In an honest approach to the scriptures, the challenge is to suspend biases

Christopher Levan, Edmonton Journal, May 27, 1995

The Bible can be like a mirror, reflecting back whatever is projected into it. For instance, if you go to the Bible to find justification for the male power which keeps women in their place, you can turn to Paul's letter to the church in Corinth (1Corinthians 14:34-35) and find that for which you're looking. Or, if you want the scriptures to bolster your claim that private property is evil, just open the gospel of Matthew to 6:19. If we go to the Bible determined to uncover a supporting proof for our particular hobby horse, we'll find it.

Therefore, in an honest approach to the scriptures, the challenge is to suspend our preconceived biases and recognize when we may be reading into the text what isn't actually there. There are many instances where the words of the Bible may seem similar to our own, but the underlying cultural and social assumptions are radically different. The Bible's attitude to homosexuality is a case in which the "good book" doesn't always mean what we think.

Some people turn immediately to the Sodom and Gomorrah story as clear evidence for the scriptures' intolerance of homosexual behaviour. If we read the story without prior assumptions, we will see that it is not about same-sex sexual-intercourse, but gang rape. The abomination of the Sodomites was not their desire to interact romantically with other men. The story in Genesis 19 portrays the Sodomites as angry men who want to humiliate and subjugate the strangers who have entered their city. There is even reason to believe these men were heterosexuals who wanted to employ anal intercourse as an act of violation. Hence, as a story, it doesn't help us at all in determining the Bible's attitude to homosexuality.

We can turn to Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13, two verses which are essentially identical, condemning men being with other men, but, again, we may be fooled. It is important to note that the Hebrew language does not have a word for homosexual or homosexuality. The actual wording in the verses in question is: "A man shall not lie down with another man with the lyings of a woman." Can anyone in our age understand what these ancient writers meant by "the lyings of a woman?" Were the Hebrews opposed to anal intercourse, the fact that a man might take the woman's role or the idea of two men sleeping with each other?

Because of these questions, I believe Leviticus does more to confuse our understanding of the Bible's attitude to homosexuality than enlighten it.

All the texts in the Hebrew scriptures which allude to homosexual behaviour are gender specific, referring only to men. There is no mention of women wanting the company of other women or lesbian orientation, and I have no idea what that silence might mean. Moreover, there is no appreciation of the distinction between act and orientation.

In the Christian scriptures, there are three passages which touch on homosexuality. Two of the three mention it in a list of vices which the early Christian church found abhorrent. Are all the items on the list of equal weight? Is gossiping and drunkenness of equal repugnance as homosexual prostitution (1Timothy 1:8-11, 1Corinthians 6:9-11)?

Some scholars suggest that in both Corinthians and Timothy, the list is a generic formulation with no special weight given to any one specific item. Others maintain that the terms referring to homosexual behaviour found in these two lists are, in fact, the technical terms used to describe the buying and selling of sexual gratification and the underlying problem was this mercantile distortion of God's gift of sexuality.

The final and only passage in the Bible which alludes to what we might recognize as a homosexual encounter between consenting partners is found in Paul's letter to the church in Rome (Romans 1:26). Clearly, the apostle is vexed over what he considers to be unnatural behaviour. Men and women were leaving what he considered to be the "norm" and falling into perverse actions. It should be noted that the same author thought it was contrary to accepted principles for women to speak in church (1Corinthians 14: 34-35) and had no qualms about the normality of human beings being owned as slaves (Philemon-1:15-16). I find it curious that most Christians don't listen to Paul's definition of the "natural order" in these two instances but accept his sexual pronouncements word for word.

In total, the Bible contains six phrases which touch on homosexual behaviour. Given the hundreds of commandments and thousands of pages, I can't see how homosexuality is of much interest to the scriptures. The Bible contains much more material condoning slavery and confining the rights of women than it does speaking about homosexuality. The fact that many Christians condemn homosexuality with righteous appeals to the scriptures is an example of bringing to the Bible what is really a twentieth century preoccupation and pretending that a handful of sentences from the Bible correspond to our modern anxieties over sexuality.

The best response that scripture can give with regard to homosexuality is the declaration that our Creator is very often not concerned about the "who" of relationship so much as the "how." It simply asks if the relationship is functioning according to principles of justice and dignity? Does the partnership demonstrate mutual trust and compassion? If so, it is blessed by God.

Chris Levan is an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada and is the principal of St. Stephen's Theological College in Edmonton.

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