Sunday, May 1, 2011
04.22.2011 9:00am EDT
I confronted this problem recently after a talk I gave in rural Pennsylvania, when fielding comments from two audience members from opposite sides of the debate.
The first cited Romans 1, where St. Paul claims that because people had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles,” God gave them over to “degrading passions,” so that the women exchanged “natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27).
I personally don’t accept the authority of scripture, as I explained in my talk. This is the same Paul who several times tells slaves that they must obey their masters, even harsh masters (see Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18). He gets some stuff clearly wrong.
But I also pointed out that the audience member was reading quite a bit into the text.
Paul is addressing a specific group of people—first-century Romans—about a specific group of people: Gentiles who engaged in idolatry. He states that the latter’s same-sex passion is a sign and consequence of their rejecting God in favor of images of “man or birds or animals or reptiles.” To read his discussion more broadly as a general claim about all homosexual acts is to supply information that isn’t there.
It’s also to attribute a blatantly false claim to Paul, since most homosexuality doesn’t stem from idol worship, and most idol worship doesn’t lead to homosexuality.
After I finished making these points, a second audience member chimed in:
“And besides, Jesus never said a single word about homosexuality,” he said. “That silence speaks volumes.”
No, it doesn’t.
Gently I responded, “We need to be careful about reading things into silence. Jesus doesn’t say anything about Ponzi schemes either. But Bernie Madoff is still an asshole.”
“Sure,” he replied, “but that’s not something that existed at the time. Same-sex relationships did exist, and the fact that Jesus chose not to mention them is significant.”
I really don’t think so.
Perhaps Jesus chose not to mention them because he thought their wrongness was obvious. Perhaps he had bigger fish to fry (so to speak).
Or perhaps he did mention homosexuality, but his comments got lost among the scores of competing gospels that never made it into the Biblical canon. We just don’t know.
What we do know—or should—is that reading messages into the Bible is a tendentious and potentially dangerous game.
Sure, the first audience member was doing that for anti-gay purposes, and the second one was doing it for pro-gay purposes. But they were both doing it: reading their own biases into the text, and then using the text as validation for those biases.
And by the way, slavery certainly existed in Jesus’ time, yet Jesus failed to condemn slavery (in the texts that we have). Does his relative silence there speak volumes, too?
I don’t like picking on my allies. I’m sure some readers will think, “If such beliefs make liberal Christians feel better, why not let them slide?”
Because the gay-rights battle isn’t freestanding, that’s why. It’s tied into other debates about freedom, religion, rationality, the role of government, the justification of moral norms, and so on. It’s not only our conclusions that matter, but also how we arrive at them.
The very same license that allows one person to assert that Jesus’ silence on homosexuality “speaks volumes” allows another to assert that Paul’s commentary on certain pagans demonstrates the wrongness of all homosexual acts. It lets people read something into the text that isn’t there, and then to attribute that supplied message to God Himself.
The danger in this process is that it lets people think that they have infallible backing for their fallible prejudices.
We know what this mistake looks like when our opponents do it. We shouldn’t validate the mistake by committing it ourselves.