There is a bill in the Illinois House (HB 1826) that, if passed, will give same-sex couples the right to be joined together in a civil union. This bill has a dozen or so sponsors including our very own 103rd District Representative, Naomi Jakobsson. According to it’s synopsis, this bill does the following:
_“Creates the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act…. Provides that 2 persons may form a civil union if they: are not related by adoption or blood in any manner that would bar a civil union; are not in another civil union or marriage with any other living person; and are not under 18 years of age. Provides that: protections, benefits, and responsibilities of partners in a civil union are the same as those granted to spouses in a marriage…. and a civil union between 2 persons of either the same sex or the opposite sex licensed, officiated, and registered under the Act is valid in this State.”_
Proposed bills like this one really ruffle the feathers of conservative evangelical Christians and their fundamentalist cousins, the groups collectively known as the “Religious Right”. They insist that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin.
But does the Bible really state this? The short answer is, actually, no.
This is not a claim, however, that can be discussed without some honest empirical evidence to back it up, despite the right-wing proclamation of the opposite. For the long answer, let’s take a little tour of the Bible and see what it really says.
First, it should be pointed out that the sayings and teachings of Jesus make up the core of Christian belief. Homosexuality, however, is never addressed by Jesus in any of the canonic Gospels. What Jesus does talk about over and over again is oppression. Whether it was of the poor by the rich or of the powerless by the powerful.
One of the few stories about Jesus that mentions any kind of sexual sin is found in chapter 8 in the Gospel of John. Here we find a woman who had committed adultery (forbidden by the 7th commandment), but Jesus was not concerned with her sexual indiscretion. His focus was on the townspeople who wanted to stone her to death. So even in this case of sexual sin (adultery, in this case, that was clearly forbidden by Jewish law), Jesus came to the defense of the “sinner.” When he challenged the mob by saying “whoever was without sin should throw the first stone”, the people went away one by one. Then he told the accused woman that he did not condemn her. Jesus stood up for the persecuted.
There are only a handful of passages in the bible that actually deal with same-sex intercourse and none of them deal with it directly. It is always in a larger context of ritual purity, rape, prostitution or pedophilia; in other words, they are presented in situations where someone is being exploited or sexually abused. Same-sex intercourse is never addressed in the context of two mutually-consenting adults.
One passage is in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). In it, God hears that there are more than a few indiscretions transpiring, so he sends a couple of angels to see what is happening. The person who meets them is Lot and he invites them to stay in his house and have dinner.
Then, a bunch of men from Sodom come and knock on Lot’s door. They say, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”
Now, Hebrew is a funny language. The word for “know” (yada) can mean literally “to know someone”, or it can mean “to have sex with someone”. So at best, these Sodomites are saying they want to meet and literally get to know who Lot’s guests are; and at worst, they’re saying they want to have sex with Lot’s guests. Since we can assume that God’s angels aren’t interested in a casual hook-up with these guys, what the Sodomites are really saying is that they want to rape Lot’s guests.
Lot verifies this with his response: “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.”
The wicked act in this story is not same-sex intercourse. It is rape. Rape is a horrific act that should definitely be condemned. But same-sex intercourse between consenting adults should not for a very simple reason: it hurts no one.
Let’s look at some other passages.
Leviticus 18.22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (NRSV) And Leviticus 20.13 says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (NRSV)
The word “abomination” in these passages is not a very good translation. The Hebrew word toevah means something that is ritually unclean and it was used in lots of other contexts, particularly dietary laws. Pork is toevah. A lot of Christians who try to use these passages to condemn gay people overlook the fact that they, too, are toevah because of the bacon they had for breakfast. Bloody meat also is toevah, so that medium rare steak you had for dinner last week also made you unclean.
The fact is, Leviticus forbids a lot of questionable things that by today’s standards, most Christians ignore. For example, Leviticus 9.27 states, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (NRSV) So, according to this, a shave and a haircut are an “abomination” as well. It really depends on how you look at it, etymologically.
That’s it for the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament). Those are the only passages that mention same-sex intercourse and, as we can see, they were all in larger contexts of rape and ritual purity, not in the context of two consenting adults.
Now, let’s examine what the Christian scriptures (or New Testament) say.
All of the Christian scriptures that seem to address same-sex intercourse are attributed to one person: the apostle, Paul.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes,“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6.9, NRSV)
And in his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down, not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 1.10, NRSV)
The word in both of these passages that is translated into English as “sodomite” is the Greek word arsenokoitais. It is a very tricky word to translate because Paul seems to be the only person ever to have used it. It is literally not found anywhere else to our knowledge in ancient Greek writings. A literal translation of this word would be a man with many beds or the more slang and vulgar version, a man who likes to fuck. This implies simply a promiscuous person—not a gay person.
Since the meaning of arsenokoitais is more than a little vague, responsible translators (such as in the NRSV) have used the similarly-vague English word “sodomite”. But even sodomy is losing its sexually vague meaning as it has begun to evolve into a word for anal intercourse (which has only added to the confusion of this issue). A better word for modern translations might be “slut”, but this word unfortunately usually implies a female whereas Paul’s passages refer specifically to men. There is simply no word in the English language that means “male slut”. All of this is useful, however, to illustrate the sexist bias our culture gives to men. Promiscuous women are called sluts whereas promiscuous men are called studs? It’s an interesting detail to note.
Unfortunately, to make this problem even worse, there are some very irresponsible translators (e.g. NIV and New Living) that have begun to use the English word “homosexual” for the Greek arsenokoitais. This is very irresponsible because now a lot of relatively unknowing Christians use these poor translations and say, “See? It says right there: homosexuality is a sin!”
The only other passage in the New Testament that addresses same-sex intercourse is in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes, “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1. 26-17, NRSV)
If we read these passages carefully, we see it is not passion that is bad, but degrading passions. It is not intercourse that is frowned upon, but unnatural intercourse. In other words, if you are engaging in sex acts that don’t feel right for you, then you should stop. For a heterosexual, it would feel unnatural to engage in same-sex activities. But for a gay man or a lesbian, the opposite is true! For gays and lesbians, the natural thing for them is same-sex intercourse.
I think Benjamin Franklin punched the issue right in the nose when he wrote, “Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is harmful.” The fact is that it seems like most Christians need to step back from their Bibles, take a deep breath, and just ask themselves what the issue really is here.
Jesus had it right. The bottom line is this: who is being oppressed and persecuted? Who is getting hurt? Rape is bad—it hurts people. Pedophilia is bad—it hurts children. Violence is bad. Killing is bad. Starvation is bad. Lying is bad. Stealing is bad. War is bad. Racism is bad. Sexism is bad. These things hurt people.
And homophobia, too, is bad. It also hurts people.
Men kissing men in consent doesn’t hurt anyone. And neither does women kissing women. If they are consenting adults, it’s all good. And if they love one another, then God blesses that relationship. God really likes it when people love one another.
And we should too.
So, it should be a really easy call for those of us who call ourselves Christians.
Don’t let homophobia rule. Call your state congressman and tell them to vote for Illinois House Bill 1826.