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Open interpretation

IN PUBLIC discussions of homosexuality that now focus on the acceptance of gay clergy and gay marriage, references are frequently made to how homosexuality is condemned in Scripture.

"It's in the Bible" is the statement often used. For many, this is conclusive that God condemns homosexuality. The implication, obviously, is that society should as well. I would beg to differ on both counts.

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The statement, "It's in the Bible," is not an argument against homosexuality. Homosexual acts are condemned in some parts of Scripture. But the contexts in which they were condemned in the past do not suggest that these prohibitions are definitive for modern ethical consideration any more than the ubiquitous and uncritical references to slavery in Scripture could justify that horror. (Although 150 years ago they were used by Christians to do so.)

For example, the story of Sodom in Genesis, Chapter 19, is the one that has given its name to the "offenses" that have been codified in our legal system for centuries. Yet a complete reading of the story yields a conclusion different from the one most often cited.

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The part of the story that has been used to flog homosexuals is the account of an angry crowd's desire to rape two male visitors (angels in disguise) in Lot's home. Who could disagree that this threat is morally repugnant?

But if the point of the story of Sodom is sexual ethics, interpreters will be hard pressed to explain why Lot offered the heated crowd his virgin daughters to rape in place of his guests (Gen 19:8).

The "wickedness" of Sodom was far broader than the single offense of a threatened homosexual rape. The story is really about those who have worldly goods and who ignore the needs of those who have not.

In a desert society, looking after the well-being of strangers, offering them food and water and safety in an oasis at the end of a journey, was a matter of life and death. Lot had insisted that the strangers find security in his tent. When they accepted, it was his absolute obligation to protect them, even to the absurd point (for us) of offering his own daughters to the lusty crowd as a substitute for his guests.

In Romans, 1:26-27, St. Paul condemns those who "gave up natural relations with women and 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."

Harsh words, to be sure. Definitive? Not if we look at Paul's larger argument. He put forward that some of the men he observes in Rome are engaging in homosexual acts because they are worshipping idols -- because of idolatry! -- an argument that not even someone most critical of homosexuality would now attempt to make.

Paul, like all of the ancients, knew nothing about what we describe today as sexual orientation. The idea of being "gay" as an orientation is less than 100 years old. The common assumption was that all people were heterosexual, and that some heterosexual people, for various reasons, might commit homosexual acts. In the ancient Greek culture, this might have been acceptable. In the ancient Jewish culture, it was not.

Even if by some stretch we were able to accept with Paul that the homosexual behavior he saw in Rome was related to idolatry, that says nothing about homosexual orientation as we now know it. Asking homosexual people to act like heterosexuals is, using Paul's word, quite "unnatural."

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In another example of poor interpretation, many who refer to Leviticus 18:22 to make a case against homosexuality -- "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" -- have some explaining to do. Many Jews and almost all Christians have abandoned the voluminous prohibitions in the book of Leviticus, such as the one prohibiting men from cutting their sideburns (Lev. 19:27) or the one against eating "abominable" shellfish (Lev. 11:10), or the one prohibiting a male from sitting in a chair recently occupied by a menstruating woman (Lev. 15:19-23).

So why, in a very long list of prohibitions that are regularly ignored, is this single one against male homosexual behavior treated as written in stone and not to be reconsidered in historical context? Perhaps, for instance, it merely reflected the concern of an embattled nation that in ancient times needed to channel all sexual energy into procreation. Is that morally binding on us today?

Likewise, those who assert that all Scripture is nevertheless the definitive word of God will have to explain why they worship on Sunday instead of Saturday, or why Christians so readily engage in war in direct violation of Jesus' core teachings about loving the enemy and doing good to those who persecute us.

We should not tolerate the use of Scripture to poison the debate about gay and lesbian clergy or gay marriage with purported God-sanctioned hatred.

Love, opening the heart and mind to a compassionate God and broadening the definition of God's family beyond the limits of our crippling fears and tribal loyalties, is what can -- and should -- be found in the Bible. And they are what should guide our consideration of these new issues.

Rovan Wernsdorfer is a former Episcopal priest who is still active in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Nativity in Park Heights.


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