No matter what

If you make it to the end of this blog, you’ll see this was first published at the end of April 2012. It was a piece I worked on to help bring together some of the questions and sticking points that I had regarding homosexuality and the Bible. Looking back, my views have changed somewhat but some of these sticking points remain. The new year is traditionally a time to reflect on the past year, I’ve chosen to reflect on a question/issue that many are wrestling with at the moment and republish some of my previous views.

A little bit of background and a statement before we begin. In this blog, I will be occasionally describing homosexuality as a topic or issue or and making references to the gay community. It is purely to try and keep this blog as easy to follow as possible by using terms people are familiar with. I intend no offence in doing this and I do not use them in a derogatory way. I fully appreciate that no person is defined by their sexuality alone and neither should they ever be. I apologize if I have not succeeded on this front.

This blog has been inspired by 2 things. Firstly by a close friendship. When I gave my life to Christ, I started to question whether I could continue my friendship with a mate of mine who was gay. Eventually, I realized the answer was obvious, absolutely yes since Christ associated and spent time with everyone no matter who they were and commanded we treat everyone as equal (Matthew 22:36-39) . But it has led me to look at the whole issue regarding homosexuality and religion. Secondly after a church house group I led where we looked at the massive impact the church (or more accurately, its mistakes) is having on people’s lives. It wasn’t all doom and gloom as we looked at the church the way Jesus said it should be and what he taught. Anyway, I played a couple of clips from the Has Christianity failed you? [1] DVD and one of the testimonies was from a man who was shunned by his friends and his church when he told them that he was gay. It generated the most discussion as it became apparent people didn’t really know how to address the issues that this raises for Christians. So this blog is my look at what I see as the main points:

  • The use of the Bible to condemn homosexuality
  • The claim that homosexuality is simply a lifestyle choice
  • The claim that homosexuality is dangerous

The use of the Bible to condemn homosexuality

If you open the Bible, it doesn’t speak glowingly of homosexuality, especially in the Old Testament where it reserves its harshest words and there are references in the New Testament, especially in the letters of the apostle Paul. The verse in Leviticus is probably the most used when condemning homosexuality:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they should be put to death; their blood is upon them” Leviticus 20:13

Scripture is sometimes very difficult to interpret as there are many factors to take into account. One of which is the context within which the passages are written. The laws laid down in the Old Testament were for a very specific set of people (the people of Israel) in a very specific time. The word homosexuality had a very different meaning back then. In fact, the word “homosexuality” is fairly modern. It was first coined in the 1880s in Germany and first used in the US in 1892. The term grew up in the work of a group of researchers who were studying and classifying sexual behaviors at the turn of the last century. Sex between men was seen as a method of asserting dominance on another and not uncommon in times of war. As Professor Mary Tolbert stated during a presentation:

The single most important concept that defines sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean world, whether we are talking about the kingdoms of Egypt or of Assyria or whether we are talking about the later kingdoms of Greece and Rome, are that approved sexual acts never occurred between social equals. Sexuality, by definition, in ancient Mediterranean societies required the combination of dominance and submission. This crucial social and political root metaphor of dominance and submission as the definition of sexuality rested upon a physical basis that assumed every sex act required a penetrator and someone who was penetrated. Needless to say, this definition of sexuality was entirely male – not surprising in the heavily patriarchal societies of the ancient Mediterranean. Nevertheless this assumption that the difference in status between the dominant penetrator and the submissive penetrate was essential to all sexual behavior is prevalent in most sources from at least the Egyptian empires of the Second Millennium BCE all the way through the late Roman Empire and beyond

She goes on to say:

Of course, we must recognize that the vast majority of the laws and other texts from antiquity that give us some insight into sexual roles were written by elite men. Whether or not the convention of dominance and submission as the defining aspect of sexuality was actually embodied in all sexual acts across these societies and not just in the writing about all sexual acts remains unknown. Our knowledge is constrained, as always in history, by our sources.” [2]

This reading of the Old Testament is consistent with the view that the Genesis account was designed to correct the Babylonian myths of the time about the sky being a God into itself when in fact there is only 1 God (for example) [3] The historical context also makes sense in the light of the Old Testament only talks about men in this area. Homosexuality, like marriage, is not explicitly defined in the Bible. It is only referred to in one context; the physical acts which do link to what the rules laid down were designed to prevent.

Quoting single scripture to justify a “law” leaves the user open to “well what about this law?” and it is a justifiable response. The dangers of using Old Testament scripture in this manner was highlighted brilliantly in an episode of the West Wing. In it the President confronts a woman who on her radio show had condemned homosexuality as an abomination and quoted Leviticus. The president then starts quoting other Old Testament scripture back at her. [4] We would not condone the killing of another person as stated in Old Testament law so why condemn homosexuality using the same law? Almost no one advocates the penalty as laid down in Leviticus so it very much seems scripture is being picked and choose depending on the readers’ viewpoint.

Now the Christian will say I too am picking and choosing my scripture and playing word games with it with my distinction on the definition of homosexuality. I think there is an important distinction to make regarding how the Bible defines homosexuality, especially when you consider there are a large number of gay and lesbian Christians. Many of these have willingly remained single and/or abstained from physical intimacy for the sake of Christ. I don’t think their commitment to and love of God can be questioned and I am certainly not going to question their salvation. They are attracted to members of the same sex but do not act on it and it’s the latter that the Bible is vocal on; it does not condemn the former. It’s in a similar vein to having an affair, someone may be tempted to but they choose not to. I am not condemned for the former but I would be if I acted on it. It’s very hard not to be physical with someone that you feel strongly for. I’m currently engaged to be married and it is very hard not to have sex together.

Whilst we need to be careful not to get scripture to say more than it does, we shouldn’t get it to say less than what it does. Genesis does say that a woman was created to be with a man so that he was not to be alone. But he wasn’t alone, he had God. It certainly seems difficult to argue against that it was Gods original plan for a man to be with a woman and nothing else though the woman does seem to an afterthought. Also, it is the Old Testament scriptures, in the main, that are used to support the view that Christians should not have sex before marriage. Whatever view you take on the Old Testament narrative, care must be taken not to try and apply 21st century definitions and interpretations to 4000 year old text and because you don’t agree with some text doesn’t render the whole Bible invalid. Christians also need to remember that Jesus set us free from the law, we no longer follow the rules given to Moses and the other prophets and we certainly are not to use them to condemn others.

The claim that homosexuality is simply a lifestyle choice

Some view homosexuality as nothing more than a life style choice, almost to the point of them thinking that the person makes a conscious decision to be gay. The gay community says that it is who they are, that the only choice they made was to accept that they were gay. Now, there is a perception that there is a certain lifestyle, clothing etc. associated with the gay community. But is it simply who they are?

One of the things that plays a part in defining us is genetics. Our DNA plays a fundamental part of who we become and scientists are discovering more and more about what genes perform what action. More importantly for medical science, they are discovering what happens when they are changed. This has led to the premise of a highly controversial “gay gene”. A gene that governs a person’s sexual orientation. This however, has not been proven. Biologist Professor Steve Jones comments:

I don’t believe in something called ‘the gay gene’, but I certainly believe in the possibility that there are genes which affect sexual behavior. It would be silly not to. They do in every other animal, so it would be entirely likely that they would in humans.” [5]

The discovery of homosexual behavior within other species does lend weight to the claim that genetics play a part. If you accept the current theory of evolution then “anything that happens in other primates, and particularly other apes, is likely to have strong evolutionary continuity with what happens in humans”. [6] A single gene being the source of determining sexuality is highly unlikely however. We are so much more than mere products of DNA though and research has shown that perhaps there is a neurological aspect to sexual orientation.

The BBC reported about a man, Chris Birch, who claims a stroke turned him gay. [7] One of the scientists within the piece suggested that sexual orientation is determined at birth and develops later on in life. Most of the data available revolves around the neurological. There are questions over the man’s claims, his fiancé seems to doubt him and the tests he under took revealed that “on half of the tests, he performed in the “expected direction” for a gay man, and for the other half was within the range of a straight man” (taken from the BBC article) Whatever the case is, the question of whether sexuality can be changed later on in life does raise its head. Can the brain be conditioned to be attracted to members of the same sex or the opposite sex? Addiction is a neurological condition and the treatments are not quick or easy and the addicts will still have to deal with the issue every day. It is not something they seem to be able to overcome themselves by will power alone but they can be overcome. [8] Some Christians have given testimony that God changed their sexual preferences but God has not done so for many others (which is a whole other discussion in itself) If you do not believe in a God, then you would probably question what their sexual orientation was to begin with and ultimately, like the case of Chris Birch, we only have their word for it.

Factors affecting sexual orientation though seem to be far more complicated than addiction and there is the added ethical dilemma of even if sexual orientation can be changed, does that mean that it should? Professor James Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the DNA double helix, has gone further by suggesting that women be given the choice to abort the pregnancy if their child will turn out to be gay. [9] He was highly criticized by pro-life and pro-homosexuality groups for this stance and the ramifications of his proposal are frightening, bordering on an advocating of eugenics [10] (and there are websites that still endorse these programs today)

Some have said that given it’s acceptable within animals so we should be no different. But as National Geographic pointed out “infanticide, as practiced by lions and many other animals, isn’t something people, gay or straight, generally approve of in humans”. [11] The question of it being acceptable will not and cannot be answered by science. As Stephen Jones again comments;

If you accept the gay gene story, you’re perfectly at liberty to say either: ‘homosexuality is a perfectly socially acceptable thing which should not be illegal’ (and obviously I believe that); or, you can think of a lot of reasons to say: ‘homosexuality is a terrible thing it ought to be illegal.’ It’s exactly the same situation as before. The genetics is irrelevant. You can use it either way. So that’s my line on the gay gene.” [12]

It seems that there is very little choice in our sexual orientation so whilst there is a lifestyle associated with homosexuality, actually being gay is not a choice. During my discussions with my friend, it was anything but easy for them when they first realized they might be gay. In the end, the only choice they made was to accept it was who they were and how they led their life. No different to heterosexuals in that regard.

The claim that homosexuality is dangerous

An article was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology titled “Modeling the impact of HIV disease on mortality in gay and bisexual men” It concluded that “life expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for all men” [13] I am not a scientist and I have not done additional research into these results so for the purposes of the this part, I will assume the data is valid. This data has been cited by many groups to support their views on same-sex marriage and homosexuality generally and has led to some mis-leading and out-right offensive claims. Ranging from the calling for the banning of same-sex marriages to forbidding same sex couples to adopt or foster children. Below are my responses to some of these claims;

  • The data was collected between 1987 and 1992, there have been massive advancements in medicine since then
  • The acts that put homosexuals are greater risk to disease, are not unique to them, there is literature on safe-sex
  • Alcohol may be regulated but it is not outright banned, there is loads of literature on its dangers
  • Same-sex marriage (if legalized) would have to follow the same laws as heterosexual marriage re: age limits

The International Epidemiological Association became so alarmed at what their data was being used for, that they published a response in 2001 in which they ended with;

In summary, the aim of our work was to assist health planners with the means of estimating the impact of HIV infection on groups, like gay and bisexual men, not necessarily captured by vital statistics data and not to hinder the rights of these groups worldwide. Overall, we do not condone the use of our research in a manner that restricts the political or human rights of gay and bisexual men or any other group. “[14]

If (and I want to stress the if) the gay community is at greater risk from disease, then help and resources need to be provided to minimize and protect against that risk. It’s no different to the dangers of smoking or anything else that affects a section of society. As for the effect of homosexuality on others, I have not done any research into this. I think it would be harder on the child of a same-sex couple in school and the likely hood of bullying is probably greater. This is my own personal view based on my experiences of bullying which I was on the receiving end of for many years. That said, to use scientific data in an attempt to marginalize and ridicule a section of society is just hostile and not what science is for though like religion, it has been abused.

Where we stand today

If you back someone into a corner, chances are they will attack back and it seems that is now what is happening. This was highlighted by Will Young’s outburst on Question Time where he said anyone who speaks out against same-sex marriage should be imprisoned on hate crime charges.[15] It’s not just in Britain, in Australia there was a Q & A where David Marr branded the Bible’s stance as “bigotry and cruelty and hatred”. [16] Now these are likely to be the extreme ends of either view but like most things in the media, these are the ones that get the most attention. But it seems there is a shift in public perception, that if you don’t agree with someones views you must hate them. This seems to be an absurd stance to take. Disagreeing with someone is not the same as hating them and part of the problem is that people have forgotten the art of disagreement. Jesus respected and accepted everyone but he certainly did not always agree with what they were doing. As John Dickson put it;

It was the genius of Jesus that he could flex two mental muscles at the same time: he could have deep convictions about right and wrong yet extend love and friendship to all regardless. This is a lost art. Nowadays, we either stop loving those we disagree with, or in the name of love, adjust our own moral convictions.” [17]

Words like “sinner” are thrown around by some Christians as if it doesn’t apply to them. But we are all sinners, that’s the whole reason Jesus had to do what he did. It’s by this notion that we endorse sin every day. Further claims of “you can be saved from the sin of homosexuality” rings very hollow to the thousands (if not more) Christians who are gay and just offensive to atheists. As Ravi Zacharias pointed out, it is completely possible to be possible to be a committed Christian and a homosexual [18] so the notion that homosexuality is something you can be saved from flies completely in the face of this.

The treatment of the gay community has been deplorable by some sections of Christians and the attacks on Christians by some sections of the gay community have been equally as horrendous. Until we can get to a position where both sides are less interested in throwing abuse and more in sensible discussion, the issue will continue to be a minefield and ultimately go no where. If you do have the chance to talk over the points, just remember you are talking to a person who deserves the same level of respect as you would expect to be shown. No matter what your view on homosexuality is, Jesus dined and spent time in the company of those who were considered outcasts and the marginalised and called for all to do the same. It’s partly why the Pharisees despised him so much.

If my friend wanted to get married/civil partnership, I would be right there in support. Jesus wouldn’t have shunned her and there is no reason for me to. I don’t agree with her atheistic world view, she doesn’t agree with my Christian one. Yet we’re friends because we respect the others view and treat each other as equals. Jesus said we are all more than friends, we are brothers and sisters, and we love no matter what.

Since writing this I found an artilce on the New Statesman website which takes a look at this issue. It is available at  http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/religion/2012/04/some-people-are-religious-get-over-it

References:

[1] Ramsden, Michael and Zacharias, Ravi Has Christianity failed you? conference held at the Fox Theatre Atlanta, May 11 2006. For my view on the conference see  http://evidence2hope.webs.com/apps/blog/show/14095078-has-christianity-failed-you-

[2] Talbot, Mary A (2002) Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: Biblical Texts in Historical Contexts
http://www.clgs.org/homoeroticism-biblical-world-biblical-texts-historical-contexts

[3] Harvey, Alan H (2007): Science and Nature in a Christian Perspective Chapter 3: Reading the Bible, especially Genesis
[Available from http://steamdoc.s5.com/sci-nature/Chapter3.pdf]

[4] The West Wing (NBC), Season 2, Episode 3: The Midterms
[Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD52OlkKfNs]

[5] Is there a gay gene? Genetic Futures News [Available from http://www.geneticfutures.com/astronauts/info/sheet1.asp]

[6] Owen, James (2004) Homosexual Activity among Animals Stirs Debate – National Geographic News [Available from
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0722_040722_gayanimal.html]

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17703018

[8] Addiction: A Neurological Disorder [Available from http://www.medical-online.com/addict.htm]

[9] Blue, Laura. The Mortification of James Watson (2007) [Available from http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1673952,00.html]

[10] For an overview on the Eugenics programs, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics

[11] Owen, James (2004) Homosexual Activity among Animals Stirs Debate; National Geographical News
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0722_040722_gayanimal.html

[12] Is there a gay gene? Genetic Futures News [Available from http://www.geneticfutures.com/astronauts/info/sheet1.asp]

[13] International Journal of Epidemiology Volume 26, Issue 3 Pages 657-661 Modeling the impact of HIV disease on mortality in gay and bisexual men. [Available from http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/doi/10.1093/ije/26.3.657]

[14] International Journal of Epidemiology Volume 30, Issue 6 Page 1499 Gay life expectancy revisited [Available from
http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/6/1499.full]

[15] Will Young: Clergy who call same-sex marriage abhorrent should be jailed [Available from
http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/social/will-young-christians-who-share-marriage-views-should-be-jailed

[16] Dickson, John (2011) Time for some nuance between the gay and the god-fearing [Available from
http://publicchristianity.org/library/time-for-some-nuance-between-the-gay-and-the-god-fearing

[17] Dickson, John and Clarke, Greg (2010) Gays and Jesus: The Gospel according to Elton John
http://publicchristianity.org/library/gays-and-jesus-the-gospel-according-to-elton-john

[18] Acceptance of Homosexuality in Christianity-Ravi Zacharias Answers Question http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIw6ngIqaD0

First published 23rd April 2012