Is the God of Scripture a Homophobic Bully?
Dr Simon Perry
17th February, 2013
Richard Dawkins claims that the God of Scripture is a homophobic bully – and this evening we address the question of whether this is a fair description – given the pretty clear reading we heard from Romans. Several people regard this question as potentially, ‘controversial.’ Maybe it is, but it is 23 years to the day since the first chaplain of this college – Rev Dr David Stacey – stood here and preached a sermon entitled ‘Good, Gay and Godly’. Now, 23 years ago, that was a much more controversial topic than it is today – and that sermon (which will be published on the chapel website) is well worth a read, not least because I have leaned quite heavily upon it.
It is an abomination: it is expressly forbidden, it is a moral taboo, it is unnatural, it makes God angry and it is just plain wrong. I am, of course, referring to the practice of wearing two different kinds of cloth at the same time. So anyone wearing a gown with clothes underneath it, anyone wearing jeans and t shirt or shirt and tie, is committing an abominable act – according to the book of Leviticus, which is the only place in the whole of Scripture that condemns homosexuality. It is not only the only thing the bible has to say about homosexuality, but it is the only place where it is expressly and unambiguously forbidden. Any who wish to regard homosexuality as a sin, can only do so by obeying the entire list of dictates of Leviticus – dictates that are impossible and ridiculous to obey in our culture. It would be quite hypocritical to condemn homosexual relationships as sinful, if you yourself are malingering in the depravity of a bi-textile lifestyle.
If you read Leviticus, homosexual acts are an abomination – but if you keep reading and get as far as the book of Proverbs tells us that there are seven abominations, and homosexuality is not one of them. So if you want to be a literalist… you cannot say that homosexuality is an abomination!
But the text of Leviticus is not the focus today. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most widely cited by those who wish to condemn homosexuality. The trouble is, you can only use Paul’s letter this way, by interpreting it into its exact opposite.
The reading from Amos shows a rhetorical device often used by rabbis. If we want to talk about human nature, then the most natural thing in the world – then it is to love your neighbours and hate your enemies, affection for those within the tribe, hostility for the opposing tribe, support Cambridge boat club – despise Oxford. Us and them, God is on our side, they are the pagans. So Amos – embarks upon an extended diatribe against the neighbours of Israel, the terrible things they have done, the ways they have angered God, and predicted the punishments they will receive. And you can picture the crowds listening to Amos, nodding their heads and clapping their hands with approval at the denunciation of their enemies. The trouble is, having worked his way clockwise around the tribes on Israel’s borders – Amos finally turns his guns upon Israel herself – saying – you, of all the people, you who claim to be God’s chosen people are thereby more guilty than anyone else!
Now this – is precisely the dynamic of Paul’s opening chapter in Romans: in good, Jewish prophetic style, he lists all the detestable practices of the Romans (this letter is, after all, addressed to Rome!) So, the good and godly Christians living in Rome can nod and clap and enjoy the condemnation of their enemies. The trouble is, at the end of this list of detestable practices, Paul turns round to the Christians in Rome to make his real point: “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge another – because by doing that you condemn yourself.” How is that applicable to the question of same sex relationships?
To answer that we have to go back to the creation of the world… six thousand years ago: The only real biblical text that is applicable to the debate about homosexuality, is the text of Genesis, about how Adam and Eve are presented as the archetypal human couple – and that doesn’t mention same sex relationships at all. In the beginning, so the logic goes, God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. As David Stacey mentioned in his sermon, “God made Adam and Eve as male and female, put them on earth and told them to get on with it.”
The dynamic of the Genesis text shows that the partnship between the man and the woman is a particular way of engaging with otherness. The gender difference between Adam and Eve draws them to encounter the otherness of the other, in a way that two people of the same gender, could not – by definition – encounter it. This is the reason why many people oppose gay marriage – not necessarily because of homophobia. But because the type of gendered otherness that constitutes a marriage – is simply not available to partners of the same gender. So … however you want to cut it, those arguing for gay marriage – are arguing for marriage to be something other than it currently is anyway. The row over gay marriage is an argument for a redefinition of marriage - and that may or may not be a legitimate argument.
So, the biblical objection to homosexual partnership concerns the limited range of otherness to which those of the same gender have access. Now … bearing that in mind … we can come back to Saint Paul. Paul has listed all these terrible sins that his readers just love to condemn, the sins of those others out there, those despicable people not like us, those pagan others at whom we can point the finger. And – in the very act of pointing the finger – we demonstrate our own refusal to engage well with otherness. By condemning others for their limited capacity to engage otherness, we demonstrate our own limited capacity to do the same thing. In other words, by Paul’s logic – when we condemn homosexual people, we thereby become spiritually homosexual. In some Christian circles, your readiness to condemn homosexuality is a measure of your Christian soundness and boldness – and it is those circles that, by Pauline logic – are spiritually homosexual.
Those who misread Scripture – whether they are conservative Christians or Richard Dawkins – do not have a monopoly on biblical interpretation.
Is the God of Scripture the homophobic bully he is accused of? If you read Romans in context, the charge doesn’t work. The Leviticus text is clearly not a straightforward one to deal with … The Genesis text is where we are left with, presents the one man and his one wife in the garden of Eden, as the most natural thing in the world. But what counts as natural is itself a complex question – which necessarily incorporates environmental factors, and since nowadays, we all live outside the garden of Eden – it is pretty difficult to use those living in paradise as a model for how real life functions. If you look in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels under the great ideal of heterosexual bliss called ‘marriage’, you find only two words: see – divorce. Jesus says virtually nothing on the topic… Adam is no longer in Eden.
But there is another Adam, the last Adam, whose presence we do encounter in the real world. Whose otherness we encounter in one another as we share the meal we call communion. This is an experience you cannot have on someone else’s behalf: the God of scripture draws us away from condemning other people – that is the job of satan. The God of scripture is less concerned with how other people engage with otherness: but how do you engage with the otherness we encounter in daily life, in your life, here and now.