Sunday, July 8, 2007

Biblical Arguments

I said I was going to start talking about this whole "We have to break up the church because they're not doing things the way they should" argument that some so-called conservatives in this country as well as throughout the Anglican Communion are on.

The argument is, of course, about homosexuality and the Episcopal Church's ordination of Gene Robinson as a bishop in 2003. I'll get to scripture in a minute but we should start by reminding ourselves that there are lots of Christian leaders – and have been throughout the ages – who are gay. Most of them have simply hid their orientation because it would get them in trouble. So, at least Robinson and the Episcopal Church are being honest.

But on to the bible. If you say that, "Because it says so in the bible, it is absolute truth and must be followed to the letter," then you are either ill-informed or a liar. The truth is, much of what is written in the original texts is just plain unclear. Having studied Hebrew and Greek in seminary, I'm well aware of the many places in scripture where translators are making educated guesses – and not all translators agree on the meanings. So to say it says so in one version is pretty weak.

That's especially true because the few passages that can be interpreted as having anything to do with homosexuality are among those of questionable meaning. So we have at the beginning a group of people who will split the church over a very small number of passages that are not even clear. Go figure.

We must add to this the fact that Anglican scriptural study has never been based on literalism. Not that anyone is a true literalist – in part because the scriptures conflict internally – because they are written by many faithful people who disagreed with each other, in part because we pick and choose what is most meaningful to us and reject the rest.

On to those passages: Genesis 19 (Sodom), Judges 19 (Sodom redux), Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, Deuteronomy23:17, 1 Kings 12:24 & 15:12, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:9, Jude 7.

That's pretty much it. Notice that there's nothing in the Gospels. That's because Jesus never said a word about it. He spoke plenty about sexual relations, though never in the same way as Paul; Jesus spoke plenty about how to treat the poor, too. But nowhere does our Lord and Savior speak about homosexuality. Perhaps we ought to focus on the things important to Christ.

As to the eleven passages listed, you can already eliminate the Sodom story. It's not about homosexuality. As Isaiah says when he addresses Sodom and Gomorrah: "Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." Isa 1:15-17

However, it is also clear that something was going on between the men of Sodom and the angels. What was it? Rape. Not uncommon, homosexual rape was a way of intimidating others, emasculating them, doing violence on foreigners or losers in a battle. This is all about the violation of the very real law of hospitality, a violation far greater than we can understand today. By the way, the Episcopal Church condemns all forms of rape.

It's a whole essay to address the rest, so I may not be done with this today, but if you look Leviticus, Deuteronomy and 1 Kings just note that they all refer to temple prostitution which was indeed both heterosexual and homosexual. Temple prostitution does not exist today, so it's difficult to count these as having any meaning for us. And yes, the church condemns all forms of prostitution.

I'll save Paul for tomorrow because he's a special case. But if you take anything from this, remember, just because it says one thing in the bible does not means that this is exactly what it says. Translations are notoriously inaccurate, and they say as much about the interpreters (both the translators and the later readers) as they do about the original writers.