Monday, December 7, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (pt.7): Romans 1:18-32

The final "clobber passage" in the first chapter of Romans is the most important to consider, precisely because it is the most difficult to interpret. What needs to be considered here is Paul's very typical 1st century Jewish understanding of idolatry and stereotyping of Gentiles. Many commentators assume that what Paul calls "unnatural" sexual behavior is simply another symptom of the Fall – but nowhere is this really the case in the passage. For Paul, homosexuality is actually a symptom of something quite different: the later invention of idolatry and polytheism by the Gentiles.

Considering the passage: for what reason did God give "them up" (the idolatrous Gentiles) to their "unnatural desires"? Because the Gentiles worshiped animals and other idols rather than the one God. So Paul is not talking about the consequences of the Fall, but about the later (mythical) invention of idolatry and polytheism. He specifically accuses the Gentiles ("they"/"them") of being idolaters – and therefore, by his curious logic, capable of giving in to homosexuality. For Paul, homosexuality is a symptom of being a polytheist and idolater.  Gay monotheists - Jews or Christians - essentially do not exist for Paul because homosexuality is intrinsic to polytheism.  As such, he clearly does not address homosexuality as we understand it today in this passage.  The core of Paul's critique is of polytheism and idolatry, not homosexuality.

There is no mention in this passage of Adam, Eve, Eden, or universal sin (not until later in Romans in a different context). Paul is not talking about the Fall and the entrance of sin through Adam, but about the invention of idolatry and polytheism with the entrance of an even deeper sin: sexual perversion, which is embraced by the Gentiles. Paul had no reason to consider Adam a polytheist - he was, of course, a monotheist who made a bad choice against the one God.  Polytheism entered the world only later through the evil of the Gentiles, after which God punished them by allowing them to pursue their sexual desires to what he believed to be an extreme end: homosexual behavior. A roughly contemporary Jewish text of Paul called The Wisdom of Solomon reflected this common belief: "For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication." (Wis 14:12). Homosexuality and idolatry are both characteristically Gentile for Paul and the writer of Wisdom. Pamela Eisenbaum comments about this view:

"The 'degrading passions' are the by-product of idolatry, and Paul's mention of it is almost incidental - the result of an instinctive Jewish association between idolatry and 'unnatural' sexuality, which itself derives from nothing more than the Jewish stereotype of Gentiles in antiquity."

Of course, Paul does not despise all Gentiles as long as they are not idolaters, but these were at that point in time rare. According to Dale Martin, Paul's understanding of idolatry went something like this:

"Once upon a time, even after the sin of Adam, all humanity was safely and securely monotheistic. At some point in ancient history most of humanity rebelled against God, rejected the knowledge of the true God that they certainly possessed, willfully turned their collective back on God, made idols for themselves, and proceeded to worship those things that by nature are not gods. As punishment for their invention of idolatry and polytheism, God 'handed them over' to depravity, allowing them to follow their 'passions,' which led them into sexual immorality, particularly same-sex coupling. Homosexual activity was the punishment meted out by God for the sin of idolatry and polytheism."

It is a historical fact that it was common in Paul's day for Jews to believe that idolatry was invented only after the Fall, despite the reality that historians of religion now place polytheism before the development of monotheism (in fact, so does the Bible itself!). Polytheism and idolatry were not a part of the Garden of Eden narrative, so Jews of the day filled in the invention of idolatry with other mythological stories. These myths are glimpsed in various rabbinic sources and apocryphal books like Jubilees and 1 Enoch. 1st century Jews had a literary tradition of blaming the evils of the Gentiles on some key moment in history, as illustrated by their various myths of evil angels corrupting civilization. Jewish traditions used them to show Israel's relative purity compared to the corrupted Gentiles. These kinds of myths are called "decline narratives", as they are common enough amongst Jews and Greeks to merit their own category.

Paul's primary ground for condemning homosexuality in this passage is by way of common Jewish xenophobia towards Gentiles combined with rather odd Jewish myths to explain the invention of polytheism and idolatry that most Christians do not believe anyways. This is, it seems to me, a completely unsustainable way to continue to condemn homosexuality. As Martin writes:

"Most of us do not believe that all of humanity was once upon a time neatly monotheistic, only later, at a particular historical point, to turn to polytheism and idolatry; nor are we likely to believe that homosexuality did not exist until the sudden invention of polytheism. According to his etiology of homosexuality, Paul must not have believed that it ever existed among the Jews, at least those who abstained from idolatry. Importantly, when Paul finally indicts the Jews in Romans, he does not accuse them of idolatry or homosexual immorality; Jewish immorality is revealed, at most, in adultery and dishonesty regarding the property of temples (2:22). This is perfectly consistent with Paul's assumption that homosexuality is punishment for idolatry and polytheism: the Jews have not been so punished because they have not, in general, been guilty of that particular sin. If we were to follow Paul's logic, we would have to assume that once idolatry and polytheism were forsaken, homosexuality would cease to exist, which is probably what Paul believed; after all, he never even hints that any Jew or Christian engages in homosexuality...Heterosexist scholars alter Paul's reference to a myth that most modern Christians do not even know, much less believe (that is, a myth about the beginnings of idolatry), and pretend that Paul refers to a myth that many modern Christians do believe, at least on some level (the myth about the fall). Heterosexism can retain Paul's condemnation of same-sex coupling only by eliding the supporting logic of that condemnation."

Even if one were to argue that we should accept Paul's logic derived from this myth, the argument falls apart when you consider ancient Jewish understandings of sexuality - "natural" vs. "unnatural." In contemporary evangelicalism, many moderate writers like Tony Campolo and Richard Hays will admit that homosexual orientation is normal and not sinful, but homosexual practice is still problematic (Campolo recommends that Christian gays and lesbians live together but refrain from sex). On the other hand, for Jews of Paul's day and for Paul himself, "sexual orientation" was a foreign concept. Homosexuality was partly understood to be an extreme example of heterosexual lust gone out of control – a man or woman gets bored with normal heterosexual sex and uses homosexual sex to fulfill their burning desires. Everyone was heterosexual, and homosexuality was a sign that someone was unable to remain satisfied with "normal" sex anymore (this out-of-control lust, of course, is itself rooted in polytheism/idolatry for Paul). Just as gluttony was too much eating (beyond the limit prescribed by nature), homosexuality was too much sex (the Greek for "unnatural" more accurately translates to "in excess of what is natural"). As Martin comments, "Degree of passion, rather than object choice, was the defining factor of desire." Though same-sex coupling is "unnatural", the sexual desire that leads to it had its origins in completely "natural" desires. This is difficult for our modern minds to grapple with, as we now think about sexual orientation as a highly complex phenomenon, but ancients definitely thought quite differently about it. Walter Wink comments:

"....Paul really thought that those whose behavior he condemned were 'straight,' and that they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul believed that everyone was straight. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world. There are people that are genuinely homosexual by nature (whether genetically or as a result of upbringing no one really knows, and it is irrelevant). For such a person it would be acting contrary to nature to have sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex."

In summary, to align with Paul’s single condemnation of homosexuality in the New Testament is also to align with an ancient misunderstanding of sexual orientation, as well as mythological "decline narratives" about idolatry and polytheism. With that in mind, Paul never condemns homosexuality as we understand it today. If Paul were alive today, I really believe that he would affirm LGBT people - to do so today is to be consistent with the very message of Paul (and Jesus!) about the kingdom or commonwealth of God.

This concludes my analysis of the various clobber passages. I hope that my honesty here shows that I am not looking for easy explanations. Paul was a radical apostle who has much to teach us today, but his view on homosexuality found only in Romans must be left behind for much larger theological and cultural considerations. We must sometimes disagree with the Bible, particularly in regards to ethics if they are tied to presuppositions that we cannot maintain in light of what we know now.  Still, the Bible continues to have a vital story to tell.  It has its problems and inconsistencies, but even more truth and wisdom.  It is our “community library”, as Brian McLaren calls it, not our “constitution.” We should interpret the Bible through the lens of the person of Jesus – who, by the way, was silent on the matter of homosexuality.  Furthermore, sin is inherently destructive (that is what the Bible means by the "Wrath of God"), and I find nothing destructive to society or individuals in homosexuality within the context of a committed, loving, adult relationship.

In closing, philosopher John Caputo has the following to say about Jesus and LGBT people:

"Jesus systematically took the side of the outsider, of those who are excluded and marginalized and made to suffer for their marginalization by the powers that be, those whose names are blackened by their difference from the mainstream. Based on the gospel of love by which he was driven, he would today have found love in homosexual love and a mission among advocates of gay and lesbian rights...there simply are no arguments to show that homosexual love is of itself anything else than love, and that therefore, since the essence of the Torah is love, it hardly falls afoul of the law...To be sure, when it is not love, when it is promiscuity, or infidelity to a sworn partner, or rape, or the sexual abuse of minors, or in any way violent, then it is indeed not love, but that is no less true of heterosexuality...We need be no more guided by the letter of what the Scriptures say about homosexuality than we are by what they say about slavery or geocentrism, which reflect the circumstances of their composition, not the spirit of the kingdom that comes to contradict the world."