“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”
Indeed, this small member has potential for great damage – but also carries with it the potential to counter and repair the damage. It is this potential for recovering truth that interests me more, but first, we must review the nature of the problem. There are many kinds of lies: outright falsehoods, lies of selective truth, and lies of omission among them. For us as lesbian & gay Christians, some examples of each are well-known.
Perhaps the most egregious of the downright falsehoods is that the destruction of Sodom was God’s vengeance on the homosexual sins of its populace. As many modern scholars have shown, there is absolutely no basis for this. The true sin of Sodom were pride, indulgence and sloth, which motivated the visit of the angelic messengers.
“As I live, saith the Lord God, Sodom thy sister hath not done…. as thou hast done….. Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.”
(Ezek 16:48-49, KJV)
The direct trigger for the destruction, was either the refusal of the inhabitants to show proper hospitality to travellers, or the threat of violent rape of the angels. There is no indication, anywhere, that it had anything do do with consensual same sex relationships. .
A good example of lies by selection are the often quoted verses from Leviticus, noting that for men to lie with men is an “abomination” – without noting at the same time that this is part of an extended list of “abominations” in the Jewish purity code, which also includes such other well-known abominations as cutting one’s beard, eating shellfish and rabbits, or wearing clothing of mixed fibres. Nor do the people quoting from Leviticus remind us that in the Acts of the Apostles, it is made clear that the old Jewish purity laws no longer apply to gentiles – or to modern Christians .
And by the third type of lie, I mean the simple fact that our opponents steadfastly ignore what to me are the most important parts of Scripture – the message of love, inclusion for all, and redemption in Christ – for all. For those willing to look, there are also many passages in Scripture that endorse or support same sex relationships – passages conveniently ignored by our opponents. But all these examples of lies in talking about Scripture and same sex relationships are well known, and have been extensively dealt with elsewhere.
I am more interested in other lies, less well recognised and discussed. In investigating these, I should make clear that my starting point is the Catholic Church, with its strong emphasis on “tradition” and Magisterium. This is my own particular branch of Christianity, but in practice many of the assertions I discuss are made explicitly by the Catholics, and assumed implicitly by many others.
Let us start with the most fundamental:
On homosexuality, the catechism of the catholic Church states plainly,
“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law”
Now, these seem to be well-known and uncontroversial, but contain two direct falsehoods. The medieval scholar Mark D Jordan has noted that the standard rhetorical device of the Vatican is not to attempt reasoned debate, but to simply repeat endlessly its own assertion until its opponents are bludgeoned into submission. This is what is going on here. We are so used to hearing that the Christian church has “always” opposed homosexuality, that we assume it to be true, just as for so long we assumed the truth of traditional interpretations of the clobber texts.
In fact, Christians have not always been against us: the historian John Boswell has clearly shown how in the early church, Christian emperors not only tolerated but even taxed homosexual prostitution; revered churchmen like Paulinus, 4th Century Bishop of Nola, wrote notably erotic love poems to his boyfriend; and others revered as saints are known to have same sex lovers – some in celibate relationships, others not. As late as 1098, the church consecrated as Bishop of Orleans a man who was known to be the lover of another Bishop, Ralph of Tours, and to have been previously the lover of other bishops. There was strong opposition to this appointment (on the grounds of his youth, not his sexuality) , but the Pope of the day did not stop the consecration, nor did his successor attempt to overturn the it.
There was of course some opposition – the Magisterium traces this back through Augustine, Alain de Lille, Peter Damian, and Thomas Aquinas, claiming this as support for the argument that the church has “always” opposed us. What they neglect to say, though, is that in their own day, all of these were minority views. Peter Damian in particular was notable for an impassioned plea to the Vatican for harsh penalties against clergy who indulged in homosexual acts (for he saw it as primarily a sin amongst the clergy), but his request to the Pope was firmly rejected. It was not until the 3rd Lateran Council, in the 12th century, that the church as a whole took a stand against homosexuality.
It would seem then that the opposition of the church as a whole goes back only eight centuries – a long time, but a far cry from the two millenia implied by the Catechism word “always”.
The second outright lie often promulgated during the heated debates on marriage equality is that marriage has “always ” and “everywhere” been between opposite sex couples. This is not a specifically religious argument, but can in fact be refuted on both religious and secular grounds.
The simple historical fact is that same sex marriages were contracted, and formalised in law, in Rome (by the emperors Nero and Elegabalus among others), in parts of classical Greece, among Egyptians, Assyrians, and Mesopotamians. Some Greeks also reported that same sex partners were taken by the Celts, Gauls and Germans. In later history, and outside Europe, the native American berdaches, men who took on female roles and married male partners, had an honoured place in society. Same sex unions have also been recognised in Japan, in China, and in many other non-Western societies. The claim that marriage was “always” between men and women is simply without foundation.
Nor is the claim true for the Christian church. John Boswell and Alan Bray have both written of the existence of liturgical rites for church blessing of committed relationships between same sex couples. In the Eastern church, this was known as “adelphopoeisis“, or rite of “making brothers”,in the Western church it was known as “ordo ad fratres faciendum“, known as the “order of sworn brothers”. Now, both writers are careful not to call these relationships “marriage”. Boswell calls them simply “same-sex unions”, and Bray is even more cautious, simply calling them “friendships”. He notes that there could be three distinct reasons for entering such a commitment – they could be political,between heads of state or others in Royal families; they could be commercial arrangements to protect property; or they could be erotically based.
However: I see no reason to assume that any single relationship need have only a single motivation, nor that one motivation applied universally – that between Edward II and Piers Gaveston was certainly erotic, as was that between James I and Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Other nobles may have combined erotic attraction with affairs of state, those lower down the scale may have combined eroticism with property considerations.
We must also remember that if it is inappropriate to think of these same sex unions as directly comparable to modern marriage – the same must be said of opposite sex unions at the time. Marriage as we know it, as the culmination of romantic love, is a modern invention. In earlier times, marriage for the rich and powerful was about protecting property and commercial affiliations, or uniting royal dynasties. For the poor, often marriage simply did not exist – it was not considered a sacrament of the church until late. Although same sex unions in the early church and medieval times clearly did not resemble modern marriage, they have resembled more closely opposite sex unions of the same period.
Nor are the lies and half truths confined to those against us as lesbians and gay men. The church’s denial of ordination of to women is based on the claim that this has “always” been the practice of the church? This too is at best a half truth. The womenpriests movement has pointed to evidence supporting the claim that in the early church, there were indeed female deacons, preists and bishops. The church does acknowledge the existence of female abbesses – but is entirely quiet on the power they wielded in the medieval church, power which frequently rivalled that of bishops. This is a clear example of lies by omission. Worse, there is some suggestion that there may have been lying by outright falsification of the evidence. Bernadette Brooten has written about Junia, who would appear from teh earliest evidence to have been female. But it seems that later editors of the text have amended it to make it appear that Junia was a masculine name.
“Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7): To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”
John Chrysostom (344/54-407)(2)
How, then, do we counter these lies, how do we uncover, or recover the truth? Fortunately, for lying tongues to do their damage, they need to be partnered by listening ears. As we open our ears to hear, we have the choice to open them also to other tongues, the tongues of history, enabling us to hear again some of the truth. For centuries, voices from the distant past were buried. Official church history, forming the basis of the Magisterium of the Catholic church, and accepted without question by many others, was compiled only by clerical scholars selectively producing evidence in support only of their own preconceptions.
Fortunately, in the modern world we also have secular scholars delving into history, and thereby allowing fresh new tongues to speak.
Let us open our ears to hear them.
Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality
Bray, Alan: The Friend
Jordan, Mark D. : The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology
Jordan, Mark D. : The Silence of Sodom
Nissinen, Marti : Homoeroticism in the Biblical World.