By John M. Gillespie
Once again, the state of Texas is shaking its fist at the federal government. After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout all fifty states, Texas governor Greg Abbott fired back, directing employees of the Lone Star State to thumb their noses at the “lawless ruling” of the Court and continue to deny same sex couples equal protection under the law. Citing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, both Abbot and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asserted that permitting the Court’s ruling to be carried out would force Christian Texans to compromise their “sincerely held religious beliefs” and dirty their hands in the business of gay marriage.
Let’s grant for the sake of argument, that same-sex marriage is a grievous sin, explicitly forbidden by the New Testament (Personally, I do not believe that it is). One should not, after all, take any action that may cause another to stumble (Romans 14:13). This argument has been circulating quite a bit over the past year. We’ve heard of cake-makers, restaurant operators, and even auto-body shop owners who have dug in their heels and turned away gay and lesbian customers on the grounds that engaging in commerce with them would irrevocably compromise their religious convictions.
It seems to me that most people apply this “sincerely” held religious belief quite selectively – and at his or her convenience. What business owner keeps a running list of sins on hand and demands a confession of each of his patrons before he agrees to take their money? Does the restaurant owner deny a cheeseburger to a diner on the grounds that he is carrying a little extra weight (Proverbs 23)? Or does the makeup peddler turn away a particularly painted patron lest he encourage her vanity (Jeremiah 4:30)? And in light of Jesus’s assertion that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28), should a newsstand owner hide his copies of Sports Illustrated to protect his customers and himself from the spiritual consequences? And to cite one more example – one that likely hits closer to home for many – do Christian wedding coordinators, caterers, and state employees routinely turn away women and men seeking to remarry? After all, it is very difficult to explain away Jesus’s very clear words about divorce (Matt. 19).
In any case, the ground on which the religiously committed build their case rests on several fault lines. There are six “terrible texts” (to borrow a phrase from Phyllis Trible) in the Bible which supposedly condemns homosexuality. It is important to note that none of them speak directly to committed monogamous relationships. Just three of them are in the New Testament, and none of them issue from the mouth of Jesus.
The Old Testament offers little insight into same-sex relationships. The most often cited text – the grim account of Sodom and Gomorrah, tells us little about how God feels about committed same sex relationships, but clearly demonstrates divine disapproval of gang rape. And those who call for the full implantation of Leviticus 18:22, which calls for the execution of homosexuals, would likely be hard-pressed to submit to Leviticus 20:9, which insists that we stone disobedient children. Likewise, following the whole Levitical code would forbid us from wearing more than a single fabric (Leviticus 19:19), and improperly trimming our beards (Leviticus 19:27).
If we continue to insist on a national policy that will deny basic rights to homosexuals, the New Testament is no less helpful in our pursuit. Although Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes reference to “homosexual offenders,” as the NIV reads, this translation is based on a Greek word so ambiguous that it has defied attempts to find a comparable concept in English. It occurs sparsely throughout ancient literature, and although it is clearly pejorative, it seems to cover a broad spectrum of exploitative sexual practices, and is never so narrowly applied as to single out committed same sex partnerships. A translator of Timothy 1:9-10 faces the same problem. Likewise, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is often offered as the clearest condemnation of same-sex relationships. Situated awkwardly in a passage condemning idolatry, the passage speaks more to an outburst of lusty pagan temple rituals (which almost invariably involved sex between a younger boy and an older man) than to committed same-sex relationships.
However one reads these six passages, their cumulative weight is hardly enough on which to build a complete theology, much less a national policy. In fact, many researchers and Biblical scholars are convinced that the Bible has little to say on matters of sexual orientation and identity, and is completely silent on gay marriage. These are issues that may preoccupy our day, but it was not so with the ancients.
Still, in public discourse, so much attention is given to the supposed condemnation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people that if a Martian were to land on earth today and begin to investigate the world’s religions, he could be excused for believing that sexuality is the primary focus of Christianity. So much attention is given the six texts that we practically ignore the abundance of over 300 passages in the Old and New Testaments that speak of treatment of the poor and upholding social justice. We call undue attention to whatever the Bible says about homosexuality that we miss the Bible’s greater message. A case in point: the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah was not a judgement on homosexuality, as has often been understood, but rather, as the prophet Ezekiel clarified:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy (16:49)
There are Christian leaders who insist that as a consequence of the Supreme Court decision, God’s judgement on America, like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, is at hand. I claim no knowledge of God’s timetable for judgement, nor can anyone. But on the Last Day, when we are called to account, how will we respond? Will we hide behind the six terrible texts and explain to Jesus that we refused to cater a gay wedding, or that we turned a gay couple away from our establishment, or that we denied a loving and committed gay couple a marriage license? I would not be surprised if Jesus, wondering just what we’ve been doing with our time on earth, shook his head and replied:
I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me (Matt. 25:42).
Greg Abbott, the Texas governor who is urging the faithful to stand firm in their faith needs to take a closer look on the foundations of that faith. Texas, the state over which he presides, ranks among the lowest states when it comes to commitment to public education, social welfare, and programs to aid the poor. Perhaps Abbott needs to consider the plank in his own eye before he points on the specks – real or imaginary – in the eyes of others.
John M. Gillespie is a teacher, history professor, and grateful member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Kingwood, Texas.