License to interpret: the Bible and same-sex relationships

It will be four years this June since the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the United States. This post might feel a little behind the times given all the societal changes going on already. But as many of you know all too well, the church often drags its feet when it comes to change, coming kicking and screaming into relevance — if it isn’t already too late when it gets there.

Today’s post is a follow-up to the one entitled “Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile.” It will go through some of the passages used to condemn same-sex relations and talk about why we have the freedom to interpret them in a new way.

Just a little dose of humor… “Bible-thumper,” get it??
From http://www.brainlesstales.com/2012-03-16/bible-thumper

There are 6-7 main verses that are used in support of “traditional marriage” and against homosexuality. And for perspective: When we compare that to the amount of verses that talk about the poor, wealth / poverty, and economic justice issues: well, it’s miniscule. Jim Wallis and his peers created a “holey” (haha) Bible when they cut out all verses about the poor: 2000 verses on poverty and justice as opposed to just a handful about same-sex relations. (I got some great info from a guy who already wrote this post I’m writing: here’s his link if you’d like to check it out!). I won’t go through all the verses on same-sex relations – just read his article, after you get through reading mine!

The Old Testament

The first stop on our tour is the Old Testament Levitical laws. Some Christians use verses from the Old Testament to support their traditional marriage approach, such as Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). Levitical prohibitions are included as part of “purity code” law. These codes are intended to set the Israelites apart from other people groups, to preserve their identity. Most Christians today don’t have any issues mixing their fabrics (Deut. 22:11, Lev. 19:19, etc), and unless allergic or vegetarian, are willing to eat shellfish (Lev. 11:10); we no longer refer to women’s menstrual cycles as their “sickness” (Lev 20:18, NRSV), and except for in the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t stone both parties when a man rapes a woman who is engaged to (and thus the property of) someone else.

Please, no. Gilead is not a society I want to exist in!
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock (9637472bd) Handmaids ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ TV show premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA – 19 Apr 2018

Okay, fair enough. Sounding a little antiquated already. Later on in the New Testament, Peter has a vision where all the animals are spread out on a sheet together, and he hears that all is allowable for eating. The old Levitical laws don’t seem to matter so much when all they cause is discord between Jews and Gentiles. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15) is what the passage says.

This is an important idea. We will come back to it later: and not just in regards to food and Levitical laws.

One last stop in the Old Testament: Sodom and Gomorrah. Modern-day fundamentalists worry America is turning into a modern-day equivalent, with moral licentiousness, depravity, and excess. I mean, I might agree with them on some points – but not quite the way they are thinking, and probably closer to the real meaning of the story.

A rather dismal situation, right? Glad I wasn’t there…
(retrieved from here)

Honestly, when I read the Sodom and Gomorrah passage just now in my NRSV (Genesis chapter 19), I had to go consult the internet for why this is used as an anti-homosexuality prooftext (prooftext = passage, often taken out of context, to support a belief the reader holds). In the story, Abraham is basically talking God down from utterly destroying the city of Sodom. First, if you believe in a God who is all-knowing and unchangeable, realize you are also probably not reading this passage “literally” as Abraham appears to literally be negotiating with God. But I digress.

So what is the point of the story? Scholars say the story is about God testing Abraham (making sure he’s the guy he’s cracked up to be) and finding him to be noble, ethical, and worthy. God is able to be argued out of wholesale destroying the city and agrees to save it (temporarily) for the sake of ten good people.

The next part of the story is really disturbing. Lot is now the main character, and he is hosting some angels in his home (like you do) when some evil men (from S & G) come to his door sounding like they are demanding sexual relations – aka RAPE – of the male angels in the home. Instead of his guests being dishonored in such a terrible way, Lot offers his virgin female daughters for the men to rape. WHOA! Call the cops!! And I’m sorry: did you want to make the main point of this story that being gay is wrong? It seems to me the obvious message has more to do with sexual violence, lust and power, and inhumane treatment of others, far more than the particular genders of who is mistreating whom.

So when you hear the story, what part of the passage do you give the most weight to?

The New Testament

Moving on to the New Testament, which Christians generally give more credence to and really have to consider the weight and meaning of passages. We’re going to spend some time with our dear friend Paul. Paul is so formative for Christianity as a whole. Could it have spread as well as it did without his influence? It seems unlikely. But he can be quite challenging to many progressive-leaning Christians, because he says some pretty uncomfortable, seemingly intolerant things.

The passages often used as prooftexts against homosexuality are Romans 1, 1st Corinthians 6, and 1st Timothy 1. We’ll look at Romans 1:26-27:
“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.”
The context of this passage is that Paul is writing a letter to the Christians in Rome arguing that the Jews and Gentiles all need to be reconciled together under one identity of being in Christ. They are needlessly divided. Part of his argument is pointing out that both groups do the same things, including the above references.

Some people argue that since unity is Paul’s point here (throughout the first couple of chapters of Romans), we can smooth over the rest. I do find that important, but also think we can acknowledge safely that Paul appears to be anti-homosexual here. Some people work through interpretative issues by saying Paul is only talking about uneven power balances of men with young boys. I wouldn’t say that doesn’t influence him and how he views homosexual relations, but I don’t think it’s the full story.

So come on, Paul. Why do you make things hard on your modern-day readers?? I wonder if the answer might be surprising.

Ohhh man.
(Reference: “Cain” by Henri Vidal, 1896.)

For those in the “oh my gawwwd Paul, cut me a break!” crowd because of passages like this and why women should be silent in church, etc, ponder this. Imagine ancient Rome and ancient Jewish culture, round about, oh, 60 CE. Women do not belong to themselves, but are the property either of their male relative, or their husband. They have no rights. The society is very patriarchal, and there is a strong power dynamic of how people relate to one another. And especially in Jewish culture, the shame/honor dynamic is especially prevalent. Presenting the right image to others, and not bringing shame upon oneself or the family, is of ultimate importance. A man had to preserve the image of virility and power, honor and status. Women were protected only by the men in their lives. In their society, a man with a man means one of them is dishonored (in the weaker, un-masculine position). A woman with a woman means no one is protecting them.

And aside from all that, Paul seems to be making an argument for the “natural” way of things to take their course, which to him seems obvious that male and female genitals only belong to each other. I wonder if Paul’s mind might be changed if he knew that the “passions” each sex can experience for its own kind (i.e., same-sex attraction) can be as ingrained as eye color, skin color, temperament. He didn’t have the science we have today. He didn’t have the culture of legal equality among sexes and sexual orientation (equality we’re working on, at least). But you know what? I think Paul would be open to changing his viewpoint if he only knew more. Just think about his conversion experience where his whole life turned upside down.

Let’s go back to the passage where Peter hears, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Peter having his vision.
Retrieved from http://weareisrael.org/clean-foods/peters-dream-in-acts-10/

In our culture today, I think that on the whole Christians get more of a bad rap for narrow views on sexuality (and here I include both sexual orientation and abortion issues). Except, of course, from within certain folds, where those same Christians feel self-righteous for upholding the faith and moral conduct. But society is changing. Gay marriage is becoming more and more normal, and we see these couples living everyday lives like the rest of folks, falling in love, committing to each other in sickness and health, buying homes, having kids.

Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” Do we not know that God has called all of God’s children clean, and loves them ferociously? Do we not know that when we can live free of shame and guilt and oppression, we are that much more capable of producing goodness, grace, justice, kindness, faithfulness in our world?

It is high time we stop allowing a narrow reading of the Bible to dictate policy, whether in our country or in individual churches. I can’t force change, but my hope is that with some education and the softening of hearts, people will change. With that change, we can look at our lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, and queer siblings in the eyes and say “you are one of us. You belong here. I belong to you. We all belong to each other.” And then they may at last feel the love, and with a love like that, then might you find the answer is “YES.”

ebbing and flowing

(from 1-27-16)
We are asked in class to introduce ourselves and share about our career path. I have been writing my way through my twenties and this writing helps me to orient myself to where I am and where I have been. The story I share comes with ease, though it is a deep reflection on what kind of person I was and am becoming. I speak about how I once based my identity on being a “do-gooder,” aware that many others in this room may consciously or unconsciously consider themselves that way. But when I share my truth, I am not asking others to do what I have done or think the way I do. I speak from my heart, about how my well-laid plans were cast aside when I had an interior crisis, how I focused so much on my inner work that year (so young, just 23), journaling and working something like a personal 12-step program – I say this and suddenly wonder how many people just started wondering what addiction I had, but no mind, this is my life and their curiosity is their issue. I become impassioned as I exult that it is inner change, the changing of the heart, that matters the most. I crescendo to how I love my clients and love the work I do and want to help other people change the depths of their life. I finish my little speech exuberantly, throwing my arms wide, The possibilities are open! and quiet back down, having said my piece, spoken my heart, said my truth. It feels good.

(from 2-1-16)
Little guilt tendrils crawl up my body as I sit in my client sessions, wishing they were over and I could go home and melt, exist, crawl into my lover’s arms, read a book, eat a salad, something… It’s only Monday, why so much exhaustion as I start out my week after a pleasant weekend? Is it the warmth of the therapy rooms, inducing sleepiness in mind and body? Is it four months to graduation, ready and itching to finish this up but not sure how ready I am to jump into something new, to sell my life to a full time job, to give myself up to a profession? Am I on the wrong track, in the wrong career? I have to believe no, that the joys I have at other times during this work outweigh this moment’s sense of tiredness and impatience. I have to believe no, because I have invested three years and staked my identity on this work. It could be that trying to balance all the things I am balancing at this moment would make anyone exhausted. My friends tell me this is the case, even as I look around at others who somehow manage to balance full time work, full time school, and family… but no need to compare to others. At this moment, I need a little nurturance for myself. Today is this kind of day. Next time might be another. My love and energy will be restored, and I have to keep my faith that my trajectory is going in the right direction, even if I sometimes feel shaky.

(from 2-2-16)
I notice that I slip behind in my writings and make up one, two, even three days when I’ve missed too many writing days in a row. I write things that feel like they will end up on the cutting room floor, but I allow myself the grace to do so. Too many days of this makes me feel a little discouraged, wondering when something good will be written again and when I might get my groove back. Maybe it’s just the mid-winter blues, even though Indy has hardly experienced a winter this year. Maybe it’s hibernation of the soul, quieting down to emerge in the sunlight later. Maybe it’s the things I don’t understand now but will later. Maybe I can just relax into the ebb and flow of life and life in today’s moment, embracing it for all it is.

ebb and flow

how we worship

This small congregation of 12, the ones K. tears up for when preaching about them in sermons, the ones who have to close their doors in too few days, too few to allow K. to be ordained in the church building he was raised up in. Where is the line between thriving and surviving? What happens to a church that once split because it was growing so much and now, can seat everyone comfortably around a long foldout table?
Sitting with them, I film a movie in my head, a beautiful tragedy of a once-bustling church. A scene of this very conversation, zooming in on the confirming question: we still want to keep meeting, right? – yes. Camera pans out to a wide shot of the whole table discussing how much money to sell the building for, face shots of people giving out numbers in earnest, putting numeric values on a place that has housed the growing up of children, the building of community, the maturation of their own souls. I watch the fierce commitment of people who have spent years and years together, without a question in their minds of whether or not they will continue to be church with each other, only wondering where.
I imagine a future scene in my head, the keys being handed over to the new owners, the wooden doors closing one last time, the last truck loaded with folding chairs and a chalice, driving out of the parking lot. A tear streaking slowly down the cheek of the churchgoer, maybe the movie watcher. A beautiful tragic drama, or as K. reminds me, There is joy; it’s an opportunity for a new beginning.

 

*****

Early morning pre-dawn, best time for running. We’re getting so much in before most people are even thinking about rolling out of bed. The moon is just showing off with an incredible set like this, playing hide-and-seek between the clouds, sinking large and low on the horizon. K. and I tread cautiously on frozen snow, paths lit by the shine of the moon and the occasional car beam, until we reach the stillness of the canal path. I breathe deeper there and relax – my home. There is something about the joy of the cold air, the bare tree branches, the night sky, and running beside my love that alchemies into a mixture of joyous exuberance. Words burst from my mouth, story after story after random detail, but I am safe and know I am loved, and K. finds it all charming. At this easy pace, I could run forever, and almost wish to. Just keep going til you run out of path, out of time, out of darkness. Run until dawn, until the secret of night ends. That is what I love about night runs, I tell K. — it is as though the canal and I hold a secret that nobody else knows about, that there is beauty so strange and glorious and wonderful and I revel to share in it. Oh you beautiful world, you. Light feet, light body, light heart.

Moonset CTS night sky