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We are all Sodomites

Anyone who has ever refused hospitality to a stranger – to someone who is different, odd, peculiar, “not us” – is guilty of sodomy (Genesis 19). Anyone who has ever refused to care for widows and orphans or practiced economic injustice is also guilty of sodomy (Ezekiel 16:49).

Everyone is guilty of sodomy just by virtue of belonging to a nation that oppresses immigrants or won’t provide food and health care to single mothers or is just by being human (treating “outsiders” with suspicion seems wired into our collective DNA).

We, all of us, are sodomites and stand in need of repentance and forgiveness.

The Bible seems pretty clear on all this, but you’d never know it from listening to most religious talk radio or watching televangelists. “Sodomy,” in both popular religious culture and in our courts of law, means something quite different from what Biblical writers understood it to mean (here’s a hint: today it usually means that nasty thing gay men supposedly do all the time).

I was prompted to write about this by some Facebook exchanges over the publication of the book Out of a Far Country, by Christopher Yuan. This autobiographical book recounts Yuan’s journey through drug addiction, lots of sex, an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, and his return to Christian faith – a return that helped him to heal and become an ambassador for leaving the “gay lifestyle.” That lifestyle, presumably, is marked by, well, drug addiction, lots of sex, and HIV/AIDS.

But this is not a review, nor a critique of Yuan’s book (which I have not read). I am much more concerned about those who seem eager to use – the better word is exploit – Yuan’s story and his book for a socio-religious agenda to “cure” or “heal” gay and lesbian people.

I applaud Yuan for taking steps to recover from drug addiction, finding reconciliation with his family, and living into a healthier way of life. I am, however, offended by those who are using that story to paint (yet again) a deeply distorted picture of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Yuan’s story is emblematic of LGBT people in just about the same way that Las Vegas brothels and wedding chapels are emblematic of heterosexual people. In both cases, the reductionism and stereotyping are not only disingenuous; they are dangerous, harmful, and deadly.

Consider Jamey Rodemeyer, yet another gay teenage suicide to add to the appallingly long list of how “strangers” are treated in our society. Jamey even made an “It Gets Better” video! (You can read about that tragedy here, but I don’t recommend it if your heart is easily broken.) The religious and cultural exploitation of Yuan’s story is just as responsible for Rodemeyer’s suicide as the citizens of Sodom were responsible for the kind of inhospitality worthy of divine retribution. We are all sodomites.

I was on a panel with Yuan back in 2006 during the SoulForce Equality Ride event held at my alma mater, Wheaton College (read my reflections about that event here). The college put Yuan on center stage as evidence of both the destructiveness of “homosexuality” and the possibility for “healing” it. That Wheaton would do so indicates a severe lapse in that school’s critical thinking faculties from which, at one time, I learned a great deal.

But Wheaton’s posture indicates much more as well – the school is guilty of sodomy.

Imagine declaring this: drug dealing and violent crime in urban neighborhoods clearly indicates the inherent evils of the African-American lifestyle. Wheaton (and I should hope many other religious institutions) would reject that claim as racist. Yet Yuan’s story is fair game for exploitation, to deploy it like a religious product for discrimination, exclusion, bigotry, and inhospitality.

With more than fifty years of biblical scholarship overwhelmingly rejecting the idea that Scripture condemns LGBT people, Christian communities are the ones who stand judged and in need of repentance and forgiveness for their sin of sodomy toward LGBT people.

(When I started this blog, I vowed not to deal at all with biblical apologetics concerning LGBT people. That is so twentieth century and the argument should be long since over. Of course, it’s not. To summarize some of the reasons why that argument should be over, I’ve written a short essay on contemporary biblical scholarship on this issue, “Biblical Sexuality and Gender,” which you can find here or on this site here.)

The Destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah

Christian communities should take the sin of sodomy quite seriously indeed, just as Jesus did. As far as we know, Jesus said absolutely nothing about LGBT people. But he did say something about sodomy. As he sent out his disciples to proclaim the gospel and do the work of ministry, Jesus issued a warning. Any town that does not extend a hospitable welcome to those disciples will suffer a worse fate than Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15).

Christian followers of Jesus ought to renew our commitment to the spiritual practice of hospitality, especially since all of us are sodomites. Christ, have mercy.

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What’s So Peculiar about Christianity?

Christianity itself is really quite peculiar, and always has been, though not always in the same way in every time and place.

The peculiar character of Christian faith never occurred to me in the Evangelical, nearly fundamentalist subculture of my childhood. And it didn’t occur to me when I came out as a gay man, either. The wonderfully peculiar and transforming character of Christian faith has been unfolding in my thinking and living over the last 20 years or so.

To be sure, most Christians today in the North Atlantic rarely think about their faith as “peculiar.” Most of the time, Christianity just blends in with the wider culture and occasionally surfaces among political candidates as a kind of litmus test for elections. This seems rather far removed from the personally transforming, world-altering character of the Gospel that shaped the first few centuries of Christianity and which can still inspire renewal and transformation today.

I never really thought about it that way growing up in the American Midwest. Even though I heard and read the gospel story many times over my life, I can’t quite imagine why I missed just how peculiar it is.

Just to recall, the story of Jesus  that inspired the gospel writers was a story about a Jewish prophet living in a conquered, backwater province of the Roman Empire; about an unmarried, itinerant teacher in a society constructed on marriage and family relations; about the scandalous practice of sharing meals and daily life with the ritually unclean and socially misfit; about a humiliating, public execution at the hands of an occupying army; and reports from hysterical women who seemed to be talking about grave robbers and an empty tomb.

Now, really, that’s a pretty strange, odd and, well, very peculiar story.  It’s out-of-the-ordinary, culturally unwarranted, socially unreasonable, religiously radical, philosophically suspect, and politically dangerous. And precisely for all of those reasons, the gospel writers insisted that this story is “good news.”

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about human sexuality in that account. Given some of the academic work I do at the intersections of sexuality and religion, one might expect to read a bit more about that here. But I believe the Christian Gospel is already quite peculiar all on its own without any help from all the debates around sexuality and gender with which so many churches live today. To be sure, those debates can help highlight some important issues and questions, but they only scratch the surface of the Gospel’s potential for renewal and transformation.

Given the ongoing legacy of the “wedding” between Christianity and western cultural values, I would say we need to retrieve that peculiar Gospel energy to address the social and political mess we find ourselves in today regarding race, ethnicity, economics, class, and a planetary environment on the brink of collapse.

The biblical writer who wrote the first letter of Peter was on to something by referring to Christians as “peculiar.” The whole biblical book of Acts provides story after story of the wonderfully transforming energy of the Gospel. As Luke (presumably) described it in Acts, those early Christians “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

I’m convinced that the Christian Gospel still carries that potential today — to turn the world upside down with a peculiar faith, that inspires hope, and transforms the world with love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

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A Strange Book — Thank God!

I mean, of course, the Bible. I don’t mean that the Bible is “strange” in the way that should make anyone avoid it. To the contrary, the peculiar character of the Bible itself is one of the reasons that keep me firmly planted in Christian traditions. Let me explain.

I am not a biblical scholar; I’m a theologian. But I do read the Bible and I do read what others have written about the Bible, both historically and today. I used to do all that reading as a way to defend myself against arguments from atheists or skeptics or those who believed that gay people should be condemned.

I no longer read the Bible that way, that is, with a defensive posture. What I have come to appreciate over the last 15 or 20 years of doing theological work is that defensive postures are dead-ends and soul-killers. Or as a colleague of mine used to say: You can’t do Christian theology from a place a fear; the only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.

By doing that myself, I have come to realize just how wonderfully peculiar the Bible is and how peculiar Christian history is. I mean by “peculiar” that it carries transforming insights, world-altering perspectives, and thankfully disorienting “good news.” Or as Flanney O’Connor was once reported to have said, “You shall know the truth and it will make you odd.”

There are so many examples I could offer, but here’s just one place to begin: the ongoing exhortation by the so-called “religious right” in the U.S. to return to so-called “biblical family values.” Let’s notice what some of those “values” were:

Abraham’s use of his slave, Hagar, to sire a child, and his subsequent banishment of her and the child to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) would be considered unspeakably callous by today’s standards. Yet according to the family values of his day, Abraham was acting completely within his rights. When Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, the Bible describes it not simply as an act of brotherly betrayal but as a necessary part of God’s will for God’s people (Genesis 27). Even more severe is Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter to fulfill the terms of a hastily made vow (Judges 11:29-40) or Onan being put to death for refusing to impregnate his late brother’s wife (Genesis 38:9).

That’s just a short list of the kind of biblical family values that we certainly don’t want our children to adopt today.

Not every biblical family relationship is quite that dysfunctional. But strangely enough, when biblical figures act virtuously, they often do so outside the bounds of what even ancient Mediterranean cultures considered the “traditional family.” The story of Ruth and Naomi is an account of same-sex devotion often read, ironically, during heterosexual marriage ceremonies (Ruth 1:16). David and Jonathan’s relationship is presented with a tenderness lacking in most biblical marriages: David admits that his love for his friend “surpassed the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). Those are just two stories in which the biblical writers themselves were subverting their own cultural standards.

The gospel writers did much the same thing. Set aside for the moment how they appear to present Jesus as unmarried and childless – that alone was a culturally and religiously subversive position in his own society. Even more significant is how the gospel writers chose to portray his teaching. According to Luke, Jesus turned to a large crowd that was traveling with him along a road and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, [and] brothers and sisters…cannot be my disciple” (14:26). According to both Matthew and Luke, to a man who wished to be his disciple but wanted first to attend to his father’s funeral Jesus said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead”(Mt. 8:22, Lk 9:60). According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, when told that his mother and brothers wanted to see him Jesus pointed to his disciples and said “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:48, Mk 3:33, Lk 8:21).

To put it mildly, Jesus does not appear to care much for marriage and biological families. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christian communities took that posture to heart, displaced the biological family with the “faith family” and created their own micro-economic system. Rather than establishing individual household units, Luke writes, those first Christians did not claim “ownership of any private possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). Paul seems likewise to have been shaped by this radical, first-century reassessment of what family means. Paul worried that marriage was a distraction from the more important work of Christian ministry (1 Cor. 7:32-39). In his view, marriage was, at best, a last-ditch solution for those who could not otherwise control their lust (1 Cor. 7:9).

I’m not suggesting that the Bible is so out of touch with today’s world that we can’t read it anymore. To the contrary, my point is just this: precisely because even biblical writers seemed committed to subverting their own cultural standards for the sake of divinely good news, we can find the hope, the energy, the inspiration, and the divine cheer-leading to do the same thing today.

We could do that, not just about the highly-charged notion of “family,” but about all sorts of questions and issues we face today — concerning economics, race and ethnicity, caring for the environment, transforming despairing loneliness into communal hope and affection — and so much more!

I’m eager to continue reading the Bible with others, in community, who seek ways to transform our world with a peculiar faith, an inspiring hope, and a transforming love (1 Corinthians 13:13). I believe the wide world is not just ready but eager and desperate for Christian communities to do precisely that. And it can begin, oddly enough, by reading the Bible together.

The Bible is truly a peculiar book – thank God!