A Key to Romans 1 – Hiding in Plain Sight

At Bible – thumping Liberal, the straight ally and evangelical Christian Ron Goetz asks a crucially important question:

HOW DO I RECONCILE PAUL WITH MY SUPPORT FOR LGBT FOLKS?

August 27, 2013

I just got an email from Harold, one of my PFLAG friends. He asked the following question.

“How do you reconcile Paul’s words and yet support LGBTs?”

There are several good ways of approaching this question. One way looks at Paul’s specific words, what they mean and don’t mean, and then discover that Paul is not as anti-homosexual as fundamentalists make him out to be. Another way is to look at Paul as a man who was working out his theology, literally, as he went along. Another way is to see how Paul treated other issues of some disagreement, that have been puzzling or unclear to us. Finally, we can look at some of Paul’s own attitudes and interactions, and adopt some of them as our own.

-more at  Bible-Thumping Liberal.

This is important, because Paul’s words in Romans and in Corinthians are the most disturbing of all the Biblical clobber texts for lesbian and gay Christians. The story of Sodom in Genesis should not be troubling at all, as the Bible itself makes clear that the infamous “sin of Sodom” is about injustice, and pride, and has nothing whatever to do with homoeroticism. There are numerous responses to the verses in Leviticus, but the simplest one is just to note that these are part of the Jewish purity laws, like the dietary restrictions, the prohibition on clothing of mixed fibres and shaving one’s beard, and the obligation of male circumcision. As such, they simply do not apply to Christians – as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. The letters of Paul are another matter, less easy to reconcile with our experience of a same – sex affectional orientation.

So, how can we do so? In his post, Goetz goes on, to elaborate on each of these ways of looking at Paul. There is also another, simpler still: the words simply do not mean what they are popularly supposed to mean. I’ve already discussed how this is so for Corinthians, where the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” have been mistranslated as referring to homosexuals. (They don’t). For Romans 1, I suggest that the key is simpler still, hiding in plain sight – in the title. 

This is the letter to the Romans after all.

Hadrian and Antinous
Roman Emperor Hadrian and His Beloved, Antinous

Paul himself was a Roman citizen, and would surely have understood something of how his words would be interpreted. So let’s look at them: Continue reading A Key to Romans 1 – Hiding in Plain Sight

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Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace

Today, the church celebrates the feast of three young men, Shadrack, Mesach and Abednego, the companions of Daniel the prophet: they are important for highlighting a much neglected group in the church – the transgendered.

We are probably all familiar with the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and of his three companions in the burning fiery furnace. What they don’t tell us in Sunday School, is that as slaves captured and taken to service in the king’s court in Babylon they were almost certainly eunuchs – castrated males. This was the standard fate of slaves in the royal court, as Kathryn Ringrose has shown, and as anticipated by Isaiah:

And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.

-Isaiah 39:7
If there is any group more likely to have the bible-pumping conservatives frothing at the mouth more than gay and lesbian Christians, perhaps it is the trans community. Yet this is entirely misplaced, as Isaiah makes clear elsewhere:

4For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

-Isaiah 56: 4- 5
The three young men, forcibly castrated as slaves, are clearly not directly comparable to the modern trans community, but there are nevertheless lessons to be learnt, from them and from others in Christian (and non-Christian) history. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

The Babylonian slaves were clearly among those who have been made so by others. Those who made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven may be a reference to the common religious practice in the societies surrounding the Jews of men who castrated themselves to serve as priests, especially in the cult of Cybele , and also in some other religions. (Some commentators believe that is this practice of castration that is meant by the words mistranslated in some of the clobber texts as “homosexuals”, lines which more accurately refer to castrated gentile priests. In this view, it is the association with pagan idolatry, not the sexual practices themselves, which made them taboo). The idea of making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of God later led some early Christians to adopt the practice, notably the early theologian Origen, who castrated himself in. Metaphorically, it is the same idea of emasculation which underlies the Catholic church’s insistence on compulsory celibacy for priests in the Roman rite.
Modern trans people are also not directly comparable to this third group – but they are arguably included in the first group:  made so by birth. Less directly, some scholars argue that the biblical term “eunuch” is the closest parallel in biblical language to the modern term “homosexual”, and so the welcome promised by Isaiah may be said to apply to all who are queer in church –

a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters; 

I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever

Even if we reject this connection, there remains a fundamentally important lesson for us all in the story of the three young men, a story that has relevance and resonance for us today that goes way beyond the children’s illustrated Bible pictures of men who could not be burned by the flames. To see this, remember why it is that they are commemorated. They were commanded by the king to eat the forbidden meat – to conform. It was for their refusal to knuckle under and give in to the pressure to abandon their fundamental religious identity that they were sentenced to death by burning.
But in their faith and loyalty, they were protected from the flames. Centuries later, it was the Christian Church that again turned to burning as a punishment for those who refused to conform, either to orthodox religious belief, or to heteronormative sexual standards. We continue to live with the legacy of that prejudice, which masquerades as religious obligation. Like the three men in the Babylonian fire, we too must stand firm in our commitment to the truth. In our steadfastness, the flames of prejudice and religious bigotry will likewise be unable to destroy our queer Christian community.
(The image used is a window by John Piper as a memorial to Benjamin Britten, whose “Burning Fiery Furnace” told the story of the three young men as one of his three “parables for church performance” – one act operas, although Britten himself avoided the term).

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Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Among the half dozen biblical clobber texts that appear, in modern interpretations, to condemn all same – sex relationships, perhaps the most difficult to counter is that in Romans 1:24-27. A reader, who in several comments recently has been critical of my posts about Mattew Vines and his book “God and the Gay Christian”, refers to this passage, asking:

How does Vines square his case for same-sex marriage with the New Testament condemnation of *all* sexual relationships outside of the male-female paradigm as unnatural in Romans 1:24-27?

I’ve already replied to my reader in the comments thread (here), with reference to Vines specifically, and with passing reference to some other useful commentary on the passage by others – but there’s much more to be said about this very badly misunderstood passage.RomanForum

Continue reading Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

The (Gay) Roman Centurion and his “Boy”

In Catholic tradition, March 15th is the feast day of “Longinus”,  the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his “beloved boy”, who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass – if only we have ears to hear.
It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word “gay” is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his “servant” – But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word “doulos“, which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, “pais“, which can mean servant boy – but more usually has the sense of a man’s younger male lover – or “boyfriend”.Whichever of the two words or their senses was intended by the authors, the conclusions we should draw are the same. If “pais”  was intended here to indicate a lover, the conclusion is obvious.  If the intended meaning was either “slave ” or “servant” – the conclusion does not significantly change. To see this, let us consider the cultural context. For three centuries before Christ, the Jews had been under foreign military occupation, first by the Greeks (which is why demotic Greek had become lingua franca across the region, and was the language of the New Testament), then by Romans. These military overlords were about as well liked as any other military invaders anywhere – which is not at all.  The Jews hated them – but will have been quite familiar with Greek and Roman cultural (and sexual) practices.

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There is no Darkness in God (1 John 1:5-2:2)

It is all too easy for us, accustomed to the experience of textual abuse of the bible used as a weapon to justify bigotry, discrimination and violence to lose sight of John’s first message in today’s Mass reading, from his first epistle: that the heart of Jesus’ Gospel lesson is that God is light, in which there is no darkness:

This is what we have heard from Jesus Christ,
and the message that we are announcing to you:
God is light; there is no darkness in him at all.
If we say that we are in union with God
while we are living in darkness,
we are lying because we are not living the truth.
But if we live our lives in the light,
as he is in the light,
we are in union with one another,
and the blood of Jesus, his Son,
purifies us from all sin.

If we say we have no sin in us,
we are deceiving ourselves
and refusing to admit the truth;
but if we acknowledge our sins,
then God who is faithful and just
will forgive our sins and purify us
from everything that is wrong.
To say that we have never sinned
is to call God a liar
and to show that his word is not in us.

I am writing this, my children,

to stop you sinning;
but if anyone should sin,
we have our advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ, who is just;
he is the sacrifice that takes our sins away,
and not only ours,
but the whole world’s.

 However, we must not overlook the second message. It simply is not true, as some people insist, that we are necessarily sinners because of our sexuality, but that does not mean that we are free of sin.

Like everyone else, we too are subject to sin, and like everyone else, we need to confront the sin in our lives, and do what we can to root it out. Like everyone else, that sin may sometimes be in the way in which we use our sexual faculties selfishly or irresponsibly – or it may be in other matters entirely.

In the eyes of God, we really are just as everyone else: each of us unique, each of us deeply loved, each of us equally able to share in the joy, and the light, of God’s word.

 

How to be happy, Catholic and gay