How many times have we heard that homosexuality is a sin because of “what the Bible says?” The implication is that their objection to homosexuality is simply the result of a face-value reading of the Bible. The implication is that prejudice had nothing to do with this interpretation — there it is in black and white: homosexuality is a sin. But the truth is that anti-gay interpretations of certain passages come from a prejudice born of an anti-gay society, not an innocuous “plain-sense” reading of biblical texts.
This fact was powerfully demonstrated when I was debating homosexuality and the Bible with someone. I told a Bible literalist very clearly that I did not believe that homosexuality was wrong. They opened their Bible to the usual clobber passages, and spouted off those worn-out clichés about how gay Christians want to just change God’s Word to suit their lifestyle.
I then took their Bible and turned to Colossians 3:22, and read, “slaves in all things submit to those who are your earthly masters.” I flipped a few pages down and read 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves submit to your masters, not only those who are good and gentle, but also the perverse [ones].” I pointed out that these passages not only condone slavery, but they command slaves to be obedient to their masters — even perverse ones! Then, I also pointed out that if we take these Bible verses at face value, all those black slaves that ran away from their masters on the Underground Railroad violated biblical commands! Also, when Fredrick Douglass beat the tar out of his master (according to his autobiography), it was a sin! They started huffing and puffing more than the Big Bad Wolf. To make a long story short, after a lot of hemming and hawing, they had to admit that I gave them something to think about.
This scenario can be repeated with numerous biblical passages that have fallen out of favor with right-wing Christians. For instance, Romans 13 clearly says that resistance to governing authority is equivalent to rebellion against God. But how many Christians are going to say that the founders of the United States sinned by rebelling against Britain (a governing authority)? See the hypocrisy? Passages that anti-gay Christians don’t want to take literally, they don’t take literally; ones that they do, they do. They pick and choose; and because of a hatred for homosexuality, which stems from society, not divine inspiration, they have chosen to take anti-gay passages literally.
One of the most dangerous ideas among gay Christians is the notion that the “religious right” or reactionary religious ideas are the main cause for anti-gay sentiments. Even the most superficial observations show that this concept is totally fallacious. So-called “communist” countries (China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, etc.) have anti-gay policies that would be too draconian even for people like Jesse Helms. Yet, all of these states at one time, or currently, impose state-sponsored atheism. Britain is far more secular than the United States, yet Thatcher’s government was able to launch a devastating offensive on gays in the 1980s — and many anti-gay laws, including laws banning the teaching of homosexuality, are still on the books. The social forces that produce heterosexism exist and interact independently of the Church, and anti-gay Christians are using the Bible to support sentiments that would exist anyway. If the United States were a more secular country heterosexism would take a different, more secular form.
Many theologians have spent countless hours in an attempt to explain what the Bible “really” says about homosexuality — knit-picking at certain passages, so that the anti-gay sentiments can be excised. This work has its place, but it’s almost as if many think that the merits of one’s theological arguments alone will decide whether or not the church accepts gays. The reality is more prosaic: theology, and by extension biblical interpretation, is profoundly affected by the culture in which it is immersed. The idea that theology exists in a bubble and is isolated from social forces is a dangerous myth. As we can see with Romans 13, or passages that concern slavery, as social forces change, the way that certain Bible verses are understood eventually passes away to obscurity. As society becomes more accepting of different expressions of sexuality, the way that certain passages are understood will also fade away. But this will depend on the success of the gay and lesbian movement in the streets.
Brian Rainey is a rising junior at Brown University majoring in Religious Studies. He hopes to attend seminary after graduation.