He was sobbing not just because he thought he had just done the most evil (sinful) thing he could possibly do, but because it was the thing he had most wanted to do ever since he became a self-conscious being. (Andrew Sullivan, When Plagues End)
Sullivan is describing is a young man’s submission to anal sex on the piers in New York City. He goes on to describe the young man’s conflict, his desire to do something for pleasure, the thought of which has fascinated him since he first became aware of himself as a sexual person. This conflict in the sexual field between doing what is pleasurable and what is sinful has always been a stumbling block for the Christian church and can probably be traced back to the Garden of Eden and the sin of Adam and Eve in covering up their nakedness.
Of course, we should not be deluded ourselves into thinking that the sin of the young man was primarily the sexual act itself. We may be loathe to admit it but what very often makes a sexual act sinful is, essentially the fact that it is pleasurable. A sweeping statement, maybe? Let’s think about it. Until very recent years everything sexual that wasn’t directly pro-creational was regarded as being sinful by the church. Thus masturbation was sinful because it was considered as squandering the male seed. Pre-marital sex was condemned because it was wholly for pleasure, most of the participants wanting to avoid pregnancy if possible. Until recently it was not possible to purchase condoms in the shops in certain Catholic countries because they are designed to prevent procreation thus underlining the solely pleasurable aspect of the sexual union. It’s this “sex for pleasure” that’s being condemned as sin and, as such, it doesn’t matter whether it’s homo- or hetero-sex. This obsession with pro-creational sex can also be found in the Bible. The are many examples of husbands, discovering their wives were barren, and they were in fact expected to commit adultery to provide the necessary offspring for the continuation of the lineage. Very often the “whoring” continued until a male offspring was produced; females were not acceptable as in many other contexts. The question of infidelity being a sin did not seem to be as important as the pro-creational consideration.
Then, who says I sin? Or maybe, rephrasing it, who says what I do is a sin? How do we define sin? The Oxford Dictionary defines sin as the breaking of a divine or moral law so it is not, apparently, just a question of religious belief. It has to do with a moral code as well but in as much as our moral ethics are grounded in our religious beliefs we may conclude that sin appears to be a religious terminology.
So again, “How do we define it?” Is sin temporal or is it “once a sin, always a sin?” We read in Leviticus that the wearing of mixed fabrics is a sin and likewise that a man who lies with another man commits a sin. What mechanism is at work when the fundamentalists completely ignore the former but amplify the latter into a “blanket” condemnation of homosexual relationships? Or is it that the church regards the composition of the fabrics we clothe ourselves with today as non-important as opposed to the ethical code with which we try to live our lives? Of course it should be so; forbidding the mixed fabrics from which our clothes are manufactured is totally irrelevant today. But that hardly justifies our re-interpretation of the Bible to mean that men lying with men is equivalent to the homosexual relationships of our time. After all the word homosexual was “invented” to describe a relationship, not a specific act. And it is, after all, little over 100 years old. The religious fanatics are engaged in an ongoing battle of re-interpretation to define what is acceptable Christian behavior and homosexuality stands in the center of that battlefield.
Then why are homosexuals sinners, and why is their sin so hated by the Christian church? Of course the churches’ pronouncements have become much more nuanced in recent times. The Catholic Church no longer hates the sinner, only the sin. We are entreated to love him but on no account is what he does to be considered as anything other than a sin. But what is the sin of homosexuality? What if this sin was really love? Loving a person of the same gender. What if loving a person was about wanting to care for that person, wanting to live with that person and to share one’s life with that person? What if homosexuality had to do with the nobility and failure of the search for love, intimacy and affection? Are we still willing to condemn it as a sin and deny the homosexual person the capacity for love? Are we loving him when we deny him this, albeit only one, way of expressing his love? Isn’t this need for love, affection and acceptance a universal need that traverses the boundaries of race, wealth, gender and orientation?
The Bishop of Oxford (England) nominated Dr. Jeffrey John, as the new Bishop of Reading. Dr. John admits that he has been living with a man but insists that he has been celibate for 13 years. Because of widespread criticism he was forced to withdraw his name from the list. He did not protest that he is homosexual in as much as he is living with a man instead of a women but where is his sin? It cannot be sexual as he is celibate so there is only one alternative. His sin is that he loves a man and has made it known. That is probably his biggest sin. If he had not lived with this man and had remained silent about his love there would have been no protests. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Isn’t this in fact an impossibility? Isn’t it the presumed sin of these two men living together that is hated?
In my 20s I shared an apartment with a friend for four years. We were going to College together. We moved in the same circle of friends and we often went to the theatre and the opera in London together. We shared, in fact, for economic reasons, our lives together for the duration. Yes, I loved him. I didn’t realize it at the time and neither did he so we never expressed our affection for each other apart from an occasional hug. The realization of my love for him came long after we had parted company so the question is – Was it sinful to love him? Jesus said to his disciples that they were His friends and commanded them to love each other as He loved them. What is sinful about the love that I felt for my friend? How can the love of one man for another be a sin? Where is the sin? The fact that I found him attractive and pleasurable to live with and associate with, how did that make our relationship sinful? But of course in the eyes of the Church in the ’50s (England) it was wrong but only because no one would believe that I could have lived with my friend without having done one of those unspeakable things that homosexuals do with each other.
To repeat the question, what is sinful about homosexuality? It can only be that it is the love itself that is sinful. But this begs the question as to whether we have any control over who we fall in love with. A great many marriages, in the past, were opposed on the grounds that the parents thought the prospective bride and groom to be unsuited because of differences in race, color, ethnic background, class or even wealth but today these reasons are more unlikely to be heeded by the parties involved. These reasons for attempting to prevent what we may term mixed marriages are temporal. What we can hope is that the opposition that we now experience to same-gender unions will prove to be a temporal phenomenon just as our definition of sin is temporal, since such a union affords two human beings a way, albeit the most important one, to express their love for each other.
This poses yet another question. Is the love which one man feels for another of lesser quality than the love between a man and a woman? I fear that in the eyes of the fundamentalists it is, and there we have come to an impasse. But we should ask, maybe why, in what way, the love of a man for another man differs, aside the sexual aspect, with love of a man for a woman. Many married couples are prevented from having a sexual relationship because of physical incapacity but they remain together as lovers and their relationship is not considered inferior as such. Then why is the love between two men regarded as inferior? The argument revolves in a circle because we arrive back where we commenced our discussion. It’s sex, again. It’s those unspeakable things we do in private that cannot be tolerated. Sooner or later we will have to define what ‘love’ is. Can it ever be bad? Why is its quality dependent on the object of gratification? Can it ever be a sin to be loved by some one and to reciprocate their love?
The Christian church has a history of protest against the ways human beings have ordered their lives together, and this has always been grounded in the Bible. But it has always been capable of pragmatism enabling it to re-interpret the meaning of the Word of God, especially when it’s a question of what is sin, in favor of humanity and love. We pray that history will repeat itself.