We’ve a lot to celebrate this pride season. The Irish have voted to extend marriage to same-sex couples, Greenland too, and across the US anti-gay laws have been droping like alcopopsicles in the sun – with the highlight being the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
It’s not all bread and roses. In Kenya LGBTI asylum seekers are being stoned and poisoned with threats of ‘we are going to drink your blood’.
One Belizean man’s life has been made hell for standing up against his country’s persecutory laws. While across the border in Mexico City two men can tie the knot with the full sanction of the state.
Some of equality’s most vocal opponents have been Christian churches and organizations. Right-wing evangelicals, Orthodox patriarchs, African bishops maintain the Bible is intrinsically anti-homosexual.
They say it clearly condemns homosexuality as a sin, an abomination, even that Jesus hated gays. But do the Biblical sources say these things?
In the tens of thousands of verses that make up the Bible, ‘homosexuality’ is, for the sake of argument, mentioned six times.
These brief but much quoted passages are by no means clear and would have been lost amid the enormity of wider Biblical narratives were it not for a determined anti-homosexual agenda.
First up, there’s the conflation of homosexuals with ‘Sodomites’, the inhabitants of the city of Sodom destroyed by God in Genesis. Early Church commentators, such as the fourth century Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, interpreted Sodom’s sin to be specifically homosexual acts, which, incidentally, he believed were ‘worse than murder’.
Yet whenever Sodom’s actually mentioned in the Bible it’s only in the context that the Sodomites, suspicious of strangers, sought to do violence towards them. It was that breech of the laws of hospitality that made God send the thunderstorm to end all thunderstorms.
Passages in Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Paul’s first letter to the Romans routinely get trotted out as evidence of God’s murderous intent.
But the surprising truth is that early Christian translators of the Bible sexed up these texts. They inserted, omitted and mistranslated words and phrases in order to bulk up a case for persecution.
A recent translation of Deuteronomy reads ‘there shall be no… sodomite of the sons of Israel’. But the original Hebrew does no such thing. It referred to something like ‘sacred male prostitutes’ – men who engaged in orgiastic sex rituals with people of either sex among Israel’s non-Jewish neighbors.
So is Deuteronomy a sort of tabloid press raving about foreigners and their foreign ways?
Leviticus 18.22 has always been the great stumbling block for Christians. Translations such as ‘[y]ou shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination’ sometimes get cited as the principal purpose of the whole of Scripture.
Scott Lively – homophobia’s current patron saint – maintains: ‘From Genesis to Revelations, the Bible teaches that homosexuality is not “just another sin”. It is a symbol of extreme rebellion against God and harbinger of his wrath.’
Strictly speaking, Pastor Lively, the Hebrew reads ‘[y]ou shall not lie with a male on the bedding of a wife; it is a despised thing’. Quite right too, shagging your boyfriend on your wife’s bed would be bad form!
Besides, it’s said that Leviticus defines a series of dos and don’ts for a particular class of Hebrews, the Levites or priestly caste, so it shouldn’t be read as a general formula.
This single verse lies amid a host of dietary prescriptions and other examples of ‘unclean’ or forbidden behavior, including the eating of shellfish (abomination) and the enslavement of neighboring people (permissible).
And that’s it for the Old Testament.
The only source of anti-homosexual rhetoric in the New Testament is the writings of Paul, specifically the first letter to the Corinthians and, more extensively, Romans I.
The Gospels are, crucially, silent on the matter.
The Greek text of Corinthians says that ‘the corrupt, and men who lie with men’ will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
But a version in Aramaic, a language commonly spoken among Jews and Gentiles in the Middle East, reads ‘the corrupted, and those who rape men’, a significant reversion. Most likely, Paul was condemning coercive same-sex acts not homosexuality.
Romans is, on first reading, more problematic in that it denounces women who ‘changed their natural use’ and men who are ‘ravished with desire for one another’. But context is everything as the passage relates to the punishment of people who had abandoned the one God in favor of an animal-headed throng.
Let’s face it, Paul was a misery and likely had in his sights devotees of various racy cults, who engaged in that old Biblical bother ‘ritual prostitution’.
As these cults formed a significant threat to Christianity in the early centuries, Paul was warning his flock against them. Even John Chrysostom, whose homophobia borders on hysteria, suggested Paul wasn’t speaking of men who were ‘enamored of, or lusted after one another’ but those who made a ‘business of it’.
Put simply, modern Christian homophobia is based on manipulations of the original Bible
But what about positive Biblical accounts of same-sex relations, like the love between David and Jonathan? And is Christ entirely silent on the issue?
Well these too were subject to textual revision in Greek and Latin translations to play down their significance or render them ‘Platonic’.
Among the old glass of Canterbury Cathedral in England is a scene showing Christ leading the people towards the Church. A pagan idol, nude, male, marvelous, beckons the entirely male crowd. Several turn back to admire his gym-buff body.
When I first came across this, I realized that, brought up in the Christian tradition in a Catholic family, something terrible had been done to me and my kind in the name of Christ.
My experiences have been mild, compared with others around the globe. One Ugandan LGBTI activist who suffered unspeakable tortures has said: ‘Growing up in Uganda as a lesbian was scary… On a regular basis, you’d hear things like, “Being gay is a sin, it’s disgusting, who does that?! Kill them, all of them are a waste of space.”’
The Gospels’ silence cannot be construed as ‘being gay is a sin’. It doesn’t mean Jesus hates gays. As the Canterbury glass shows, it was anxiety over the old religions and their comfortable relationship with sex and sexuality that prompted the early church fathers.
So they turned to drafting Imperial edicts which, by the end of the fourth century, had effectively criminalized same-sex relationships, including same-sex marriage, to one of the worst crimes in history.
Stamp out same-sex love and you’ll stamp out rival cults.
For centuries this dogma has triumphed over truth, the alterations to the original Biblical texts became the word of God, and that forgery is still being used to persecute LGBTI people from Moscow to Mombasa.
What I’ve shown here is in many ways unchallengeable. I’m sure some will persist in their perverse readings; it’s up to them to justify a hatred that has no basis in their faith.
But the truth is something richer and more compelling. We know that.