I’ve mentioned before that I was born and bred as a Southern Baptist, raised to walk along the narrow path of the most conservative interpretations of the Bible and vote within the guidelines set forth by the Jerry Falwells and James Dobsons of the world. Luckily, I was also born with a good set of critical thinking genes and a hunger for knowledge, so in my grown-up life, I was able to hold organized religion at arm’s length and reconcile my Biblical knowledge with my life experiences with my intrinsic value system of mercy and goodness.
Funny thing about spending all those years in church, though: I know more about the Bible than I will ever know about anything else. I studied it like it was my job for two decades of my life.
I often have run-ins with former buddies from church, all of whom are really wonderful people on the inside, but most of whom do not have a particularly thorough or enlightened understanding of their own religion (or the origins/transitions/translations of their holy book). What usually happens is they do some Bible verse-slinging at me, and I patiently try to explain where they’ve been duped by their church or their politicians or their own ingrained prejudices.
Today, I realized it would probably be an even better idea if I just made a reference post so I can point people here and save myself some typing time. Hopefully, you guys will be able to use this as a resource too.
Before I begin, though, I think it’s important to say two things:
1) I do not think the Bible condemns gay people, but even if it did, the US government should absolutely not legislate against gay people because of it. A people group does not need to prove its blamelessness in the eyes of a single religion’s deity to receive equal protection and civil liberties from its government. That is the exact opposite of what America’s founding fathers — many of whom abhorred organized religion — had in mind when they framed our Constitution.
2) Any person can go scavenging through the Bible, plucking out verses willy-nilly to prove whatever point they want to prove. Over the years, conservative Christians and their political counterparts have used the Bible to justify slavery, segregation, outlawing interracial marriage, denying women the right to vote/own property/exist as anything other than the property of their husbands, corporal punishment for children, marital rape, and on and on and on, all the way back to jailing Galileo for having the audacity to suggest the sun (rather than the earth) is the center of the universe. So, when people Bible-bash you, it’s important to remember that they did the same thing (literally) to the guy who wouldn’t shut up about the world not being flat. Sometimes religion blinds people to truths that are (again: literally) as bright as the most gigantic star in the universe.
Basically, there are six “clobber passages” many conservative Christians use to justify their bigotry toward gay people — three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Here’s how they shake down and where (some) Christians get it wrong.
OLD TESTAMENT: Clobber Passage 1
Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah
This is one of the Religious Right’s favorite stories when it comes to gay-hate. Here’s how they tell it: A couple of handsome male angels were backpacking around the desert when they happened upon Sodom. Nice guy Lot invited them over to dinner, but during the middle of the main course, some randy gay men came a-callin’. “Let us in to have sex with those dudes,” they shouted, “or we’ll huff and we’ll puff and we’ll blow your house down!” Lot said, “No way! No gay sex here!” And then the next day God spared Lot for being righteous and smote the rest of the city for being gay.
What a parable! God hates gay people so much he unleashed his wrath on a whole city because of it! Like he’s getting ready to do to America if we legalize same-sex marriage! Right?
Except for that version of the story misses a kind of important thing that happens in the middle: Lot went out to meet his angry townspeople and said (and this is an exact quote from the Bible), “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” (Genesis 19:7)
The wicked men said no, they’d rather have the dudes, and so then God spared Lot’s family’s life and destroyed the rest of the city.
So what’s the modern moral of this story? God is not OK with gays, but is a-OK with paternally-sanctioned rape? Therefore we should outlaw same-sex marriage but protect a dad’s right to offer his daughters up to be gang-banged? ‘Cause apparently God approves of that.
Here’s another idea. We can go: “Man, things were real different ten thousand years ago. If that story is literal, and not just an oral allegory passed down from generation to generation as was the tradition of the day, God’s own personal human rights legislation was pretty crappy. Basing our modern laws on the way he dealt with ancient civilizations is kind of dangerous.”
It’s disingenuous to cling to the “God smites gay people” thing and disregard the “God condones child rape” thing. They’re right there, in the same story. Either they’re both still relevant indicators of God’s feelings (child rape: good, gay sex: bad) or they both need to be examined through the lens of modern human rights.
OLD TESTAMENT: Clobber Passages 2 and 3
"Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."
"If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."
People who use the book of Leviticus to justify their prejudices against gay folks boggle my mind most of all. Leviticus is a set of instructions compiled specifically for Levite priests and a set of rules compiled for Israelites pre-Jesus. In fact, God makes quite a show about how much he doesn’t care about Levitical law post-Jesus when he interrupts the Apostle Peter’s prayer time to tell him to hop up and go buy himself a pulled pork sandwich. Acts 10:9-19 literally has God going: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” See, because Leviticus offers such helpful healthy living tips as, “Don’t eat pork!” “Don’t eat shellfish!” “Don’t wear clothes made out of two different fabrics!” “Don’t let one kind of cattle graze with another kind of cattle!” “Don’t let a dude with a flat nose come to God’s altar!” “Don’t let women sit on your furniture when they’re on their periods.” Oh, and, “Don’t be gay!”
But it’s commonly accepted now that Leviticus was a specific set of laws for a specific time, a time that was thousands and thousands of years ago. It’s preposterous to sift out those verses about how God hates gay people and assume they carry any more weight than the verses where God hates flat-nosed people. (I’m for real. Leviticus 21:17-18, look it up.)
Again, take them all, or take none at all. You can’t choose “hate gays” without choosing “hate shrimp.”
NEW TESTAMENT: Clobber Passages 4 and 5
1 Timothy 1:9-10
We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
I’m going to group these verses together because the word “homsexuality” in 1 Timothy and the phrase “men who have sex with men” in 1 Corinthians are actually the same word in Greek, which is, of course, the language Paul used when he was writing these two letters. The Greek word he used is “arsenokoitais.” Now, here’s where things get dicey. Every time a new team translates the Bible into English, they come away with a different meaning for “arsenokoitais.” In various Bibles over the years, it has been translated: “effeminate,” “sisies,” “child molesters,” “abusers of themselves with men,” “male prostitutes,” “people with infamous habits,” and “Sodomites.” These days, it’s translated as “homosexuals.”
That’s the kooky thing about the Bible. It’s a collection of stories and letters and primary history-type texts that are thousands of years old. Which texts belonged in the Bible was a question that was still being debated a century and a half after Jesus died. A thousand-plus years is a whole lot of time for interference between God’s lips and your ears, especially when the rich white guys who were deciding which books to put into the Bible were also the rich white guys who were strangling William Tyndale at the stake for suggesting the Bible should be translated into English for the common man to read. And once the Bible was allowed to be translated into English and non-church employees were allowed to read it — which is to say, once the doctrines of the church had already taken hold in people’s minds for 1,500 years (six times as long as the United States has been a country!) — scholars still couldn’t agree on a standard translation from Greek/Hebrew to English.
I cannot overemphasize this: The guys who decided which texts got to go into the Bible (and there were gazillions to choose from) did not want regular old people to be able to read the Bible. They closed themselves off in this room and said, “Just trust us. God will tell us what you need to know and then we’ll read it to you in a language you don’t understand and interpret that for you too.”
Today “arsenokoitais” means “homosexual.” At one time, it meant “masturbators.” Who knows how it will be translated in the future?
Clobber Passage 6
Romans 1:26 -27
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
One of the most important things you should do when you’re reading something from the Bible is ask: 1) Who wrote it? And 2) To whom it was written? Taken out of context, you might think God was thundering this stuff down to synagogues and churches with his own voice. But most of the New Testament is comprised of letters written by the early disciples. They were written to specific churches to address specific concerns. Take this passage in Romans here. This was a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome, and the group of people he is talking about here is a sect that broke away from the church Paul founded and began engaging in pagan rituals, including big gay orgies that were a means of worship for the pagan gods. “Their error” is not referring to their “error” of having gay sex. “Their error” is that they converted to Paul’s brand of Christianity, and then decided it wasn’t for them. So they went back to worshiping their other gods. His criticism is of Greek temple worship.
Also, it’s really important to remember that Paul is a guy who condoned — even promoted — slavery and oppression of women. Because (and I just cannot stress this enough) those were common practices when he was writing his letters to the early churches. The world has changed. Christians are happy to accept that fact when it comes to ideas like “maybe enslaving our fellow humans is barbaric!” and “maybe forbidding women to speak in church is inhumane!”, but (again!) you can’t pick and choose. Either you have to acknowledge that the Bible was written to an ancient civilization with antiquated human rights laws, in which case you are acknowledging that it has no place in modern civil rights legislation, or accept it in its entirety as incontrovertible fact.
It’s also super important to remember that Jesus never even addressed the gay thing, and there were plenty of gay Greeks running around when he was teaching. Jesus talked the most about money and second most about love, and the thing that really set him off was when church people and politicians — especially rich ones who got their money by exploiting the less fortunate — used arcane dogma to persecute people. The carpenter from Nazareth would have no place in the modern conservative Christian church, with his radical (socialistic!) ideas like rich people selling their stuff and sharing their stuff with poor people, and his absolute disdain for exploitative political machinations.
To sum it up:
What’s happening right now in America with the same-sex marriage debate is the same thing that happened in America when socially progressive folks decided slavery was inhumane, that women shouldn’t be considered property, that segregation was unconstitutional, that parents didn’t have the right to corporeally punish their children. These “liberals” stood up and said, “Hey, don’t you think it’s kind of disingenuous to use this 2,000 year old book that was written in a language you don’t understand at a time when the world was a very different place to justify your horrible behavior toward your fellow human beings?” And Christians said, “No! No! This is the way God really wanted it, and if we do it a different way, the fabric of society will be ripped in two and the world will fall apart!” But guess what happened? Slavery was abolished and so was segregation, women were given their autonomy and the right to vote, we stopped beating up our kids. And it was the right decision. Society got better. And the Christians said, “Oh, this is what God intended from the beginning.” Religious people and organizations are in a constant state of retrofitting their understanding of their holy texts to align with the natural progression of human rights. It happened with slavery, it happened with segregation, it’ll happen with same-sex marriage.