Did you know that, in ancient mid-East society, where Israel lay, it was common for military men to establish deep and faithful friendships with each other—friendships which were so deep that, in truth, the men were lovers?
Did you know that, in the ancient society out of which our Hebrew Bible emerged, women had their own world, separate from though dominated by men? And that, in this world, women often offered each other support and affection, including sexual intimacy?
Did you know that, in the ancient society out of which our Christian Bible emerged, Roman householders would regularly establish sexual relationships with their male slaves?
It was commonplace, and no one raised an eyebrow. It was what it was.
So now listen to 1 Samuel 18:1-4, which describes what happened when David first came to Court—David, who would go on to slay Goliath and become King of the Israelites. He met Jonathan, the current King’s son. And sparks flew. As the Bible says, “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David…. Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” Clearly, Jonathan and David were military men, and an intense relationship between them started. A sexual one? Well, just listen to what David says in 2 Samuel 1:26 upon the death of Jonathan: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” There’s more going on here than simple friendship, folks…
Or now listen to the story of Ruth and Naomi, as Daniel Helminiak, Roman Catholic priest and biblical scholar, describes it: “The Book of Ruth relates the very unusual commitment between the Jewish woman Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. After the death of Ruth’s husband, in contrast to the customs of the day and unlike her sister-in-law, widowed Ruth remains with Naomi. Ruth declares to Naomi, ‘Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there I will be buried.’” Here again: more is going on than simple friendship.
And then this: listen: In both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we read of a Centurion at whose household a servant lies paralyzed and suffering. The Centurion goes before Jesus and begs him to come. He speaks of his authority over his servants and uses the word “doulos” which is the generic term for servant. But, very curiously, when he refers to the specific paralyzed and suffering servant for whom he’s going through all sorts of trouble, the word used is “pais” in combination with “entimos” meaning “my lover” who is “very valuable and dear.” “The most likely explanation of the Centurion’s behavior,” says Daniel Helminiak, “is that the young slave was the Centurion’s sexual partner. Undoubtedly,” he goes on, “Jesus was aware of such things. He was not dumb. He knew what was going on around him. So this seems to be a case where Jesus actually encountered a loving homosexual relationship.” And how did that encounter turn out? He praised the Centurion’s faith and he healed his young lover. No condemnation. Not one whiff of it.
Now, hold on to all of this on one hand while, on the other, we revisit Brian Murphy from our video today. His story of the first time he looked up homosexuality in the Bible. He grabbed his Bible off the bookshelf, he closed his bedroom door, he sat cross-legged on the floor and opened directly to the index. His finger traced down the page. He found the word. Homosexuality. He says, “Even looking at the word was terrifying. There were five pages listed. I flipped to the first one. It wasn’t a specific verse but rather a lesson box in my teen study Bible.” And that lesson box repeats the idea that homosexuality is a choice, and a sinful one at that. He keeps looking, “But it’s more of the same. Homosexuality is a sin. Gay people are choosing to live in sin.” He closes his Bible. He says, “I don’t know what to do. There it is written on the page. Crystal clear. […] Who I like is sinful, who I love is sinful. Who I am is sinful. Where could I possibly go from here?”
The underlying pain of that question is unbearable.
In response to such heartbreaking hurt, religious conservatives and fundamentalists often like to say, “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” They say that, to try to ease up on the judgmentalism. But it makes no sense at all when you’re talking about sexual orientation. Act and person are merged. Daniel Halminiak again: “Sexuality means much more than physical arousal and orgasm. Attached to a person’s sexuality is the capacity to feel affection, to delight in someone else, to get emotionally close to another person, to be passionately committed…. Sexuality is at the core… [So, to] have to be afraid to feel sexual … is to short-circuit human spontaneity in a whole array of expressions—creativity, motivation, passion, commitment, heroic achievement. It is to be afraid of part of one’s own deepest self.”
Brian Murphy knows exactly what I’m talking about. How many here know this as well: what it’s like to be afraid of your own deepest self? To say, in despair, “Where could I possibly go from here?”
All this is on the other hand. On one hand, we have Bible stories that, seen through the lens of history, tell of loving same-sex relationships without blinking an eye. But on the other hand, we have a Bible index that points to certain passages which are combined with lesson boxes, and in these lesson boxes are interpretations that converge on one idea: homosexuality is depraved. And because the Bible has such authority in our culture, the result is people like Brian Murphy who feel stuck in an evil that they can’t possibly escape because it’s who they are. The result is 30% of teenage suicides coming from the gay youth population. The result is a larger culture of hatred towards gays and lesbians (not to mention trans folks) which is NOT softened by statements like “hate the sin and love the sinner” and in fact relentlessly inflicts murder and terror and injustice and, in short, does the exact EXACT opposite of what Jesus did to the Centurion two thousand years ago.
How do we understand the existence of what’s on the two hands? How did that happen? Where do we go from here?
“I don’t know,” says Brian Murphy in the video today, “but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not seeing the whole story, that even though it seems so black and white on the page, there must be some shades of grey that I’m not seeing. There must be some explanation–there must be!”
And there is.
Let me start with some illustrations, which will take us to the explanation.
What if I were to describe a mutual friend—let’s call him Reggie—as a space cadet, and someone hearing that went on to conclude that Reggie must be a NASA astronaut?
But that’s not right—and so I try to clarify. I say, “Listen, what I’m trying to say is that Reggie is out there in left field!” But in reply, the person starts looking around for an actual field and for Reggie, who they think can be found standing on the left hand side of it.
What’s happening here? Simply this: our thinking goes haywire—our actions go off point—when our interpretation of words is literalistic. Things go wrong when we forget about colloquialism and culture and context. Being a space cadet has nothing to do with working at NASA and everything to do with loopiness. Being out in left field has nothing to do with where you are standing and everything to do with loopiness. I’m saying that Reggie is loopy—that and only that!
The reason why we have the existence of two hands—the Bible on both, but on the one homosexuality is affirmed and, on the other, it’s hated—is that lots of people still haven’t absorbed the message of one of our spiritual ancestors from almost 200 years ago: William Ellery Channing. In his sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” he said something new about how to read the Bible: take history and culture in consideration. Here’s how Channing put it: “We find,” he says, “that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.” Maybe the Holy Spirit did breath inspiration into the writers of scripture, but Channing insisted that “a knowledge of their feelings, and of the influences under which they were placed, is one of the preparations for understanding their writings.” Without this, you just can’t be faithful to the Bible. The result is disaster. We apply Bible insights to our day recklessly, ignoring the fact that what the Bible writers are talking about may be very different or even absolutely different from the present concern on our minds. Or we overlay present meanings onto the past. We read into the Bible our own agendas and interests and standards and make it kill when its proper function is to give life.
Channing once said, “We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible.” It’s true.
And unfortunately, it’s the folks who write the lesson boxes in teen study Bibles who aren’t exercising their reason. They just spread ignorance and prejudice. They point out the seven or so passages an all the hundreds of pages of scripture which appear to condemn homosexuality, and they give them a literalistic interpretation. As in, being a space cadet is equivalent to being a NASA astronaut. As in, being out in left field is equivalent to actually standing in an actual field on the actual left hand side. But if you read scripture the way Channing described almost 200 years ago, what happens is all those passages fall apart. We find that none actually say anything about the homosexuality that we Americans talk about today. They talk about male temple prostitution instead; or the Israelite obsession against mixing the wrong kinds of things together; or violations of the ancient hospitality code; or abusive and exploitative relationships. They talk about that and not committed loving same-sex relationships. It’s actually astonishing. When the Biblical basis for hatred towards gays and lesbians is in reality so completely vacuous, it’s amazing to behold the staying power of that hate. It’s amazing to witness how Biblical literalists continue to thunder on.
It is a tragic aspect of our time that there is the one hand, and then there is the other, and it’s hard to know how they might come together. It is equally tragic, that human psychology can make it so hard to change an opposing point of view. Even if you tell me all the true facts about life in ancient Biblical times and how loving homosexual relationships were completely common and accepted, I still might not believe you. Depends on how threatened I feel by you. It depends. If your approach doesn’t meet my psychological needs, there’s going to be a backfire effect and I’m going to cling to my false beliefs even more!
But even if there is no easy solution to this, still, we must not forget the consolation of knowing that, rightly read, the Bible is no enemy to homosexuality. I want all the Brian Murphys in here and out there to know this. “There it is,” he says, “written on the page. Crystal clear. […] Who I like is sinful, who I love is sinful. Who I am is sinful. Where could I possibly go from here?”
And what I say is, it is NOT written on the page. You want to know what’s written on the page? Go to the story of Jonathan and David in the scriptures. Read how “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David.”
Go to the story of Ruth and Naomi, how Ruth said, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there I will be buried.”
Go to the story of Jesus and the Centurion in the scriptures, the Centurion who was so worried about his sick lover. The Centurion went to Jesus and Jesus did nothing to shame him. Jesus did not say, “My Father created them Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.” No. Jesus praised the Centurion, and he healed his lover.
In the face of hatred, in the face of the fire-breathing Bible-thumpers who are 200 years behind the times on how to interpret scripture, just go to Jesus.
Go to where the love is, because I promise, it’s there for you.