It is tough, lonely, and occasionally dangerous to be an LGBT religious activist. Fellow queers think you’re an apologist for an oppressive system, or that you haven’t yet gotten over your guilt about being gay. Religious people think you’re nuts, or evil, or worse. And you have to be told, time and time again, that your love for your partner, lover, or friend is no different from someone’s lust for a sheep. I think our work is saving the world, but it definitely sucks at times.
Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge, a regular contributor to this journal, has been one of the few activists to “heal the healer,” as it were. Her book, Bulletproof Faith, is an invaluable guide to queer folks and allies who, perhaps unwittingly, find themselves on the front line of religious arguments about sexuality and gender. From meditation instructions to old-fashioned encouragement, Bulletproof Faith is a treasure.
Recently, on The Huffington Post, Rev. Chellew-Hodge suggested that gays and lesbians should never argue scripture—in particular, the half dozen “clobber verses” that some people interpret against gays. Why? Because nobody wins, everyone’s opinion hardens, and we talk past each other, because gays and lesbians are usually not biblical literalists, while our opponents usually are. Most importantly, she wrote, “the Bible has nothing much to say about homosexuality,” which after all is a modern concept not known to the pre-modern men who wrote the Bible—men who also believed that the earth was flat and that women were property.
Chellew-Hodge’s suggestion sounds wise, but I want to respectfully disagree with it. I think we can make progress by talking about Scripture, even if we adopt a literalist perspective for the sake of argument. (For what it’s worth, my new book, coming out in October—God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality—does just that. So I’m a little invested in the idea.)
First, we don’t need to “win” on the clobber verses—we need to tie. I agree that nobody will ever “win” on the definitive reading of Romans 1:26. However, many LGBT people (and allies) have put forth plausible, close readings of it, as well as Leviticus 18:22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. (It’s scary that I know these citations by heart.) Not by explaining them away on context, or ascribing them to a limited human perspective, but by looking closely at words like toevah (“abomination,” but really “taboo”) and para physin (“unnatural,” but not in anything like a scientific sense). On these micro-points, some of which I’ve discussed here,on RD, our readings are as good as theirs, if not better.
So then a dilemma arises. When faced with two equally coherent interpretations of biblical verses, what do we do? Well, we have to turn to our fundamental values and ask which reading makes sense in light of those values. By way of analogy, “thou shalt not kill” seems to admit of no exceptions—and yet, obviously it does, because other biblical verses discuss the law of war. So we resolve the ambiguity in one verse by looking at other ones.
And this is where our tie turns into a win. Unless the very existence of sexual diversity is denied, the anti-gay readings of the clobber verses raise a lot of problems. How can we square our value that “it is not good to be alone” with a demand that all gay people be celibate for life? How can we reconcile our values of fairness and justice with penalizing people for an involuntary trait? (Of course, not every queer person experiences sexuality this way, but some do.) It’s a mess.
On the other hand, if we read the clobber verses narrowly, none of these problems arise. Thus, between two equally valid readings, the one that maintains our fundamental values of love, companionship, fairness, justice, honesty, and human dignity wins.
Is this too abstruse for arguing around the dinner table? I don’t think so. Most folks still believe that the Bible speaks clearly and unambiguously about homosexuality. Where they disagree is in what to do about it. But the Bible doesn’t speak clearly and unambiguously—quite the contrary. And we need to make that clear.
Chellew-Hodge’s program hangs our religious hopes on literalists changing into non-literalists. Now, I wouldn’t mind if that happened, but it’s a tall order—more like a miracle. Folks have deep-seated reasons for their commitments to biblical inerrancy; deeper than their love for their own children. As religious progressives and advocates for equality, we can’t hang our hopes on divesting people of this belief. We can do better—not because literalism is right, but because we don’t need it to be wrong.
In contrast, my approach only requires that people admit that there is a lot more unclarity in the clobber verses than they previously thought. From there, we’re on home turf. Then we can have the real conversation: how God’s grace operates in the lives of LGBT people, how gay and lesbian love is a path to holiness. Then we can testify to the truth of LGBT experience: that sexual diversity does exist. Then we can speak from our own experience, our own witness.
But first we have to crack the false façade of biblical unambiguity. I am convinced that we can open that crack, on the face of the biblical text itself, and that when we do so, the light will come in.
I am grateful for Jay Michaelson’s generous disagreement with me over my assertion that gay and lesbian people should refrain from arguing scriptures. He does a great job of capturing the overall point of disagreement between literalists and progressives when reading the scriptures that are used to condemn homosexuality.
I, however, remain unconvinced.
I can argue both sides of this issue. For a long time—too long, I think—I argued scripture with anyone who could spare five minutes, or a week or two. I relished the back and forth—the “gotcha” moments of both sides—and told myself I was boldly arguing as a way to teach others who may be reading along or listening in about how to effectively argue against homophobes. Eventually, though, the exercise became painful; mainly because the “tie” Michaelson says he hopes to achieve is unreachable. Those who disagree with homosexuality, no matter how compassionate they may feel toward gays and lesbians, will never even agree that a “tie” can be reached.
While I admire Michaelson’s attempt to redefine the battle over scripture by requiring “that people admit that there is a lot more unclarity in the clobber verses than they previously thought,” it is ultimately quixotic. Those who are most attached to the certainty of their interpretation of scripture have no interest in admitting any “unclarity” in the clobber verses. There is no common ground in such a redefinition.
Arguing over scripture—even arguing over whether to argue over scripture—only frustrates the participants and continues to cloud the real issue that the Bible calls us to embrace grace over judgment, acceptance over rejection, and love over hatred. This is why I no longer argue scripture.
That does not mean that I am not open to dialogue over the Bible, and perhaps this is where Michaelson and I can agree. If I meet someone who is honestly searching for what the scriptures may or may not say about the issue of homosexuality, and we are both willing to be open and honest about our misgivings about scripture, and willing to be vulnerable with one another in the conversation, then I’m more than willing to talk scripture. However, I refuse to argue. If anyone wants to play the “gotcha” game over scripture, they’ll have to find another player because it won’t be me.
The bottom line, as I have written before, is this: once you settle the argument over the Bible and homosexuality for yourself, there is never any need to argue those passages again. Why? Because you don’t have to justify yourself to any human being. It is not their approval that you seek, but God’s. Once you have satisfied yourself that you and God are square and that your sexual orientation is a gift from God to be used to Her glory—then all the arguments are settled. Your faith is bulletproof, and no enemy can prevail against it.