I offended a friend recently. It's not something I like to do, as I'm more of a conflict avoider, but here's what I said:
I used to think that Christians who oppose the civil rights and full participation of LGBT persons simply happened to disagree with me about a very important issue. I now regard that assumption as naïve. People either use religion to justify their bigotry or they refuse to give up their bigotry for the sake of maintaining false religious security. In the end it's all bigotry.
My friend expressed dismay. In his mind my harsh judgment shuts down conversation. Yes, that's probably true. But who is the victim here? My friend may pretend to be the victim, but he's not. The real victims are the countless gay and transgender people who are victimized by the church every day. In many contexts right-wing Christians actively persecute sexual minorities. From the pulpit pastors have recommended striking little boys who fail the masculinity text. I'm sorry if the truth shuts down a conversation, but let's be clear on who's hurting whom here.
Hiding behind the Bible doesn't exempt us from responsibility for our beliefs and behaviors. The Bible is a complicated book. Using the Bible to condemn sexual minorities requires that people make a series of choices and assumptions. Let's examine those choices and assumptions.
First, people assume that the Bible is a sort of rule book that "teaches" us what to think about countless issues, including sex. But the Bible doesn't say anything directly about "homosexuality" -- and yes, I know about each one of the passages people use to justify discrimination. Several passages do condemn same-sex sex; then again David found Jonathan's love greater than that of women (2 Samuel 1:26), while Jesus healed a centurion's "boy" (Greek: pais) without any comment on that relationship (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
Whatever proof texts one side or the other cooks up, the Bible simply doesn't work as a rule book. That's why very few Christians want biblical government (judges and kings!), why we ignore biblical finance (no banking industry!) and why we have abandoned biblical cosmology (in which heaven is somewhere "up there"). Treating the Bible as a rule book has justified all sorts of evil, including genocide, slavery, segregation and women's subordination. Ignoring the context of Paul's teaching, many domestic rapists appeal to Scripture. They know that Paul tells women they owe sex to their men (1 Corinthians 7:3-6). This is not how to use the Bible.
Second, many apply an interpretive double standard to homosexuality. Simply, the Bible has a lot to say about sex and gender, and Christians -- all Christians -- conveniently skip by the scary stuff. We don't require rape victims to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); we don't tell women to lay off the jewelry (1 Peter 3:3); and we choose not to remember that the Bible provides specific instructions for the sexual use and marriage of slave girls (Exodus 21:7-11). We even ignore the New Testament's teachings -- and they are diverse -- on divorce (compare Mark 10:2-12 with Matthew 19:3-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16). Yet somehow we think the Bible directly condemns LGBT persons. It's pretty clear: We straight people apply the Bible to the sex lives LGBT folk in ways we'd never apply it to our own.
Third, the appeal to Scripture to condemn sexual minorities requires that we ignore the vast cultural gap between the ancient world and our own. Again, hypocrisy comes into the picture. When we read the biblical prophets, we ask ourselves about their historical contexts. Who were the Assyrians, was the prophet addressing Israel or Judah, and what can we know about the politics of that time? When we read Paul's letters, Christians automatically wonder about the circumstances Paul is addressing. What can we know about the local culture, the ongoing conversations that motivate Paul to write, and popular popular religious and philosophical movements in the ancient world.
These are routine questions for Christians. But when it comes to sex we ignore the astonishing gap between the ancient world and our own. Not one biblical marriage resembles marriage in our society. No biblical couple meets, falls in love and mutually chooses a lifetime of companionship. (Some would see Ruth as an exception, but Ruth marries for survival.) So patriarchal was the culture that the Bible defines adultery only in terms of one man's offense against another, with everything depending on the woman's status as married or betrothed. (Many people are surprised to learn this.) This is not to deny that ancient couples grew to love one another deeply; it is simply to point out how far our culture is removed from that of the Bible.
Likewise, our concepts of "homosexuality," sexual orientation and gender identity have no counterparts in the ancient world. Free adult men frequently had sex with their wives, with prostitutes, with male and female slaves, and with other people they could find. In the ancient world same-sex sex was almost always exploitative in nature. No one was talking about homosexual identity or seeking egalitarian same-sex marriage in the ancient world. When it comes to homosexuality, the Bible simply isn't talking about what we're talking about. Those who misuse the Bible to condemn gays choose to ignore this reality.
I suspect that many Christians hold on to an anti-gay stance out of fear. Having been told the Bible condemns homosexuality, they assume that embracing sexual justice implies defying God's Word. Many Christians I talk to feel they can rely on the Bible for direct guidance concerning everyday affairs. If the Bible won't hold up to that use for whatever reason, they fear they might lose their moral compass and chaos might ensue. But the Bible has never delivered that sort of certainty, nor can it. That's why every town has dozens of fundamentalist churches that think they're the only ones who have it right. There's no avoiding the problem of interpretation -- or the responsibility that goes with it.
Julius Caesar said, "People believe what they want to believe." Modern psychology has confirmed his wisdom: Our moral choices tend to reflect our biases and passions more than an unbiased process of moral reflection. Let's be honest: if you're anti-gay, you're anti-gay. Just don't blame the Bible for your bigotry.
Lunch time? Leviticus 11:7-8 reads: <blockquote>And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you.</blockquote>
Thinking of getting the Superman insignia on your bicep? Leviticus 19:28 states: <blockquote>Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.</blockquote>
Off to the barber? Leviticus 19:27 states: <blockquote>Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.</blockquote>
It's bad enough if you're a man who has had his private parts injured -- or heaven forbid cut off -- but to add insult to injury, Deuteronomy 23:1 states: <blockquote>He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.</blockquote>
Have you ever had your palm read? Or maybe you've consulted your horoscope for a little guidance? Leviticus 19:31 reads: <blockquote>Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.</blockquote> Photo by zopdeep on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcpucho/318112432/sizes/m/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a>
Heard some juicy news about Harold in the accounting department? Can't wait to tell your BFF that you just read that Snooki is pregnant? Leviticus 19:16 states: <blockquote>Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour; I am the LORD.</blockquote> Photo by JoeInSouthernCA on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/joebehr/4744688383/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a>
Gentlemen -- if you ever get in a fight and you get the feeling your lady might jump in and lend you a hand by squeezing your opponent's... ahem... "secrets," you'd better stop her. Deuteronomy 25:11-12 states: <blockquote>When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.</blockquote>
Kids these days -- you never know what's going to come out of their mouths! But hopefully your child doesn't curse you because Exodus 21:17 states: <blockquote>"And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death."</blockquote>
When it comes to the Bible, this is a big no-no (unless your spouse was cheating on you): Mark 10:11-12 states: <blockquote>Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.</blockquote>
In our fast-paced society, does anyone really work Monday to Friday from 9-5? Exodus 31:14-15 states: <blockquote>"Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.</blockquote>
Headed to church, ladies? 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 states: <blockquote>Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.</blockquote>
Craving a big bowl of popcorn shrimp? Leviticus 10-11 states: <blockquote>And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.</blockquote> Photo by jeffreyw on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffreyww/5833838507/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a>
Today it might be harder to find a bride who is a virgin rather than the other way around. But Deuteronomy 22:20-21 states: <blockquote>But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you</blockquote>
Follow Greg Carey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greg_Carey