(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved.
You may listen to the message by clicking here or see below to read it.
This past Tuesday was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther publishing his 95 protests against the Catholic Church. That act stands as one of the most significant events in human history not because of its implications for Christianity, but because Luther asserted the freedom of individuals to think for themselves. One does not need a Priest, Pope or King to determine what to believe.
Luther claimed, however, that the Bible is the only source for understanding god and her teachings. Many critics say that claim made the Bible an idol – a human made thing that is worshipped apart from its meaning. For us, it would be like worshipping the flaming chalice instead of the ideals it represents.
Conservative Christians and Jews worship the Bible like an idol by claiming its verses mean exactly what they say and that they should be understood literally. They mostly ignore the context of those verses or how ancient words were and are translated.
For today’s message that I’ve entitled “Surprisingly Liberal Lessons from the Bible: God is Gay”, I believe that such a literal approach to understanding the Bible negatively influences how people consider homosexuality. Bible verses that supposedly speak against it have been misinterpreted or wrongly translated. That has led to discrimination and persecution of gays, lesbians and transexuals.
I believe the overall message of the Bible is that god is love – a statement which the Bible itself makes. While I don’t believe god is a theistic being floating on a heavenly cloud, whatever she is – or is not, she is a force for truth and love. Everything and everyone that manifests those qualities are therefore god-like. God is thus gay but also straight, bisexual, transexual and all other identities. God is not just one form of love, she is ALL forms of love.
That understanding is dramatically different from that of religious conservatives. The problem with their thinking is a refusal to be open minded to different or ongoing interpretation. Indeed, despite scientific and social justice advances, conservative Christians and Jews still literally believe Bible verses indicate the earth is six-thousand years old, that women are to be subservient to men, that homosexuals are abominations, and that African-Americans are deficient because they are descendants from one of Noah’s cursed sons.
These beliefs are not just private ones by people who have a right to believe as they wish. They are interpretations that have been forced into our laws, textbooks, and popular opinion. My message today will be one, I hope, that provides “arrows of truth” we can use against false interpretations of the Bible.
I’ve elaborated in past messages how I was treated by a former church when I came out as gay. I was told by members and fellow ministers that I was possessed by the devil and was destined for hell. The six so-called homosexual “clobber” Bible verses were read to me as if I did not know them. People defined me by one small part of who I am, and thus dehumanized me. I was no longer a friend or minister – with strengths and flaws like any other person. I was a disgusting person worthy of death – all words from their interpretation of the Bible.
What happened to me was nothing compared to what has happened – and still happens – to millions of gay men and women. Nineteen years ago Matthew Shepard was abducted, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming – because he was gay. Less than fifty years ago, men and women in the US were regularly arrested for visiting gay bars. Not much more than a hundred years ago, men and women in England and the U.S. were imprisoned for being homosexual – Oscar Wilde being the most prominent. Today, in nations from Russia to Uganda, gay men and women live in fear of being found out, imprisoned, tortured and killed. All of those actions are justified by people who cite verses from the Bible.
But the Bible verses they cite are falsely interpreted. Indeed, the Bible’s six verses that are used to condemn homosexuality actually teach against attitudes of greed, cruelty and lust. There are also several verses which can arguably be interpreted as endorsing homosexuality and that even suggest Jesus and other Biblical characters were gay.
The oldest term for homosexuality is sodomy. It’s a pejorative term that should rarely be used. It comes from the Biblical book of Genesis, chapter 19, which tells a story about the mythical town Sodom. Two angels, disguised as men, visit Lot and his family who live in Sodom. One evening a mob of the town’s men gather outside Lot’s door. They demand that Lot force his two guests outside so that the mob can rape them. Lot is horrified and refuses to comply. As the mob becomes more insistent, Lot offers to send out his two daughters instead. The story is deeply troubling and says something more significant about how ancient cultures treated women then it supposedly does about homosexuality.
The disguised angels are not raped but god angrily destroys Sodom. Only Lot and his family are allowed to escape – even though Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar salt for looking back longingly at her hometown. As a result of this myth, the word ‘sodomy’ has been – and still is – used to derisively refer to homosexuality.
What Bible interpreters, translators and preachers have historically refused to do, however, is teach the Bible’s own reason for why Sodom was destroyed. This is what the Biblical book Ezekiel, chapter 16, says:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
The Bible itself says it was not homosexuality that made god destroy Sodom. Instead, the wealthy town had become abusive and uncaring toward the poor, immigrants, and homeless. Nowhere in the Bible is it said that god destroyed Sodom because of homosexuality.
Two other often cited verses by Christians and Jews come from the book of Leviticus, chapters 18 and 20. That book is a laundry list of religious rules to govern the behavior of ancient Jews – ones like rules forbidding the eating of shellfish, cutting one’s sideburns, or mixing fabrics in clothing. Out of many rules like those are two against men who have relations with men. The breaking of any of the rules, however, was labeled an abomination.
Religious conservatives are thus disingenuous when they claim the two rules against homosexuality are universal ones intended for everyone. These people fail to provide the context in which the book was written.
Leviticus was written around 500 BCE after Israel had been conquered by Babylonia – today’s Iraq. That conquest is historical fact. Jerusalem and its great Temple were destroyed. Many of its citizens were forced into slavery. Many rabbis of the time blamed Jewish culture for its fall. Jews had become rich, lazy, uncaring and promiscuous. Much like in today’s America, the wealthy few prospered while the majority struggled.
Jews were implored to care more about people than wealth, and care more about being and doing good than just appearing good. And so rabbis compiled a list of behaviors to encourage Jews to return to the heart of their religion and renew their compassionate and decent ways. When read in context, Leviticus is a document intended for a very limited audience, time and set of circumstances. It was not written with any understanding of science, psychology or circumstances outside of its particular situation. If it was, then Christians and Jews who today shave their sideburns, eat shrimp or wear polyester are committing sins that Leviticus says are worthy of death.
Two New Testament verses are also routinely used by conservative Christians to attack gays and lesbians. One verse from the book of Romans, chapter 1, allegedly says women and men who sleep with same sex partners are disgusting and deserve death. Another verse from First Corinthians, chapter 6, supposedly compares gay men to thieves and murderers. They will not go to heaven but go instead to hell.
I have a problem with Paul as a Biblical author and teacher. Paul was a self-proclaimed apostle of Jesus but he never met Jesus and admits to once being a militant Jew who opposed him. And yet Paul arrogantly claims he was equal to the followers who faithfully supported Jesus before his death.
Because of that fact, I find minimal value in Paul’s teachings but great value in the teachings of Jesus as contained in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus never taught against homosexuality in the gospels. It is troubling to me, therefore, that Christians prefer to listen to Paul instead of their messiah Jesus.
The two verses from Paul that supposedly condemn homosexuality are incorrectly translated and understood. In those verses, Paul used an extremely rare ancient Greek word when allegedly referring to gay men: as-ren-koi-tai. Literally translated, the word is a combination of two ancient Greek words for ‘male’ and ‘bed.’ Translators long ago thus decided it meant men who bed with men. This word, however, appears almost nowhere else in ancient writings. Where it does appear, in two non-Biblical documents, the word refers to people who abuse the poor.
That meaning makes more sense considering the context in which Paul wrote. Paul spread Christianity in a self-focused Roman culture that ostentatiously displayed wealth, entertained itself with gladiator fights to the death, and encouraged sexual abuse of women, slaves, children and animals. If one reads Paul’s verses in that context and with the translation I’ve described, he condemned not homosexuality, but rather Rome’s decadent culture. Indeed, Paul adds that the people he condemns are greedy, arrogant and boastful. They are not loving or merciful.
If you see a recurring theme in Bible verses that allegedly condemn homosexuality, you are right. There are over 2000 verses that condemn greed and indifference to the poor. There are just six supposedly against homosexuality. When examined closely, those six verses don’t even condemn same sex love – but say what the rest of the Bible does. The most important ethics to follow are to live humbly and care for the poor and marginalized.
But beyond those verses, I also believe there are Bible verses that endorse homosexuality. In the book of Matthew, chapter 18, Jesus addressed the issue of marriage and sex. As a part of that discourse, he discussed eunuchs and their place in society. For his culture, eunuchs were not only men unable to procreate, they were also gay men. Since a word for “homosexual” did not exist at the time, scholars claim the word “eunuch” included any man who did not have relations with a woman. Jesus says that those eunuchs who are gay are born that way. And he follows that up by saying they are loved by god.
Later, in the book of Acts, chapter 8, Jesus’ apostle Phillip meets and baptizes a black eunuch whom he saw reading an Old Testament passage that sympathetically discusses those who are despised and rejected. Some commentators believe this eunuch was a gay man. The Jesus ethic of inclusion and love for everyone was what Phillip followed.
Of equal interest is the fact that the Bible favorably depicts three possibly gay couples. Namoi and Ruth are one such couple in the book of Ruth, chapter 1. They are strong, independent women who the Bible says loved one another like Adam loved Eve. King David, the most revered leader in Jewish history, had a deep and close relationship with Jonathon as described in the book of Second Samuel, chapter 1. The two were inseparable, they embraced passionately after a long separation and David’s love for Jonathon is described as greater than that for a woman. Added to these verses are ones that I and others believe suggest that Jesus was also in a gay relationship.
Jesus regularly referred to the apostle John as his beloved. At the last supper, John rested his head on Jesus’ shoulder in a public display of affection. After the supper, on the night before his death, Jesus retreated to a quiet place to reflect. The gospel of Mark, chapter 14, says that a young man, dressed only in a short, one piece tunic – male underwear of the time – was with Jesus. Some interpreters believe the young man was John. The next day, as Jesus was being executed, only his mother and John stayed with him – the two people he loved most. Even though Jesus had a brother, his last wish was that John bring Mary into his home and take care of her.
Commentators believe the Bible shows that each of these three couples – Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathon, Jesus and John – had at least homo-social relationships – ones that were intimate, close and loving. The Bible never says those relationships were wrong.
It’s a provocative claim to say god is gay. That’s not the primary point I want to make, however. The Bible has been symbolically hijacked by religious conservatives who say it teaches against same sex love. They have a right to that interpretation but a more accurate interpretation of verses in the Bible is surprisingly liberal. The Bible is primarily concerned not with sexual behaviors, but with encouraging acts of charity to those who suffer from prejudice, poverty and illness. Most importantly, as I said at the outset, the Bible tells us that whatever one believes god to be or not be, she is compassionate, caring and kind. God most certainly does not hate gays, lesbians and transexuals. In fact, the Bible tells us she loves them just as much as she loves all people.
I wish you all much peace and joy.