On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, and left to die in the state of Wyoming, USA. He was gay and it was a hate crime. Christians are rightly concerned when anyone, no matter who and what they are, is treated in this way. Matthew’s family received wonderful help from the local Roman Catholic Priest as they sought to come to terms with this terrible event, but are Christians really innocent of crimes like this?
If we go to history the answer is no. Countless people accused of the ‘sin of sodomy’ have been brutally tortured, their genitals publically cut off, and burned alive at Christian instigation. In Protestant Geneva people were tied to a large wagon wheel and then systematically beaten with clubs until each bone in their body broke and they died. In the 18th century, Dutch authorities, in a frenzy of hatred and under the instigation of Protestant ministers, held teenage young men under water until they drowned, and executed boys as young as 16 by hanging.
Today, we know for sure that LGBTQI youth who are connected to Christian institutions that do not support their orientation are at a much higher risk of suicide. In addition, they are also at a very high risk of mental health challenges including substance abuse, and social troubles such as homelessness. Why? Because, if you face racism, the one place you might still be safe is your family; but if you are LGBTQI and Christian your family might actually reject you and you might experience religious bullying.
Much of this behaviour is ignored and sometimes even encouraged by many Christian churches. On what basis do they believe that Christians have a right to do things that profoundly harm others to the point of suicide?
The argument taught by a majority of Christian churches is that ‘homosexuality is a sin.’ Therefore, rejection and judgmental behaviour is simply a form of ‘tough love.’ People are shunned and excluded ‘for their own good.’ Really? Is this how Christians understand love and grace? Has God appointed them to be judge and jury? Do they really know what they are talking about when they appeal to the ‘long Christian tradition’ of ‘rejecting homosexuality? The answer to that question is no.
Most Christians claim to know this tradition, but their knowledge is quite superficial. First of all, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. Yes, this is a technical point, but a very important one. Modern translations of the Bible that use the word ‘homosexual’ are simply wrong. The Bible describes sexual behaviours that are unacceptable, but none of these clearly match or perfectly fit the modern concept ‘homosexual.’
What then of sodomy? Granted that the church has overreacted to sodomy in the past, but does the Bible clearly say that it is wrong? Again, the answer is no. The concept of sodomy - based in the story of the judgement and destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah told in Genesis 19 - does not occur in the original text of the Bible. Sodomy is an invention of the church which slowly developed in early Christianity, and it became a Christian term only by the fourth century AD.
Over time ‘sodomy’ took on many forms of meaning. The Bible itself does not associate the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with same sex relationships. In the Old Testament other references speak of ‘idolatry’ (as in Deuteronomy 29), ‘injustice’ (as in the oppression of widows and orphans referred to in Isaiah 1), and ‘inhospitality,’ which Jesus associated with the city of Sodom in Matthew 10:14-15. There is also a reference in the book of Jude, one of the smaller books at the end of the Bible, which likely refers to an ancient belief that angels sinned by having sexual relations with women.
The beginnings of the idea of sodomy were deeply influenced by Roman cultural conceptions of what a ‘true man’ should be like. For much of Christian history, the term described various sexual ‘deviances,’ most of which were heterosexual. Medieval theologians were obsessed with the ‘correct’ use of human genitals, and believed that sex without the potential to create children was wrong.
Any Christian man today who has had a vasectomy and still has sexual relations with his wife is guilty of these definitions of sodomy. Without becoming too graphic, let me just say that many readers of this article who are in loving, committed, heterosexual marriages are probably committing some form of sodomy under the old traditions of the church.
Even so, you might ask, should we quibble about words? Surely the bible is against all forms of same-sex sexual relationships? Doesn’t the biblical book of Leviticus clearly say that “a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman” in chapter 18:22? Well, yes and no. The original Hebrew does not quite say that. It says something like, “man… shall… not lie… man… beds… wives.” Conservative Jewish rabbis have pointed out that in its proper context, this text has to do with the responsibilities of a married man to his wives in the old Hebrew kinship system of the time. Some of these authorities, like the renowned Old Testament scholar Jacob Milgrom in his famous commentary on this text in the Anchor Bible Commentary, argue that it is about protecting the right of a wife to have children by her husband. Therefore, Milgrom argues, it is simply wrong to apply the two texts in Leviticus to same sex relationships where a man is not married to a woman.
Yes, it is true that by the fourth century AD, Christians started reading this text - as well as Leviticus 20:13 - as having implications beyond heterosexual marriage relationships, but from the point of view of Jewish law, this is not really the way the text should be understood. Suffice it to say that the ‘traditional’ Christian interpretation of this text - which is often considered to be beyond question - is not necessarily biblically correct, because it pulls these texts out of their legal and historical context.
Other texts that are often rolled out to condemn and reject LGBTQI people to the point of harm include Romans 1, and lists of sins that are interpreted to cover all forms of same sex relationships such as 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. The problem is that in all these cases there is uncertainty about the translation of the original Greek, along with questions about the historical context and how these texts functioned in those contexts.
Romans 1, for example, uses some strong language that suggests a memory of the wicked sexual exploitation of Emperor Gaius Caligula in Rome, and is part of a rhetorical argument in which the author wants to implicate all people, particularly those who sit in judgment over others, in bad behaviour. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 the original Greek word is literally “man-bed” and likely refers to prostitution, while in 1 Timothy 1:10 the same Greek word is used. It appears that the translators had a preconceived idea of meaning in their translations. Older translations render a somewhat unclear but more literal translation as in “abusers of themselves with mankind.”
Given these problems of time, context, history, mistranslation and misinterpretation, can Christians honestly find it acceptable to behave in ways that harm LGBTQI people by reference to texts whose meaning is fundamentally ambiguous?
Of course, questioning the basis of the church’s hostility to same sex relationships does not mean that all forms of sexual expression are morally ok in Christian terms. Christian teachings contain profound and loving guidelines for sexual ethics including love, justice, respect and responsibility.
Most of all they include not doing harm to others through your behaviour. Being committed, making that commitment public in community, loving your beloved, and being faithful to that person are all things that Christians encourage and support as the right way to express their sexuality. Harming others and denigrating the love they experience for another human being, not so much.
The conclusion is simple: stop doing harm to LGBTQI People.