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.
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 -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 -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
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 (-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 ,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 , 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 -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
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
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 -8
(Abraham's hospitality to God and two angels when these three appeared to him
as men), Genesis -3
Of course, as the story continues, the angels tell
Yet an even bigger question remains. Why was it so
important that none of
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
Speaking of justice, there are two other issues. Why did
God visit the same destruction upon the women and children of
God had planned to punish the twin cities:
"Because," as he tells Abraham, "the outcry against
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
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 , God commands us to "be fruitful and multiply." Hence in Genesis (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 (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. -17), cereal offerings (-16), sin offerings (-), guilt offerings (-27), or peace offerings (-38). Therefore we need not instruct the priests as to how to make these offerings (-). 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 (-4).
Today, we no longer regard women as unclean after childbirth or during menstruation (-8) and no longer regard men as unclean after an "emission of seed" (-18). We no longer follow the ancient (incorrect) advice concerning medical problems and we have wisely stopped asking priests to diagnose medical problems (-).
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 (). If we did, in
We no longer put to death the men and their male partners
who have had a sexual encounter (). We no longer put to death the men and their animal
partners who have had sex (),
or the women and their animal partners who have had sex (). 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 (-21). We no longer
stone people to death for blaspheming God's name in a curse (-16, ). Indeed, if we
took the lives of everyone who blasphemed God's name in a curse, the population
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 (-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. -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 ( 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
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
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.
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 [
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 [
Jerry Dorsman works as a psychotherapist and addictions therapist
for a public mental health clinic in