Today I’ll cover part three of the series which answers a question from a reader of my Facebook posts. This is the question:
Why don’t Christians condemn the parts of their Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed. While they are at it they could do the same about the bits that condone rape and the bits that say gays must die.
Part One (non-believers) is here. Part Two (rape) is here.
Part Three will attempt to discuss the final part, which is referring to the sexual prohibitions mentioned in Leviticus 18. To provide some context, this chapter in Leviticus is part of a larger section describing the Law of Holiness (Lv 17-26), which is a guide for the moral formation of the Israelites, as a people distinct from the surrounding nations who were known for various types of degenerate behaviour such as incest and child sacrifice. The list of sexual prohibitions in Chapter 18 spans a few categories which I have itemised in the table below. To modern ears and in a society that has been deeply wounded by the adultery and divorce culture, these lists sound harsh and judgmental; words like ‘sin’ and ‘degenerate’ trigger emotional responses in people who have been affected by the negative consequences of the rampant sexual license characteristic of the post-WW2 era. And then the Biblical descriptions of menstrual impurity sound completely alien to our ears if we don’t read them with any comprehension of the concept of ritual purity in ancient Judaism.
|Prohibitions in Leviticus 18||Number of rules||Verse|
|Incest (various classifications)||11||6-17|
|Sex during menstrual periods||1||19|
There is a constant refrain running through Leviticus, wherein God reminds the Israelites, “Be consecrated to me, for I, the LORD, am holy, and I shall set you apart from all these peoples, for you to be mine” (Lv 20:26). The idea of holiness is intended to convey the ‘separateness, inaccessibility and awe-inspiring transcendence’ [i] of God, and the lists of ‘sins’ are there to help the Israelites identify the particular practices that God regards as being problematic if one wants to grow in one’s covenant relationship with him.
I’m going to take a leap here and suggest that, at bottom, the reader was really asking what right Christians have to include homosexual practices in any list of sins. Is he really worried that Christians are going to start executing homosexual people because of Leviticus 20:13 or putting to death the man who has an affair with another man’s wife because of Leviticus 20:10? To be sure, some countries have current legislation demanding severe punishments for homosexual acts, but they are Islamic, not Christian. For example, Iran’s New Islamic Penal Code lists this penalty:
Article 234– The hadd punishment for livat shall be the death penalty for the insertive/active party if he has committed livat by using force, coercion, or in cases where he meets the conditions for ihsan; otherwise, he shall be sentenced to one hundred lashes. The hadd punishment for the receptive/passive party, in any case (whether or not he meets the conditions for ihsan) shall be the death penalty.[ii]
– however, it is principally in countries which have sprung from the Christian intellectual tradition that so-called LGBT rights have even been able to emerge. Why the difference?
This is because Christians read the Old Testament books of the Bible in the light of the New Testament – and vice versa. St Augustine tells us:
The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the New. [iii]
(quamquam et in Vetere Novum lateat, et in Novo Vetus pateat)
This grace hid itself under a veil in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed in the New Testament according to the most perfectly ordered dispensation of the ages, forasmuch as God knew how to dispose all things.[iv]
Jesus as the Word of God is the God the Father’s perfect expression of Himself, and if we want to interpret Old Testament texts correctly, we have to look to Jesus’ own word and example. You can find this specific instruction in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2053):
Following Jesus Christ involves keeping the Commandments. The Law has not been abolished, but rather man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfilment.[v]
Again, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, has emphasised the person of Christ as the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of Scripture.
- … God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”. I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.[vi]
So, to answer the reader’s question, the Church doesn’t condemn those parts of the Old Testament that seem difficult; the Old Testament is a crucial part of the story of Salvation. But we must then make our next question, “So how would Jesus behave towards a person with same-sex attraction?”
The answer: “Always with love.”
Now, what we mean by ‘love’ is complicated, because in the Christian understanding it means ‘willing the good of the other’, which is not the same as approving every action of ‘the other’ or agreeing with ‘the other’ on what they believe. The Christian understanding of the human person distinguishes a person from his/her acts. It is this understanding of love that enables the gay Rubin Report presenter, Dave Rubin, to sit down with Bishop Robert Barron and have a mature and respectful discussion about same sex marriage. It is this understanding of love that enables the SSA Tim Wilson to sit down with Andrew Hastie and have a charitable conversation on the same topic.
St Augustine (he is so very useful) has a famous epithet for this ability to distinguish between a person’s inherent dignity and their acts (or beliefs): Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum , which can be translated as “with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin”[vii]. We can see this in Jesus’ actions when he says to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11) in the same sentence: “Neither do I condemn you; go and from now on sin no more.” He doesn’t crush her (literally and figuratively) by condemning her to being stoned to death, but at the same time he doesn’t deny that her actions have been sinful, and he calls her gently to a renunciation of sin.
Now when we come to people who are same-sex-attracted (SSA), explaining this gets tricky, because in our current culture, as never before in the history of mankind, sexual orientation is regarded as an inherent characteristic of the SSA person – as if it is part of one’s genetic makeup. And so, any criticism of same-sex activity becomes per se a criticism of the person’s identity or orientation. But is sexual orientation really genetically determined?
Speaking as a former Human Biology teacher and as someone who has studied molecular genetics at post-graduate level, I can say that the evidence for sexual orientation being genetically determined is not conclusive by any means, and the science as it currently stands sees it as being the result of a complex interaction of genetic, hormonal, environmental and social influences. For example, an Australian study of 4,901 sets of twins by Bailey, Dunne and Martin[viii] found only 20% concordance in sexual orientation in male monozygotic (identical) twins and 24% concordance in female monozygotic twins. If the condition were purely genetic, the concordance should be 100%. In fact, the gay community are divided among themselves about sexual orientation: many who want to leverage a political and ideological agenda want to claim the ‘born this way’ status, so that the group as a whole can be treated as a victimised minority group, while at the same time, others want to promote the idea of gender fluidity so that children can be indoctrinated at an early age with the ideology that gender is a malleable social construct of our own self-creation and not something objective and biologically determined.
On a personal level and as someone who has a few SSA friends and acquaintances, I am leaning towards a strong correlation with social factors and have made the following informal observations about cases I am familiar with, as they have been self-reported to me.
- Friend #1 is female SSA, was sexually and physically abused by her father in her early years, and reportedly without emotional support from a passive mother. This friend is now coping with the additional burden of paranoid schizophrenia.
- Friend #2 is female SSA, was abandoned by her mother in her early years. Her mother was a drug abuser and is currently living as a homeless person.
- Friend #3 is female SSA. Her case involves significant childhood trauma, but because of her status as a friend of mine, I can’t even begin to discuss her case publicly.
- Friend #4 is male SSA, was sexually abused by ‘multiple teachers and an older boy’.[ix] You can read his story here.
Even Milo Yiannopoulos agrees with me on this.
I have to concede, though, that others do not fit into this paradigm – I’m thinking of people like Mindy Selmys and Eve Tushnet.
What this means for the Christian, is that for many SSA people, the experience of rejection by a significant other is a large part of what feeds into their self-perception. And it seems to me that because the theme of rejection looms so large in their psychological landscape, they are particularly sensitive to the suggestion that same-sex attraction is regarded as sinful in the Abrahamic religions. To them it seems just another instantiation of the rejection meme (in the Dawkins sense). Hence the constant accusations of ‘homophobia’.
I get this a lot. In spite of my having spent a significant part of last summer visiting an SSA friend in psychiatric hospital and taking her on outings while she recovered, I still get called ‘homophobic’ by certain members of my family, just because I happen to disagree with them about the purpose of sexuality in our lives.
And my Facebook news feed reveals a sort of passive aggression about the Christian understanding of homosexuality. There is so much misunderstanding and superficiality in the meme below, that I will need another whole post to explain the logical fallacies in the statement, and give some clarity about what classical Natural Law theory is for Christians. So I will leave that for next week.
The Christian understanding is that while the existence of a same-sex orientation itself is not sinful, homosexual acts are. Christians are not picking on homosexuality in particular – we also regard masturbation, adultery, sex before marriage, polygamy and contraception as intrinsically dis-ordered, with the word ‘disordered’ being used in a technical, natural law sense and not in a medical sense.
The most important thing for me as a Christian, is to be, as much as is humanly possible in my flawed sort of way, Christ’s representative to my SSA friends. For they won’t be able to understand the Christian position on homosexuality without first encountering the person of Christ.
Next week, I will give an overview of Christian teaching on sexuality, and explain some aspects of Natural Law as it pertains to this discussion.
In the meantime, for some extra background on Homosexuality from a Catholic perspective, I can recommend these two interviews with psychologist, Dr Joseph Nicolosi:
Understanding Same Sex Attraction, Part 1
Understanding Same Sex Attraction, Part 2
[i] The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), Doubleday, notes to Leviticus 17.
[ii] The new Islamic Penal Code, accessed at http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/iranian-codes/1000000455-english-translation-of-books-1-and-2-of-the-new-islamic-penal-code.html#45
[iii] Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, 2, 73: PL 34, 623, accessed at http://www.augustinus.it/latino/questioni_ettateuco/index2.htm
[iv] St Augustine, Anti Pelagian Writings, 27 [XV] accessed at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xi.xxx.html
[vii] Letter 211, Augustine, §11, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102211.htm.
[viii] Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation and its correlates in an Australian twin sample, (2000) Bailey, J.M., Dunne M.P. and Martin, N.G., J. Pers. Soc. Psychol, accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10743878