Religion has always sought to take a stance on either side of a social issue, especially in the condemnation or acceptance of certain behaviors. Society changes and is changed by religious viewpoints, and has many times overthrown outdated or inhumane practices or beliefs once accepted by a religious institution. In the early days of Christianity, practices such as polygamy and slavery were accepted, while shellfish and round haircuts were condemned in Leviticus’ purity codes. Most modern American Christians are not polygamist slaveholders who boycott lobster, nor do most denominations of Christianity uphold such behavior. Social context constantly changes, as do the issues a religion and society face and are inevitably divided upon. Change, however, does not come without a fight; many religious wars have been fought with words and weapons alike.
Arguably the most divisive issue in modern American Christianity, the war faced today, is the interpretation of homosexuality, and the blessing of same-sex unions. It is justified in Scripture, and its interpretation in a modern context, to bless such a commitment. Doing so is not only including the oppressed in worship and service, but also an indication of the world’s changing social contexts. Mainline Protestant denominations are known for socially liberal stances, but still remain unsure on which side they should fight this war. They should fight for the rights of this oppressed minority, and bless same-sex unions without question.
Opponents of homosexual unions first turn to scripture to back up their argument. Biblical literalists quickly point out Leviticus 20:13, which states, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” This law is one of the many outlined in the Leviticus Purity Codes (Book of Leviticus), which served as a standard of conduct to the ancient Hebrew people. Proponents of homosexual rights and unions argue that Jesus overthrew the Leviticus codes, but whether or not Jesus formally overthrew the code is highly debated among Biblical scholars. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “I have not come to abolish them* but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The book of Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, which was compiled between ten and fifteen years after the Gospel according to Matthew, states exactly the opposite—that Jesus overthrew the existing social laws and regulations. According to Ephesians 2:15-16,
“he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law* with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace”.
The conflicting implications and stories within the Gospel create a situation in which the Bible is used to support both sides of an argument; many Biblical references are proof-texted to support one’s rhetoric. So it goes with support or condemnation of homosexuality. While it is argued that there are no Bible verses plainly allowing homosexuality, there are several which explicitly forbid homosexual acts, as in the laws of Leviticus, or in Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians in which he urges the Corinthian people to strive for a sin-free life. “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
However, a reader of the Bible must take into consideration the social context in which the words were written, and the advancements of civilization ever since. The word homosexuality was first used in the nineteenth century, when scientists of the time, most notably theologian and gay rights activist Dr. Karl Ulrichs, deemed it possible for one to be sexually attracted only to someone of the same gender . Dr. Ulrichs conducted a study on embryology, and discovered that “the sex organs are undifferentiated in the earliest stages of the development of the fetus. By analogy, homosexual desire was just as ‘natural’ as this containment of the opposite sex within the developing embryo…creating a kind of psychic hermaphrodite or half-man: a feminine direction of the sex drive within a masculine sex.” Therefore, the Bible’s so-called condemnation of homosexuality did not possess the backing of science or modern thought. Scripture did not address the questions asked “in light of modern psychosexual relationships.”
In Biblical times, everyone was presumed to be heterosexual, that is, attracted solely to someone of the opposite sex. The goal of sexual intercourse was to procreate, and engaging in intercourse for pleasure was considered sinful and indulgent . The man and woman involved in sex were supposed to be married, and all acts outside of marriage, be they with a man or a woman, were adulterous. In fact, Leviticus prescribes the exact same punishment for adultery with either gender, saying that “They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads”.
Over the course of a millennium, “romance, intimacy, mutuality, and emotional and sexual compatibility have replaced fertility, wealth preservation, and family alliances as the primary justifications for modern marriage.” As in Biblical times, adultery is still considered taboo in most modern contexts. The death penalty is no longer legally implemented, but it is now more a crime of passion against one’s social reputation. The intent of modern marriage is to cohabitate with the person you love, and form a relationship built on physical attraction, emotional compatibility, romance, and happiness for both partners . Marriage creates something greater than the people themselves; homosexual and heterosexual couples are equally capable of fulfilling the cause of marriage. Opponents of gay marriage or civil unions oppose such a commitment because of sexual immorality laid out in the Bible. However, this implies that marriage is only about sexual gratification and eventual procreation. That was the main goal centuries ago, but now human thought has reached a far higher and more complex significance. Modern science, such as surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization, allows infertile or homosexual couples to have a child biologically their own. Others may choose to adopt one of the roughly 250,000 children in the American foster care system , or one of the 135 million orphaned children worldwide . Likewise, the world’s population is approaching eight billion, a number unimaginable in Biblical times. Clearly procreation is not a problem in the world; it is no longer imperative for every couple to have children in order to protect the human race from extinction.
Biblical literalist opponents of same-sex marriage refute arguments based in modern science and philosophy by claiming that the Bible is the absolute, literal will of God, with no room for questioning. God spoke to man from Genesis to Revelations, and what he said is final law. There lie many fallacies in such a rebuttal. Why are there so many differing arguments within the same book? How can every single word be upheld even with every existing contradiction? Most importantly, if God is done talking, why do people feel religious callings and engage in prayer? Perhaps including homosexuals is the new will of God. “As much as some would like…for the world to go back to a simpler time, when ‘men were men and women were women’…this is a new reality, and like it or not, the world has to deal with it.” The Bible was the literal truth in its time, but now its truth must be seen as profoundly true, and not always literally true.
“Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The last three words of this verse pose a difficult question: what exactly was Jesus sent to accomplish? Most Christians share the same basic response, saying faithfully that Jesus came to earth to cleanse humanity of its sin, and as “the way, the truth, and the life” through which one can reach a relationship with God the father. Jesus died on the cross centuries ago, so the basic mission spoken of in Matthew’s gospel has in fact been accomplished. So the Leviticus codes no longer need apply, as humanity has been absolved of sin. That is not to say that we have remained sinless, just that our definition of sin has greatly changed. Some purity codes still apply and are punishable crimes, such as incest and rape . These still apply because they cause at least one person bodily and psychological harm. A baby born as the result of incest often faces severe mental or physical retardation, and victims of incest lose fundamental trust in the assaulting family member. Rape victims often experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and can contract sexually transmitted diseases as a result of unwanted sexual encounters. Capital punishment is extremely rare in many of these cases; incarceration periods of offenders range from a few years to a life sentence. The lessening of punishment is not to say that such heinous crimes have become more acceptable, but rather that a sense of justice has become more inclusive and humane. Homosexuality, once a crime according to Leviticus, causes neither active partner in a loving relationship such bodily and psychological harm. If humanity’s sense of justice has evolved, it is logically justifiable to allow homosexuality, and to allow loving partners to commit to one another in civil unions or marriage.
Another aspect literalist arguments lack is acknowledging that every word of the Bible cannot possibly carry equal weight. Verses can stand alone to support any argument, but the entire meaning of the Bible is never clear. Every interpretation is different yet interrelated. No one can interpret the Bible completely on their own; cultural, social, and personal biases all factor into the individual hermeneutics of Scripture. "Every sect is a certificate that God has not plainly revealed his will to man. To each reader the Bible conveys a different meaning." Even as God spoke the words of the Bible to his prophets, such as Moses and Abraham, the prophets still unknowingly possessed such biases in interpreting God’s words. Likewise, the stories were often passed down orally, so subtle changes inevitably occurred over the span of several generations. Translation is often key in interpretation; sometimes a language has no words that substitute a word in a text’s original language. For example, the original text of 1 Corinthians 6:9 uses two Greek words whose meanings are not directly translatable into English. The Greek word malakos has been loosely translated to mean “effeminate”, supposedly referring to a homosexual man. However, Paul’s letter was directed at pagan temple worshipers who engaged in licentious sexual behavior as a form of worship.
Malakos may have referred to the male prostitutes in the temple, whom indeed exhibited feminine behavior to make themselves more desirable. Arsenokoital is loosely translated as “willing partner” or, in this context, a temple worshiper who engaged in sexual activity with the prostitutes. Both words have been skewed to mean “homosexuals”, or “men who have sex with men”. It is foolish to infer that this letter was directed at all homosexuals; it condemns orgiastic temple worship, not committed and loving relationships between two people of the same gender. “Do we really want to base our condemnation of an entire group of people on a shaky translation of an unknowable Greek word?” asks Bishop Gene Robinson, a Christian advocate of LGTBQ rights, “a reasonable person, not to mention a compassionate Christian, would not.”
God is referred to as “Our Father”, and Christians are thus considered God’s children. Like the paradigm of a parent, God loves his children unconditionally, even despite wrongdoing. It is the mark of Christianity to express that love and show our devotion to God in return. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” , but “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”. The fact that humanity tries is enough to satisfy God. Christians do God’s work on Earth, most notably through service and prayer. Parents love their children’s artwork, even if it is just a bunch of scribbles. The child has tried their best to please their parents, and more than likely the art will go on the refrigerator or be hung on the wall. In the parent’s eyes, the child could be an artist rivaling the work of Van Gogh. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the love is evident no matter what the circumstance. In the end, God is the one to behold the good works of humanity. Will he see the works of a select, discriminatory few, or the work of all his children combined into a truly beautiful masterpiece? How will this generation’s art look on the walls of Heaven?
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Robert Green Ingersoll, as quoted in "Bible Themes and Topics from a Range of Christian Viewpoints." Bible Themes and Topics from a Range of Christian Viewpoints. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 9 Feb. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/christ4.htm>.
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