New Gay Theology Challenges Traditional Views of Scripture and Intimacy

Homosexuality, in the Biblical Sense
Washington Post, Aug. 9, 2003
By Bill Broadway, Washington Post Staff Writer

Robert Goss sits on the radical edge of homosexual theology, calling for churches to abandon centuries-old concepts of “normativity” and accept gay men and lesbians for what he says they are: people made in the image of God whose sexuality is a divine blessing.

Goss believes such a change is inevitable, that a diverse and increasingly vocal movement called “queer theology” will create an impact on Christianity matching that of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.

Queer theology “pushes the need for sexual reformation” that will make the world a more peaceful and loving place, not only by including gay men and lesbians but also by viewing all forms of sexual expression between committed partners as an “original gift of God,” said Goss, professor of religious studies at Webster University in St. Louis and a former Jesuit priest.

“Christians straight and queer have so much baggage around sexuality, so much shame that short-circuits pleasure,” he said. It’s time for Christians “to reconnect with their lovers, their community and their God.”

Such statements represent a bold new gay theology. Leaders in this movement, rather than arguing with traditionalists about whether specific biblical passages are anti-gay — a debate that many gay rights advocates engaged in intensely from the 1960s to the 1980s — prefer instead to offer a general reading of Scripture from a gay perspective. They say homosexuality is not a sin but a blessed characteristic.

Or they take a cue from other nontraditionalist theologians, veering from the Bible to find divinity in the environment, meditative practice or astrology. Their “post-Christian” or “postdenominational” view of the divine has a gay, transgendered or bisexual twist — focusing, for example, on how sexual expression makes them feel at one with God.

Most proponents of homosexual theology, whether they are gay or straight, argue that homosexual relations should be confined to monogamous relationships, in the same way that male-female couples promise to remain faithful to their partners. But they reject traditionalist claims that sexual partnerships must be procreative — or they call for a different understanding of procreation.

The Rev. Tex Sample, professor emeritus of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., and an ordained United Methodist minister, believes procreation can best be understood as “raising people for the Kingdom of God,” regardless of whether children are adopted or created through other means.

The same point applies to heterosexual couples who cannot have biological children. “We don’t tell them they can’t get married,” he said.

Traditionalists respond that such arguments are moot in light of biblical passages that they say clearly condemn homosexuality.

The most common proof texts come from the Old Testament and from the Apostle Paul’s letters to 1st-century churches. Genesis 19:4-11 relates a same-sex assault attempt on two male angels visiting Sodom; Leviticus 18:22 calls same-sex relations an “abomination” and Leviticus 20:13 calls it “a detestable act”; and Paul speaks of same-sex acts as “unnatural” and “unrighteous” in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

Gay rights advocates refer to these texts as “clobber passages,” because of the way they have been used to denounce homosexuality, and give their own interpretations of the texts. The Sodom story, for example, might appear to condemn same-sex relations, but it really tells the story of an attempted rape, said Goss, author of “Queering Christ.”

“It’s not about homosexual sex any more than heterosexual rape is about heterosexual sex,” he said.

The Leviticus passages concern archaic purity laws for priests and do not address all forms of same-sex male and female intimacy, some pro-gay interpreters say. And they said that what Paul condemns as unnatural are heterosexuals performing homosexual acts or same-sex relations as part of idolatrous rituals — not loving relationships.

Complicating the biblical debate, both sides acknowledge, is the lack of any explicit discussion of same-sex relations in the Gospels, the heart of Christian theology that includes the life and teachings of Jesus.

That’s when traditionalists call on centuries of Christian practice and teaching on the issue of homosexuality to defend their point of view. And on the other side, scholars such as the Rev. Theodore W. Jennings Jr., professor of biblical and constructive theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, counter with a radically different interpretation of Scripture.

In his controversial new book “The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives From the New Testament,” Jennings offers a “gay affirmative” reading of the Gospels that examines the loving companionship of males, including Jesus and his disciples.

One of the followers is singled out in John 13:23 and 19:26 as “the disciple whom he loved,” which itself is “remarkable,” Jennings said in a May lecture at the seminary, affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

“Perhaps more remarkable is that this love is demonstrated by physical or bodily intimacy, the man in Jesus’s lap, on his chest and so on,” he said. “Jesus and the man he loved should be understood as lovers, or in the more precise terminology of antiquity: Jesus is the lover of another man who is his beloved.”

Others in the gay theology movement base their beliefs less in proof texts and more on a general reading of Scripture. The Bible “shows God’s care for the outsider, the person who has been pushed aside by the dominant group,” said the Rev. L. William Countryman, professor of biblical studies at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

This theme appears throughout the Bible, he said, from the freeing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to Jesus’s ministering to a variety of outcasts including prostitutes, tax collectors, Romans, adulterers and the insane.

How much gay theology has influenced denominational debates on the issue is uncertain. But the themes clearly emerged during the Episcopal Church’s General Convention this week in Minneapolis.

Before the assembly voted to approve the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion of which it is part, the Rev. Carter Heyward, a feminist liberation theologian at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., made these comments:

“God does not condemn homosexuality. What God condemns is abusive and violent sexuality, lack of mutuality, any kind of coercion. This is what I wish the church could get on with — how to form a loving and responsible sexual ethic, not just for gays, not just for straights, but for everybody.”

After his approval by the denomination’s legislative bodies as bishop of New Hampshire, Robinson agreed with opponents that his election contradicts Episcopal teaching against homosexuality. But, he said, “just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong. We worship a living God, and that living God leads us into truth.”

That belief in fluid theological interpretation — in the concept that interaction with God changes over time — is at the crux of the debate between traditionalists and modernists.

“Homosexual behavior is deviant behavior according to the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture from the Book of Genesis to the end of the New Testament,” Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention‘s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement after the Episcopal vote. “In its decision, the Episcopal Church, like many other mainline denominations, has fatally compromised with liberal theology and a behavior that is the antithesis of Scripture.”

Homosexuality is one of numerous issues over which these opposing groups battle, but arguably it is the most divisive.

“Across the board, denominations are seriously riven by the issue,” said the Rev. Barbara C. Green, executive director of the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy at Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington.

On a fundamental level, there’s a “discrepancy” between pro-gay forces in churches and sympathetic but ultimately anti-gay members, she said. The pro-acceptance camp says it’s about identity, that “God loves everybody,” echoing a dominant theme in homosexual theology that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is made in the image of God.

The anti-acceptance people counter, “I know God loves everyone, but not sinful behavior,” she said.

Green, a Presbyterian minister, said that most, if not all, congregations will soon have to address the question if they haven’t already. Many churches have at least one gay member or family affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And previously closeted homosexuals are coming out, in some cases announcing partnerships and plans to adopt or have children, she said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday August 9, 2003.
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