Thursday, January 10, 2008

Civil Discourse (Part 2)

by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson (New Hampshire)

Editor's Note: This is a continuation of the essay posted here, an excerpt from Bishop Robinson's In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, scheduled for publication in April 2008 from Church Publishing. We are grateful to CPI for giving us permission to publish this chapter from Bishop Robinson's forthcoming book.


There’s not a single nation, culture, or religion that isn’t dealing with the issue of homosexuality. Even those religions that are absolutely clear and unswerving in their condemnation of homosexuality are being challenged by their gay and lesbian members to take another look at that condemnation. Some estimate, for example, that between 40 and 60 percent of Roman Catholic priests are gay. [Stuart, Elizabeth, Chosen : Gay Catholic Priests Tell Their Stories] The Southern Baptist Convention, to which local autonomy is almost sacred, has expelled congregations for offering blessings to same-sex couples or for calling a gay minister. Conservative Jews have admitted gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered rabbinical students to their seminaries. Evangelical Christians have been rocked by revelations that some of their leaders have had secret affairs with people of the same sex.

Who’d have thought we’d ever see legal civil unions and even marriage for gay and lesbian couples? Who’d have thought that a country like South Africa would write gay and lesbian civil rights explicitly into its constitution, or that a Roman Catholic country like Spain would permit marriage between same-sex couples? Many Anglicans from around the world continue to call on me to resign my position as bishop, naively believing that if I went away, this issue would go away, and the Church would return to its quiet, peaceful existence – though the Church has never, in its 2000-year history, enjoyed a time free of conflict.

Why does religion play such an important role in this debate? Religion, of course, has always played a role in the public discourse of nations. But why the particularly virulent and passionate stances on this issue? And why can’t we simply ignore the religious argument and have a thoroughly secular debate?

Religion makes its beliefs known on a variety of issues – from abortion to stem cell research, from environmental stewardship to capital punishment. But most faith communities have people on both sides of these issues within their ranks – at least in part because you can’t find too many definite proclamations in scripture either for or against them. You can read Genesis 1:28, for instance (“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”), and argue for good environmental stewardship. Or, using the same verse but different understandings of key words, you can argue for total exploitation of the environment. You can defend abortion on the basis of our God-given personal conscience or oppose it on the basis of the sanctity of life.

But the Bible doesn’t seem to mince any words about homosexuality. Leviticus, for instance, seems specifically to condemn male homosexuality: “You [men] shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (18:22) and “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” (20:13) (There are no same-sex proscriptions for women in these texts, by the way.) The fact that the Bible seems specifically to name homosexuality as repugnant to God and deserving of capital punishment makes religion particularly relevant to our understanding of this issue, in ways that are more compelling than with other hot-button issues.

The fact is, at least in Western culture, God’s condemnation of homosexuality is assumed. It’s in the air we breathe. And because of that, religious belief is relevant in our discourse about civil rights for gay and lesbian people.

So, what does the Bible really say about homosexuality? I believe our traditional understanding of the biblical—hence God’s—attitude toward homosexuals is flawed and needs to be reinterpreted.

First, the philosophical and psychological construct of sexual orientation is a modern phenomenon. It was only at the very end of the nineteenth century that the notion was first posed that there might be a certain minority of people who are naturally oriented – affectionally and sexually – toward members of the same gender. In biblical times, and until the last hundred or so years, it’s been assumed that everyone is heterosexual, which meant that anyone acting in a homosexual manner was acting “against their nature.” In other words, homosexuals were “heterosexuals behaving badly.” Indeed, many recent evangelical translations of the Bible use the word “homosexual” to translate certain Greek and Hebrew words that may not be related to homosexuality per se, but to sexual exploitation and abuse of underage boys by older men, common in Roman and Greek culture, and to temple prostitution in neighboring heathen cultures. Yet reading one of these translations using the word “homosexual,” you’d assume that the ancient Hebrew and Christian communities were talking about precisely the same thing we’re talking about today. That’s not the case. You can’t take a twentieth-century word, insert it back into an ancient text, and proclaim that it means something totally unknown to the authors of that text.

Second, our understanding of the word “abomination” is different from its original use. According to the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus, many things were an “abomination” to God, including the eating of pork. Eating pork wasn’t innately wrong, but abstaining from it was one of the ways Jews were reminded that they were a separate, chosen people. Observing the dietary laws reminded them of this special relationship to God. Jews were also forbidden to eat shellfish, plant two kinds of seed in the same field, or wear two kinds of cloth simultaneously. Tattoos were prohibited; those who cursed their parents were to be put to death. Yet you don’t hear leaders from the Religious Right denouncing these “abominations.”

Third, the ancient Hebrews’ understanding of the science of reproduction and sexual activity was different than ours today. Male sperm was thought to contain all of nascent life—the only contribution made by women in the reproductive process was providing a place for the fetus to incubate. So any “spilling” of male seed was considered tantamount to murder. Ancient Hebrews were a small minority, living in a hostile, heathen environment, struggling to reproduce, build up their population, and survive, so any waste of male sperm was antithetical to that survival and synonymous with not only murder, but a betrayal of the national interest. In the same way, masturbation and even coitus interruptus in heterosexual copulation (the so-called “sin of Onan”) were prohibited because they wasted male seed and squandered the possibility of new human life. Today, we understand that both sexes contribute to the process of human reproduction, and our day’s problem is over- rather than under-population. We believe sexuality has purposes far beyond reproduction. Yet these few verses of scripture are quoted as if nothing has changed in our understanding since biblical times. Note, of course, that all the other references to the “spilling of seed” have been reinterpreted to be acceptable, but not the proscription against same-sex behavior.

Recent studies have yielded rich information about the culture in which these texts were written and heard. Much of the biblical scholarship of the past fifty years has focused on the societies and cultures that formed the settings for these scriptural texts, both those of the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians, as well as the competing and often hostile cultures surrounding them. We’ve come to know the deeper meaning of these sacred texts as we’ve become more knowledgeable about the cultural situations to which they were responses. Those who argue for a literalist reading of scripture often act as if none of this scholarship has occurred or makes any difference to a twenty-first century understanding.

And though I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, that doesn’t mean they are literally the “words” of God, virtually dictated by God through human media. And let’s not forget that the real “Word” of God is Jesus himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” begins the Gospel of John. Christians believe it isn’t the Bible but the Jesus “event” – his life, death and resurrection – that offers the perfect revelation of God. The Bible is the best and most trustworthy witness to that event, but it neither replaces Jesus as the Word nor takes precedence over Christ’s continuing action in the world through the Holy Spirit. To elevate the words of scripture to a place higher than the revealed Word of God in Jesus Christ is an act of idolatry.

Sneak Preview to Part 3:

These things may seem hopelessly off-topic for issues related to gay and lesbian people, but they’re all deeply related. We’re talking about how we change our minds – as a culture, a nation, and a Church – about something we’ve been very sure about for thousands of years. To some, it seems like the height of madness and a willy-nilly discarding of ancient truths. To some, it seems as if nothing is certain anymore, or that the Church doesn’t know what it believes. But to others, it seems like the kind of change that Jesus promised would be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Only through such a gentle and comforting understanding of the continuing work of God will people find the courage to change their minds about this issue.

Note: This text appears in In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, by Gene Robinson, © 2008 Church Publishing Incorporated. Used by permission of the publisher. Bishop Robinson’s book will be available in April 2008. You may click here to place an order from Church Publishing.

Addendum (01/14/08): Click here to proceed to Part 3 of Bishop Robinson's essay.

1 Comments:

Blogger Mexjewel said...

Note that Jesus still defines sin as lack of love (Matthew 22:36-40). Fornication and adultery are unloving because each has a victim. What is unloving about a couple in a homosexual love relationships? Neither is victim, neither is unloved. Where is the hurt? Who is the victim being sinned agains? No Gospel writer nor prophet covers homosexuality because it is not the issue. The King James Version comes closest to a correct English translation with "sexual immorality" which is not homosexuality. (Remember that "homosexual" was coined about 1865, so any translation using a form of that word is a lie that needs to be ammended.) If God does not want Gay men (by nature) to have sex, He would have said "Man shall not lie with man PERIOD.

1/11/2008 10:03 AM  

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