Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, November 12, 2004

Homosexuality and the Bible: A Christian View

There are three major sections of the bible that fundamentalists rely on for their charge that the homosexuality is a sin.

I. The first is Leviticus. RBR has already discussed that in some length. What he should add is that there are pages relating to menstruation and uncleanliness, and just a single line relating to homosexuality. Seems odd, in fact dishonest, to ignore everything but the one line that fits with your own prejudices. The better idea is to regard the whole section as a recording of the sexual taboos of the ancient Hebrews, and give each part equal (ir)relevance today.

RBR did not mention that the phrase that is used to condemn homosexuality is a bit odd. Translations of the Hebrew vary, but they approximate this, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." The first thing that is clear is that this prohibition is addressed to men only. This is noteworthy because the next sentence is "You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to any animal and defile herself with it." Why parallelism on bestiality but not homosexuality? There is some historical evidence that the prohibition was really against rape of either gender, which is (penetration, at any rate) a male function only, thus no parallelism is needed. Another oddity is the phrasing: a man cannot lie with a man "as with a woman"; he has no vagina. On the other hand, anal sex is possible with either gender. Is Leviticus saying that anal sex is okay with a woman, but you shall not lie down with a man "as a woman"? It is only our modern sexuality that assumes a distinct parallel between "normal" vaginal (male-female) and anal (male-male) intercourse. It is also worth noting that the King James translation tends to refer to sexual relations between a man and a woman as a man "knowing" a woman. In other words, fundamentlists are combining traditional prejudice with modern sexual assumptions to read a massive prohibition into a single somewhat obscure line in Leviticus. Finally, the bible tends to be dreadfully repetitious. If this is an important issue, one would expect to see it repeated frequently.

II. The second passage comes from Genesis, when Sodom is destroyed. The gist of the standard interpretation is this: Angels come to warn Lot. The townsfolk demand that he produce the angels to them (who seem like just ordinary humans) for anal rape. Lot offers his virgin daughters instead; the crowd declines (confirming that they are perverted). This is an example of the sin (ergo, "Sodomy") for which the city was destroyed. This is hardly the only interpretation.
First, Genesis says that the men "young and old, all the people to the last man" demanded "Bring them out to us so that we may know them." Note that it does not say "lie with them." Note that it is not obvious that women are not included in this crowd (the word "men" is ambiguous, as is the word "people"). Lot then says "I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known man. Let me bring them out to you, and do them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof." Think about this for a moment. This is a lecture in middle eastern hospitality, and in the worthlessness of girls in ancient Hebrew culture. Go ahead, rape my daughters, but leave these strangers alone. Why do fundamentalists think that the condemnation is only about the townsfolk, not Lot? Why do they accept the part that condemns anal rape as wicked, but ignore the obvious fact that Lot has no problem with his daughters being the subject of a gang-bang? The crowd also does not really decline the daughters. It says "This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge?" They're angry that Lot is condemning them as wicked – they haven't necessarily said "no" to the virgins. Furthermore, the crowd then says to Lot, "We'll deal with you worse than we would have them [the angels]" and tries to break into the house. The angels strike them all blind so they can't find the door. What is the sin of the townsfolk: (a) the desire to have sex with men; or (b) assault. I pick (b). Put it this way, if the crowd had raped Lot's daughters instead, would that have been an okay end to the story – no fire and brimstone, they're cool?

III. The third passage comes from Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul, it must be noted, also approves of slavery (as does most of the bible, at least implicitly). His moral judgment on that issue is (now) rejected by Southern Baptists (although they broke away from the mainstream Baptists in the 1850s over the issue). But the anti-gay prejudice is still okey-dokey. Of course, Paul says a lot about slaves. Almost nothing about homosexuality.
Here, Paul talks about the sins of old. "They exchanged the glory of immortal god for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles."
Then the line the fundies quote:
"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."
Pretty damning. Even starts with women. But it's not as clear as it might seem. First, it's not clear what "unnatural" intercourse for women is. It is also not clear if the "shameless acts" are about rape or consensual sex. The other thing to think about is that Paul is not giving instructions. He giving examples of bad things that were done in the past. He also seems to say that God let this happen, the way he hardened Pharaoh's heart. Was homosexuality part of God's plan? This is just being used as an example; it's not Paul's lesson.
Paul' LESSON is about not letting others stumble. So, he says, "it is not good to eat meat or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble" Here are direct condemnations, but fundies still have barbecues and drink beer. (Romans 13:21)
Fundamentalists, by the way, never quote Paul's opinion of marriage or virginity:
"Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well foryou to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. [ . . .] I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious bout the affairs of the world., how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. [ . . .] So, then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better." 1 Corinthians 7:25-38.

IV. Read in proper context, then, a Christian will find that the sexual morality expressed throughout the bible is both varied, unclear, rooted in irrelevant and irrational cultural prejudices, and ultimately mixed. Much like the discourses on politics and slavery. Indeed, the sexual morality is no better expressed than the appalling lack of scientific knowledge of the ancients (e.g., world created in six days, sun revolving around the earth), or geography (the Magi of Babylonia followed a star in the East to Bethlehem, which is actually to the West). No better than the two conflicting genealogies of Jesus (one is at the beginning of Matthew, and the other at Luke 3:23, both of which trace it through Joseph, who is supposedly unrelated if you believe the virgin birth.) Paul's words on marriage contradict "be fruitful and multiply" quite a bit.

V. The bottom line is this. It is a sin to make an idol of the bible. We do not worship the bible; Christians worship God. God speaks through the heart, the soul, through love, and through each of us. The Old Testament is a record of the interaction of the Hebrews with God, recorded in their own way through their own prejudices. They all too often credit God with their victories and defeats, and blame their atrocities on his orders. The New Testament is a scrapbook of early Christianity, which gives us a view, as through a stained glass window, as to as to who Jesus was, who his followers were, and what they thought he said.

But it is wrong to pick and choose biblical verses that support your own prejudices. The message of Jesus is to overcome one's own slavery to prejudice and reach out with love to all. The greatest commandments are these, he said. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your heart, and all your soul, and the second is likewise, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these great commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

As we like to say, we take the bible far too seriously to take it literally.


US West said...

Great Post. I was talking to a friend from the Mid West (Nebraska to be exact) last night. He was trying to explain to me what makes them go Republican. He had a lot of nice things to say about mid-westerners, most of which I think all of us could agree with. They are solid, dependable people, good neighbors, upstanding citizens who raise their children up to be equally solid. Coming from Mid-West roots, I see all of those qualities. But he said where they fall down (and we are painting with a broad brush, I know) is in their self-righteousness. It gets them every time. He pointed out that they miss the plank in their own eyes. He is more diplomatic than I . I call it hierocracy. My good friends, the French, call it "pharisaïque". Ironic.

Raised By Republicans said...

US West reminds me of the scene in Blazing Saddles. Sherif Bart (who is Black) is having race problems with his new constituents. Gene Wilder (aka "Kid" something or other) takes him aside and says in a calm, soothing voice, "You have to be patient with them. They're simple people. Salt of the Earth. You know....morons."

I grew up all over the Midwest (well Great Lakes actually, which is a distinction most people miss). I lived in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, went to college in Appleton, Wisconsin and have family in Minnesota, Ohio, and Nebraska (among other places).

I flatter myself that I understand Midwesterners. Yes, they can be self-righteous. But I have to say that I've mostly seen that self-righteousness manifest itself passively. As in, "Gee, I'm really sorry there are people out there who aren't as enlightened as I am and that's too bad."

What will get their dander up is any perception that someone is telling THEM how to live. They are very sensative to this - even hyper sensative to it. I have shared this trait since early childhood which caused some measure of problems with my parents ability to tell me what to do. When my parents were telling me to clean up my room (I was 5 at the time) I said, "It's not fair that two big people get to boss around one little person." One indication of Midwestern culture is that my parents thought this was adorable and repeatedly praised me for my advanced sense of individuality and independence - all the while expecting me to use good judgement and responsibility (at the age of 5).

Midwesterners invariably see themselves as the "little person." And they are fully aware of the contempt and ridicule that people on the West Coast and East Coast hold them in ("Yeah it's cheap, but who wants to live there!?" "Look down country" etc). They deeply resent the jokes that the rest of you don't notice - snide remarks on Seinfeld or Friends about quaint and stupid people from "the sticks" or even specifically mentioned locales in the Midwest (this despite the fact that Midwesterns fill out the plurality in your graduate schools and professional schools).

With the Southerners the Culture War is agressive and totalitarian. These people are incapable of compromise. But with the Midwesterners, much of what they want is mutual respect and that is easily provided. Think of John Ashcroft and compare him to Bob Dole or Gerald Ford. Who scares you more? Who do you think you can come to an accomodation with?

Stewart said...

There's really not a lot of use in trying to refute biblical justifications. History has shown, very clearly I might add, that religions will be interpreted using modern context and not the other way around.

In truth, most conservative christian values that are founded in biblical passages could probably be refuted with other biblical passages, or a better understanding of the ancient context, but that argument will never get you anywhere with conservative christians. The only people it persuades are those who are listening.

"Pro Family" groups are not listening, I'm afraid.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think what Stewart is saying is that the Religious Right types are bigots because they are ignorant and intollerant and they use the Bible to support their ideas because that is just the way they chose to communicate their bigotry.

US West said...

Let me clarify my typo in my previous post: I meant hypocrisy, not "hierocy" or whatever I just saw written there.

As to Stewart: Gee, these Bible beaters are the same people who claim that we must appoint only strict constructionists judges to the bench. Only they don't use fancy phrases like that. They say we need judges who won't "legislate from the bench". Well, how can you interpret the Bible through the lens of modernity while thinking the Constitution must be interpreted strictly with only the intent of the Framers in mind? Or am I just supposed to accept that apparent contradiction as an "illogical logical" to borrow a phrase from Chomsky?

I actually don't think that these folks look at the Bible with a modern tilt. The more sophisticated among them use the Bible to play politics (the calculating Karl Rove for example). The more honest of them (the true believers like Ashcroft who reportedly doesn't dance, but can sing a mean patriotic tune) revel in their unreasonable ignorance. They are trying very hard to make the Bible mean what they THINK it meant at the time it was compiled. I highlight THINK because I doubt they take the time to dig into the local Semitic culture of the era or study the anthropological backdrop the way LTG attempted to do. (If they did, how could any reasonable person accept the idea of a Virgin Birth?) And they approach the Constitution in the same way. Their view is based on misunderstandings that they have no interest in clarifying. To do so would disturb their tidy, safe world and force them to question their faith, which God consistently challenges us to do. Faith is not meant to bring easy answers; it is meant to make us question and reflect. Anyone who thinks otherwise has become the Borg.

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, one thing that really pisses me off is when hyper conservatives say, "The Founding Fathers intended..." or "The Founding Fathers never intended..." 90% of the time people who say these things have barely read the Constitution let alone any of the mountains of writings the Founding Fathers produced (most of which are easily accesible online or in your local library).

Dr. Strangelove said...

This is a very thoughtful, excellent post from LTG on the subtleties of these biblical verses that is worthy of wider publication. It is clear that those Americans who revile homosexuality did not derive that attitude from the bible; the attitude was pre-existing in society and (dubious) biblical support for it was rounded up later.

Unfortunately, it is precisely because this attitude is not based on the bible that arguing about biblical verses is pointless (except to stop the more liberal Christian churches from losing their gay and lesbian congregations entirely.) I've thought a lot about where this deep-seated revulsion comes from--and I wrote a long post about it--but I didn't publish it because my musings are not really germane to this blog. Suffice it to say that these feelings run deep and most people who share them probably aren't going to overcome them until they get to know gays or lesbians as friends or family.

So when it comes to banning gay marriage, I still believe (and mow especially after this election) that opposing this idea outright is just not a tenable position for Democrats right now. Instead, I think the Democrats should propose an amendment that takes with one hand but gives with the other: one that defines marriage as between a man and a woman only, but also creates a separate federal civil union status for same-sex couples in the constitution.

This would still represent--in practical terms--a victory for gay and lesbian couples in America, and polls consistently show that in the 21st century, most Americans think that the civil union concept is a fair compromise. And it would also force the so-called "Christian" conservatives to either choke down this public, legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples, or else expose the dirty truth that their innocent "defense of marriage" is really an attempt to deny any reasonable benefits or recognition to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters--that it is really just gay-bashing.

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