I want to dedicate this post to Dr. Kevin Neuhouser, my friend and mentor, who one day told me never to read the Bible like a fundamentalist because so many liberal LGB/TQqi-friendly Christians do, and he totally gave me the idea for the “Apple Jacks” argument; and I want to dedicate this to Bethany Chupp whose passion finally opened my eyes to the oppression people living outside the heteronormative paradigm experience. Keep it up my Mennonite friends!
A roommate and co-conspirator of mine, Tyler Mostul, recently asked me to say why the Bible does not forbid homosexuality in one minute. Basically, he requested a quick, defensible position for those of us who love our neighbors enough to argue against the Christian hate speech purporting that sex between people with the same anatomical parts will erode the moral fabric of the world, as if gay sex is worse than using the Bible to tell our children that people don’t deserve their rights because they are somehow different or worse than us. Usually, I am reluctant to write about this topic and how it relates to the Bible. Oftentimes, people rarely change their hearts based on “biblical” arguments. Only personal stories with real affects truly change people. Consequentially, I wrote one blog post not related to the Bible and one that claims the debate of sexualities is based more on how Christians read and less about what they read. In the latter post, I made this statement, “the Bible is rather clear: at the very least, homosexual sex is unacceptable.” While I still affirm the general thesis of that post, I will refute the aforementioned statement. This will be my biblical defense of sexualities alternative to heterosexuality.
Let me begin by saying I have never heard a good biblical defense of LGB/TQqi1 people. Ever. I only hear one of two different arguments against or for LGB/TQqi people. First, there is the “For the Bible tells me so” argument. Those in this camp quote Leviticus 18.22 and Romans 1.26-7, shut their Bibles, and preach a 50-minute sermon about how hot fire is and how hell will be like a public swimming pool made of fire without lifeguards. Of course, to an 11-year-old who never wanted to get erections (which are awkward enough at that age) when he saw the 6th grade boys naked in the locker room, this sounds like the equivalent to “G*D2 hates you for who you are so be someone else.” These people often claim to be biblical literalists or at the very least, they thrust immense authority onto the pages of Christian scriptures. Nonetheless, when challenged, they become a bunch of interpreters. With a pork hot dog in hand3 while fishing for shrimp4 at a public execution of an immigrant5, they will spout out about how the “purity” laws of the Old Testament6 were culturally driven due to people’s lack of understanding about science and how one must cook pork extremely thoroughly in order to avoid getting ringworm (as though ancient people ate raw meat, exclusively). Thus, the “purity codes” were G*D’s way of protecting people from the bad stuff, and praise Jesus for science saving us from having to follow such ridiculous laws. Could the ban on homosexual sex not have cultural baggage just like the ban on eating shrimp or pigs? That will be the point later on but the other response first. The second response agrees with the first response: the Bible hates LGB/TQqi people, but to these folks, that does not matter at all. I call this response the “Apple Jacks” response. When I was a kid, “Apple Jacks” had an ad campaign in which a person would ask some youth what makes “Apple Jacks” taste good if they did not “taste like apples”. The youths responded to why they taste good with, “They just…do.” The second response to LGB/TQqi people goes something like this. When asked why they affirm alternative sexualities even though they believe the Bible forbids it, they respond with, “Because I just…do.” The trouble with both of these arguments is they rely on saying one thing and doing or believing another. Ultimately, they both have more to do with cultural conditioning than with biblical authority.
Our primary responsibility in showing how the Bible does not forbid LGB/TQqi people from being other than heterosexual is defining terms. For the most part, we can avoid talking about the gender identity issues such as being queer or transgender. The Bible says absolutely nothing related to such issues since these self-expressions never show up in its pages. Primarily, we need to define homosexuality since it produces the highest volume of debate and the Bible says a little bit about it (sort of).
Homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation deals with a person’s sexual attraction to another person’s sexual organs. Put crudely, a person with a homosexual orientation finds sexual attraction to a person of the same physical parts. A heterosexual identifies sexual attraction to someone with different physical parts. That makes up the basic, biological description. Nonetheless, sexual orientation becomes more complicated when gender gets involved. Gender, unlike sexual parts, is socially constructed. Certain genders are affiliated with certain physical parts: male gender with penises; female with vagina8. Homosexuality, while simply stated above, can be, in more complicated terms, attraction between same genders. Attractions express themselves in various ways. People might simply express their attraction through sexual intercourse; or they might fall in love, enter a committed relationship, and get married. In our best forms of committed relationship, they happen between two equals. People in these relationships love each other rather than rule over each other, sex is an expression of affection and intimacy, and power is shared. Most importantly, sex is not used to dominate the other. Sexual intercourse expresses love and trust in committed relationships whether they be homosexual or heterosexual. In this purview, orientation stands as something different than simple attraction to parts. Wrapped up in it is a cultural milieu of emotion, connection, and commitment. It indicates what kind of a person and with who a person wants to be in relationship. Healthy, consensual relationships stem from equal power, and homosexual, like heterosexual, relationships can be perfectly within the realm of mutual consent.
In first century, Roman imperial culture10, homosexual sex was a fairly common practice
but only as a specific, social function. The Romans broke society up into parallel dualities: male/female, free/slave, Roman/“nation”11, sky/earth, spiritual/physical, strong/weak, conqueror/conquered, victor/killed, and most importantly for our purposes, penetrator/penetrated or impenetrable/penetrable. Penetration lay at the foundations of these dualities. In the same way a man penetrates a woman’s vagina with his penis so too does his sword penetrate an enemy or his plow penetrate the earth. Thus, anything penetrable became feminized. Men dominated others and expressed their masculinity through penetration. Unlike our best forms of sexuality, Romans considered sex to be a way to reign over another human. Hence, homosexual sex occurred frequently. It existed in order to enable Roman men to feminize other men, to penetrate them, to dominate them, and ultimately, to subjugate them. For this reason, Roman, male citizens would not have consensual sex with each other; they only penetrated men of a lower class, primarily slaves or at times, young boys12. In a time when women could still be considered property, to turn another man into a woman carried serious social implications. It established dominance over the other.
Consent meant next to nothing in this social dynamic. Sex without consent is one thing and one thing only: rape. As two authors put it, “[C]onsent is the continual process of explicit, verbal discussion, a dialogue, brief or extended, taken one step at a time, to an expressed ‘yes’ by both parties and a shared acknowledgement that at this moment what we are doing together is safe and comfortable for each of us. Consent is what establishes that the interaction (including sex) is between equals in power.13” Today, rape, though common, is frowned upon, yet rape pervaded all of Roman culture, since a vast majority of people did not and generally do not consent to be subjugated. More importantly, male-with-male-sex existed for the primary purpose of subjection and, subsequently, rape14.
While Roman men were expected to have sex with other men, consent never factored in to this equation. Consequently, the very notion that two men (or women) could enter into a relationship built on and defined by equality, quite simply, did not exist. Homosexuality as an orientation, which is to say the idea that two people of the same gender could meet and have sex (or even be in a relationship) as equals, would have seemed outrageous to a person in the 1st-century CE. It did not exist. Taking this into account, we can now turn to the Bible.
What Paul Has to Say15
Paul is the only author in the Christian Testament who has anything to say about homosexual practice. First, we need to establish Paul in his thought-world. One of the most popular Pauline idioms, and a verse that relates closely to the aforementioned Roman culture, is Galatians 3.28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.16” Here, Paul lists off binaries, but claims that they fade away in Jesus. It is the exact opposite of the prolifically dualistic Roman culture. Nearly every commentator and biblical scholar agrees that Galatians 3.28 was written as a polemic against the popular Judean prayer in which a man would thank G*D that he was neither a Gentile, a slave, nor a woman17. While I do not want to exclude this prayer from being in the cross-hairs of this verse, it is important to note that Paul uses the word “Greek” (Hellen) rather than broader phrase “gentile” (ethnos18). By saying Greek, Paul implicates people who have embraced Hellenistic, which is to say imperial, culture. Paul distinguishes between the dominant culture and the subjugated one. Since Hellenes would naturally include the Judeans as one of the conquered “nations” (ethnos), Paul critiques the Roman rather than the Judean duality. By using the term “Greek”, Paul clearly is speaking against Roman culture as described above. More precisely, in Paul’s thought, the old hierarchies of Roman socialization disappear under the banner of Christ Jesus.
The primary text against homosexuality comes in Romans 1.26-7, however, I will quote starting at v. 22, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal G*D for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore G*D gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about G*D for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason G*D 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. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.19” At first glance, and in context, the author, Paul, seems rather clear: the natural course for sex is men with women and anything otherwise is against G*D. Seems simple enough. Of course, to say this is to omit the necessary truth of Paul’s social world: “natural” sex itself happened between unequal partners and “unnatural” sex existed for the subjugation of other men (or for the subjugation of women by women). Furthermore, we see Paul identify who these people given up by G*D are; they are people who worshiped “images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” and who “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Vitally important in this argument is who is noted first, “a mortal human being”. Paul indicts emperor worship! Furthermore, we can rest assured that in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul has something to say about the worship practices of the Roman people for whom worship of humans and other idols was the norm. Paul picks out the Roman religio-political social structure, and describes the results of it. Part of what he picks out, along with many other things, is male-with-male-sex, which I have already conclusively shown is not sex at all but culturally promoted rape.
Roman culture built a rigorously stratified environment. Paul’s gospel preached a world in which these dualities disappeared. As a result, when Paul critiqued the results of this culture, he included the practices that re-inscribed this thickly woven social fabric. We should not be surprised that homosexual sex came into the purview of Paul’s criticism seeing as how, socially, it was used to assert power structures. It was not a form of relationship that consisted of two people in the company of equals, feeling attracted to each other, and forming a relationship. Therefore, Paul could not be condemning homosexuality as we know it. It did not exist. To say the Christian Testament forbids homosexuality would be tantamount to saying Paul wrote a letter banning the internet or that Jesus preached against cell phones. It is impossible. Romans chapter 1 assails the Roman stratification and caste system and the subsequent expressions of that unjust creation. Ultimately, the Christian Testament does not forbid LGB/TQqi people and their sexual expressions. What it preaches against is a world of inequality, subjugation, alienation, and exploitation. What it argues for is a world in which women and men, slaves and freepeople, the conquerers and the conquered, and the homosexuals and the heterosexuals are all equal under Jesus.
I have believed for a long time that the Bible does not stand against homosexuality. This, I believe, shows exactly how the Bible not only permits it but encourages it so long as it comes in a package of equality and love. It is good not to forget that rape still exists. It exists between people of all sexualities. It is the domination of rape the Bible speaks out against, and it is the subjugation of people that it rebukes. Now, go forth, and be free from homophobia and gay-hating based on poor biblical exegesis!
1LGB/TQqi means Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender or Transsexual, Questioning, queer, and intersexed. I put a backslash between the B and T since the first three are sexualities and the last four are gender identities.
2I follow in the footsteps of Jewish people who replace the vowels in the name of G*D with a “-”. However, in following the practice of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in her book The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire,1, who considers the writing of “G-d” to be patriarchal, I replace the hyphen with an asterisk.
6I find the term “Old Testament” deplorable since for Jews it is the only testament; I prefer “Hebrew Bible”. Nevertheless, I use it colloquially here for dramatic purposes.
7Most of my knowledge of sexualities come from workshops and affinity groups. A great deal of my understanding of sexuality and gender also comes from working with people living on the street, many of whom are a sexuality alternative to heterosexuality or identify with a gender outside the binary.
8Except in the case of transgender people.
9Most of the information I write concerning Roman homosexual practice comes from this book: Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press: New York, 1999.
10This essay will deal only with the Christian Testament (aka the New Testament). This is because Christians, for the most part, put no value on Hebrew Bible laws. This is not to say that I put no value on the Hebrew Bible, but it simply takes the realistic assumption that all Christians find the Christian Testament in common.
11In Greek: ethne
12Sex with young boys had a lot to do with socialization. It was only appropriate in certain contexts. This does nothing to deny the fact that pedophilia was perfectly acceptable, normal, and encouraged by Romans. In fact, a common insult between Roman men was to say, “I had sex with your sons,” in much the same way U.S.-Americans say, “I slept with your mom.”
13Weinberg, Joseph and Michael Biernbaum. “Conversations of Consent: Sexual Intimacy without Sexual Assault” in Transforming A Rape Culture. Eds. Buchwald, Emilie; Pamela R. Fletcher; and Martha Roth. Milkweek Editions: Minneapolis, 1993. 93. Emphasis added.
14I apologize for not including the social dynamic of female-with-female-sex in the main text, but it functioned in basically the reverse fashion. It masculinized a penetrable female since her sexual parts penetrated the mouth of another female. This made female-with-female-sex completely taboo for Romans since the penetrated should not become the penetrator even though it still occurred. For this same reason Roman men resolutely abstained from oral sex.
15Most of my information concerning Paul’s thought-world is accredited to these books: Lopez, Davina C. Apostle to the Conquered: Re-Imagining Paul’s Mission. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2008.; Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?. Wm. B. Eerdmas Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1997.; and Elliot, Neil. The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2008.
16All quotations come from the NRSV.
17Recent scholarship which looks into the Roman imperial context of the Epistle to the Galatians finally breaks free from the dogmatic insistence that Paul’s whole purpose was to prove the Jews wrong, especially with this verse. For further reading, I recommend Brigette Kahl’s Galatians Re-Imagined.
18ethnos is, in my opinion, better translated “nations” rather than “Gentiles”.
19An important note: Paul gives the reason why people participate in homosexual sex/rape and the reason is idolatry!