’s flesh? Is it an angel-man’s flesh? Is it not a beloved’s flesh, but a hot-piece-of-ass flesh? Is it flesh that you’re going to share with a crowd of buddies? Is it flesh that you’re going to “go after,” even if it’s unwilling? Really, we don’t know any of these answers–but we do know that the Sodomites were of Canaanite flesh, which is to say of pagan, ritually-irksome flesh. (See Genesis 13.) That’s strike two. And as long as we’re being persnickety about scriptures, let’s take a look at Ezekial 16.49. It says this: “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” And that, dearies, is the end of the ballgame.
And actually, that’s also the end of my argument. Really. That’s it. But here is one more thing–a scripture that Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson put in our arsenal: Jesus speaks to his disciples in John 16. “I have much more to say to you,” he admits, “more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you in all truth.” The Bible couldn’t predict every struggle that we’d face over whole millennia of faith. Bishop Robinson proclaims that it couldn’t anticipate stem-cell research, or abortion, or gay rights, or even abolition. But it did mention a guide, a Spirit, which, at our best, might find reflection in our conscience. It is a kind of faith to trust your conscience. I’d say it’s a kind of prayer.
So: Use it to judge dogma. Use it to judge scripture. Conscience isn’t foolproof. Bonhoeffer writes about how it can become a trap. But when a heterosexist finds that a loved one is gay, and when that heterosexist starts revising his idea of who gay people are, he is reacting with conscience–which is to say that he is reacting with an intellect that’s informed by love.
In spite of all this, there are those whose consciences say that gay people will go to hell. There are those who say that allies of gay people will go to hell. But knowing the friends I have–the friends whose courage I admire–the friends I love–I would bet my soul that such a thing is not true. It is not true. And if my detractors say that my obstinacy only furthers my own damnation, I say that they, of all people, should recognize faith when they see it.