I offended a friend recently. It's not something I like to do, as I'm more of a conflict avoider, but here's what I said:
I used to think that Christians who oppose the civil rights and full participation of LGBT persons simply happened to disagree with me about a very important issue. I now regard that assumption as naïve. People either use religion to justify their bigotry or they refuse to give up their bigotry for the sake of maintaining false religious security. In the end it's all bigotry.
My friend expressed dismay. In his mind my harsh judgment shuts down conversation. Yes, that's probably true. But who is the victim here? My friend may pretend to be the victim, but he's not. The real victims are the countless gay and transgender people who are victimized by the church every day. In many contexts right-wing Christians actively persecute sexual minorities. From the pulpit pastors have recommended striking little boys who fail the masculinity text. I'm sorry if the truth shuts down a conversation, but let's be clear on who's hurting whom here.
Hiding behind the Bible doesn't exempt us from responsibility for our beliefs and behaviors. The Bible is a complicated book. Using the Bible to condemn sexual minorities requires that people make a series of choices and assumptions. Let's examine those choices and assumptions.
First, people assume that the Bible is a sort of rule book that "teaches" us what to think about countless issues, including sex. But the Bible doesn't say anything directly about "homosexuality" -- and yes, I know about each one of the passages people use to justify discrimination. Several passages do condemn same-sex sex; then again David found Jonathan's love greater than that of women (2 Samuel 1:26), while Jesus healed a centurion's "boy" (Greek: pais) without any comment on that relationship (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
Whatever proof texts one side or the other cooks up, the Bible simply doesn't work as a rule book. That's why very few Christians want biblical government (judges and kings!), why we ignore biblical finance (no banking industry!) and why we have abandoned biblical cosmology (in which heaven is somewhere "up there"). Treating the Bible as a rule book has justified all sorts of evil, including genocide, slavery, segregation and women's subordination. Ignoring the context of Paul's teaching, many domestic rapists appeal to Scripture. They know that Paul tells women they owe sex to their men (1 Corinthians 7:3-6). This is not how to use the Bible.
Second, many apply an interpretive double standard to homosexuality. Simply, the Bible has a lot to say about sex and gender, and Christians -- all Christians -- conveniently skip by the scary stuff. We don't require rape victims to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); we don't tell women to lay off the jewelry (1 Peter 3:3); and we choose not to remember that the Bible provides specific instructions for the sexual use and marriage of slave girls (Exodus 21:7-11). We even ignore the New Testament's teachings -- and they are diverse -- on divorce (compare Mark 10:2-12 with Matthew 19:3-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16). Yet somehow we think the Bible directly condemns LGBT persons. It's pretty clear: We straight people apply the Bible to the sex lives LGBT folk in ways we'd never apply it to our own.
Third, the appeal to Scripture to condemn sexual minorities requires that we ignore the vast cultural gap between the ancient world and our own. Again, hypocrisy comes into the picture. When we read the biblical prophets, we ask ourselves about their historical contexts. Who were the Assyrians, was the prophet addressing Israel or Judah, and what can we know about the politics of that time? When we read Paul's letters, Christians automatically wonder about the circumstances Paul is addressing. What can we know about the local culture, the ongoing conversations that motivate Paul to write, and popular popular religious and philosophical movements in the ancient world.
These are routine questions for Christians. But when it comes to sex we ignore the astonishing gap between the ancient world and our own. Not one biblical marriage resembles marriage in our society. No biblical couple meets, falls in love and mutually chooses a lifetime of companionship. (Some would see Ruth as an exception, but Ruth marries for survival.) So patriarchal was the culture that the Bible defines adultery only in terms of one man's offense against another, with everything depending on the woman's status as married or betrothed. (Many people are surprised to learn this.) This is not to deny that ancient couples grew to love one another deeply; it is simply to point out how far our culture is removed from that of the Bible.
Likewise, our concepts of "homosexuality," sexual orientation and gender identity have no counterparts in the ancient world. Free adult men frequently had sex with their wives, with prostitutes, with male and female slaves, and with other people they could find. In the ancient world same-sex sex was almost always exploitative in nature. No one was talking about homosexual identity or seeking egalitarian same-sex marriage in the ancient world. When it comes to homosexuality, the Bible simply isn't talking about what we're talking about. Those who misuse the Bible to condemn gays choose to ignore this reality.
I suspect that many Christians hold on to an anti-gay stance out of fear. Having been told the Bible condemns homosexuality, they assume that embracing sexual justice implies defying God's Word. Many Christians I talk to feel they can rely on the Bible for direct guidance concerning everyday affairs. If the Bible won't hold up to that use for whatever reason, they fear they might lose their moral compass and chaos might ensue. But the Bible has never delivered that sort of certainty, nor can it. That's why every town has dozens of fundamentalist churches that think they're the only ones who have it right. There's no avoiding the problem of interpretation -- or the responsibility that goes with it.
Julius Caesar said, "People believe what they want to believe." Modern psychology has confirmed his wisdom: Our moral choices tend to reflect our biases and passions more than an unbiased process of moral reflection. Let's be honest: if you're anti-gay, you're anti-gay. Just don't blame the Bible for your bigotry.
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