Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6.9-10)

The Guy-Girl Thing

Every blue moon, a poll comes out asking people of same-sex orientation, “What’s the most annoying question you get asked about being gay?” I don’t know why pollsters persist in harping on this, because the results never change. The runaway winner is always, “Who’s the guy and who’s the girl?” The best response, of course, should be, “We’re both women” or, “We’re both men”—or, better yet, “We’re two people.” But that doesn’t answer the real question, which has little to no interest in how traditional male and female roles play out in same-sex attraction, dating, and unions. The guy-girl thing is open code for curiosity about what happens in bed.

Beyond the question’s offensive breach of privacy and implication the inferiority of same-sex intimacy requires mimicking opposite-sex dynamics, it’s also exasperating for its assumption that all relationships, straight or gay, operate on gender-defined entitlements and inequities. (Perhaps the best response would be asking the inquirer to define "the guy's role" and "the girl's role.") Indeed, the guy-girl gay cliché should be trashed along with crude straight ones like “who wears the pants in the family,” “the man is the breadwinner,” and “a woman’s place is in the home.” Yet, while banishing these and similarly sexist syllogisms from common conversation is a good start, it's far from a conclusive remedy. And honestly, I’m not sure one exists. The guy-girl thing—like the race thing and class thing—is so profoundly imbedded in the collective psyche that eliminating male-dominant/female-subservient, active-passive language and stereotypes from the culture may change conscious behavior (a necessity) without making the slightest dent on primal mindset and instinct (a tragedy).

Stamped into Our Assumptions

No better proof exists of how wretchedly the “me-Tarzan-you-Jane” gender bias dogs our species than what we find in gay life. For, while we take great umbrage at the guy-girl question (and rightly so), we’ve also embraced and codified it to the point it’s become central to our individual identities. Go to a male-for-male dating site; before opening candidates’ profiles, you’ll find four bits of info beneath their photos: name, age, location, and preferred role—“top” (active), “bottom” (passive), or “versatile” (both). Gay men and women casually discuss one another’s sexual disposition as “butch” or “femme.” Many have no compunction about transposing gender pronouns as a “between-us” slur—more often than not, an allegedly friendly one!—calling him “her” and she “he.” That nothing annoys us more than being asked the guy-girl question while we’re comfortable adopting its premise as cultural shorthand boggles the mind.

Of course, we see similar paradoxes in other minorities that attempt to deflect disparaging terms and stereotypes by “owning them;” why that is, however, is a conversation for another time. The point to draw for our current discussion is this. The guy-girl thing, with all its nasty undercurrents, is so pervasively stamped into our assumptions about gender and sexuality it’s inescapable. It’s been with us since the dawn of time and colors how we perceive the world, the way it works, and one another. Thus, when we open Scripture to texts dealing with sexuality of any kind, we’re wise to read them through the guy-girl filter, to hear the cultural and religious understanding with which they were originally written and received. Then, as believers who’ve been spiritually and socially enlightened to the myths and injustices of gender inequality, we’re irresponsible not to confess many texts regularly abused to condemn homosexuality ultimately endorse and perpetuate oppression of all women as naturally subservient and passive, intrinsically less than men.

Slang and Coinage

“Softies” is the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, though not directly applying it women. Instead, he employs the term’s common usage in his day—as slang for male temple prostitutes who take the passive position in pagan same-gender sex rites. “Do not be deceived,” he writes. “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul’s phraseology, “men who have sex with men,” bears notice, as when we check the original Greek text, he uses two different words: arsenokoitai for the former and malakoi for the latter. Both terms are problematic for different reasons that lead to the same conclusion.

Arsenokoitai appears to be coined by Paul. No evidence of its usage prior to this writing (ca. 55 CE) has been found, nor is it seen in texts of any kind during or immediately after Paul’s lifetime. The word is only found in one other New Testament book, 1 Timothy (1.10)—which most scholars date as a second-century epistle written in Paul’s name and may account for the word’s usage, as well as the verse’s fairly close replication of the Corinthian text. Although it’s possible that arsenokoitai, like malakoi, is first-century, gay-related slang, its absence from literature at the time suggests not. Thus we have two methods for decoding Paul’s euphemism, and which we choose starkly alters how we interpret the text.

Method One: we extrapolate Paul’s meaning by assessing his intentions in light of the context—the preferred method for interpreting Scripture when the original text can be confidently translated. In this case, the preceding list of behaviors Paul typically attributes to pagan cultures (sexual immorality, idolatry, and adultery) coupled with the subsequent reference to pagan male prostitutes would invite us to assume arsenokoitai is Paul’s term for “homosexual.” This would lend credibility, without indubitably confirming, the passage might mean what some believe it does. Method Two: we break the word down, as we would any compound word (which is what arsenokoitai is) and look at its parts to derive a clearer definition. If Paul intentionally combines words to characterize the persons he’s describing, the term becomes very specific. Paul links arsen (“male,” singular/neuter), o (masculine definitive article, like “el” in Spanish), and koitai (“beds, or places where coitus occurs,” feminine/plural). Literally translated, it would mean “the man in women’s beds”—a virulently sexist insult, since ancient women are summoned from their beds to the man’s bed to serve his sexual needs. To visit a lady’s bedchamber and request her favors would be the height of masculine indignity.

Regardless which method we use, it’s obvious breakdown of gender roles is what convinces Paul the acts he decries—whatever they are, as we can't be certain due to his coinage—are unnatural. Confidence this is a guy-girl thing and not to be misconstrued as condemnation of guy-guy and girl-girl things rests in the second “men,” whom Paul portrays with the Greek adjective for “soft” or “fancy” (malakoi). Matthew and Luke use the singular form to describe “fine” clothing, and, in Corinth, it’s a familiar appellation for male sex workers in pagan temples. These men, respected as professionals serving a religious function, only make themselves available for same-gender rituals. They aren’t “rent boys” men summon to fulfill their homoerotic desires. Sex with malakoi happens in their temple chambers, in their beds, according to ritually prescribed terms. While they assume the sexually passive role—which Paul clearly loathes, as it’s the “woman’s job”—that arsenokoitai must go to them and follow their protocol is equally reprehensible.

Diminishing Half of Humanity

The inference is undeniable. Paul reviles the practice because, in service to idols, men debase other men and consent to debasement as women. To put it bluntly, in Paul’s mind and ancient Jewish culture, men are naturally active tops, women are naturally passive bottoms, and anything that varies from his paradigm—whether in same-sex or opposite-sex settings—is unnatural. That places those who accept the text as bona fide condemnation of homosexuality in the dubious position of legitimizing its obsolete view of women as “softies,” inferior creatures of convenience bound to please men on demand with no right of initiative on their own behalf. And sadly, many who embrace 1 Corinthians 6.9’s anti-gay reading find nothing repugnant about its inherently sexist stance. But we who believe Jesus’s teaching and example support gender equality cannot submit to Paul’s rationale. It’s an anachronism, the artifact of a primitive, patriarchal culture, and therefore untrustworthy as doctrine. This would be so even if the reading were not crippled by conjecture, as subjugation of women rests at its core. No scripture—whatever its purported purpose—diminishing half of humanity as naturally inferior can be countenanced. Female and male, we are all created in God’s image and likeness. To legitimize a text that dishonors women is tantamount to doubting God and God’s Word. Constructing doctrine on it—one that promotes condemnation, inequality, and exclusion, no less—teeters (at the very least) on blasphemy.

So we say of those comfortable in taking such risks with 1 Corinthians 6.9 what we’ve said of others who perform similar injustices with previously discussed clobber texts: they need our compassion and prayers.

First Corinthians 6.9, like many of the clobber texts, loses its doctrinal validity not merely for its purported anti-gay views, but because it bases its stance on the assumption women are naturally inferior to men.

Postscript: The Translation Saga

For centuries, translation issues with 1 Corinthians 6.9 have presented an ongoing challenge for scholars and theologians. On balance, the current belief it has something to do with same-gender sex is relatively recent, having first surfaced in the King James Version (1611). Prior to that, the fifth-century Latin Vulgate—on which the KJV heavily relies—translated arsenokoitai as adulteri ("adulterers"; feminine, plural), which echoes the male plural earlier in the verse, possibly to indicate the usage of “women’s beds.” Regarding malakoi, the Vulgate uses mollibus (“luxurious” or “effeminate”) for Matthew and Luke’s description of “fine clothing.” But it uses idolis servientes (“idol slaves”) in Corinthians—a decidedly gender-neutral translation. Given the Vulgate’s closer proximity to Paul’s time, we’re tempted to suppose it’s more accurate; yet four centuries in real time aren’t as close as they look on a 2,000-year timeline. So that’s also a shaky proposition.

The KJV’s handling of malakoi radically departs from the Vulgate, which raises questions about its agenda. It simplifies Matthew and Luke’s usage to “soft," yet pointedly replaces the Vulgate’s “idol slaves” with “effeminate.” Its handling of arsenokoitai is even more curious. It reads, “abusers of themselves with mankind,” a strangely self-contained phrase that disconnects the “men with men” linkage to suggest Paul’s talking about two different groups, not two types of men engaged in mutual acts. (This confusion apparently is somehow tied to 16th and 17th-century mores, as Martin Luther interprets arsenokoitai to mean “men who masturbate”!) Some historians have tried to connect the KJV’s overt amplification of gay-slanted texts to the theory King James I was homosexual. If this is so, the KJV distorts the original texts to confirm its patron’s self-loathing and fear—a strange, but not unheard-of, response for personally troubled church leaders.

Modern translations either tend to back off, choosing more generic terminology like “men who have sex with men” and “homosexual offenders” or buckle to the KJV with “sodomites”—none of which gets any closer to solving the riddle of Paul’s intended meaning, and hence offers theologians (or us) not the least bit of help in grasping his original point.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Saving Lives

Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18.5)

Altering Behavior

There’s no way we who lived through HIV/AIDS’ early years can adequately convey how helpless we felt. The virus emerged from nowhere, yet stayed under cover for nearly a year. Experts could only confirm formerly rare sightings of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia were surfacing in urban gay males with alarming frequency. Although everything pointed to deficient immunity, what triggered it wasn’t clear. Hearing it was unlike anything ever seen intensified anxiety as cases mounted. The longer it took to identify the cause of what was rapidly becoming a public health crisis the more it seemed like we’d entered a sci-fi nightmare, a real-life “Twilight Zone.” While most of the world watched from a presumably safe remove, panic overtook the gay community. We couldn’t combat our silent stalker until we knew exactly what it was, whence it came, its method of attack, and how it proliferated. Then the mystery grew more perplexing with outbreaks among Haitians, hemophiliacs, and IV drug users.

As researchers raced to find the deadly pathogen, public health officials rushed to solve the transmission puzzle. They had four distinct patient types and lots of dots connecting two or three, but never all of them. Even though the highest concentration of targets continued to be gay, the virus’s leap into predominately straight groups changed its name from GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency diseases) to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). It also changed how AIDS was perceived. Its expanding range of victims raised fears we’d gravely underestimated it. We left “The Twilight Zone” to step into a looming apocalypse.

The four-year wait while investigators narrowed transmission down to bodily fluids left no time to wait for bureaucrats to craft and approve a cohesive public policy. The gay community launched its own campaign to disarm the virus and end its long night of grief. Driven by will to survive—fueled in large part by deep-seated anger at preachers and propagandists heralding AIDS as Heaven-sent justice—the community set a course that intuitively subscribed to biblical methodology for containing disease. Leaders and activists poured all their energy into altering behavior. Their unvarnished message was crystal-clear: practice safe sex or die. With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, they pounded two hallmarks of gay defiance—reckless sex and rampant promiscuity—into cultural taboos. And though it’s doubtful they caught the irony, their motive and message were identical to those in Leviticus’s infamous health and hygiene regulations.

But the irony gets sweeter. Leviticus 18, whose ban on same-gender sex (v22) is routinely misappropriated to condemn same-sex orientation, serves as the Bible’s safe-sex manual. As with other passages forbidding dietary and hygienic practices that germinate and spread infectious diseases among nomadic tribes, chapter 18 is not to be read as doctrinal edict. It’s a public health measure to alter behaviors endangering community survival. Yet, as AIDS prevention strategists recognized and Leviticus plainly acknowledges, when asked to choose between private pleasure and public safety, pleasure wins. Thus we note how strenuously the text marries unsafe sex with personal danger and converts previously acceptable acts into taboos. Like the AIDS safe-sex campaign, Leviticus 18 raises specters that won’t vanish when the lights go out.

What God’s Talking About

Pursuing a faithful (and faith-full) relationship with Scripture is a two-step process. First, we access God’s word through Scripture as the sacred medium by which God authoritatively speaks. Second, we hear God’s voice in Scripture. That’s why context is crucial. Scripture is a conversation, not a compendium of sound bites, loose facts, and freestanding ideas. To hear God accurately, we consider each verse, sentence, and phrase in light of the topic at hand. This is true for all Scripture, regardless of literary form (history, poetry, prophecy, gospel, or letter) or author, each of whom is divinely inspired to convey messages God wants us to hear. “Above all,” 2 Peter 1.20-21 says, “you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

As it was recorded so it must be read—without imposition of human will, following the Holy Spirit’s guidance, acknowledging Scripture is prophetic in that it not only speaks to its time, but also to all times. Therein lies the mystery of God’s Word, as well as the reason for our struggles to hear God correctly. Without being sure what God’s talking about, how can we be certain we hear what God is actually saying to us today? Freezing Scripture in time is a far different thing than freeing it from time in order to receive what God wants us to hear now. Insisting God’s message to the ancients is immune to human progress and social change is to denigrate Scripture as an antiquated response to primitive problems. In order to free the text from time and apply Scripture’s current relevance to our lives, it’s essential we listen closely to the whole conversation, identify the topic at hand—doing the historical and linguistic homework to understand the original situation and its nuances as best as we can—and then prayerfully allow the Holy Spirit to “carry us along.” (I love that!)

Preparing the People

So what is God talking about in Leviticus 18? Let’s listen attentively to how the conversation begins. Through Moses God tells the Israelites: “I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” This word comes to Israel when it’s neither far enough from Egypt to forget the dominant culture and customs it left nor close enough to Canaan to fathom what’s ahead. At present, Israel as a nation and society doesn’t exist. Once it reaches the Land of Promise and overthrows the Canaanites, its primary duty will be establishing legal and cultural guidelines that promote social stability and welfare. Like similar talks about dietary and hygiene policy, this conversation is all about preparing the people for statehood.

God says, “I am the LORD”—all-caps, i.e. the One True God, all-powerful and all-wise, Whose word cannot be questioned. The premise for everything that follows, then, is to instruct the Israelites to follow God’s direction in founding their nation. It must not borrow from the Egyptians, nor adapt to Canaan’s current environment. [As the conversation ends (v24-25), God states, “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” Note the national emphasis and allusions to disease: “defile” (tame in Hebrew: “to be or become unclean; to contaminate”): “drive out” (meshalleach; “to send away,” in this case, “to isolate or quarantine”); “vomit” (qo; “to regurgitate”).] Then, just before prohibiting a long list of imaginative—in most cases, seriously warped—sex practices, God reasserts supreme authority. “You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees,” God says. “I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” (v4-5)

Rules for Living

What read like redundancies in English (“decrees” and “laws,” “obey” and “follow,” “obeys them” and “live by them”) are anything but redundant in the original Hebrew. Decrees (mishpat; “case, custom, decision, practice, etc.”) are verdicts rendered case-by-case to set or overturn precedent. Hence, God explicitly retains right to modify opinions, redefine terms, and reverse decisions as needed. Laws (choq; fixed patterns; ordinances) are statutes—constitutional edicts that undergird divine principles. Now things get really interesting, because Old Testament “obedience” comes in four flavors: to keep or protect; to listen closely and intelligently; to do or perform; and to consent or be willing. The first three are contractual, suggesting mutual agreement and honored trust. Only the last term approximates our concept of obedience as voluntary compliance to prescribed standards. Yet even that misses the term’s meaning. It employs a negative (“to refuse”) to indicate consensual action—a willingness to refrain, if you will. Leviticus 18 uses the three contractual verbs, but not the fourth, which would be the obvious choice if God were laying down commands. The chosen verbs leave no doubt Leviticus 18 provides rules for living that shouldn’t be misread as divine edicts. They’re verdicts, not statutes, and as such, are subject to modification, redefinition, and reversal at God’s discretion.

God invites Israel to agree to these guidelines. “The person who obeys [asah; does or performs] them will live by them.” While the phrase, “live by them” (va-chai) isn’t related to obedience at all, it flags the chapter. Va-chai (from the root chayay) means “saving life”! Given what God’s talking about and the topic at hand, both of which are plainly stated in English and even clearer in the original Hebrew, why we would dare suggest—let alone believe—Leviticus 18 is anything other than a roster of safe-sex practices to protect Israel’s public health, ensure its people’s longevity, and thereby preserve its stability as a nation?

The Original Audience

Since space is tight and the exercise isn’t especially instructive, we’ll skip enumerating the 17 sexual variations Leviticus 18 lists. Still, I advise anyone who’s been clobbered by Leviticus 18.22 (or concerned about those are) to review them here: Leviticus 18. When read in the correct context, a pattern emerges and an overall message comes to light. Interspersed through the guidelines we find several “shameful” phrases: “dishonor your father” (v8); “dishonor you” (v10); “dishonor your brother” (v18); “wickedness” (v17); “detestable” (v22); and “perversion” (v23). Both the list and the reproaches make a number of things patently clear. These activities are sufficiently prevalent in ancient culture to merit mention. Either their persistence or adoption will escalate the spread of infectious disease, wasting life instead of saving it. Since Leviticus 18 presents verdicts, not statutes, adhering to them is a personal choice, one unlikely to be made if the activities are acceptable. (One trembles to imagine living in an era where incest, child sacrifice, and bestiality are accepted; yet such were the times.) The reproaches convert health-endangering practices into cultural taboos. If God pronounces them dishonorable, wicked, detestable, and perverted, who would argue the verdict?

Hang on. Have we not just validated 18.22 as a trustworthy prohibition of same-sex orientation? It would seem so—until we check this reading against the context. Now that we know what God’s talking about, it’s equally important to establish whom God is speaking to. Who comprises the original audience? When we include the guideline against child sacrifice (v21), it’s apparent the chapter targets husbands and fathers, i.e., heterosexual men—with the understanding ancient cultures don’t categorize sexual behavior as straight or gay. Thus, the issue is traditional male responsibility for the community’s wellbeing. (Which is why men who knowingly put their community at risk are expunged from the populace per Leviticus 20’s death penalties.) To misappropriate 18.22 as a statute forbidding same-sex orientation, when it’s actually a verdict on same-gender sex, indicates one neither understands the enormous difference between identity and activity nor accounts for the text’s stated intention to save lives. The error of those who abuse this text to clobber homosexuals surpasses unlearned handling of Scripture. It represents flagrant disregard for Scripture’s statutory commands to love God and one another. Anyone so audacious and/or confused to break God’s Law in the name of righteousness and justice is in dire need of our compassion and prayers.

Leviticus 18 is a conversation between God and Israel in which God presents the community with safe-sex standards to promote its stability and wellbeing. Its prohibitions are not to be confused with divine edicts.