This is a guest blog by Joni Bosch, religious education teacher, and longtime LGBT ally.
I first “met” Rob Watson on Beliefnet. We are the same age and, at that time, both married. We were at very different places in our family lives, as he had just adopted two children who were toddlers at that time, and my children were graduating from high school. Although homophobia still exists, it was far more open and widespread. As we got to know each other it became clear that the only differences between our families, apart from the current ages of our children, was the number of men in bed at night.
Despite the similarities of our lives, my family and marriage was considered normal and blessed and his was the target of much invective, primarily on the part of Christians.
I was raised in a liberal Lutheran church, was a borderline Jesus freak in high school, went to a private Lutheran college, became Catholic when I married, taught Catholic religious education at my parish for 15 years and received a certificate in Catholic lay ministry. Over this time, I read a lot about the history of Christianity and the Bible. My life experience led me to view the message of Jesus as what he flatly stated it to be—a call to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. To treat others as we wished to be treated. To care for the wounded, the hungry, the naked, the sick. That everyone, even those we did not like, were our neighbors and to be treated as such.
This background and belief system led me to marvel, in a sad way, at how some people would use the Bible and the teachings of Jesus to harm others.
Romans 1 was used a lot in this context, especially: 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
The first problem with using Romans to bludgeon others is a common one—failure to look at context. Paul was writing to Christians in Rome between 55-60 CE. Jewish and gentile Christians there were having problems working out their differences and doing so surrounded by a large pagan community with a different belief system both in religious and sexual matters. It was not a problem for men who were Roman citizens to have sexual relations with both men, particularly young men, and women. The primary moral caveat was not to use other Roman citizens sexually. Use of slaves and prostitutes of either gender was neither considered to be unfaithfulness to a spouse nor immoral. What mattered was not damaging the property or persons of other citizens. This does not appear to be homosexuality as we understand it today—a romantic attachment. The Romans were also very patriarchal. A man should participate in anything that seemed womanly. Being a recipient of anal penetration was problematic for a citizen because the man was ceding his dominant role.
Paul is supposing that pagans in their hearts really shared the Judeo-Christian belief system, that God’s presences in the world was so obvious that the pagans deliberately turned away from God as described above.
Clearly gay Christians are not those being described above. Gay Christians are Christians. They have not turned away from God. They are not worshipping idols. They are not pagans. They clearly recognize the power of God in this world and continue to have a relationship with God.
Par of the problem here is that somehow those citing the earlier verses seemed to miss other verses in Romans 1 that can be applied to their own behavior: 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
Clearly murder has been done to those who are gay in the name of God. Strife, deceit (especially in cherry picking the scriptures), and malice abound. Gossip and slander certainly fit, as do arrogance and boasting. They do not understand, lack love, and lack mercy.
The sad irony is that Paul did not write with chapter and verse. Those were later editions. The real point of these verses in Chapter 1 comes at the start of Romans 2: You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
Paul is working his readers into a righteous frenzy against “them” in Romans 1, only to turn on the self-righteous in Romans 2 and nail them for judging others while being less than perfect themselves. Indeed, his big point in Romans in general is that we are saved through faith, not the law, and that no mere human is sinless.
The very people who were using the Bible to attack Rob’s family were bringing judgment on themselves by their judgment of others. Indeed pride seems to play a big role here, as exemplified by Fred Phelps and the Cranford family Rob has mentioned before. They think that only they understand the Bible and that anyone who reads it differently has rejected God.
I was part of the discernment process when our parish decided to become open and affirming. We studied the Bible and commentaries, studied church teachings and history, and prayed. The vast majority of us who attended these meetings were straight. I can’t help thinking of Romans 2:1 when fundamentalist Christians attack other Christians who have spent time in prayer and study and come to a different interpretation.
It is pretty easy to cherry pick the Bible and find verses that can justify one’s own positions. As Karen Armstrong and Margaret Nutting Ralph have noted, the Bible is neither a science book nor a history book. It is a history of a people growing in faith. It is a whole library that contains myth, satire, music, love letters, history, catechism and letters about specific problems. Our ability to find apparent contradictions is at least in part because faith grew and changed as it did so, and in part because we miss the context in which things were written, not to mention that we don’t even know for sure what some of the words meant.
Rob has noted how this misuse of the Bible has increased the risk of harm to his children (not to mention the harm to himself as he was figuring out who he was). It is not just gay families that are targeted by those who believe their understanding is the only correct one. An 8 year old girl was kicked out of a Christian school because she liked her hair short and liked sports. I am pretty sure the principal was thinking of Deut 22:5 saying a woman should not wear a man’s clothing. Although I have not seen a photo of the principal who informed her parents that this school was not for her (too true, but not in the way he meant it), I would be willing to bet that his hair style was not Biblical as set forth in Leviticus—with beard and ear locks (Lev 19:27). I would also be willing to bet that he has worn clothing made of more than one kind of fabric (Lev 19:19).
Nolan Cranford is another child who has been damaged by the assumption of the adults in his life that nobody who disagrees with them on religious matters can possibly be Christian.
All too often I see an argument against someone—for being gay, for not being male or female enough, for being the wrong religion, or even the wrong kind of Christian, based on cherry picking the Bible, most often the Old Testament. However, when challenged on the ways in which those doing the condemning violate OT law themselves, such as eating ham on Easter or eating cheeseburgers, they cite Acts 11. Oddly, though, Acts 11 only excuses their own failure to follow the OT—it never seems to excuse others failure to do so.
I do feel sorry for those whose relationship with God is so fraught with fear that they can only view the world in black in and white. Yet I must feel even worse for those who are the victims of the intolerance their fear produces. If they wish to be lights to the world, they should let their light shine. Crossing the line into arson and burning those they claim to wish to help, however, goes too far.
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