Homosexuality, Proof-Texting, and a dash of Girardian Mimetic Theory

An Open Response to Michael Hardin’s tag on Facebook

Preaching Peace logoMy friend, Michael Hardin, runs an organization called Preaching Peace, a nonprofit dedicated to “Educating the Church in Jesus’ Vision of Peace.”

Michael has traveled extensively around North America, Australia/New Zealand, and Europe, presenting seminars on nonviolent atonement and his hermeneutic of nonviolence that is heavily influenced by the theology of Karl Barth and the mimetic anthropology of René Girard.  Lately Michael’s FB wall has hosted several threads challenging people to rethink view on homosexuality and Christianity.  Michael tagged me to bring some extra perspectives into the conversation, which you will find below…

Hi, Michael.  I’ve been a pretty busy today and am just now in a place where I can respond to your Facebook tag.

A bit about me for your readers.  I am a Christian.  I make my home in the Eastern Orthodox expression of Christianity.  By professional training I am a theologian and am working on a dissertation to finish a PhD in theology.  I am also gay, and when it comes to my political leanings, I am queer.  This puts me in a different ball park from most of your FB friends who tend toward the Evangelical and Charismatic on the Christian spectrum.

However, as you also know I was raised as a Southern Baptist and spent some time in Charismatic churches in my early 30s.  I’ve been through deliverance ministry and have seen some things that I’m happy to discuss in personal conversations, but see no reason to splash on the Internet without context.  I can confidently say that deliverance ministry did not make me straight, though it was very liberating in countless other ways.

As you know, I feel that these kinds of conversations are better shared between friends rather than debates in the Internet.  That’s because it often takes relationships to dispel the misconceptions that people bring into the conversation.  For example, when folks talk about “lifestyle,” this is a fairly good indicator that there’s some sort of monolithic preconception about gays looming in the background that I can almost guarantee has nothing to do with my own life.

I say all of this to explain one thing.  This isn’t my particular battle.  I’ve been here and I had to work through the issues.  It made it possible for me to move into the place in my life where I am now.  But it’s not my daily conversation.  And the work I’m doing now tends in a very different direction, taking into account the breadth of the patristic tradition, the richness of Orthodox theology, and the insights of gender and queer theory for critiquing human systems that are often wrapped in claims of divine mandate and/or scientific certainty.  So I don’t want to get mired in endless debates here because my primary work is elsewhere.  But because you asked, here are some thoughts… 🙂

Start With These Two Resources

For Evangelicals there are two books that I think are most interesting and that I would recommend for starters.

Torn by Justin LeeThe first is Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee.  Justin is the founder of the Gay Christian Network.  He has a special gift for speaking across divides and helping folks to reframe this conversation in healthier and more productive ways.  GayChristian.Net ministers to a broad array of denominations, but there’s a strong Evangelical presence there and it’s a good place for these conversations.

Letter to My CongregationThe second book is called A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson. This book was written when Ken was the senior pastor at the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church in Michigan. [While the Vineyard began very much in the Charismatic stream, it’s hard to make that same claim for where it has gone to today.  Still, I have a deep and abiding love and respect for John Wimber, and for Lonnie Frisbee, the Fool for Christ that inspired Wimber to believe in the miraculous activity of God.]

I cannot praise this book highly enough.  It is actually an open letter to his congregation in which Wilson details the development in his thought as he moves to a view of acceptance.  This was not without its own perils, as Ken is no longer the pastor at Ann Arbor Vineyard Church, but has a new and vibrant church plant in the Ann Arbor area.

The Problem with Proof-Texting

I have no desire to debate over six passages of Scripture (seven if you count the obscure reference in Jude 7) that are normally brought to bear in these debates.  The problem for me with proof-texting, whether against or in favor of non-heterosexual orientation(s), same-sex marriage, or the ordination of LGBT people, etc., is that sides square off, pick their “canon within the canon” and then attempt to prove their point.  Both sides share a common methodology and generally work from the same assumption about the authority of the texts they have chosen to arbitrate their dispute.  The readings are often flat, with no regard for the socio-historical context of the verses chosen.  And wrenched from their original context they often have nothing to actually say to contemporary situations.

However, it’s worth talking about these passages briefly, sharing some particularly Girardian insights since this is your area and the reason that a lot of folks interact with you on your wall.

Sodom & Gomorrah (Genesis 19)

In 1955, Derick Sherwin Bailey published Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. This was the first scholarly work to challenge the Genesis account of Sodom & Gomorrah as being a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.  (Yep, 1955.)  A fair reading of the story will show that the people of Sodom (translated as “men,” obscuring the gender inclusivity of the chosen word), were actually a lynch mob.  If there was a sexual component to the story (and my own conclusion is that until you’ve done the word study on the use of the Hebrew “yada” meaning “to know” and realize just how infrequently it’s actually used in a sexual way in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s best not to even make that argument), then we’re talking about gang rape at the hands of a mob. This passage should not be included in the debates over homosexuality.

The parallel story of Gibeah, the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19 does have a sexual component… which is definitely characterized as rape.  Yet no one would read the rape of the Levite’s concubine as a blanket prohibition against men and women engaging in sex.

The Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13)

The two passages that prohibit male anal sex in Leviticus are a part of the Holiness Code.  They hinge on two bookend passages in which the author of the HC notes that the practices that are being prohibited were practiced by the inhabitants of the land who were vomited out before the Israelites.  For folks who follow your page, and are interested in Girard, let me propose the following.  When talk runs to purity, and paints one’s enemies as practitioners of a full set of boundary transgressions that include sexual issues (remember, there are also incest taboos, men engaged in sex in what is described as “lying the lyings of a woman,” and bestiality), food taboos, and a host of other prohibitions in this same section, followed by a supernatural account of the purge of this impurity (contagion), are we not looking at what you refer to as a “religion” text rather than a gospel text? While we’re all learning to question things like whether God actually called for a lottery that resulted in the slaughter of Achan and his entire family along with the destruction of all of their property (Joshua 7:1-26) or whether this is indeed the scapegoating mechanism at work shrouded in the myth of divinely sanctioned violence, might we also question whether the Canaanites actually did everything that the Holiness Code laid at their doorstep as the cause of their miraculous expulsion from the land?

[Bonus points for anyone who takes the time to map out the incest taboos and see that it’s perfectly “legal” for an uncle to have sex with his niece as far as Leviticus is concerned.  So we’re not actually talking about codes that map perfectly to our own sensibilities and should never lose sight of that.]

Sodomites (Deuteronomy 23:17; 1 Kings 14:24; 1 Kings 15:12; 1 Kings 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7)

The word sodomite is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word qadesh, which literally means “holy one.” It is a title ostensibly given to the cult priests and (male) prostitutes of the Canaanites. (The corresponding female priestess/prostitute is qadesha.) Several modern translations, including the NIV, have addressed this translation inaccuracy.

Over the past several years, the entire idea of cult prostitution (both male and female) among the Canaanites has been called into question.  For research that’s been around since 1975, see “Cultic Prostitution in the Ancient Near East? A Reassessment” by Eugene Fisher, published in Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 1976 6:225-236.  For more recent scholarship (2008), check out Stephanie Budin’s The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity.

Same-sex Lust (Romans 1)

Michael, you’ve given details on your wall on many occasions for Douglas Campbell’s reading of Romans.  The gist of Campbell’s argument is that the first four chapters of Romans are read in other “voices” than Paul’s own, presenting two views that he will subsequently discredit as he lays out his own reading of the Gospel.  The view in Romans 1 is not Paul’s.

[Incidentally, reading this passage at face value as a child was not only responsible for my own fear when I figured out I was gay at the age of 15.  It was also the same passage that taught me that people who’d never heard of Jesus could still look at the creation and figure out that there must be a God and that this would be to their salvation.  I’m much happier with my hope of universal salvation in my adult life, but let us not digress too far…]

More broadly, Romans 1 is rhetorical trap, set to lure a set of primarily Jewish Christians into a false sense of security as the speaker recounts the idolatry and subsequent fall into pagan practices (including same-sex acts) as divine punishment for the original sin of worshiping the created rather than the creator.  The whole point of this chapter is to point at an “other” (in this case, pagan gentiles) and their transgressions… only to turn the tables in Romans 2 where those who took such glee in hearing the sins of those in chapter 1 are brought under the same condemnation.

But moreover, as I mentioned with the Holiness Code, I really think that we should stop and take a second look when a rhetorical argument claims that our enemies are transgressors of various taboos and sets up an us-vs-them dichotomy.  Again, from a Girardian perspective, this is the invisible hand of the scapegoating mechanism that sets up an “other” over and against whom we are able to establish our identity, rather than forming a positive identity in pacific mimesis of Christ.

For anyone who is interested, I have actually written an essay on Romans 1 that explores the language for “against nature” as used in the initial occurrence, comparing it to subsequent descriptions of what is natural and unnatural in Romans and showing that an attentive audience would have noticed two other things that are “unnatural” in that book: (1) the divine mandate to circumcise the naturally uncircumcised penis and (2) God’s own unnatural act of grafting the wild olive branch (the gentiles) into the cultivated olive tree (the Jews).  If you’re interested, you can read it here: Of Olive Trees and Unnatural Acts.

The Effeminate/Male Prostitutes and Abusers of Themselves with Mankind or Homosexual Offenders (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10)

Two words appear in one of Paul’s vice lists: arsenokoitē and malakos.  [These are the dicitionary forms in the nominative singular rather than how they actually appear in the text.]  Arsenokoitē is a word that Paul appears to have coined himself, taking two words in the Greek Septuagint translation of Leviticus 20:13 (arsen, “male”; koitē, “bed”) and putting them together.  This gives strong support (in my opinion) for seeing the etymology as being related to the Levitical passages above.  However, we don’t actually know what it means.  The word is repeated once again in the deutero-Pauline 1 Timothy (without the complement of malakos).  Yale NT scholar Dale B. Martin has written an essay entitled, “Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences,” found in his book Sex and the Single Savior in which he discusses the possibility of this word referring to an economic crime (e.g., pimping young men).

Further Reading

This is the bulk of the biblical proof-texting brought to bear on this issue.  But in order to understand what’s going on, one needs to understand constructions of sexuality in the ancient contexts in which these texts were written.  For this I recommend four further books:

Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective by Martti Nissinen covers the context of ancient Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman period.

One Hundred Years of Homosexuality by David Halperin explores the Greek citizen’s various sexual encounters with his wife, prostitutes, his servants (both male and female), and (male) youths.  It is helpful in seeing that the ancient Greek context was quite different from our own.

Halperin’s second book on this topic, How to do the History of Homosexuality, goes on to explore four classical categories of same-sex desire that do not easily map onto modern categories.  Among these is the classical definition of malakos, the word mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault gives an account of the rise of modern understandings of sexuality.  It’s very important to realize that the word homosexual did not exist before the rise of the psychiatric and modern medical professions.  For this reason, any modern translation of the bible that includes the word “homosexual” is reading a new concept anachronistically back into an ancient text.

Other arguments that I’m not really up for:

Plumbing arguments are not very convincing for me because they generally imply that the sexual activity between a man and a woman are limited to genitals.  I have no interest in another person’s sex life, but this does imply a certain lack of creativity. We as humans have lots of orifices and lots of digits.  Unless you’re into the strict “Insert Tab A into Slot B” argument, then it’s rather disingenuous to say that this is the way things were meant to be.

Propagation of the Species
True, same-sex activity doesn’t make babies.  True, lots of opposite-sex activity doesn’t either.  Also true, there are nearly 7 billion people on the planet. Unless we all suddenly stop engaging in procreative sex, then it’s highly unlikely that the other activities are going to significantly impact the population.

In the 80s and 90s, a great deal of damage was done by a man named Paul Cameron who produced reports still quoted at length today by opponents of homosexuality.  [You can look him up online.] Some of the statistics included the average life expectancy of a gay man to be 39, wild reports of thousands of sexual partners, and common involvement in scatological activity.  Cameron’s credentials from the American Psychological Association were stripped and several other organizations have released statements distancing themselves from him.  Yet his statistics are still used regularly in certain religious circles to paint incredible pictures of sexual debauchery among homosexual men.  His methodologies have been called into question and I for one have never met a single gay man who fits the lifestyle that Cameron paints.

Aside from Cameron’s reports, there are scenes from gay pride parades, Queer as Folk, and a host of other images that show a plurality of “lifestyles” that many people find uncomfortable or disturbing.  I think these have to be taken on an individual basis, rather than painting all people with the same brush.  I further think that there’s a need for rethinking sexual ethics in such a way as to question many of the assumptions that folks bring to the table.  But that’s outside of the scope of this note.

Some Final Words

Here’s a link for a great essay I recently read that claims that many Christians seem to be more concerned these days with sexuality than with the Gospel or the primary tenets of the Christian faith: http://spiritualfriendship.org/2015/02/06/gay-or-nay-a-question-of-identity/

It is very easy to get caught up in a mimetic contagion that places right belief about homosexuality above the gospel.  If feelings about this particular topic run so high for me or for my conversation partners that they obscure the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, then we’ve really missed the point.

Second, some folks even on your wall have claimed that arguments from silence are not strong enough to change longstanding Christian teaching on same-sex sexual acts.  And I tend to agree.  However, if we can see the arguments that have been made in scripture for what they are: gang rape and abuse, the allegation of sexual impropriety as an element of idolatry, economic exploitation, and so on, there are parallels for all of these categories in the opposite-sex sexual acts mentioned (and alleged) in the bible.

Some folks wish that there was a positive example of a same-sex couple in the bible.  And some have even pointed in that direction.  For example, the Roman centurion and his boy [Greek pais] whom Jesus cured of the fever.  But truth be known, the sort of same-sex, loving relationships that are the subject of today’s debates around marriage equality are a recent phenomenon.  Views of sexuality during the period in which the bible was written were hierarchical.  A man penetrated an inferior.  (As the pais would be in a sexual relationship with an older, established man.)  In the best case scenario for the Hebrews and for early Christians alike, that was a husband and a wife.  A penetrated man was a problem, because with his penetration came a loss of status.  [And that has Girardian implications as well in the realm of taboos.]  So we’re not going to find the positive examples in the bible, a text in travail, that was written through the lenses of cultures that couldn’t yet conceive of a loving, equal, same-sex couple.

I’m running out of steam for now, so let this post serve as a starting point for conversation.  However, unlike you, I don’t have the boundless energy to engage lots of people on Facebook.  🙂  So it may be some time before I’m able to say more on this matter…

In the meantime, folks may wish to check some other links:

Here are some essays I wrote when I was trying to figure out my own sexuality.  They are written from that earlier point of view I described, where proof-texting is the way to deal with the scriptures.  But I’m not really at this point any more…

A Girardian reading of the Gerasene/Gadarene demoniac

A recent encounter with the story of the Prodigal Son as heard through my ears

Hopefully this is helpful…

Peace out,