Why the Christian Right Is Wrong

About Homosexuality

 

by Jerry Dorsman

 At a recent event, Rob brought his religion into the family. He rejected his sister Mary. 

It was about 10 years ago that Rob had joined a right-wing, back-to-the-Bible Christian group. Before that, he had led a life of excessive drinking, occasional recreational drugs, and general despair. But today, after all these years, Rob has found himself. With one catch. Now he shuns his sister, for she has chosen to live with another woman in a sexual relationship. 

In a letter to his family, Rob referred to Mary as a "Sodomite." "That's the correct term for homosexual," he wrote, "and according to the Bible this is a sin." He further revealed, as if by way of proof, "that AIDS is God's way of punishing homosexuals." So he refused to associate with Mary. And for some reason, he especially didn't want his children to be touched by Mary's lover. 

What the Bible Really Says

For many years, the Christian Right has been protesting homosexuality and demonstrating against rights for homosexuals. Can the Christian Right be wrong? 

It appears, from a decision such as Rob's, that it's more important to hate homosexuality than to love a family member. Presumably too, this decision is based on the Bible. Yet the entire third and fourth chapters of John's First Letter advise against such an attitude. As summarized in the passage at 1 John 4:20-21 (New Revised Standard Version): "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also." 

One may wonder too if the conservative religionists are clear enough of mind and pure enough of heart to judge others. Perhaps they are. Perhaps each of them has duly heeded Jesus' warning in Matthew 7:1-5 (New Catholic Edition): "Do not judge, that you may not be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged; and with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you. But why dost thou see the speck in thy brother's eye, and yet dost not consider the beam in thy own eye? Or how canst thou say to thy brother, 'Let me cast out the speck from thy eye'; and behold there is a beam in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam from thy own eye, and thou wilt see clearly to cast out the speck from thy brother's eye." 

Nevertheless, Rob and other members of the Christian Right have passed judgment. They have judged homosexuality to be wrong and support this with their own specific interpretation of the Bible. For starters, many of them claim that the term homosexual is incorrect. They say it should be "sodomite." 

So what's wrong with the term homosexual? It's a new term-late nineteenth century-and because of this, it's very specific. It denotes an individual who has a sexual preference for someone of the same sex. Very clear. Very direct. On the other hand, Sodomite means many things. It referred originally only to a resident of the ancient city Sodom. Over the years however, many people began applying this term to men who's sexual preference resembled that of a certain group of men who lived in this city. By the nineteenth century, the definition had expanded to include women who desired sexual relations with other women, and also to include any "unnatural" sexual act, for instance any oral intercourse or anal intercourse, whether it took place with members of the same or opposite sex, and any form of copulation with an animal. The so-called sodomy laws that once existed in all 50 states defined sodomy in this broad-spectrum manner. These laws have so far been repealed or ruled unconstitutional in 26 states. 

Yet both words, sodomite and homosexual, have been used to replace key phrases in various translations of the Bible since the 1940s. For example, let's consider one important passage. The King James version renders Paul's Greek in his First Letter to the Corinthians (6:9-10) as: ". . . neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." But the more recent New American Standard Bible replaces the phrase "abusers of themselves with mankind" with the word homosexuals. On the other hand, both the New Catholic Version and the New Revised Standard Version replace the phrase "abusers of themselves with mankind" with the word "sodomites." The NRSV replaces the term effeminate with the phrase male prostitute which, it has been argued, captures more precisely the meaning in the original Greek. 

But what was Paul condemning in this passage? In it, he targets behaviors that are destructive and involve not love but rather the abuse of ourselves or others. Some of these abuses are heterosexual (fornicators, adulterers), some homosexual. But he does not condemn relationships that are centered on love.1 

Indeed there are instances in the Bible of what appears to be homosexual love. Here the love takes center stage, not the sexual preference. These include the love between David and Jonathan and the love between Ruth and Naomi. As written at 1 Samuel 18:1,3-4 (King James Version): "And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. . . . Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle." And later at 2 Samuel 1:26, David proclaims: "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." In the book of Ruth 1:16-17 (New Catholic Edition), Ruth speaks these words to Naomi: "Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried. May the Lord do so and so to me, and more besides, if aught but death separates me from you!" 

But what can we learn from the story concerning those residents of the ancient city Sodom? This is an interesting story. Two angels, donning, not wings, but contemporary clothing visit Sodom to determine if anyone should be spared from God's intended destruction of this city and its sister city Gomorrah. Lot greets the strangers as fellow humans-which is how they appeared-and he entreats them to spend the night at his house, not in the village square as they had intended. But just before they're ready to retire for the evening: "the townsmen, the men of Sodom, all the people from every quarter, both young and old, surrounded the house," and they ask Lot to send out the men who came to him that night. The townspeople say, "Bring them out unto us, that we may know them." Of course, in biblical terms, "to know" means "to have sex with." Nevertheless, we must assume that this gathering of Sodomites includes men only. No women. So their request to have sex with the strangers is a request for homosexual relations. Request is too nice a word here. They're actually demanding to have sex with the strangers. Lot however attempts a bargain with his fellow Sodomites. He offers them his two virginal daughters instead.

Wait a minute! Is this okay? What kind of father is this? In biblical times, girls were married by the age of 15, so these girls would have to be 14 years of age or younger. Wouldn't the gang rape of two young girls prove to be as brutal and ugly an event as the gang rape of two grown men? But the mob declines the offer of the young girls and becomes forceful about grabbing the strangers. At this moment the strangers show, for the first time, that they're more than mere mortals. They magically strike every last member of the mob with blindness. Thus, the members of the mob cannot find the door to Lot's house and consequently desist in their attempt to commit this vicious act. 

Theologians and biblical scholars have offered various explanations for this passage. Many claim that the "wickedness" demonstrated by the Sodomites was revealed not in their sexual preference but rather in their methods. They were attempting a gang rape, an act of violence, not love. 

And curiously enough, they didn't succeed. On this particular evening at least, they didn't commit this crime.

However they did commit another serious crime. They broke a deeply ingrained, and central, custom of their day concerning hospitality. Many scholars say that this is the true key to the passage, that this is why the Sodomites would have been judged by their contemporaries as wicked. For, hospitality in the ancient Near East, the process of receiving outsiders and transforming them from strangers to guests, was considered essential. It included a gesture of welcome, an invitation to stay for a while, a ritual washing of feet, and an offering of food. Specifics of this ancient custom were recorded at Genesis 18:2-8 (Abraham's hospitality to God and two angels when these three appeared to him as men), Genesis 19:1-3 (Lot's hospitality to the two angels who appeared as men), and Genesis 24:30-33 (Laban's welcoming of Abraham's servant). 

Of course, as the story continues, the angels tell Lot that they "are about to destroy this place." They advise him and his family members "to flee for your life" but "do not look behind you." Unfortunately Lot's wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt. Apparently God judges her crime as equally worthy of the death penalty as the "wicked" Sodomites. The only leniency he grants her, perhaps, is in the method of dying. She's instantaneously transformed into a pillar of salt while the Sodomites must suffer fire and brimstone raining down upon them from heaven. Brimstone (sulphur) would stick to their bodies as it burned, and therefore create a rather painful death. But this 10-15 minutes of individual suffering is all that separates the two, for the final result for each is the same: death. 

Yet an even bigger question remains. Why was it so important that none of Lot's family turn around? Was the Lord ashamed of what he was doing? Ashamed to the point that he didn't want any witnesses who could live to tell about it? 

After all, it was not unlike this God to make mistakes, to overdo it occasionally when punishing us humans. He, himself, had admitted that the Flood was a mistake. He felt sorry he had done it, promised never to do it again, and put his bow in the clouds as his own ongoing reminder of this promise. 

Concluding our original story, however, in the final episode, Lot and his two daughters go on to commit a grievous crime. On two successive evenings, Lot gets drunk and has sex with his virginal daughters, each one getting an evening to herself. Of course, in this patriarchal society, even his drunkenness is blamed on the girls who, it is told, plotted the entire affair in order to get themselves pregnant. And surprisingly, each succeeds. Each becomes pregnant after just one night with their elderly dad. Nevertheless, all three go unpunished even though they broke the law as stated in Leviticus 18:6 (NRSV): "None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord." "Uncover the nakedness" is another Biblical euphemism which means "to have sex." 

Speaking of justice, there are two other issues. Why did God visit the same destruction upon the women and children of Sodom as he visited upon the men? And why did God destroy the inhabitants of the sister-city Gomorrah?

God had planned to punish the twin cities: "Because," as he tells Abraham, "the outcry against Sodom and Gamorrah is great, and their sin is very grave." So far, this is just something he has heard. It is an outcry. Therefore, he decides to check for himself. The Lord continues, "I will go down to see whether they have done all that the outcry which has come to me indicates; if not, I will know" (Gen 18:20-21, NCE). 

This "Old Testament God" is anything but omniscient. He often doesn't know what's going on, even in a neighboring town. He doesn't know, for instance, where Adam is after Adam eats the fruit. Which makes it most amazing how, on another occasion, the Lord can know that absolutely everyone in the world was wicked, except for Noah and his family. In the present story, however, the Lord doesn't know for sure if the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are truly "sinful." He has heard an outcry that they were and he promises that he will go there personally to check it out. Nevertheless his two angels go instead, while he and Abraham continue their conversation. The angels meet with the men of Sodom and determine not only that they're dreadfully inhospitable but that they have an unremitting desire to commit homosexual gang rape. The angels neither assess the women and children of this town, nor any of the inhabitants of Gomorrah. Yet God destroys all the inhabitants of both cities-save for Lot and his two daughters. 

Sinful Status?

There are many difficulties with the biblical texts, and many inconsistencies. Many conflicting interpretations. Still, we'd like to determine, through some reasonable exegesis, if homosexuality is really a "sin." 

At Genesis 1:28, God commands us to "be fruitful and multiply." Hence in Genesis 2:24 (NRSV): "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." These lines express some of the earliest laws. However, if we consider these to be absolute laws, Jesus himself would have sinned by never taking a wife and never producing any offspring. So too, all the nuns and monks and priests throughout history would have sinned by following their vows of celibacy. 

The words in Leviticus become even more precise. At Leviticus 18:22 (KJV): "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." Leviticus of course is the primary law book of the Bible. Yet how many of the laws of Leviticus do we still follow today? The answer is, not many. 

We no longer make sacrifices to God: no more burnt offerings (Lev. 1:1-17), cereal offerings (2:1-16), sin offerings (3:1-6:30), guilt offerings (7:1-27), or peace offerings (7:28-38). Therefore we need not instruct the priests as to how to make these offerings (8:1-9:24). Presumably too, God has decided not to punish us for discontinuing our sacrifices to him. Though Aaron's sons were not so lucky, as the Lord destroyed them by fire for making an improper sacrifice (10:1-4). 

Today, we no longer regard women as unclean after childbirth or during menstruation (12:1-8) and no longer regard men as unclean after an "emission of seed" (15:16-18). We no longer follow the ancient (incorrect) advice concerning medical problems and we have wisely stopped asking priests to diagnose medical problems (13:1-14:57). 

We no longer forbid the use of incense for purposes other than ritual sacrifice (Lev. 1, 2, 16; Exod 30:34-38). If we did, millions of us would sin each day in the moment we touched a flame to that stick of incense or beautifully scented candle. We no longer put to death those children who curse their father or mother (20:9). If we did, in America at least, very few of our children would survive adolescence. We no longer put to death the men and their female partners who have committed adultery (20:10-12). 

We no longer put to death the men and their male partners who have had a sexual encounter (20:13). We no longer put to death the men and their animal partners who have had sex (20:15), or the women and their animal partners who have had sex (20:16). We do not follow the Hammurabi code as the ancient Israelites did—i.e., if you maim someone, you will be maimed in the same way as punishment: a fracture for a fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (24:17-21). We no longer stone people to death for blaspheming God's name in a curse (24:10-16, 24:23). Indeed, if we took the lives of everyone who blasphemed God's name in a curse, the population of America would diminish dramatically. We no longer keep slaves and therefore have no need for the laws pertaining to such a practice (25:39-55). 

It's true in today's world that we follow very few of the laws in Leviticus. Yet God has not punished us-as he promised in Lev. 26:14-45-for disobeying these laws. He has not brought a curse to the land causing it to become barren. He has not sent wild animals to reduce us in number and leave our roads deserted. Certainly anyone could attest to this after spending just a few hours on our freeways. He has not forced us to eat the flesh of our sons and the flesh of our daughters. He has not caused us to lose in war and languish in the land of our enemies. If anything, this God has helped those who believe in him to be generally successful in wars and to continue expanding their power base. 

So could it be that God has abandoned these laws himself? One thing we know for sure. We humans follow just a small portion of the "laws" recorded in the Old Testament. And that leaves us with a problem. With what authority do we decide which laws to follow and which to abandon? We've abandoned numerous laws concerning sacrifices, the cursing of fathers or mothers, the cursing of God, the keeping of slaves, the burning of incense, and numerous forms of sexual expression. Can we not finally abandon the law against that form of sexual expression which results from a man's love for another man or a woman's love for another woman? 

Unfortunately, the New Testament doesn't resolve the issue for us. Here too, we get conflicting statements. In one passage, Paul writes to the Romans (1:26-27 NRSV): "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." This, by the way, is the only reference to female homosexuality in the entire Bible. But Paul is speaking of homosexual activity that has occurred as a consequence of turning away from God, of "knowing God but not honoring him or giving thanks to him." In fact that is the "reason" God gave them up in the first place (as described at Rom. 1:21-23). 

But what about homosexuals who do honor God and give thanks to him? Perhaps Paul considers them to be among God's chosen, as in his words to the Galatians (3:28 KJV): "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." 

Does God accept homosexuals? Rob and members of the Christian Right would say no. Many of them even make the claim that AIDS is God's way of punishing homosexuals. But if God wanted to punish homosexuality, why wasn't he more specific about it? Why didn't he devise a disease that would transmit only from homosexual to homosexual and only in the act of homosexual intercourse? In America, the HIV virus that causes AIDS is transmitted through homosexual sex (more than 50% of the cases), through heterosexual sex (8% of cases and presently the fastest growing category), through the sharing of needles and sex among drug users (25%-32% of cases), and through transfusions and contaminated blood products (1% of 14 cases). Heterosexual sex is now the most common mode of transmission worldwide and experts predict that this will soon be true in America.2

But for the moment let's say that God produced the HIV virus in his heavenly laboratory as a way to punish homosexuality. Does that mean he also produced other sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea in order to punish heterosexual behavior? And did he suddenly change his mind about punishing our heterosexual activity when, in 1928, he allowed us to discover penicillin, which miraculously cures both syphilis and gonorrhea? 

Did God also create miscarriages, spontaneous abortions, and diseases that kill infants as additional punishments for heterosexual intercourse? Clearly, one natural result of heterosexual intercourse is pregnancy and childbirth. 

Don't we put ourselves on dangerous ground when we begin to hypothesize that God put diseases here on earth to punish certain human behaviors? Well, who knows? Perhaps the Lord really intended heart disease as a way to punish those who eat too many animals, so he made sure that the animal fat, cholesterol, would clog our veins. Unfortunately he missed the target completely when he allowed environmentally released toxins to cause cancers among all exposed people. Instead he should have directed the cancers to attack only those people responsible for dumping the toxins in the first place. 

Did God also send Hitler as another way to rid the world of homosexuals? Hitler made every effort to exterminate three groups of people. Most Americans know of just one group-the Jews. But dying side by side with the Jews in Hitler's death camps were members of two other minority groups: Gypsies and homosexuals. 

Perhaps God also sent the fanatical Christians of the Middle Ages who were intent on purifying homosexuals with fire. Believing they were doing justice, these Christians burned many male homosexuals to death. Their actions gave rise to the derogatory term faggot, the bundle of sticks used to start a fire. Perhaps God sent us the Puritans too, those Christians in early America who burned or drowned many women whom they labeled as witches. The key charge against some of these women was "having an intimate relationship with another woman." 

On the other hand, if God really does want complete extermination of homosexuals, why has he always selected such inefficient means? Surely, he could have created a disease that would specifically attack and kill every homosexual, whether or not he or she touch another homosexual. Or he could have made sure that Hitler won World War II.

In fact it seems more likely that God actually protects homosexuals and makes sure they will survive. Due to natural attrition alone, we wouldn't expect homosexuals to prosper. To be sure, they don't have as many offspring as heterosexuals. 

But homosexuals are born at a nearly constant rate in every generation and in every culture. About 5% of all babies born become homosexual. Furthermore, homosexuality tends to run in families. There's an elevated rate of homosexuality in families with other homosexual children. Also, identical twins-those who have identical genes-have a higher-than-average chance of sharing the same sexual orientation. Based on these and other findings, modern research shows that homosexuality is almost certainly genetic. By comparison, the genetically determined trait of left-handedness is similar. This trait also occurs at a universally constant rate (in this case, about 8%), it runs in families, and identical twins have a higher-than-average chance of sharing the same orientation.3 

So the latest research reveals a predetermining genetic factor. Humans with a specific genetic predisposition become homosexual. Which leaves us with a key problem: Why would God create our genes to operate in such a way that 5% of all babies, the result of male-female intercourse, will grow into adults who prefer male-male or female-female intercourse? And why would he ever want to punish someone who has a trait that he himself had built into our very nature? 

Jesus recommended that we love our neighbor as ourselves. If that's true, then offering our loving kindness to one another creates a greater good in the world than our desire to persecute each other based on sexual orientation. 

Notes

1. For more on this particular subject of biblical interpretation, see The Bible Tells Me So: Uses and Abuses of Holy Scriptures, by James Hill and Rand Cheadle [New York: Anchor/Doudleday, 1996], p. 74. 

2. The Information Series on Current Topics: AIDS, edited by Suzanne B. Squyres, B.A.; Mark A. Siegel, M.A., Ph.D.; and Nancy R. Jacobs, B.A., M.A. (Wylie, Texas: Information Plus, 1996), pp. 18, 38. 

3. For more facts on the genetic research, see A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation, by Chandler Burr [New York: Hyperion, 1996]. 


Jerry Dorsman works as a psychotherapist and addictions therapist for a public mental health clinic in Maryland. He is the author of two books, How to Quit Drinking Without AA (New Dawn, 1991; Revised Edition, Prima, 1994) and How to Quit Drugs for Good (Prima, 1998), and coauthor of You Can Achieve Peace of Mind (Prima, 1994).