When the news came yesterday that the U.S. Justice Department would no longer defend “The Defense of Marriage Act,” declaring that the law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriages is unconstitutional and discriminatory and that Department of Justice lawyers will no longer defend it in court. I greeted that news with unmitigated joy and posted it on my Facebook page.
Several friends responded with “About time!” “Amen! Amen!” and other similar sentiments. One friend that I have known for many years responded with these questions:
In Lev. 18 & 20, is it not talking about homosexuality when it talks about laying with mankind as with a woman? The more I learn, the more confused I get. Is not homosexuality a sin? Aren't we supposed to love the sinner, like Jesus did, and not the sin?
For many of you, these questions have long since been resolved, but there are others for whom they are not. Without identifying my friend, I wanted to respond to her questions here so that others might add wisdom and/or questions that can be included in the Comments, or in a subsequent blog.
Thank you for your questions. Where do I begin in a way that makes sense?
I come out of the Christian tradition that was significantly influenced by John Wesley in the 18th century. How do Christians know God? Wesley’s answer was not new so much as it was an expression of what Christians had practiced from their beginning. We know God through the Bible, through tradition, through reason, and experience. While, for Wesley, the Bible was foremost among the four, he was equally clear that all four were interrelated and necessary.
Throughout most Christian history, the Bible was not regarded as the sole source of our knowledge of God, and there have always been Christians who didn’t believe the Bible to be literally true. The notion that every word of the Bible was dictated by God has had more coinage among certain groups of Christians since the 18th century. While that is the view of Muslims about the Koran, Christians have always had diverse views about it.
You probably thought I would never get to Leviticus. The first five books of the Bible have 613 positive and 365 negative mitzvot (meaning "commandments" as well as "blessing"). Traditional Jews believed that all were of God and binding. The injunctions in Lev. 18 and 20 about homosexuality are among the mitzvot, along with requirements not to eat shell fish, capital punishment for one who commits adultery or works on the Sabbath, and a whole host of others.
For centuries the Levitical Code (21:16ff) forbidding persons with “blemishes” -- we now say “handicapping conditions” --from approaching the altar of God was used to justify discrimination against such persons. When Congress passed laws against discriminating against persons with handicapping conditions, there were Christians who objected citing these texts.
The Jewish tradition has its own history of dealing with the mitzvoth and I will not try to explain it. The mitzvoth have their own history in Christianity. While Christians were expected to obey the “Ten Commandments” (ten of the 613) they by and large believed they were not obliged to follow the other 603. In the view of Paul and others, they were the Law from which Christ freed us. This is an oversimplification, but I believe is not a distortion.
For me, it would have been important to know what Jesus thought about homosexuality. Unfortunately, in our Gospels he nowhere has anything to say about it. He appears far more concerned with adultery in marriage, especially as it related to the unequal treatment of women. Why is there nothing about homosexuality if it was an important issue for Jesus?
The language of the references the apostle Paul makes to homosexuality are directed to relations with prostitutes than to homosexuality itself. He may have been anti-gay, but it is not demonstrable from an examination of the texts in Greek.
Homosexuality has been taboo throughout Christian history and we have been led to believe that there was universal (in the Christian faith) agreement that it was sinful. Yesterday, in response to my reporting the Justice Department announcement, Michael Turton reminded us of research being done on burials in Greek Macedonia: Possible Evidence for Same-Sex Committed Relationships in Early Christianity http://www.depts.drew.edu/jhc/samesex.html.
I have taken way too long to say that I don’t believe the Biblical texts on homosexuality should be taken in any way authoritatively in this conversation.
Homosexuality is simply another way of being. We do not know why, but it seems to exist in all species.
What Jesus made clear throughout his short life is the mitzvoth are not all of equal standing in the eyes of God. When asked about which commandment was most important, he didn’t say “they are all of equal importance,” but rather
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)Those are the commandments I believe should guide us in this conversation.
Thanks for writing to me about your questions and concerns. I hope this is helpful. I look forward to hearing back from you.