Homosexuality and the Bible: One Quaker's Response to the Pope

"Speaking on Monday, Pope Benedict said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior was as important as protecting the environment."
—BBC news

A little fact-checking will help us qualify this widely reported news story about Pope Benedict’s Christmas message to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2008. The reality is that the Pope did not actually use the words "homosexual" or "transsexual" anywhere in his talk. Yet, the BBC, and many other news outlets, still got the basic story pretty much right.

In his talk, Pope Benedict XVI did talk movingly about the importance of all people of faith protecting God’s Creation, which the Pope rightly says is not "our possession which we can plunder according to our interests and desires." He went on to say that in our current planetary crisis, people of faith "ought to safeguard not only the Earth, water, and air as gifts of creation," but that we "ought also to protect man against the destruction of himself." Apart from his use of sexist language to signify the whole of humanity, I was actually in agreement with him right up to this point in the text of his speech, which I was recently able to read in translation on the Internet.

Yet, what exactly is the main threat to humanity mentioned by the Pope in his Christmas talk to the Roman Curia? What is the looming danger that he claims is of equal importance to global warming, toxic pollution, and mass extinctions? Surprisingly, he does not mention war, imperialism, nuclear weapons, poverty, organized greed and exploitation, prejudice, ethnic cleansing, or the corporate domination of governments. What he does mention is the decline of old-fashioned sex roles in modern life and our "modifying the message of creation" by turning away from the legal definition of marriage as a bond that is only between a man and a woman. That’s the climax of his argument. His biggest fear for the world is the legalization of marriage for gay and lesbian couples, and that many men and women no longer act within the confines of the rigid gender roles that he thinks best. What are we to make of such a message made to celebrate the birth of Jesus?

Like the Pope, and millions of people around the world, I identify myself as part of the spiritual renewal movement sparked over 2,000 years ago by Jesus of Nazareth—that radical Jewish upstart in first-century Palestine. Simply put, I try to be a faithful friend and follower of Jesus in our modern world. For over three centuries, this has been the Quaker way.

As a committed follower of Jesus, the fundamental core of my faith tradition is love: loving and listening to the Divine Spirit with all one’s heart, soul, and strength; loving one’s neighbors as oneself, including one’s enemies and adversaries; and loving God’s good Earth and appreciating the many gifts and beings it includes. In more modern terms, the central mission of my faith tradition is to create an ecologically sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human community on this beautiful blue-green planet. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. called creating the Beloved Community, and what the ancient Jewish prophets and Jesus called bringing forth the Kingdom of God "on Earth as it is in heaven."

Clearly, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church shares several of these core concerns about finding "the way of right living," a way that is common to the best ethical wisdom of both Judaism and Christianity, and many other faiths as well. Yet, I think that in his Christmas message about the overwhelming dangers of marriage equality, the Pope widely missed the mark, which I believe is the literal translation of the word for sin in Hebrew. According to Pope Benedict, to be a faithful follower of Jesus you need to believe that two people of the same gender living together as life partners and sharing a committed sexual relationship is as destructive to the world community as global warming or the toxic pollution that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Now, I agree that it is possible for two Bible-studying, Jesus-loving, and Spirit-led Christians to have two very different views about the morality of gay and lesbian relationships. Not all issues of faith and practice are black or white. Yet, after much soul searching and study, I do find the Pope’s decidedly alarmist view to be a silly, poor theology with very weak support in the Bible and absolutely no support in the ministry and life example of Jesus.

This conclusion may surprise many people, so let me explain why I think the Pope is on such weak theological ground in his homophobia. Jesus was simply never recorded as ever making an anti-gay comment in the Bible. Not once. This means that the homophobia championed by the current Pope is not sanctioned by Jesus. It is a doctrine that is absolutely without any support from the central figure of our common faith tradition. Indeed, the negative attitude of the Pope toward gay and lesbian people actually seems to run counter to the underlying spirit of the early Jesus movement, which sought to gather the poor, the despised, the marginalized, the oppressed, the exploited, and all those outcast by the iron triangle of the Roman empire, its local client kings, and the collaborationist religious elites of his day. In place of the hierarchal norms of this sinful imperial world, Jesus sought to spread the good news of the coming reign of God’s love, compassion, and justice. Within his spiritual renewal movement, he enacted a radically—and even scandalously—inclusive community to serve as a seed for the coming fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. The Pope’s remarks on rigid sex roles and his viewing marriage by gays and lesbians as the ultimate danger to our society seem remarkably out of step with the central thrust of the faith and practice of the early Jesus movement.

This is not to say that there is absolutely no support for the Pope’s position in the New Testament Scriptures that emerged out of the Jesus movement after Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire as a nonviolent, revolutionary rabble-rouser. In these specifically Christian Scriptures, there are a total of three anti-gay passages to be found—all of them attributed to one man, the apostle Paul. These homophobic remarks can be found in Paul’s letters to the Romans (1:26-27), to Timothy (1:9-10), and to the Corinthians (6:9-10). It should also be noted that Paul’s comments were made in response to some early Christian communities that did not support his homophobic views and, by his own report, actually included gays and lesbians as full and respected participants in their congregations.

The core theological question here is what authority in our lives and religious communities should we give to these three statements attributed to Paul? Are these three passages a deep revelation of the wisdom and way of God, the loving and liberating Spirit so fully embodied in human terms by Jesus of Nazareth, or are they the product of a historically-conditioned, culture-bound, patriarchal worldview not fully left behind by Paul? Given that these three remarks by Paul were never sanctioned by any recorded comment by Jesus, this seems like a fair theological question. Even Paul says, "Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil."

As much as I am deeply moved by so much of what is written in Paul’s letters, and as much as I appreciate his efforts to organize and spread the radical Jesus movement in his day, I see some of his remarks as violations of the best in Jewish and Christian wisdom and practice. For example, the letters attributed to Paul also argue that women should not speak in church, that followers of Jesus should always obey governmental orders, that there is nothing wrong with slavery, that slaves should always obey their masters. He even once said that it was sinful for women to wear their hair in braids or to not cover their heads in church. None of this seems very insightful, and some of it is profoundly inconsistent with the radically inclusive and prophetic faith and practice of Jesus of Nazareth. So, I do not think that there is much good reason to believe that Paul’s three homophobic remarks are consistent with the radical and liberatory good news proclaimed by Jesus. Like all of us, Paul was a creature of his times, and while he often offered great insight into the wisdom and way of God’s Spirit, he was still entrapped by some oppressive patriarchal prejudices.

Some professed Christians argue that anything said or done by any of the apostles in the Bible is an infallible expression of God’s will. Yet, this seems a naive theology to me. It certainly is not a doctrine I see supported by the Bible itself. Just think of Judas, who the Bible says betrayed Jesus by turning him into the imperial authorities for 30 pieces of silver. Also, in Bible story after Bible story we see how even Jesus’ closest and most loyal disciples often had trouble understanding his radical teachings, and sometimes, out of their own confusion, faithlessness, or prejudices, even actively denied him or his teachings. The ingrained thought ways of an oppressive, imperial world are very hard to leave behind—even among some of the oppressed and marginalized in the early Jesus movement.

To his credit, Paul himself had the humility to say in one of his letters that much of what he says feels to him like it is a deep and direct revelation of God’s wisdom and way, but other things are just Paul’s personal opinions, his best guesses, or his personal interpretations of ancient Hebrew scripture.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that Paul was not a close disciple of Jesus. He did not join the Jesus movement until after Jesus was crucified. He never knew Jesus, or traveled with him day in and day out, or discussed his own perspectives and confusions with Jesus. It would appear then that there is not much reason to accord automatic agreement to Paul’s three anti-gay comments in his letters. They are a fairly flimsy theological foundation for the Pope’s exaggerated anti-gay comments.

So let’s now turn to the Hebrew Scriptures, what many Christians call the Old Testament. Here we also find a few scattered passages that might offer some theological support for the Pope’s exaggerated homophobia. In total, there are five additional passages that I have found in the entire Hebrew scriptures that might be legitimately considered anti-gay, or view gay and lesbian behavior as a sin, perhaps even a major sin. These passages are Genesis 19, Leviticus 19:22, Leviticus 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17, and Judges 19-21. I say "might" here, because three of these passages are definitely not evaluating the moral worth of loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships, but actually speak out against male-on-male rape, or against men consorting with male or female ritual prostitutes, a practice that was common among some non-Jewish cultural traditions at the time.

The only significant theological support in the entire Bible for the Pope’s homophobia then is found in Leviticus, which in my translation says in one passage that gay male sexual behavior is a sin and an abomination before God and then soon goes on to another passage that says it is a moral imperative on the part of the faithful to kill all men who engage in homosexual behavior. This very strong prohibition against gay male sexual behavior, and the commandment to kill all men who engage in homosexual behavior, are two of the 613 religious laws described in the Torah as being directly commanded by God and communicated to the newly liberated Israelites through the prophet Moses. Indeed, each of these 613 religious laws is described in the Torah as "what the Lord has commanded to be done" and as "a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your settlements."

Whether or not you agree with the murderous homophobia of these two laws attributed to God through Moses in the Torah, one might be tempted to say that they do at least offer a firm theological support for Pope Benedict’s homophobic fears of gay marriage. That would be true if the Pope actually supported all 613 of the religious laws listed in the Torah as legitimate commandments from God and perpetual statutes to be followed by all generations of Jews and Christians. The Pope doesn’t believe this, though—and neither did the Jewish prophet Micah, or Jesus, or Paul. Indeed, if the Pope did believe everything that is said in all of the 613 laws attributed to God in the Torah, he would order animal sacrifice as a core religious practice within the Catholic Mass and he would oppose Catholics eating shellfish or wearing clothes made from two types of fabric. He would also demand that all Catholic men get circumcised. More chillingly, he would demand that all faithful Catholics kill every child they know who talks back to their parents, and he would also demand that we kill every woman who is guilty of adultery.

All of these actions and prohibitions are included among the 613 laws of Moses. It is no wonder that Paul called the slavish following of all these religious laws "a curse" and warned people to stay faithful to the underlying spirit of the Law, but not the detailed letter of each one—as many of them are based on mere cultural convention and some are even rooted in deep human prejudices and cruelty. This picking and choosing among the laws of Moses by Micah, by Jesus, by Paul, and by the Pope casts doubt upon the strength of theological foundation of the Pope’s alarmist homophobia.

How can a faithful follower of Jesus choose which of the laws and commands in the Torah are part of the wisdom and way of the loving and liberating Spirit that the Jewish prophets and Jesus called God? Jesus was actually pretty clear on this point. He said that the two most important commandments from the Torah were to love God with all one’s heart, strength, and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. If the lesser commandments supported these two great commands, they were deemed by Jesus to be part of the wisdom and way of God. If any of the lesser commandments were of marginal concern to either of these two core commandments, they could either be done or ignored without consequence. Or, if they were hateful, cruel, or violent commandments, as a few of them are, they should not only be disregarded, but actively challenged by the faithful—as Jesus challenged the fundamentalist believers who sought to stone a woman charged with adultery. In direct violation of one of the 613 laws attributed to God through Moses, Jesus talked these men out of killing her. He urged them instead to treat her with compassion, and he told them to look into their own hearts for the seeds of sin. Again, it would appear that the Pope’s view, whose strongest foundation is the murderous homophobia of two passages in Leviticus, has no real substantive theological ground to stand on.

As Paul said about a disagreement in the early Church about whether to require circumcision of all male participants of the Jesus movement, "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love." I do not think then that it is a far stretch to also say that in the emerging Kingdom of God, neither heterosexuality or homosexuality counts for anything; that the only thing that counts is that all human relationships, including all human sexual relationships, should be characterized by the loving fruits of the Spirit—including deep commitment, care, respect, equality, tenderness, honesty, faithfulness, joy, and humility.

Frankly, I have never quite understood why so many professed Christians are obsessed with homosexuality—all on the basis of five to eight questionable passages scattered throughout the Bible that were never once supported, or even mentioned, by Jesus of Nazareth. I have also never understood how so many of these very same people can then ignore the over 2,000 passages in the Bible calling for economic justice for the poor and opposing all organized systems of greed, exploitation, and oppression. These statements were directly and repeatedly supported and sanctioned by Jesus in the course of his public ministry inviting people to abandon the ways of empire and help usher in the Kingdom of God.

I submit that the Pope is fundamentally wrong in his assertion that one of the most important sins to be challenged in the world today is the specter of marriage by gay and lesbian couples. I side instead with Jesus, who repeatedly claimed that the most important obstacles to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God are empire, violence, greed, exploitation, moral self-righteousness, selfishness, arrogance, and hardheartedness.

As people of faith and good will, let’s focus on what matters most, which is loving God, loving each other, and loving God’s good Earth.

Steve Chase

Steve Chase, a member of Putney (Vt.) Meeting, is the founding director of Antioch University New England's graduate program in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing. He is also the editor of "The Well-Trained Activist" blog at http://eaop-blog.blogspot.com.