Margaret Court and Bible Bigotry

Margaret Court should have stuck to tennis. She was great at it. Now she’s a pastor, and her interpretation of the Bible is terrible.

Court is a tennis legend. She played from 1960-1977, and she holds records for Grand Slam and major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

Last week, she reignited debate about her views on homosexuality when she criticized Qantas airlines for its support of same sex marriage, which is still not legal in Australia. She noted, “I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible.”

She’s also claimed that “tennis is full of lesbians” who recruit younger players and that transgender children are the work of the devil.

She explained her reasoning: “We know that homosexuality is a lust of the flesh, so is adultery, fornication, all those things … they too know this, this is why they want marriage, because it’s self-satisfying. I think they know it comes against Christianity, the beliefs of God, but in some way it’s justifying.”

Now that some tennis players are calling for the Margaret Court Arena to be renamed, Court claims she’s being bullied. “[I’ve got] nothing against homosexuals – as individuals, they can do what they want to do – but my belief as a Christian is marriage the Bible way and I think it’s sad that these people are using that to try to hit below the belt.”

Court, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to think it’s bullying at all to use the Bible to beat people over the head or deny their human rights. And, quite frankly, her reading of the Bible on homosexuality is uninformed. Granted, a lot of conservatives read the Bible this way, and a lot of people say, “Well, they’re entitled to their opinion.” Perhaps. But when that opinion is based in ignorance and used to harm others, then it’s more than a simple opinion. It’s an injustice.

Only five passages in all of the Bible even mention anything that could remotely relate to homosexuality. Jesus has nothing, nothing whatsoever to say about it. The passages in the Hebrew Bible are about taboos; they’re related to cultic purity. “Abomination” is a bad translation. “Something that’s just not done” is a better one. Now, Margaret Court may want to claim these passages out of Leviticus as evidence of God’s condemnation of homosexuality (although they only speak to acts between men—not the lesbians on the tennis circuit). Interestingly enough, the surrounding passages also command we put adulterers to death. They forbid eating meat and milk together or wearing mixed fiber clothing. I wonder if Court ever played in a cotton-polyester blend in violation of God’s law.

During the times in which the Bible was written, people had no understandings of sexual identities as we do now. In their context, same sex sexual relations were evidence of degradation (conquering soldiers raped conquered armies), cultic defilement (ejaculation made a man unclean and unable to participate in religious rituals), or exploitation (most of what Paul saw was wealthy Roman citizens who procured young men as slaves for sex). Biblical writers had no understanding of sexual identity and same sex love. In fact, the idea of sexual identity didn’t even enter human thought until the 19th century (To read more about homosexuality and the Bible, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, Jay Michaelson’s God vs. Gay, and David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind).

What the Bible does offer, however, is a story in the book of Acts of the early church coming to terms with its own biases and bigotry. The first followers of Jesus did not see themselves as a new religion. In fact, they struggled to include others as part of the early church. The book of Acts shows us how these barriers fell before the Gospel—first to Samaritans, then to God-fearing Gentiles, and finally to Gentiles who worshipped other gods.

Perhaps the most striking story is that of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius had a vision that he was to send for Peter, and so he did. Peter was on the roof praying. He got hungry and saw a vision of a large sheet coming down. It was filled with all kinds of birds and animals. A voice told Peter to go kill something and eat it. Peter refused, saying that he’d never eaten anything that was considered unclean. The voice responded, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and then the sheet was suddenly taken up into heaven. While Peter was pondering the meaning of this vision, Cornelius’ men appeared, and Peter went with them to Cornelius’ house, where Cornelius had gathered his family and friends. Cornelius told Peter what the voice had said to him, and so Peter preached the good news of Jesus to them. They believed, and the Holy Spirit fell on them. Peter was amazed that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles. Now, back in Judea, the believers criticized Peter for going to the Gentiles. Peter defended himself by telling them about his vision and the Spirit’s command that he make no distinction between the believers in Judea and the Gentiles. He concluded, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Margaret Court and others who use the Bible to condemn and exclude LGBT people would do well to reread Acts.

The Bible is a complicated text, written thousands of years ago by people very different from ourselves, in different cultures than our own, in different languages than our own. A serious reading of the Bible takes its history, cultures, languages, and perspectives into account. Picking and choosing five passages ripped out of context in order to batter and exclude LGBT people from God’s grace and human rights is a misuse of scripture and an affront to the Gospel. Margaret Court would do well to hone her interpretive skills as much as she honed her tennis skills.