Homophobia and the Bible


Following is the text of the sermon Bob Karnan gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Portsmouth, NH, on October 4,1994. Bob was pastor of this church, also known as South Church, for nine years prior to his untimely and tragic death in the summer of 1995.

Homophobia, like racism, is insidious and destructive of human dignity in ways that are barely recognized. It is assumed to be sanctioned by no less than the authority of God and that legal and social sanctions that protect the rest of humanity from exposure to gays and lesbians are necessary and just. The connection of homosexuality with social chaos and moral degeneration is legion and unbridled. It is both conscious and unconscious. The pervasive homophobia in our nation is viciously destructive for almost ten per cent of our population. The saddest fact of this homophobic destruction is that it is as pervasive among gay men and lesbians as it is in the rest of the American population. The belief that human beings who consistently share sexual intimacy with those of their own sex are violating the laws of God and nature is the cause of great agony and it is one of the most general and ultimately false assumptions held today.

Let me put the record straight with regard to the injunctions of the Old Testament and the New. The very first fact to face is that neither of these documents is as those of traditional religions have often taught. The Old Testament was codified and finalized in translation and in interpretation nine centuries after Jesus lived and died. It was crafted at that time with reference to the already codified New Testament and more than a thousand years of rabbinical teaching and interpretation. It is fair to say that the Jewish Old Testament reflects not only material that was in it originally but also the social values of the centuries leading up to and including the tenth century A.D.

The New Testament reflects the interpretations of the sixth century and the views of the Catholic Church at that time. In the first few centuries of Christendom same sex marriages were celebrated and performed regularly. Priests and Bishops were often married, and many were married to same sex partners. The sudden discovery of sexual repression and guilt came to the Church following the forth century and in the sixth century the final versions of the New Testament were canonized. You will not be surprised to know, I suspect, that further "translations" (or versions) of both the Old and New Testaments have inserted into those older documents the theological, social, sexual, and sexist views of the times in which they were added. Like a rolling ball of snow the Bible now is an accumulation of three thousand years of moral, theological, and sexual attitudes layered upon one another in often wild profusion.

This the first fact to face. And it is important. The second is that the only significant moral imperative regarding homosexuality to be found in the New Testament is in Paul's first letter to the Romans, and it is an insertion from a much later time. It is an interesting letter only in that it reports a general observation of moral decay in Rome and in the civilized world, as Paul saw it. He was especially pained at the falling away from his influence and teaching among former followers in Rome. He stated in the first chapter of his letter that because some had given up the firm belief in his God and returned to a pagan practice of nature worship that their reason had failed them, that they had fallen away to adhere to rules of conduct that are not Christian, and they had turned to crime and injustice, and malevolence, and arrogant slander. Because they were once Christians and then rejected it, they should all be put to death.

In a later age someone inserted two brief verses into Paul's diatribe that can only be seen as strange and intrusive to his message. The two verses seek to change Paul's argument to say: Because some former followers fell from a firm Christian belief they became homosexuals; and because they are homosexuals they have become criminals, murderers, thieves, liars, insolent, are without conscience, pity, or affections. Now the logic of the argument is changed from: All who reject Christian belief become immoral and criminal; to: All who reject Christian belief become homosexual; because they are homosexual they become immoral and criminal. Thus, all who are homosexual are immoral and criminal. And, (in an exercise of poor logic) all who are criminal and immoral are homosexual. And further, no Christian is homosexual. And No Christian is immoral or criminal. Paul's original anger at those who left his flock was later turned into a homophobic diatribe.

A connection to social decay and moral decadence with regard to same sex behavior was clearly not the teaching of the New Testament or the Christian Church in the first few centuries of its life. It came along later, in a period of sexual repression, authoritarianism, virulent sexism and the subjugation of women, and the subsequent development of a doctrine of celibacy for Church leaders and doctrines of guilt and sin with regard to human sexuality. There are a few other New Testament "turning of phrases" within one translation or another that may be interpreted as condemning homosexuality, but each of them have been shown to be inauthentic and emendations of later repressive times.

When we look at the powerful and good relationships that Jesus had with his disciples and the descriptions of holding one another and sleeping with one another in communal warmth and intimacy we find a picture of human sensuality if not sexuality that is far from repressed, uptight, or virulently judgmental. So much for the New Testament and homophobia. In its original condition, there was no prohibition or law or doctrine. There was an invitation to love God and one another with all our hearts and minds and souls, and to walk with one another in the ways of truth, for that will set us free.

There is a wonderful story in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament (Chapter 19) in which the ancient patriarch of Israel, Abraham, is confronted at the door of his tent in the heat of the day by what appear to be three men. One turns out to be the Lord and the other two are his messengers or angels. The Lord God engages Abraham in a discussion and tells him that he is sending the two messengers to Sodom to destroy the entire city and all who dwell therein. Abraham apologizes for his unwanted intrusiveness but asks God if he really wants to kill the innocent that might be found there. God promises him that if there are any innocents that they will be spared.

The messengers go to Sodom and find the man Lot sitting at the city gate. He welcomes them to his town and invites them to his home to eat and to sleep after their journey. Once in the house a mob gathers and shouts that they want the strangers tossed out so that they can be robbed and sexually assaulted. Lot refuses the crowd and is saved by the angels from the mob's wrath. The messengers and Lot and his family flee the city and it is destroyed by the Lord God.

The reason the Lord gives for destroying Sodom is that they are violent, robbers, thieves, practice no mercy or justice or compassion. They are crude and have no laws or social order. They are so violent and that they make tragic victims of all who are weak. In the story it is clear that the mob wanted to homosexually rape the two messengers. The conclusion that many draw from the story of Sodom is that all homosexuals are, by God's judgment, to be eliminated from the face of the earth. The logic of Paul's (edited) letter to the Romans intervenes and the story is interpreted as saying: "Homosexuality leads to social decay and lawless violence."

The old text of Genesis makes clear that the sin of Sodom (and the inhabitants) is their violence and victimization of those who are weaker. They are a place of almost universal homicide of all who stumble into their midst. It is the rape that is the sin, not the homosexual orientation The prophet Ezekiel later felt compelled to reinforce this message by insisting in his time (several hundred years later) that "This was the sin of your sister Sodom: She did not support the poor and the needy." (Ez 16:49) And she committed murder. It was the heartlessness of the people and their brutality that was their undoing, not the prevalence of homosexuality among many of them.

In other places the Old Testament acknowledges that same sex conduct was usual in many other cultures than in Israel, but there is no specific condemnation of it. There is, however, loud condemnation of injustice, murder, untruth, violence, slander, and deceit. Egypt is often acknowledged as a place in which homosexuality existed openly yet in the Old Testament there is not one single judgment that condemns that fact.

In the Old Testament book of I Kings (15:12) there is a verse that tells us that King Asa purged the land of all "Sodomites." He killed many, and ran off more. This translation in the King James version of the Bible has been commonly accepted. The word in Hebrew is qedeshim, which means quite literally, "the consecrated ones." why it is translated in Christian Bibles as "Sodomites" is quite strange and wholly unwarranted. It is clear homophobia. The consecrated ones were most probably prostitutes who worked in the service of the Temple to earn money to sustain it. King Asa deemed that such a practice was in violation of the moral code of the Temple and of Judaism and he drove them out.

The attribution of same sex behavior to those driven out was a clever homophobic artifice of the sixteenth century, but it is a clear destruction of the meaning of the passage.

The bedrock Biblical attribution that is supposed to condemn same sex love and intimacy is to be found in the least read book of the Bible. In Leviticus 18:22 it says; Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination This book of the Old Testament is the list of the rules and regulations and laws of the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the manual on proper ritual practice and procedure and as such it delineates the ways one attains ritual purity or falls into ritual impurity with regard to Temple worship. To participate in Temple activities one must be ritually pure. There are states of lesser purity that allow one to do certain ritual things and not others outside the Temple. And there are some states of impurity that mean a person can participate in no ritual anywhere and others that are so heinous if done while impure that one can be put to death. In Leviticus the rule is that if you are a male and participate in same sex activity you are a dead man. It is quite clear on the matter. That is the bad news. Now the good news.

There is no proscription against women sharing sexual intimacy with one another. It is ok for any women (even one who is Jewish) to be a lesbian. But that is not all. The rules of Leviticus apply to those and only those who seek to be ritually pure Jews and live in Israel under its laws and participate in the Temple worship. By implication it may apply to all Jews everywhere, but again, only to those who seek ritual purity. It is not an ethnic definition, it is one of ritual practice and purity.

Thus, same sex intimacy is forbidden for Jewish males who seek to be orthodox or ritually pure. It is forbidden to any male who lives in Israel (so as keep the holy land pure too). Since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed almost two thousand years ago the rules regarding worship and ritual purity with regard to it are moot. Homosexuality for all who are not Jewish is not condemned in Leviticus. That amounts to 99% of all humanity. It is not condemned for any woman, Jewish or not. The only hitch for someone who is not Jewish is that they may not live or visit in Israel if they are a homosexual man.

The reason for the concern about male same sex intimacy is that the priests of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem wanted to guarantee a high birth rate and so made it a ritual obligation. The wasting of semen in the service of sexual pleasure was what was being prohibited (or producing progeny in an impure sexual union). Wasting semen amounted to a death of potential Jewish male children. Male masturbation and any other form of sexual activity that does not lead to coitus with a woman who is fertile was also banned. The rules were created and enforced to reinforce a small population with a future populace. They then became rules of ritual purity. To undermine the future of the nation was treason and a rejection of God's covenant, they taught, and thus the penalty was death.

The same sex love and conduct of Egypt was not condemned. Nor was the homosexuality of other peoples and places. Indeed homosexuality was a common feature of the ancient world and was neither shocking nor considered immoral or a cause for social and moral decay. It was not considered an immoral form of sexual expression by the old priesthood, it was simply contraindicated for a large birth rate and was thus ritually impure and an abomination because it violated, in their view, the demand of the Lord to be fruitful and multiply. If a man was married to a woman who produced children it was not at all ritually impure for her to have love and sexual intimacy relationships with another woman, not as long as she was doing her primary job. And the truth is that such a relationships existed throughout ancient Israel.

Many of the other verses of Leviticus are also read out of context and without understanding. If we took them as universally and ignorantly as do those who quote Leviticus 18:22 they condone the owning of slaves and the free sexual use of them. They condone the whipping of recalcitrant women and children. They mandate a woman produce as many children as she is able in her time and until her health falls. They require the subjugation of all to a powerful priesthood that runs the state. They provide a list of does and don'ts that would crush the heart and soul of all --both those who like Leviticus 18:22 and those who do not. It amazes me that almost no other rule of Leviticus is quoted with such final authority and certainty with regard to behavior, attitude, and religious practice. It is in fact a proof texted selective reading of the Bible that is the best evidence of uninformed homophobia that can be found today. It is the litmus test for one who lives in prejudice and hate.

But there is more that I must say. Moral decay in the family does not come from those who love another of the same sex. It comes from a moral decay of the family. It comes from the demands of economic stress, from children left alone, from parents who do not devote time with their children or who cannot. It comes from stress and loneliness and greed and substance abuse and selfishness and foolishness. Violence and social dysfunction come not from those who love one another of the same sex. It comes from the violent and socially dysfunctional. It comes from the rage and emptiness of generations trapped in wastelands of poverty and racism. It comes from rapists and murderers of all kinds and persuasions. It comes from brutality passed on generation to generation without sufficient intervention. It comes from mental health support that has been systematically eliminated as too costly and not needed.

Sexual abuse of children is an equal opportunity cruelty. It is everywhere and in every region, economic class, race, gender, and sexual identity. It is a disease of the soul and demands the certain and firm intervention of all of us whenever we find it. But it is not and never has been the province of gay men and women.

The images of homophobia come from homophobics. Some use the Bible, the trend is increasing. It is a calculated cruel crusade of sadism and virulent hate. It is a monstrous untruth. And it is a trauma to those who experience its wrath.

In these times of ours a group of angry and destructive people has mobilized to attack all who are gay and lesbian and has labeled them as moral perverts and the main source of moral decay in our nation. In my life time groups with the same or similar extremist and so called "Christian" and fundamentalist viewpoints have identified Catholics as the vile vermin that is destroying America (and also say while doing so that they are the saviors who will cleanse our nation). They have claimed to their shame that there is a Jewish Conspiracy that is destroying America (and that they are the saviors). They have pointed to the teaching of evolution as the cause of our moral decay (and that only their teaching of creationism will cure the rot). They have singled out liberals and labeled all of them as "communists" and agents of the former Soviet Union and who are out to destroy our nation (and they are the saviors). They have attacked the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the peace movement of two decades ago as fundamental evil (and they claim that they are the ones elected to save the nation).

They have attacked women who seek equal opportunity and freedom from sexual harassment and identified them as a cancer eating at the heart of America (and they are the saviors). They have sought to close women's health centers and Planned Parenthood Clinics as places of murder and moral degradation (and they are the saviors). And now, to continue what is a tiresome and quite silly and thoroughly morally bankrupt crusade of fatuous self righteousness these same self proclaimed guardians have discovered that those who love and are sexually intimate with a person of the same sex are the cause of the problems of this nation (and, again, they are the saviors so necessary to win the day).

Martin Niemoeller, a minister of the German Confessing Church, spent eight and a half years in a Nazi death camp; afterwards he wrote poignantly:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists, mid I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Enough. Friends, the perversion at the center of this most recent nation wide assault on those who love homosexually is grotesque. The fraudulent misuse of the Bible as an authority for vicious hate is not perhaps uncommon, but it is cruel and horrific.

Enough. This long pattern of self indulgent self righteousness is a sickness. It masquerades as a moral message but it does so attacking first one and then another of us and does so without conscience, enlightenment or love. It is a campaign of extreme hate that violates everything the Bible seeks to teach, the churches and synagogues to inspire, and what the spiritual center of this nation mandates. It is a sickness and we must speak out, all of us, before it becomes a plague

Robert W. Karnan, DMn
South Church
Portsmouth, NH

April 10, 1994

Copyright ©1994 by Robert W. Karnan