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Michael Pettinger

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Lincoln, Nebraska and the Centurion's Slave

Posted: 06/21/2012 5:14 pm

If people in Lincoln were willing to raise a ruckus over the rights of LGBTQ people, I would only know about it from reading the Lincoln Journal Star.

So far, I've seen nothing.

Of course, from what I remember, hubbubs just don't happen in Lincoln. The culture there is too insistent on smiling and getting along to allow people the luxury of openly disagreeing. That's why, 30 years after the first attempt, LGBTQ people still lack a guarantee to basic rights in that city. Plenty of straight folks in Lincoln think that gays and lesbians, and maybe even transsexuals, "deserve" those rights. But these "fair-minded" people don't want to risk a real, out-loud, in-your-face confrontation with those who stand in the way. Even if the majority of Lincolnites favor "fairness," they'd rather keep peace with the vocal minority who oppose it than stand in open solidarity with LGBTQ people who, frankly, will always be the smaller, weaker minority.

It's easier to stay friends with the winner.

I can't throw stones. Maybe a Lincolnite has to go to the coast before risking the kind of hubbub that might cost him friends and family. But it was heartbreaking to read a posting on Facebook from a Lincolnite who commented on the bitterness she felt when her church, a spiritual home for some years, passed around the petition to repeal the fairness ordinance. What could she say or do in the face of her fellow Christians?

Here's a suggestion.

Both Matthew 8 and Luke 7 tell the story of the centurion whose servant is dying. One would not expect the centurion, as an officer of the Roman army occupying Judea, to be a popular guy. But Luke tells us he has built a synagogue for the local people, and they are very grateful. The centurion does not let that puff him up. He is afraid that Jesus, as a good Jew, might incur some sort of ritual impurity should he enter the centurion's home. Clearly he takes the faith of Jesus seriously, and he does not wish to offend. But he needs help.

His "servant" is dying. I put the word "servant" in quotation marks because there is something mysterious about him. Luke describes him with the Greek word doulos. A doulos is someone who is born a slave, but this slave seems very important to the centurion. Luke says that he was entimos, "in honor," with his master. And in both Matthew and Luke, when the centurion begs Jesus to heal this slave, he does not refer to him as doulos but as pais mou.

The centurion seems unashamed of this term, but we might ask he doesn't call him a doulos. What does he mean by pais? The word means "boy" or "child." It can refer to a person's offspring. It also commonly refers to a slave, even one who is no longer young. Words derived from pais are often used in ancient Greek literature when men talk about their younger male lovers. This is particularly suggestive, since Roman men had a reputation for using slaves, male or female, as sexual partners. There was no particular stigma attached to the Roman man who did so, as long as it was clear who was in charge. Slaves had few options but to cooperate.

So what does the centurion mean when he refers to his slave as "my boy"? Is he telling us that the slave is also his son? Or does he mean that this slave is also his sexual partner? If the centurion is his father, what is it like for the son to be his father's slave, as well? On the other hand, if the slave is the centurion's sexual partner, is it a consensual relationship? Do they love each other? Does it matter?

There's a lot of buzz on the Internet about the meaning of this passage. We can ask a lot of good questions about the relationship between the centurion and his boy. But notice that Jesus doesn't bother to ask anything at all. The centurion has come in good faith that Jesus will give him what he needs. And Jesus does.

When it comes to needs, there are few more basic than work and home. In general, when LGBTQ people apply for a job, an apartment, or a house, they do so in good faith that they can perform the job and pay the rent or the mortgage. If they mention their boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife while doing so, they are doing no more than most heterosexual people who casually wear wedding rings or talk about their spouse and kids. They're not trying to flaunt their sexuality; they are not inviting questions, judgment, or approval. They're just speaking normally about their everyday lives.

The question, then, is why people in Lincoln need to ask so many questions and offer so many opinions about LGBT people who are simply doing the most necessary and normal of things. When will Lincolnites stop their needless talking and start to follow Jesus?

 
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