Over the last decade or so, especially following the Supreme Court decision allowing marriage equality to gays and lesbians in the United States, how we relate to sexual orientation has become a key defining issue of our era. The umbrella group currently dubbed LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning) is a large non-heterosexual community dedicated to the free expression of their brand of sexuality. And as more people increasingly reconsider their sexuality in even more imaginative ways – Intersex, Asexual, Non-binary and Pansexual – the moorings of conventional sexual norms are weakening.
Because the church does not exist in a vacuum, our leaders have rightly been paying attention to the shifting social attitudes about the LGBTQ lifestyle. As the courts break down barriers that have long forbidden gays and lesbians from legally marrying, church thought leaders, unsettled by the trend and yet cognizant of the increasingly welcoming social disposition towards LGBTQ, have sought gentler ways to hold the line. They are careful to seem supportive of the community without giving up on long established church teaching that God still frowns on all non-heterosexual sex expressions.
Consider this example from a 2014 Biblical Research Institute statement release on transgenderism – and affirmed by the General Conference Executive Committee in April 2017. The report states in part: “in Scripture, our gender identity is, to a significant extent, determined by our birth sex with God being the author of gender identity.” People who have sex-change surgery are “motivated by a sophisticated desire for homosexual activity.” Appropriate umbrage generated, the statement warns: “Should individuals seek to use sex-change surgery as a way of circumventing biblical principles addressing human sexuality and the proper way to satisfy such desires, they would be acting against God’s revealed will.” These “desires” must be so compelling as to make the “afflicted” ignore the extraordinary attendant health and financial exposure. Then again, one wonders what "the proper ways to satisfy such desires” entails.
Before we look at scripture, let’s briefly peer into nature and observe existing sexual practices. In my research for this article, I was surprised by my findings. Most confounding was the sheer pervasiveness of homosexuality around us, suggesting that variant human sexual practices are not unique. Non-heterosexual behavior has long been observed in nature. And it’s not only among our closest primates: baboons and chimpanzees, that homosexuality has been documented. Some giraffes, penguins, ducks and other birds exhibit it too. Even gut worms have been observed having non-heterosexual behavior. Indeed, over 500 animal species have been confirmed to practice some form of same-sex relationships. It is not very likely that all these other life forms are purposefully choosing homosexuality because of some moral depravity.
In the human realm what is puzzling about non-heterosexual sexuality, especially gays and lesbianism, is its ubiquity in society. Sociologists tell us there is roughly 5% same-sex presence within people groups. What’s important, no matter the figures, is that this representation cuts across all social classes: lawyers, physicians, accountants, teachers – in the same proportions as: mechanics, laborers, farmers and groundskeepers. It is no different from the general population – rich, poor, young, old, handsome, plain.
These individuals, especially the highly educated, know the societal stigma associated with being gay. It is inconceivable that these many different classes of people all “choose” this orientation despite the cost. The insistence that sheer curiosity drives 5% of the population to homosexuality defies credulity. In the US, the 5% equals about 15 million adults, more people than are in 46 individual states or the combined population of 14 of the least populated states in the US. That’s just too many people who would voluntarily “choose” a different sexual orientation in the face of relentless “righteous” persecution.
The religious/conservative right has not acted with Christian charity towards the LGBTQ community. Its leaders have generally viewed homosexuality as a wedge issue and exploited it more for politics than morality. They point to a few scriptural passages and sometimes uncritically use them to malign homosexuals. I say uncritically because these same leaders usually have second thoughts when people close to them come out or are identified as homosexuals.
This was the situation with Dick Cheney, the former Vice-President and ardent anti-homosexual. He started moderating his views when his youngest daughter announced she was lesbian. So did Senator Portman, whose hard-line position on marriage equality was legendary. He too changed his views when he learned his college-bound son was gay. This was his explanation of how his son’s “new” sexuality affected his thinking: “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that's of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have.” That’s what generally happens when homosexuals are real people and not caricatured for political gamesmanship. There is a Ghanaian saying which speaks to this: “If a sharp object is thrust into one’s enemy, it feels like it’s thrust in wood.” If homosexuals are discussed in the abstract, conservative religious leaders, ours included, use biblical passages to defend discrimination. But not when others close to them are involved.
Now to the Bible. There are seven key passages that have traditionally been used to oppose homosexuality and all non-heterosexual expressions – Genesis 19:1-4, 24-26; Judges 19:1-30; Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13; Romans 1:18-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 8-11. The Genesis and Judges accounts are parallel and deal with the same issue, in much the same way that Leviticus 20:13 is an expansion of 18:22. The Corinthian and Timothy references are similar in that they catalogue a common list which includes homosexuality. Romans is slightly more stand-alone.
Therefore, the Bible documents only four short passages with references to “homosexuality.” Every one of these passages could be interpreted in less sinister ways if their original contexts are examined. For example, a careful reading of the parallel stories in Genesis and Judges reveals that the communal infraction at issue is inhospitality and not homosexuality. For one thing all the men in the two communities couldn’t have been homosexuals. If they were then what was the point of attempting to appease them with women? These men broke the community hospitality code in the most egregious way: by using homosexual rape to brutalize and shame their victims. This is like what unscrupulous soldiers throughout history have done to their vanquished foes – humiliation by sexual degradation.
Several times in the Old (Isaiah 1:10-17 & 3:9; Jeremiah 23:14; and Zephaniah 2:8-11) and New (Matthew 10: 5-15) Testaments, references are made to Sodom and Gomorrah, but nowhere is homosexuality mentioned as the reason for their poor image. Instead, they sinned because they did not “seek justice,” “defend the oppressed,” care for “the fatherless” and “the widow,” or speak against “adultery” and “pride.” In Matthew 10, Jesus mentions Sodom in reference to the sin of inhospitality, warning that those who do not welcome his disciples would meet a similar fate. No mention of homosexuality.
Another biblical picture. The three synoptic gospels tell the story of a boy variously described as “epileptic,” “lunatic,” and having “seizures” (Mathew 17:14-18; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:38-42). His symptoms: screaming, foaming at the mouth, rigidity, speechlessness, and self-harm, are consistent with what is diagnosed today as epilepsy – an electrical malfunction in the brain causing repeated seizures. One unfortunate aspect of the story is that, despite the well-defined symptoms, all three gospels, as well as Jesus, called it a “demon.” So when Jesus healed the boy, he did so by casting out an “evil entity,” diablos, instead of curing a disease. The distinction is important. When we are quick to attribute phenomena we don’t understand to the devil or evil powers, we temporarily absolve ourselves of our knowledge deficit. But in so doing we create a problem for posterity.
The words “epilepsy” and “lunatic” share a common Greek etymology. Back in Jesus’ time when not much was known about the many different neurological ailments, anything that bordered on the insane was linked to the devil. But because of this association, many who suffer from epilepsy, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and traumatic brain injury, are lumped into one camp and shut out from society. The “enlightened” West might have overcome this history of “cleansing” society of the mentally ill by housing them in perpetuity in some cavernous dungeons, but many in developing countries still live with this scourge. We may not always call what we don’t understand devil possession, but we might as well.
As I write this my mind keeps drifting to her. Her parents gave her the aspirational name “Ewuraba,” meaning “Lady.” And even in early elementary school, she tried to carry herself to the promise of her name. But it was hard. Because Ewuraba had a congenital hip displacement that made her walk with an exaggerated limp. That is not what got her in trouble with our second-grade teacher, Miss Martha, though. Miss Martha had a penchant to cure all ills and might have given Ewuraba a pass for her improper gait because Miss Martha didn’t know how to fix limps. What got Ewuraba in trouble was being left-handed. To Miss Martha, left-handedness was a blight in nature. Which she could fix. In class she set about doing just that, with Ewuraba as perfect specimen.
So every other class day or so Ewuraba was required to lift her offending left fingers and dutifully receive ten “merciful” strikes with the narrow edge of Miss Martha’s metal 12-inch ruler. The rule was that Ewuraba had to keep her blood engorged fingers together during the strikes. If the repeated whacking the fingers caused her to involuntarily spread or lower them before Miss Martha’s tenth stroke, the process was started all over. Ewuraba never succeeded at her first attempt. The result was that her left fingers were almost always swollen, and her left fingernail beds showed perpetual streaks of dry blood.
Young as we were, we knew instinctively that this was wrong. But we had no power to change anything, so we vicariously shared in her suffering, involuntarily wincing and groaning with each strike. All the while covering one eye as we could not bear witness to her ordeal with full consciousness. The goal of this sanctimonious cruelty was to “cure” Ewuraba’s left-handedness. She had to behave “normal,” meaning writing with her right hand as “everyone” did. Neither Miss Martha nor the existing power structure of the time saw anything wrong with what was done to Ewuraba. It is often the case that when one is convinced that the goal is right, any method employed in achieving it also seems right.
Dominant groups often have unease with minorities who they frequently demonize to cover their anxiety. This is how slaves were dehumanized for centuries in the Christian West. The American South has traditionally been the most “Christian” in the Western World. Yet Southerners would rather go to war to keep humans in bondage and preserve their coveted (perverted?) “heritage” than free the oppressed. And predictably, the Bible was used to justify this. So I’m not particularly impressed when the Bible is used to deny others – especially minorities – their rights.
Looked at in the right context, the real story is our continued opposition to the LBGTQ cry for recognition. In this, we are reminded of God’s caution to Israel concerning its treatment of the “other”: “Remember you were once slaves in Egypt.” Whether as demonstrated by the Israeli government's un-empathic response to Palestinian refugees, or the unsupportive attitude of most of my African and African-American religious leaders towards gays and lesbians, or our church leaders’ positions on this and gender equality in ministry, we see that previously persecuted minorities, on gaining their freedom, “otherize” minorities within their ranks and treat them poorly. When we fail to remember our erstwhile status as minorities, we risk being intolerant of today’s subgroups who aspire to be rid of their shackles. And it’s worse when we sacrilegiously use the Bible to rationalize our bigotry.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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