issue 201 - November 1989
Christianity is traditionally the religion most hostile to
homosexuality. Bishop John Shelby Spong looks at the
foundation for this hostility - and makes a radical proposal.
Illustration: Peter Robinson
When the convention of the Diocese of Newark, of which I am bishop, passed a resolution to study the question of church support for committed monogamous relationships between gay or lesbian people, I received thousands of letters.
Some of the letters were straightforward death threats. Others contained threats that were more oblique - their writers were content to assure me that they would pray to God to curse me with a fatal disease, to allow me to be in a plane crash or to permit me to fall victim to some other equally effective means of permanent disposal. Gentler critics indicated that they would be content with my resignation.
This was to be expected. Sexual attitudes, sexual taboos and sexual practices have for centuries been used by dominant groups in society to keep others subordinate. Those who possess power define those who are powerless. The guiding principle is to ensure comfort, the convenience, the happiness and the wellbeing of the dominant ones.
Behind prejudice there is also fear. We reject what we cannot manage; condemn what we do not understand; set up a means of control to render powerless those dynamic realities we know to be powerful. And no aspect of our humanity is invested with more anxieties, yearnings, emotions and needs than is our sexual nature. So sex is a major arena in which the prejudice of human beings finds expression.
This accounts for the anger and even the violence that erupts when sexual control mechanisms are publicly challenged. Those who organize their lives differently, who adopt values that violate the prevailing sexual taboos, are subject to hate, threats, attack and sometimes murder.
In many of the letters certain cliches were used as though they were self-explanatory. People wrote about sexuality and moral norms as 'revealed in the Holy Scripture'. They called with some frequency for a return to the 'sexual morality of the Bible'.
Now the Bible is a major source feeding the ethical decision-making of Christian people, and its message must be taken by Christians with the utmost seriousness. But the Bible itself is not free of contradictions, of expressions of prejudice, of attitudes that have long been abandoned. Those arguments that issue from the authority of sacred Scripture or sacred tradition must state which part of Scripture or tradition is being upheld and on what basis that part is retained while other parts are abandoned.
Specific passages from the Bible were quoted to me. There was a very repetitive quality about those citations - because the number of Biblical references to homosexuality by the Biblical authors is minuscule.
There is not one reference to homosexuality in any of the four Gospels. Those who consider this 'the most heinous sin' must be terribly disturbed that Jesus appears either to have ignored it completely or to have said so little on the subject that no part of what he said was remembered or recorded.
The Biblical reference most used to condemn homosexuality is the story of the destruction of the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. From the word Sodom have come the nouns 'sodomy' and 'sodomite' and the verb 'to sodomize'. Webster defines 'sodomy' thus: 'from the homosexual proclivities of the men of the city of Sodom in Genesis 19:1-11; carnal copulation with a member of the same sex or animal; ... the penetration of the male organ into the mouth or anus of another'. Despite the wide options offered by Webster the primary understanding of 'sodomy' in Western civilization is as a synonym for homosexuality, especially male homosexuality.
Strangely enough, few people bother to read the complete text of Genesis 19. They are so sure they know what it means that they don't want to be confused with the facts, especially Biblical facts.
The story begins with the Lord confiding in Abraham his plans to find out what is happening in the city of Sodom. Because the 'outcry against Sodom is so great and their sin is grave'. He did not specify the crime but said He would 'go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me.'
So he sent down two divine messengers who were greeted at the gates of Sodom by Lot, a citizen of the city. He offered them hospitality without which no traveler ever survived.
The visitors entered Lot's house where he prepared them a feast. As the guests got ready for sleep, the men of the city, every one of them from the oldest to the youngest, surrounded Lot's house and demanded that his guests should be surrendered to them so that they may 'know' them. There is no question that the Hebrew verb translated 'know' carries the connotation of sexual intimacy. So it was certainly fair to assume that sexual interest was there in the gathering crowd of the male citizens of Sodom. It would be quite strange however for every single man of the city to be a homosexually-oriented man, but the text is clear - the men of Sodom gathered 'to the last man'.
A study of Middle Eastern practices suggests a motivation somewhat different from sexual pleasure, however. The guests were aliens in a foreign city, subject to the will of its citizens, the recipients of its protection. Being without rights the alien could be befriended or abused by the city. A popular way to insult the stranger was to force him to take the female role in a sex act. Nothing was more insulting to a man than to be treated like a woman. An alien who was forced to act out the woman's role in sexual activity would receive the ultimate insult that the male citizens of a city could administer. He would be reminded of his weakness and vulnerability and the strength and power of the people of that city.
I propose that these were the realities behind the story. I suspect that in practice only a few of the men would perform sexually. The others would cheer and look on. Perhaps the few who did perform sexually were gay, and in this manner homosexual activity, patriotism and mob violence combined to legitimize sexual desire.
In any event Lot rescued his guests and shut them up safely inside his house. And he rebuked the men of Sodom: 'I beg you brothers, do not act so wickedly'. That is as far as most people read. They know that the Biblical tradition records that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire; that God judged them to be so wicked that there were not to be found 10 righteous people inside the city. The implication is that homosexuality was the sin and that the people guilty of this sin were deserving of divine wrath. But read the rest of the story.
Lot, seeking to placate the mob at his door, went on to say, 'Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man: let me bring them out to you and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men for they have come under the shelter of this roof'.
How many of us can read this and say: 'This is the word of the Lord!' Lot, the righteous man who would be spared by God, acting out of the custom and the conviction of his day, was willing to protect his guests at the price of offering his virgin daughters for sexual abuse by the mob.
The story gets even more confusing. Later, after Sodom and Gomorrah had burned and Lot's wife had been turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the scene, Lot's daughters lay with their father - with resulting pregnancies.
So this is the story of Sodom, quoted so often to prove that the Bible condemns homosexuality. What a strange text to use for such a purpose! The Biblical narrative approves Lot's offer of his virgin daughters to satisfy the sexual demands of an angry mob. It suggests that incest is a legitimate way of impregnating women when there is no man around save the father of those women. What society today would be willing to incorporate either of these into its moral code? Who among us willing to accept the definition of women implicit in this account? If we reject the denigration of women as property and the practice of incest, both being based upon an inadequate view of morality, are we not also free to reject this society's faulty understanding of homosexuality as being also based upon inadequate moral grounds?
Perhaps the more important issue is one of gang rape which seems to be the intention of the men of Sodom. Is gang rape ever right, regardless of whether it is homosexual or heterosexual in nature? Lot seems to think that homosexual gang rape was evil, especially since it violated the Middle Eastern law of hospitality, while the heterosexual gang rape of his daughters would be acceptable since no hospitality laws were at stake. Is it right to assume that the condemnation of homosexual gang rape is to be equated with the condemnation of homosexuality per se? I think not, and further believe that anyone who reads this Biblical narrative with an open mind will discover that the real sin of Sodom was the unwillingness on the part of the men of the city to observe the laws of hospitality.
It is interesting that when the Sodom story is retold in the epistles of Jude and the Second Peter, writing in the first and second century, the main point of both passages is to show examples of God's destruction of people who did not believe, who taught heresy. They were emblematic of the increasing desire of the leadership of the Christian church to impose order and control on the life of the church. References to Sodom and Gomorrah were tantamount to threats of hell-fire for those who did not mend their ways.
If one wants to make a case against homosexuality based on the Hebrew Scriptures the best place to look is the Holiness Code of the book of Leviticus written in the late sixth or early fifth centuries BC, which described male homosexuality as an 'abomination'. But then intercourse during menstruation was also equally abominable. The circumstances of that day, quite different from our own, determined their conclusions. And we need to ask ourselves whether the authors of Leviticus had sufficient knowledge of homosexuality to make an adequate judgment for ages to come.
When we turn to the Christian sources there is total silence on the subject until we get to Saint Paul. He viewed homosexuality as a punishment visited upon idolators by God because of their unfaithfulness. In this letter women were included - the only Scriptural reference to lesbianism in the entire Bible.
Even if one is a Biblical literalist the Biblical references to homosexuality do not build an ironclad case for condemnation. If one is not a Biblical literalist there is no case at all, nothing but the ever-present prejudice born out of pervasive ignorance that attacks people when their only crime is to have a sexual predisposition to their own sex.
We must be willing to relinquish our prejudice and turn our attention to loving our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and relating to them as part of God's good creation. That will inevitably include accepting, affirming and blessing gay relationships.
I expect this will seem strange and shocking to many. The original Jewish Christians must have first recoiled when someone suggested that the gentile Christians should be welcomed into the Church without their having to obey Jewish law.
Western Christians in both Europe and America must have cringed when someone suggested that non-white members of ethnic minorities must be welcomed into the life of the church as equal brothers and sisters.
The rigid ecclesiastical hierarchy, so sure that they spoke for God, must have thought it strange and shocking when someone first suggested that a left-handed person was not evil and might well serve as priest.
The male priesthood, certain that only men could be the symbolic representatives of the deity, must have thought it outrageous when someone first said that women too are to be called pastors, priests and bishops and that ordination must be made open to them too.
The proposal that the church affirm and bless publicly the union forged in love by two persons will also be received as strange and shocking. That too will pass and the practice will become in time quite commonplace.
'In Christ' said Paul, 'shall all be made alive.' Yes, all. Including the lesbian and gay couples who have become in Christ one flesh. Now is the appointed time to break the bondage of their prejudice that prevents the gift of life promised to all by Christ from being recognized.
John Shelby Spong is Episcopalian bishop of Newark, US. This article is abridged from his new book Living in Sin, 1989, with kind permission from the publishers Harper and Row, San Francisco.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7