by Thomas Streiter
In Toxic Faith: Liberal Cure, Thomas Strieter and Daniel Bruch offer biblical, historical and sociological insights that counter many assertions from the religious right. In the following excerpt from the book, Streiter—a retired professor and Lutheran minister—discusses what the Bible and science say about homosexuality.
The Bible and what's happening now
American society and its churches are in ferment over the issue of gays and lesbians, same-sex unions and marriage. A whole bloc in our society wants a constitutional amendment to forbid same-sex marriage. Since this is primarily the position of outraged fundamentalist Christians, it is important to offer an alternative Christian interpretation on the issue of homosexuality.
Mainstream church denominations generally see themselves as having a mediating function. Their primary concern is to relate the good news of the message of Jesus so that it speaks with relevance to the society that they are addressing. The task is to struggle with how the 'there and the then' of the biblical record gives insight to what the Spirit is saying in the here and the now. Hopefully we have the humility to recognize that we are learners as well as teachers in our dialogue with our complex and ever-evolving world.
The Bible isn't static
Although all Christians believe that there are certainly eternal Scriptural truths, if we turn the Bible into a manual of 'dos' and 'don'ts' reflecting the world picture of ancient cultures, we easily fall into the trap of idolatry, binding ourselves to the letter of Scripture and ancient history and culture, and letting that take precedence over the Spirit of God who is still speaking today.
Biblical statements must be seen in their context. What God demands in one situation is sometimes overturned in another. Moreover, there is not only one voice reflected in Scripture. The Bible was written and shaped over a period of many centuries. The texts mirror changing points of view in different circumstances.
Many fundamentalistic Christians use ancient texts as though they are eternally binding, and often as instruments of oppression, justifying the subjugation of women; caste and class discrimination; and racial superiority. Such arguments were used to enforce apartheid in South Africa, as well as slavery, racial segregation and subjugation in the United States.
These same arguments have been used against homosexuals as well. Homosexuality, it is argued, is rebellion against the intention of the Creator, who, ostensibly, intended sex to occur only between man and woman. This viewpoint, however, ignores the dynamic and changing nature of Scripture itself. Creation is not a finished product or a static condition.
What do the Hebrew Scriptures really say?
The reality is that there is only a handful of passages in all of Scripture that deal directly with same-sex activity. As an initial point, it must be stressed that the recovery of the precise meaning of ancient words can be very difficult and, at times, impossible. When an issue is controversial, such as with homosexuality, people often read their own views and biases into the ancient texts, rather than extracting the meaning from the text itself.
Genesis 19—The story of Sodom: The most influential account that is seen as condemning homosexuality in the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of Sodom in Genesis 19. A purely homosexual-focused interpretation of this passage, however, is relatively recent. Briefly, the story is this: As two angelic strangers approach the gates of Sodom, Lot, the patriarch Abraham's nephew, who now lives there, extends the ancient obligation of hospitality to the strangers and invites them to spend the night in his home. Thereupon, every last man in the city surrounds Lot's house, and, reflecting an egregiously inhospitable spirit, call to Lot, 'Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.' Here, the word 'know' denotes sexual intercourse. Lot pleads with them not to do this terrible thing and offers his two virgin daughters for them to brutalize in whatever way they may wish. When the mob tries to break the door down, all of the men of the city are miraculously struck blind; the angels drag Lot and his family from Sodom; and God rains brimstone and fire upon the city.
To refer to the 'sin of Sodom' as merely the intent to indulge in homosexual activity is seriously to abuse the real point of this story, which is that the Sodomites were guilty of the gross violation of the Hebrew principle of hospitality. The story is not about an act of mutuality between consenting adults; instead, it is about intended gang rape, an act of violent inhospitality, the ultimate abuse of the 'stranger in the gate.' That is the real sin of Sodom! If Lot would fail in his obligation of hospitality, the shame would be so great that it would be preferable for him to give over his own daughters to be violated. The sexual penetration of women was within the cultural understanding of the role of women, but for a man it was an unacceptable act of violence.
Leviticus 18:22; 20:13—the 'Holiness Code': There are two passages in Leviticus that condemn male homosexual acts. 'You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; both of them have committed an abomination,' and 'If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; there blood is upon them.' These commands are a part of a collection of laws in Leviticus 17-26, called the Holiness Code because of the frequent repetition: 'You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from other peoples to be mine.' It is of critical importance, however, that these commands regarding homosexuality be seen within the totality of the context of the Holiness Code, which includes some rather strange mandates.
The Holiness Code condemns any blending or crossing of lines of categories within creation. For example, it was forbidden to plant two different kinds of seeds in the same field, or wear a garment made of two different kinds of material; to have contact with a woman during menstruation; or to eat 'unclean animals' that range from pigs to shellfish. The death penalty applied to a whole range of things, from cursing one's parents to marrying one's half sister, even though Abraham and Sarah, the forebears of the Hebrew people, were half-sister and brother.
In the light of all of these rather strange mandates in the Holiness Code, one wonders why, for fundamentalist Christians, the two passages that may refer to same-sex activity are considered so crucial when the rest of the code. The Holiness Code doesn't rank the seriousness of the prohibitions included within it, and we certainly cannot assume that the Holiness Code in its entirety is binding upon God's people today.
And the New Testament?
What in the Bible does still apply for us today, and why does it still apply? The New Testament church dealt with this knotty question forthrightly at the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem ( ca. 49 A.D. ) , which dismissed the burden of many Old Testament laws.
Romans 1:18-32—Right with God; not law but grace: This is the passage of the New Testament that is quoted most often as reflecting God's judgment against homosexuality; however, this passage can't be properly interpreted without a basic understanding of its social context. In much of the Greco-Roman world, pederasty ( same-sex intercourse between and adult and a child or young teen ) was extremely common although, obviously, same-sex relations also occurred between consenting adults. This reality may have been significant in influencing Paul's aversion to homosexuality.
In Paul's time it was assumed that everyone was basically heterosexual, and that to perform same-sex acts was contrary to one's own basic nature. The modern understanding of homosexuality as a constitutional condition was simply not a part of the ancient biblical frame of reference. In that context, Paul is condemning those whom he perceives as heterosexuals who are committing homosexual acts. They have thus rejected their natural inclination to monotheism and their natural inclination to the opposite sex. This, Paul says, is 'against nature. It must be noted, however, that Paul's condemnation does not speak to the issue under discussion in the church and society today—which is the issue of adults, who are homosexual by nature, living in a non-exploitative, loving, monogamous faithful relationship.
Paul continues the passage with a whole catalogue of misconduct that flows from idolatry, some of which makes one wince because the shoe fits too closely. As Paul lists these unsavory examples of misconduct, who among us is not guilty of envy, slander, strife, deceit, gossiping, rebelliousness toward parents and many of the other sins that he mentions? One wonders why it is that homosexuality is singled out by fundamentalistic conservatives as an abomination, when Paul mentions it as one of many sins that place us under the wrath of God. Paul continues his arguments by stressing that all of us are under the judgment of God, including those who stand in judgment against all of this gross conduct. Although he begins with a condemnation of the same-sex practices of his day to stir up the moral indignation of his readers, Paul uses this rhetorical mechanism to turn his criticism against his readers, and to us who make such judgments today. We are playing God. 'All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,' Paul declares, and 'the wage of sin is death.'
And what does Jesus say?
We must say upfront that there are no sayings of Jesus that bear any relation to homosexuality. In fact, Jesus' sayings on sexual mores are extremely few, particularly when compared with his words of condemnation on wealth and oppression. Even though arguments from silence are never conclusive, still, one might think that there would be at least one saying that Jesus addressed to what so many consider such a heinous sin.
The only sexual issues of importance to Jesus appear to have been monogamy, fidelity, and life-long commitment. ( Compare Mark 10:2-9; Matthew 19:3-9. ) He clearly thought sexuality should be expressed within a permanent and monogamous relationship. Thus, we believe that there is no inherent reason why unions between committed persons of the same sex could not have met Jesus' moral criteria.
Toxic Faith: Liberal Cure is available through Amazon.com, www.liveliberal.com and major book stores.