How the Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

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.

I Think Something Similar Happened with Ivan the Terrible

I’ve lately heard some friends talk about how low the Trumpers will go in their tolerance for their president. And I’m afraid it doesn’t matter how morally repugnant Trump is as long as he can stock the courts and give hell to the “illegals.” To his supporters, the ends justify the means. Dearies. Have you ever been in an argument with somebody like that? You realize, at some point, that they seek to win at any cost—even if it means sacrificing any mutual respect, trust, or goodwill that has ever grown between you. And this suggests that although, in the end, they may win their fight, they’ll have lost the relationship. In this case, of course, it will be a relationship with half the country (and possibly a large portion of the world). And if I were a Trumper, I would think very carefully before accepting a sacrifice like that.

A friend once said she wondered what would happen to the arch right if they finally succeeded in mangling the courts to the point where they toppled Roe v. Wade and marriage equality. What would the conservatives have left to rally around? Who would be their grand enemy then?

I’m guessing it would be immigrants, seeing that Trump is already promising to “save ICE.” That will be his battlecry for the midterm elections. We liberals need to be very cautious about how much we let him frame that contest.

And as for the Republicans, I suggest (again) that they reconsider who they’ve let into their bed. Trump rallies people behind him by pointing to enemy after enemy. That’s what bullies do. The trouble is that there always has to be an enemy. And this means that if you let Trump do everything he wants to quash women’s rights, gay rights, and immigrant rights, you better have some other scapegoats to feed him after he’s done. If you don’t, his enemy might well become you. And then, because you’ll have driven off everyone else in the meantime, there will be no one left to spare you from the very country you saved.

Death and Resurrection

In the past year, Republican Christianity gained both its victory and its demise. It gained power across the government. And with that power, it did the following: It instituted bans against Muslims; it made inroads against gay rights; it started its attempt to gut women’s health. It turned away the stranger; it took medicine from the sick; it rebuffed those ravaged by natural disasters; it increased the debt of the poor; it opened more ways to degrade the earth; it ignored the cries of criminals’ victims; it threatened to destabilize the world by giving primacy to its own sacred site; and it sacrificed its children and children’s children for the sake of current wealth. You can see how the death creeps in. If there was ever anything Christian in Republicanism, their support of Trump has killed it. And those Christian Republicans who do retain a shred of conscience find they can ease it only by saying that the truth tellers of the world—the media, and the intelligence teams, and the scientists, and the victims themselves—are all lying. Christian Republicanism is dead. 

Now I, for one, do mourn it, because however disagreeable its prejudices were to me, it at least tried, at one time, to take a stand against deceit, and sex crimes, and even some injury to the earth. All that’s gone now. Insofar as they support this administration, the most vocal—the most pious—Christians in this country have lost all credibility to anyone except to themselves. Whatever Christianity they think they stand for now serves to drive others from Christianity itself. Their allegiance to Trump has been their unmasking and their undoing. And their City on a Hill has become the unease of the world.

So now the question is where Christianity—I mean, true Christianity—might speak in their absence. If it doesn’t find a way to do that–and to speak so that it can be heard–then it will least wane, if not die too. For the most part, liberal Christians have been too timid. For the past half century, too many of us have contented ourselves with being the so-very-invisible church. But seeing that Christianity is about rejection, remnants, and resurrection, I think, even now, it could find its voice again. I hope it does. I pray. And if it does, I suspect that it will speak first from those the powerful have abandoned, and second from those who have endeavored to suffer alongside them. And from the compassion of these who have seen suffering, who knows? Christianity may return to its true self.

(Originally posted December 6, 2017)

Hell

A few days ago, I got a pretty strong inkling that a person who’s known me since birth likely believes I am going to hell. That concept didn’t enter the conversation in so many words, but it’s safe to say that there were some sandals and some dust sprinkling. As far as I’m aware, this is a new achievement I’ve reached. And I’ve won it, I suppose, through my mouthy evangelism on social media and elsewhere. I use that word advisedly, because in certain respects, evangelism is what I see most of my serious writing to be—including my 900 (sigh, now it’s 1000)-page novel*. It’s okay—the damnation. Many of you have come under the same attack, and you are some of the finest people I know. In other words—and all jokes aside—if you’re going to hell, then I want to go with you.

Now it’s true that, these days, condemnation of all sorts occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. It is, I think, what our enemies have stoked and exploited. In fact, I believe, now more than ever, that the most difficult and patriotic thing that any of us can do is offer civility to one another, whenever possible**. On Facebook, I have unfollowed some liberals for their hateful incivility. Some other liberals have unfollowed me. I shed conservative followers faster than Trump loses Republicans. But here’s the thing: By and large, the difference between liberal and conservative condemnation is that liberals rarely put their enemies in hell. 

It’s mostly because we don’t believe so much in hell. Damnation is a vindictive concept; it builds a religion on fear instead of love—and as an idea, I don’t find it so biblically sound. I can think of no one in either history or imagination who deserves eternal torture. And that includes Dumbass Trump. But if you believe in hell and all of its menace, then something frequently happens to your concept of your enemy: At best, you pity them. You seek to correct them, because you love them and because you fear for their souls. At second best, you fear them. You cease your association with them, because they might threaten your soul. And at worst, you damn them. Because, boy they’re gonna get it, and that makes you sort of glad.

In this whole post, I’m speaking in broad strokes–and I could probably face some correction on nuance. But the bottom line is that when hell enters the picture, you frequently degrade your fellow man. Something happens when you believe that another person at least risks the Universe’s doing worse than throwing them away. Something happens when you believe Absolute Justice will torture them while they scream—and while likely their mothers scream—for so many centuries. When you suspect people are damned, they become less worthy; in fact, they become less than worthless. And that makes it so easy to neglect them on the grounds that they’re already lost. Oh, sure, you can point to the Penitent Thief and say you make room for deathbed conversions. You can try to love your enemy, but you’ve aligned her with the Eternal Enemy. And I’m sorry, but you’re just not that compassionate. History shows that you aren’t. Tell me there isn’t a soupcon of she-had-it-coming, when you don’t make room for safe abortions. Tell me that there isn’t part of you that thinks a Muslim refugee is better off dying in Syria than spreading his faith over here. Tell me you’ wouldn’t rather back a president you know to be a maniac if he can make inroads toward ending Marriage Equality. 

In general, the Christian conservative both fears and wields the threat of damnation. In fact, they wield it to keep one another in line. It is why the facts themselves don’t always stick to them. Nothing is more important than the safety of the soul. Nothing is more real. And that, actually, is the Christian conservative’s greatest downfall: By their own rules, they would rather abandon me to my condemnation than risk their own salvation to help me–or you, or the boy starving in Aleppo. At best, they’ll give us their thoughts and prayers, but little else. That isn’t faith. In fact, it’s the opposite. And it’s parsimony to boot. But you know what? None of it is damnable. That’s the thing. Grace won’t send these guys to hell either. And that’s because paradise will never be so tawdry. And it will never be that easy.

*Evangelism, in this sense, means an attempt to point to all-inclusive love, redemption, compassion, and eventual justice; the need for biblical and historical accuracy; and the absolute sin of both using divinity to oppress anybody else, and not using divinity to oppose that oppression.

**No, it isn’t always possible. But if we are civil in the meantime, we might reduce the number of occasions when all we have left to do is fight.

(Originally posted November 16, 2017)

Veritas

Last week, I suggested that one reason why some religious conservatives follow Trump in spite of his contradictions is that many religious conservatives have been conditioned to view reason and worldly knowledge as something far subordinate, if not anathema to, godly faith. We see through a glass darkly—and therefore, no matter how well it telescopes or magnifies, we must not let it challenge God’s Teachings. Harvard’s VERITAS, said one commentator, does not reflect absolute truth but merely the worldly sort. To certain religious groups, reason is what the tempter offered us in the garden, and therefore its fruits can poison. In fact its fruits can damn. So considering all this, it is no real wonder that when people in these groups obey faith without reason, they may also do the same in politics. In other words, some conservative churches have conditioned their congregations to embrace authoritarians.

A part of the solution, I think, is to convince the faithful that reason—and skeptical critique—actually enhance one’s sense of the numinous. And I believe there’s no better way to make this case than by getting the faithful to accept science. This can be a tough sell, because to them, science is the home of evolutionary theory, and climate alarm, and vaccines, and abortions, and the whole damn(able) Enlightenment. But it also brings us the idea that we proceed through error (because, one might say, we see through a glass darkly). It bolsters the idea of democracy and checks and balances (because one person’s error shouldn’t be allowed to rule the rest). And it proceeds from the faith that whatever we learn about the universe, the universe can take it. In fact, as with any revelation, the real question is how much we can handle.

Isaac Newton once said that in his computations he was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Astrophysicists climb so high into their equations that they come down, wide-eyed, from a kind of Sinai. Time folds; dimensions multiply; according to NASA, dark matter and dark energy make up over 95 percent of the universe. I don’t have time to make a full case for how science feeds wonder, awe, and love. But I will say that ideas like the simultaneous vulnerability and omnipotence of God becomes far easier to accept, when you encounter things like the fact that light is both particle and wave.

Reason points to reality. And another word for reality is God. Reason may emulsify one’s simple concept of reality (or God, or any single political issue), but it’s in the thicket of things that we find revelation. After all, who ever said that wrestling with reality didn’t involve uncomfortable work? “Surely the Lord is in this place,” said Jacob in the wilderness, “and I knew it not.” Or to borrow another scripture, science shows us the back parts of God. And when science teaches a person to rely on fact and reason as further means of discerning what is good, it will surely show that following any sort of autocracy is far from holy.

(Originally posted August 8, 2017)

Quiverfull

From NBC:

“AUSTIN, Texas — Parents seeking to adopt children in Texas could soon be rejected by *state-funded* or private agencies with religious objections to them being Jewish, Muslim, gay, single, or interfaith couples, under a proposal in the Republican-controlled Legislature. [Emphasis mine.] Five other states have passed similar laws protecting faith-based adoption organizations that refuse to place children with gay parents or other households on religious grounds — but Texas’ rule would extend to state-funded agencies. Only South Dakota’s is similarly sweeping.”

Does this need comment? I read it to James, and he said, “That is NOT gonna pass Constitutional muster.” The thing is that South Dakota seems already to have achieved such a measure. And I can tell you firsthand that the Dakotas go along just fine, as Constitutional cesspits. 

But let’s say that the courts do their job, and get in the way of this sort of state-funded adoption ban. That would be excellent—just as Trump’s impeachment would be excellent. But as with the Trump-less Trumpites, the movement would only persist. And the adoption agenda would follow this arithmetic: Removing (at least cheap) birth control and stopping all abortions + restricting adoptions to “Christian” families = an increasing supply of “Christian” soldiers. There’s a name for this sort of philosophy. It’s called the Quiverfull movement. 

In its purest form, the Quiverfull doctrine focuses mostly on parents who are Christian already, where the women are supposed to “relinquish control of the womb to God,” and have as many babies as possible. (Apparently this surrender is very liberating to the mother. Of course it is.) That focus aside, however, I can see how the Quiverfull doctrine can slide easily into the “you have ‘em, we’ll raise ‘em” strategy. As the name suggests, the Quiverfull philosophy hinges on the idea of warfare. In some early instances, Amish or Orthodox Jewish versions of the movement have embraced the fact that small-group longevity depends on growing a population. But when we unpack this stance in relation to the nation’s already-conservative midsection, we can come up with something like this: 

As with any extremist doctrine these days, the idea of warfare has metastasized from the goal of survival to one of conquest. I’ve come across a few books on the Quiverfull movement. Some of them have titles such as Family UNplanning; A Mom Just Like You; and (my favorite) The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality. Of the ten titles I’ve seen, however, three of them went like this: Arrows in His Hand; The Family: God’s Weapon for Victory; and Birthing God’s Mighty Warriors. Rachel Scott is the author of that last one, and Fox News covered her on a 2007 spot that was called “When Birthing Children is a Religious Experience.” In this segment, Scott mentioned an encounter with a “warrior angel” who espoused the Quiverfull philosophy. Bottom line is the Quiverfull movement has entered at least the Fox-viewing mainstream, and it has the aroma of what may anti-Islam folks would call a jihad.

Now back in the day, a Roman patriarch had the option to disown his infant. The family laid the baby on the ground. If the father picked it up, the infant was saved. If the father stepped over the child, the baby was left to die of exposure. The mother had no legal say about any of this. Early Christians grew their numbers, in part, because they rescued the abandoned children. I would bet my favorite French press that the Quiverfull movement makes mention of this fact. But let’s be very clear: The Dakota-Texas laws are not a rescue. They are an imprisonment. By forcing more children into adoption agencies and then minimizing those who may become their parents, the laws will add more children to a system where already 428,000 kids languish in American foster care. No quiver can hold that many—especially not when women freed of womb-angst are having lots of babies of their own. 

And I’d like to mention one final thing: Conquering armies have captured children and raised them before. In fact, the ancient Romans were very good at this. But after a while, something started to happen. The abducted children grew up. And they became not only aware of their origin but also of their numbers. They realized that if they wanted to, they could organize a revolt. And that, dearies, is one of the reasons why the conquering empire fell.

(Originally posted May 13, 2017)

Manipulation

Train a generation to follow bad theology without question, and it’s no wonder that they’ll follow bad journalism with the same fervor. Teach them to treat reason as a road to a lower truth than their own, and you’ll own them insofar as you own their truth. It’s an ancient kind of evil to dominate people this way. And as for them, it’s an ancient kind of selfishness to fear for one’s soul so much that one won’t risk learning enough about reality to best discern how to help a neighbor.

(Originally posted May 5, 2017)