Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christians


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.

Dear Friend,

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.

- Milo

6 comments:

Debra said...

A couple of years ago, I heard a rabbi interviewed on NPR about the issue of homosexualtiy. His interpretation was fascinating to me: he believes that homosexual acts were forbidden in the Hebrew Bible because it would compel a man into a woman's position and role, and that was the most appalling thing a Jewish man could imagine. (Think of that traditional prayer "I thank God that I was not born a dog, a Greek or a woman." Since biblical prohibitions against homosexualtiy are relatively rare, that seems a reasonable interpretation to me.

Milo Thornberry said...

Thanks, Debra! Makes sense, doesn't it?

dan said...

Allow this non-Christian Jewish bloke to weigh in on this and please excuse my non belief in a super natural god. I fully respect those who believe, as i hope they fully respect my beliefs which are a cross between atheism, agnosticism, humanism and compassion for all people regardless of skin color (there is no such thing as RACE) or gender (in fact, women are superior to men, and we men are basically an accident of nature) or sexuality (gay, schmay: we are all one human family and gay men and women are part of the very wonderful fabric of life.

That said. RE: "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?"

Look, i come from the people who gave you Jesus and i can tell you that the Hebrew scriptures were written by human beings who had no knowledge of science or DNA or genepools or chromosomes or anytying other than Dark Ages ancient era poppycock. Got it? and the the Christian scriptures, wonderful also as an archive of human culture long ago, and also written by men, by human being, not be any God or gods -- please, it's time to grow up and face reality, it's 2011 already! -- and i say this with respect to my Milo and his friends here, of course -- and since the Hebrew scriptures were written by sciece-ignorant men believing in supernatural volcano gods in Sinai...did you knwo the original word for God in hebrew is ELOHIM which is a plural word, words ending in the "heem' sound are plural and the original hebrew tribes, my DNA people for crying out out loud, they originally worshipped multiple gods, or elohim, and while the ONE GoD idea is cool and nice, it's also a false idea. again no disrect to anyone here. So anythingt you read in either the Hebrew scriptures or Christian scriptures is man-made ignorance regarding homosexuality! Get over it. Go beyond this. Gay people are wonderful people and part of the fabric of life everywhere. Where would be without gay people in all walks of life, from Leonard Bernstein to Elton John, from artists and composers to busienessmen and entrepreneurs? Ten percent of all biological life is gay, monkeys and birds too. Stop qutoing Leviticus! My people knew nada then. Enlightened Jews of today now acceppt homosewuality as part of God's wonder-FULL creation, as do enlightened Christians and Moslems and Buddhsts. The key here is to be EN-LIGHT-ENED.... that is where God's blessing lie today, not in old superstitions and prejudices. SIGH

dan said...

A friend of mine who is gay and lives in northern Calif about 35 yaers old told me today via online:

"re growing up gay for me..
I was horrified and ashamed- I thought being GAY was probably THE
single worst thing that could ever befall a man- that I was a freak -
that I would be ostracized forever(sort of have been, in a way) - that
I would neverget a job, be invited to any fraternities,orto join any
groups ,clubs ororganazationsa. it was horrible. And there was NO
internet to tell me that there were indeed many others "out there"
like me. I had no one to confide in or talk to, least of all my
parents. The only GAY people I knewofwerelike Paul Lynde and Charles
Nnelson Reilly and Liberace and Truman Capote! alleffeminate and
flamboyant annd VERY obviously GAY.and I wasnot at all like that,
nordid I ever want to be!''

''I had a HORRIBLE time with it all. I hated having to make some sort of
definitive decision and felt like I was forced to choose.Ijust
bascially LIKED the fun and mischevious spirit of male energy, and the
intimacy and camaraderie that I had with GUYS that I was never able to
develop with girls or women!I hadno sisters, my mother was a
contriolling and judgmental authority figure,a ndall of the other
women in my life were teachers and hence "authority" figures as well.
So Ivikewdwomen as "NOT FUN"ora symbolor prpriety and responsibility.
And I sort of rejected that. In any case women seemed then and still
seem sort of like odd, "foreign" creatures in a way,somehtinglike
deer. Perhapsd if i had been properly acclimated things might have
worked out differently. Ultimately, I doubt that it really matters.

I too was horrified and ashamed- I thought being GAY was probably THE
single worst thing that could ever befall a man- that I was a freak -
that I would be ostracized forever(sort of have been, in a way) - that
I would neverget a job, be invited to any fraternities,orto join any
groups ,clubs ororganazationsa. it was horrible. And there was NO
internet to tell me that there were indeed many others "out there"
like me. I had no one to confide in or talk to, least of all my
parents. The only GAY people I knewofwerelike Paul Lynde and Charles
Nnelson Reilly and Liberace and Truman Capote! alleffeminate and
flamboyant annd VERY obviously GAY.and I was not at all like that,
nor did I ever want to be!

Thankfully, it seems much easier now, though still not easy. "
'......

NOTE: we all NEED TO UNDERSTAND THIS better and stop calling homosexuality a sin. IT IS NOT A SIN. cAlling it a sin is a sin, actually!

Kayla said...

Milo, thanks for your post! This brings me back to a dozen years ago when Kris and I were visiting churches and newly attending First United Methodist in Fairbanks and heard your refreshing words on homosexuality and the Bible.

Your sermons helped us choose to become members of FUMC, and what a wonderful church family we continue to fellowship with here! Thanks for your tireless efforts of speaking on this issue.

Kayla (and Kris)

Milo Thornberry said...

Thank you Kayla! You have no idea what inspirations you and Kris were for me!