Stories are powerful, but not all stories withstand the test of time -and not all stories should. Think of the story of The Giving Tree by the great Shel Silverstein. At one point in time, it was perfectly okay in the eyes of white U.S. society for the boy (and later, man) in that story to take everything from the tree until the tree was nothing but a stump in the ground, and even then, the man found a use for the stump — to sit on it.
Growing up this story was like an extra book of the Bible, one that we read in public school and at home before bed. I was taught to marvel at the kindness and generosity of the tree — it gave and gave of itself to help another. I don’t remember where or from whom this interpretation was handed on to me, but the tree was the ideal mother — she gave and gave of herself to help the little boy. How sweet, right?
While white U.S. society taught me to value these characteristics, and to even see this story as a parable of sorts, it is deeply problematic. At this point, the conservative side of my family might start to roll their eyes: “there he goes again with the ‘liberal agenda’ (whatever that is).” Perhaps you’ve got a slight eye roll coming or you know someone who would respond similarly. But hear me out — they’ve started to. As I said above, stories are powerful; stories shape the lens through which we interpret the world. When we, and here I mean we white men, are taught to expect this of our mothers, it shapes the way we interact with women and the earth.
We’ve been conditioned, by other white men, to take and take — particularly from women and especially from women of color — and this behavior is reinforced through stories like The Giving Tree that unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) perpetuate the patriarchy — the system that values men over all others.
We’re also taught from this story that nature, like ideal mothers, is there for us, to serve us and provide for whatever we need. If white U.S. society had popular stories about caring for the earth and making sure that our relationships with each other were reciprocal and guided by care for one another, then we probably would not be in this present situation of a climate and moral crisis.
Stories alone aren’t responsible for this devastation, but they are an integral part of it. And stories are an integral part of how we’ll face these challenges and overcome them.
Another story that demands accountability is the story of Queer people and the Bible. Like The Giving Tree, the Bible has been used to justify harm against others: women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Unlike The Giving Tree, however, fundamentalist Christians believe that the text of the Bible itself specifically condemns same-sex intercourse, and their interpretation of this story has shaped societies for the last few centuries.
Queer people have been regarded as sexually “deviant,” sinners, evildoers, and the list goes on… And all because of one interpretation of a story.
But when I read the Bible, and when I study the original languages and the teachings of the early church, I don’t see this interpretation anywhere. Let me say that again: No early church leader (Augustine, Jerome — you name it) interpreted the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the other five texts fundamentalists use, as stories that condemn gay people or same-sex intercourse.
Neither does the ancient Hebrew language or Greek language have a word that describes loving same-sex intercourse or same-gendered partners. We’ll get to what the text does say in a second, but I believe it’s past time that we reclaim the Bible from fundamentalists and disarm the harmful interpretation of the text through solid study, compassion, and an eye to the infinite love of God.
For a thorough examination of what each of the “clobber passages” (passages used against LGBTQIA+ folks) says and doesn’t say, take a look at Chapter Two of my book, Reclaiming Church. One can also look among the 25 years of Bible scholarship on Whosoever for a wealth of information concerning these passages.
However, for now, I’ll start with the word abomination, which follows the actions listed in Leviticus 18:22 and elsewhere. “Abomination” in English is a translation of the Hebrew word toevah, and when the early Christians were reading the Greek translation of this word, it was bdelugma, which means ritual uncleanness.
Almost every time bdelugma is used in the Bible it’s referring to an act of idol worship.
In the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), there are fifty-nine places where the worship of other gods is called an “abomination.” How could these two verses [Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13] be the exception? The point is, in both biblical languages, the sin in Leviticus is an act connected to idol worship — not a type of person who is inherently evil. (Reclaiming Church, p. 57)
This is the truth, as I understand it, from the Biblical stories, and it’s time we reclaim it. No longer shall the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah or Leviticus or Romans perpetuate anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiments.
We are reclaiming them, and they once again shall shape us into a people who do not turn away the stranger, who value love in all its diverse manifestations, and who condemn exploitative sexual practices, such as those condemned in 1 Corinthians. May our reclaiming of these stories participate in the reshaping of this world into a more just one.
Preacher, public theologian, advocate and author J.J. Warren is currently earning his master of divinity degree at Boston University School of Theology and is a certified candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. After making an impassioned plea for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons at the UMC’s top law-making assembly, J.J.’s speech went viral, and his advocacy has been covered by news outlets around the globe. Today, J.J. travels to churches across the country spreading a message of radical love and forward progress. In 2020, J.J. founded Young Prophets Collective, a non-profit that focuses on equipping young queer leaders and allies to speak prophetically against injustices.