Editor’s note:Â Daniel A. Helminiak, who was ordained a priest in Rome, is a theologian, psychotherapist and author ofÂ “What the BibleÂ ReallyÂ Says about homosexuality”Â and books on contemporary spirituality. He is a professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia.
ByÂ Daniel A. Helminiak, Special to CNN
May 15, 2012
President Barack Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, like blood in the water, has conservative sharks circling for a kill. In a nation that touts separation of religion and government, religious-based arguments command this battle. Lurking beneath anti-gay forays, you inevitably find religion and, above all, the Bible.
We now face religious jingoism, the imposition of personal beliefs on the whole pluralistic society. Worse still, these beliefs are irrational, just a fiction of blind conviction. Nowhere does the Bible actually oppose homosexuality.
In the past 60 years, we have learned more about sex, by far, than in preceding millennia. Is it likely that an ancient people, who thought the male was the basic biological model and the world flat, understood homosexuality as we do today? Could they have even addressed the questions about homosexuality that we grapple with today? Of course not.
Hard evidence supports this commonsensical expectation. Taken on its own terms, read in the original languages, placed back into its historical context, the Bible is ho-hum on homosexuality, unless – as with heterosexuality – injustice and abuse are involved.
That, in fact, was the case among the Sodomites (Genesis 19), whose experience is frequently cited by modern anti-gay critics. The Sodomites wanted to rape the visitors whom Lot, the one just man in the city, welcomed in hospitality for the night.
The Bible itself is lucid on the sin of Sodom: pride, lack of concern for the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:48-49); hatred of strangers and cruelty to guests (Wisdom 19:13); arrogance (Sirach/Ecclesiaticus 16:8); evildoing, injustice, oppression of the widow and orphan (Isaiah 1:17); adultery (in those days, the use of another man’s property), and lying (Jeremiah 23:12).
But nowhere are same-sex acts named as the sin of Sodom. That intended gang rape only expressed the greater sin, condemned in the Bible from cover to cover: hatred, injustice, cruelty, lack of concern for others. Hence, Jesus says “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31); and “By this will they know you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
How inverted these values have become! In the name of Jesus, evangelicals and Catholic bishops make sex the Christian litmus test and are willing to sacrifice the social safety net in return.
The longest biblical passage on male-male sex is Romans 1:26-27: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”
The Greek termÂ para physinÂ has been translatedÂ unnatural; itÂ should readÂ atypicalÂ orunusual. In the technical sense, yes, the Stoic philosophers did useÂ para physinÂ to mean unnatural, but this term also had a widespread popular meaning. It is this latter meaning that informs Paul’s writing. It carries no ethical condemnation.
Compare the passage on male-male sex to Romans 11:24. There, Paul applies the termÂ para physinÂ to God. God grafted the Gentiles into the Jewish people, a wild branch into a cultivated vine. Not your standard practice! An unusual thing to do — atypical, nothing more. The anti-gay “unnatural” hullabaloo rests on a mistranslation.
Besides, Paul used two other words to describe male-male sex:Â dishonorableÂ (1:24, 26) andÂ unseemlyÂ (1:27). But for Paul, neither carried ethical weight. In 2 Corinthians 6:8 and 11:21, Paul says that even he was held inÂ dishonorÂ — for preaching Christ. Clearly, these words merely indicate social disrepute, not truly unethical behavior.
In this passage Paul is referring to the ancient Jewish Law: Leviticus 18:22, the “abomination” of a man’s lying with another man. Paul sees male-male sex as an impurity, a taboo, uncleanness — in other words, “abomination.” Introducing this discussion in 1:24, he says so outright: “God gave them up … to impurity.”
But Jesus taught lucidly that Jewish requirements for purity — varied cultural traditions — do not matter before God. What matters is purity of heart.
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” reads Matthew 15. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Or again, Jesus taught, “Everyone who looks at a women with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Jesus rejected the purity requirements of the Jewish Law.
In calling it unclean, Paul was not condemning male-male sex. He had terms to express condemnation. Before and after his section on sex, he used truly condemnatory terms: godless, evil, wicked or unjust, not to be done. But he never used ethical terms around that issue of sex.
As for marriage, again, the Bible is more liberal than we hear today. The Jewish patriarchs had many wives and concubines. David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and Daniel and the palace master were probably lovers.
The Bible’sÂ Song of SongsÂ is a paean to romantic love with no mention of children or a married couple. Jesus never mentioned same-sex behaviors, although he did heal the “servant” —Â pais, a Greek term for male lover — of the Roman Centurion.
Paul discouraged marriage because he believed the world would soon end. Still, he encouraged people with sexual needs to marry, and he never linked sex and procreation.
Were God-given reason to prevail, rather than knee-jerk religion, we would not be having a heated debate over gay marriage. “Liberty and justice for all,” marvel at the diversity of creation, welcome for one another: these, alas, are true biblical values.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel A. Helminiak.
‘One in spirit’: same-sex unions in the Bible
“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, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
This has been aÂ popular Bible readingÂ at Jewish and Christian weddings for thousands of years. Marriage liturgies today still use variations on “until death do us part”.
It is a classic declaration of commitment for life – but what many don’t realise is that it was made between two women, Ruth and Naomi.
Is this an example of a same-sex union in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures? And if yes, so what?
Several countries, including Australia, are debating changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions. Much of the vociferous opposition to change is based on religious belief.
The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney urged his followers last month to “commend the Biblical way of life in our churches and to the community.” His definition of marriage specified “two persons of the opposite sex”.
Scholars now challengeÂ the view that this is the only biblical model. Many no longer believe Scripture condemns all homosexual unions, as the Church has traditionally taught. AndÂ some claimÂ there are indeed approved same-sex relationships in the ancient texts.
Biblical times were not much different from today, they say. There were flamboyant queens, male prostitutes, closet gays and unobtrusive monogamous unions.
Professor of New Testament at Melbourne’s Whitley College Keith Dyer believes “mutually enriching same-sex relationships” were known. But not much is known about them: “Such relationships were kept quiet then, as for many today and especially in the Church.”
The story of Ruth and Naomi, above, comes into frame because of the Hebrew wordÂ dabaqÂ used of their union. That is the key word meaning “to cleave” in thefoundational marriage textÂ in Genesis: “A man shall leave his parents, cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
“Whether there existed aÂ relationship of physical loveÂ between Ruth and Naomi cannot be demonstrated,” writes Middle East scholar Tom Horner. “However, the right words are there.” The story contains the Bible’s second strongest declaration of love and commitment.
The strongest is in the saga of David and Jonathan. This takes up more chapters than any other Scriptural relationship and includes more intimations of intimacy.
We read, “Jonathan becameÂ one in spiritÂ with David, and loved him as himself.” Jonathan “made a covenant with David because he loved him”. Jonathan “took off his robe and gave it to David, along with his tunic, his sword, his bow and his belt”. David took an oath saying, “Your father knows very well that I have found favour in your eyes.”
Jonathan told David, “Whatever you want me to do,Â I’ll do for you.” Jonathan later “made David reaffirm his oath, because he loved him”. And we read that “they kissed each other and wept together”.
Again, no explicit mention of sex. But clues to the author’s intention are in references to the oath, disrobing and, pointedly, the father’s rage atÂ the shame of it all:
Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you?
Finally, after Jonathan’s death, David wrote of Jonathan, “You were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful,Â more wonderful than that of women.”
Tom Horner claims there is little doubt, “except on the part of those who absolutely refuse to believe it”, that this was a homosexual relationship.
A third possibility is Daniel and Ashpenaz. We read in the King James Version that God “brought DanielÂ into favour and tender loveÂ with the prince of the eunuchs”. Just how tender this love was we don’t know. The account is frustratingly brief. Its meaning has been obscured by later translations whichÂ tone downÂ the “tender love” to “compassion” or “sympathy”.
A fourth is the relationship between a centurion and his child “servant” in the New Testament, recorded by Matthew and Luke. Both authors use the Greek wordpaisÂ to describe the relationship with the boy who was “dear to him”. Some who have studied these things believeÂ paisÂ in that context has definiteÂ same-sex intimacy meaning.
Finally, there are several enigmatic Biblical passages about eunuchs – men whose sexuality was different from ‘normal’.
Was this a generic term for LGBTQ people? Some scholars believe so. If true, this refutes the oft-repeated claim that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. Jesus did affirm that “there are eunuchsÂ who were born that way” when teaching about marriage.
We also read anÂ intriguing accountÂ in Acts about a eunuch journeying from Ethiopia who was converted to Christianity and instantly baptised into the new community.
J David Hester claims eunuchs were not celibate and chaste by unfortunate anatomical necessity, “but highly sexual and sexed beings”.
The former academic believes Scriptural references to eunuchs areÂ directly relevantÂ to the current debate:
No matter how you view it, the figure of the eunuch … radically undermines the foundational assumptions used to reinforce the conservative heterosexist reading of the Bible.
Admittedly, these accounts in Scripture are few. But perhaps that should be expected with same-sex and bisexual orientation being minority experiences. And there are no details about actual sex. Again, that should not surprise. There is no reference anywhere in the Bible after the birth of Christ to any married heterosexuals ever having sex either. There was none? Or can we use our imagination?
Progressives within the faith communities do not rely too much on these accounts for validation of their inclusive praxis. They look, rather, at deeper Biblical themes.
These include: all are created in the image of God; we are fearfully and wonderfully made; it is not good for anyone to be alone; life in all its fullness; some are born with different sexuality.
So what of the Biblical references to homosexuality as an abomination? Those passages, progressives claim, condemn coercive, abusive or idolatrous acts – not committed, loving unions.
Amazing variations abound in this extraordinary creation, they say, including in human relationships.
Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist living in NÃ®mes, France. View his full profileÂ here.