Who Wins When Bible is Blamed for Gay Bashing?

The news item is both grisly and depressingly familiar: a young man is accused of killing an older man for making sexual advances. The weapon was a sock filled with stones; the young man told police that he had been instructed in prayer to apply the Old Testament punishment of stoning. You want to stop there, recognizing old stereotypes of cultural homophobia coupled with age-prejudices—but mostly the unpredictability of violent delusions.

Unfortunately the story didn’t stop there. John Aravosis, political blogger and publicist for gay causes, is perhaps best known for leading a boycott against Dr. Laura; or else for outing a conservative “journalist” as a gay porn star. In a recent post, Aravosis says first that “the Bible does say to kill gays,” then quotes a string of alternate (and admittedly “wrong”) biblical translations before reiterating that they are “quite clear about the need to murder gay people,” only to conclude that “Christians do nothing about it, other than quote it against us in order to take away our civil rights.”

Before I say anything more about Aravosis, let me emphasize that some scraps of Christian language do seem to have figured in the delusions of the young man accused of committing the murder. Let me add that there is plenty of evidence (and much better evidence) that Christian churches in many times and places have cited their Bible to authorize crimes against a long list of people—including those accused of same-sex relations. But then let me ask the obvious question: Who gains when a gay activist endorses the most homophobic of marginal interpretations of the Bible after half a century of gay or gay-friendly efforts to establish better readings?

By “better” readings, I mean truer readings. Because, of course, even the one version of Leviticus 20:13 quoted by Aravosis that anachronistically uses the phrase “act of homosexuality” doesn’t say “kill gays.” It’s talking about acts, not identities—which the other fourteen versions make clear. There are no sexual orientations in Leviticus. As the Anglican theologian D.S. Bailey first argued more than fifty years ago, there is nothing in the texts of what Christian call the Old and New Testaments that corresponds with modern categories like homosexual or gay. The horrifying prescription of Leviticus 20:13 (and its correlate, 18:22) are not directed against classes of persons, but against acts committed by Israelite males (and males only). Moreover, it’s a matter of lively dispute even among fierce textual literalists exactly which acts are intended.

If acts versus identities seems too fancy, try this: Two millennia before Bailey’s argument, Christians had already begun rewriting the purity provisions of Leviticus, including its provisions for executing those guilty of certain crimes of impurity. John 8 tells a story in which Jesus prevents the stoning of a woman taken in adultery—though that penalty is also prescribed in Leviticus 20. So when later governments in Christendom wanted to punish persons convicted of same-sex acts, rather than cite a supposedly literal reading of Leviticus they preferred to cite a statute by the emperor Justinian—which relied in turn on a misreading of the usefully vague story of Sodom.

We know so much about this because two or three generations of scholars have worked to restore more accurate readings of the “clobber passages” in scripture and to recover something of the hidden history of same-sex relations in Christian churches and the societies around them. Many of these scholars were Christians, and they did their work because they judged that homophobic uses of the Bible were not only false and unjust, but blasphemous. If their results are still controversial in some Christian churches, in others they have led to wholesale revisions of standard biblical interpretations.

Even in Christian churches that regularly and (to my mind) badly cite the Bible against same-sex acts, it’s hard to find a prominent voice that urges stoning in punishment of any of the capital offenses against purity in Leviticus 20. When some church figure does suggest such an interpretation, he or she is typically disowned by other “conservative” voices. The young man accused of murder may have heard some extreme interpretation of Leviticus somewhere, but it’s more likely that he made it up by scrambling things he’d half-heard and never understood.

So the interpretation of Leviticus 20 offered by Aravosis is textually inaccurate, contrary to the Gospel example of Jesus, historically repudiated by Christian communities, and today espoused only on the fringes of the most homophobic church polemic. Who gains, then, when Aravosis asserts that this is what the Bible says and (unspecified) Christians believe? Or who exactly is being persuaded—and of what?

It’s tempting to say that the only gain could be for those fringe voices who garner public credibility for their otherwise discredited views. But neither those voices nor their regular sparring partners are likely to care much what someone like Aravosis thinks about the Bible. Indeed, the blog post’s only imaginable effect on homophobic church readers would be to move the more moderate of them towards a more extreme interpretation. Does Aravosis really want to persuade members of the Southern Baptist Convention, say, that a strict interpretation of Leviticus requires them to advocate the death penalty for same-sex acts?

It’s more likely that Aravosis is preaching to his own choir; that is, to political liberals who identify as LGBTQ, or their staunch allies. What effect will this post have on them? It can only confirm the view that queer political progress depends on a strict secularism—after all, Christians only quote their violent Bible “to take away our civil rights.” We politically awake queers would be so much better off, the post implies, if only we could get rid of that hateful book and those who still read it.

This argument isn’t new. It goes back at least to the heated passions of gay liberation around 1970—to the strident Marxism of solidarity and revolution. Indeed, opposition to religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was one way that the liberationists tried to distinguish themselves from earlier homophile groups—whom they dismissed as hopelessly compromised by their efforts to form alliances with churches.

I am tempted to ask Aravosis whether what he counts as progress in gay politics (say, around Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) owes more to the liberationists or to their homophile predecessors. But let me end instead by noting who suffers from blanket dismissals of Christians like this one. Now, as in 1970, the constituency most likely to be damaged by such polemic is not the membership of conservative churches, but LGBT believers. This post, which seems to attack murderous Christian bigotry, ends up attacking other queer people.

I recall the long line of Christian writers, pastors, and congregants who have labored strenuously over recent decades to change received readings of the Bible, to enlist the churches in support of legal reforms, to open church hierarchies and church rituals to LGBT people. They understood, as Aravosis may not, that no effort at public persuasion could forestall every violent misuse of the Bible or any other sacred text. If all major and minor denominations were suddenly to repudiate their homophobic interpretations, the biblical text would still remain at the mercy of individuals or groups who seek to abuse it in order to conceal their crimes.

While it cannot issue guarantees, the patient work of undoing Christian homophobia is still worthwhile—if not for bloggers like Aravosis, then for the sake of public debate in a country where Christianity still wields considerable power. And not least for the sake of queer believers who still find themselves caught between the dogma of homophobic churches and the dogma of versions of gay politics.

mjorda2@emory.edu'

Mark D. Jordan teaches at Harvard Divinity School. His books include The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1997); The Ethics of Sex (Blackwell, 2002); and Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech (Beacon, 2003). His latest is Recruiting Young Love: How Americans Talk about Homosexuality.