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Monday, September 12, 2016

Homosexuality and the Bible and The Death of Matthew Shephard

Homosexuality and the Bible
First appeared in The Bloomington Voice VI:23 (July 3, 1997): 4.

Public debate on gender is frequently saturated with voices claiming the Bible as basis for political resistance to civil rights for homosexuals.  Policy-makers may conclude that all constituents of faith demand public hostility to homosexuals.  To spiritual seekers it may seem that the Judeo-Christian tradition was founded on and is obsessed with such hostility.  This essay outlines one heterosexual Christian’s reading of scripture to understand anti-gay discrimination as profoundly contrary to the spirit and truth of the Bible.

Opponents of civil rights for homosexuals typically cite three Biblical passages understood to condemn homosexuality, and then declare that these three passages should direct public policy.  Putting aside this tactic’s violation of the principle of the separation of church and state, this Christian finds two flaws in it: it is anti-Biblical, and, it is belied by the religious practices of the homophobes themselves.

The cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not a traffic signal, nor is it a Marine drill sergeant.  God did not choose to direct this tradition with the kind of stimulus that requires blind obedience. Our guide, rather, is a lengthy book, which must be studied and discussed as books are studied and discussed.

One can no more abstract one sentence from the Bible and understand it in isolation than one can abstract one sentence from War and Peace or any other complex work.  This approach is folly on a Swiftian scale.  It does great disservice to the Bible.  Shaving, wearing of mixed fabrics, intercropping -- isolated Bible verses can be found to condemn all.  Menstruation is “abomination,” the same word used to describe homogenital acts.  Couples intimate during menstruation are condemned to exile.   Verses can be found to support human sacrifice, the veiling of women, the genital mutilation of corpses, the exile of victims of skin disease, absolute communism under pain of death, slavery, racism, the blood guilt of Jews, and consumption of poison as proof of marital fidelity or Christian faith.  Unless and until the homophobes follow all these verses literally, they demonstrate their own argument as without merit.

Given that isolated Bible verses can be found to support any number of heinous or exotic policies, one might be tempted to jettison the Bible and dismiss Jews and Christians as primitive lunatics.  This Christian feels no such temptation.  Rather, logic demands that each idiosyncratic interpretation and application of Scripture answer for itself.  So-called Fundamentalists must announce why they promulgate verses condemning homogenital acts as central; those of us who do not must provide our criteria.

This Christian would offer two supports for her rejection of homophobia as a Biblically supportable position.  One, the Bible itself offers a check to literalism.  The Bible, to this Christian, is true; it is just not true in the way the homophobes need it to be.  Too, advances in knowledge demand that we engage with the Bible, testing everything we read in it against what it is and what we have come to learn since it was set down.

Selection of one verse as foundation for public policy applies a literalist concept of “truth” that is anti-Biblical, secular, and anachronistic.  And it is sin. Fundamentalists apply to the Bible the approach to words that evolved after the invention of texts like package instructions, legal documents, and science experiments.  Such texts, and the mindset that produced them, altered how people processed words. Fundamentalists now -- sinfully, foolishly, unsuccessfully -- apply that secular approach to sacred words that were once heard in a very different way.

A Native American, testifying in a trial, was adjured to tell the truth. He hesitated and said, “I don’t know if I can tell you the truth.  I can only tell you what I know.”  Paul encapsulated the concept this way:  “We know in part and we prophesy in part...We see as in a glass, darkly.”  Folk cultures tacitly accept that truth, like the oral canon, has versions and variants. The Bible, from the secular, anachronistic standpoint adopted by homophobes, “lies” beginning in Genesis, which offers two different versions of the creation story.  Berkeley folklore scholar Alan Dundes has demonstrated that every major Biblical passage, from basic prayers like Judaism’s “Hear, oh Israel” and Christianity’s “Our Father,” to historical accounts like that of Jesus’ death, is recorded in at least two differing versions. The folk concept of truth that allows for such variation is not antiquated; post-Heisenberg physics and postmodern philosophy support it.

The check the Bible offers to self-serving applications of literalist concepts of “truth” is a strong condemnation (Mat 26:61; Mark 14:58; John 2:20).  Further, in Matthew 23, Jesus literally damns righteous hypocrites who, like modern homophobes, attempt to assassinate the immortal spirit of God’s word while denying the Kingdom of Heaven to those who do not measure up to the dead letter of the law.

Argumentation, rather than blind obedience, is the model offered by Biblical heroes.  Abraham, Mary, and Jesus are but prominent examples of the Biblical model of debating the absolute commandments of God.  Abraham changes God’s mind about the number of good men that can redeem a town; Mary defies Jesus’ resistance and nags him into performing his first miracle.  Jesus openly disobeyed tenants of the meticulous and rigid law.  When asked directly, Jesus selected some commandments as being worthy to follow, to the exclusion of others (Mat. 19:18-22).  Jesus explained that the law was made for man, not the other way around.  The law’s test and proof was love of God and love of others (Mark 2: 27; Mat. 22:35-40).  Love, in Jesus’ radical approach, was to be granted even to those his contemporaries had been trained to hate because of accidents of birth (Luke 10, 25-37).  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus depicted a despised minority group member as superior to a priest and a high caste Levite.  It is the Samaritan who obeys the spirit of the law, and rescues a brutalized stranger.  Application of the tenets of this parable to homophobia exposes homophobia as anti-Biblical.

In any case, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.  The word is never used.  Three passages condemn male homogenital acts performed a part of gang rape, temple prostitution, or idolatry.  These verses are few, especially when compared to the Biblical torrent of words lambasting greed, gluttony, and power without conscience. Lesbianism is never mentioned in the Old Testament. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality or homogenital acts.  Bible scholars argue that the reason the Bible does not address homosexuality as such is that homosexuality was not fully understood by the ancients.

The three passages repeatedly cited by homophobes need to be understood in context.  For example, homophobes cite the Sodom story as evidence of Biblical condemnation of homosexuals.  The Bible, in fact, reports the sins of Sodom as pride, gluttony, ease, and greed (Ezekiel 16:49).  An illuminating version of the Sodom story appears in Judges. There the predatory gang, mistakenly identified by modern homophobes as homosexuals, rapes a woman sacrificed to protect her male companions (Judges 19:22-26).  Clearly, gang rape, rather than homosexuality, was these men’s crime.

The Bible does record extraordinary love between members of the same gender.  Perhaps the most poignant love vow in world literature was spoken by Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:16, 17).  Jonathan risked and sacrificed incalculably for David, with whom he exchanged numerous love vows, and whom he loved as he loved his own life (1 Samuel 20, 17).  When Jonathan died, David said, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

Study reveals that the Bible is not the gay bashing handbook so-called Fundamentalists would like to pretend it to be.  The Bible’s text erodes the Fundamentalist position;  the kind of document the Bible is erodes their position even further.  Jesuit Walter J. Ong, Eric Havelock, and other scholars of oral cultures tell us that folk literature served as encyclopedia.  In the absence of libraries and computers, sacred scripture, memorized by tribe members, had to encapsulate every byte of data deemed important to the tribe.  Modern Christians dismiss much of such data found in the Bible as simply inaccurate.  No Christian physician would tell his patient, as the Bible does, to cure illness by drinking alcohol (Timothy 5:23).  No contemporary preacher calls for the incarceration and torture of Stephen Hawking, although Galileo once suffered such a fate under the church because his findings contradicted the Biblical concept of the solar system.

The Bible is not the contemporary Christian’s physician’s Desk Reference -- hydrocortisone works better for eczema than forcing the itchy to muss their hair, dwell apart, and shout, “Unclean!”  The Bible is not our political system - we can rejoice that we no longer practice the slavery so vigorously defended by Paul.  Christian historians seeking the truth of Jesus’ life must juggle competing and contradictory versions of his genealogy in Mathew and Luke; versions that, it is openly acknowledged, were written to appeal to special interest groups.  The Bible as databank of secular knowledge has lost ground. To ask the Bible to teach us about aspects of human sexuality that were deeply misunderstood in ancient times is to torture the book, to force it to perform tasks it cannot do.

Sister Wendy Beckett has pointed out that art starts at the top; that today’s art may be different from the cave paintings of Lascaux, but it is no better.  Spiritual writing, too, starts at the top.  Nothing written today surpasses the spiritual classics.  The Bible remains an inspiration for modern Christians and Jews, and that inspiration is found in words like, “Love God; love your neighbor as yourself; that is the law and the prophets.”  To reject such words because of the politicized application of their neighbors is to unnecessarily impoverish ourselves, to surrender to the forces of oppression and cruelty, and to lie to ourselves about our birthright.

It is not enough to claim the Bible; one must also live it.  In The Good Book, Reverend Peter J. Gomes describes how so-called Christian rhetoric directed against homosexuals makes fertile the ground for brutal beatings and, yes, even religion inspired murder. The Bible’s overall message, the Bible’s repeated warnings against a crafty, self serving literalism, adjure Christians and Jews to speak up and out when scripture is prostituted to serve homophobic campaigns of violence and hate. 

1998 Martyrdom and Matthew Shepard

Aired on WFIU, Bloomington, Indiana

This is Danusha Goska.

When I was as little girl in Catholic school, I was taught how important martyrs and martyrdom are to our understanding of our faith.

I found the idea unappealing. Why did there have to be such suffering? Why couldn't our moral universe encompass only sweetness and light?

As I grew older, I pondered another question: how could the average decent person, people like my friends, like myself, have supported systems like slavery and Jim Crow?

The martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, like the four little girls murdered in a bomb blast in a Birmingham church, may have taught me something about both questions.

Maybe ugly injustice is not exclusively the product of fanatics. Maybe ugly injustice is a product we all create. There are the fanatics leading the parade, of course, but the rest of us just go along. We say nothing, after someone tells a joke that offends us, we do nothing when the institutions we work for deny equal benefits to selected groups of our fellow employees, we hear nothing when our religious leaders preach a discrimination that Jesus never practiced.

I again ponder martyrdom and the education of the average, decent person in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a college student, around five foot tall, around a hundred pounds, who was tricked into a pick up truck, beaten, burned, and tied to a fence in a position typical of crucifixion. Later, his funeral was picketed by church members carrying signs reading, "Fag Matt in Hell."

We are shocked. Shocked. After the shock wears off, I hope Matthew's death can teach us as only martyrdom can, what the true face of homophobia is.

For Speak Your Mind, this has been Danusha Goska.


Interesting poll results 

Here's another interesting chart. These charts make it clear that saying that there is no difference between Catholicism and Catholics and Islam and Muslims when it comes to homosexuality is not factual. 


Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete


  1. First, I would like to differentiate between homosexual behavior and same-sex attraction. The first is listed as a sin (even if you believe that to be 'cultural') and the other is like every other temptation that is common to man. Second, the short hand of calling everyone that believe homosexuality, to be a sin are "homophobes" is distressingly simplistic. Finally, without a lengthy point-by-point debate I would like to address your argument that Jesus never specifically mentioned homosexuality. He also never addressed rape, incest, domestic violence, etc. So His likely position on those things come from people close to him and how He addressed similar items regarding sexual morality (woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well and others) where he took stands that were consistent with what those that knew him best. I perfectly understand how love drives you inclusiveness, I think we can love people without condoning all their behavior. With respect, Brad

    1. I appreciate your expressing your thoughts in a respectful way.