Lost in Translation: SOGI and the LGBT Evangelical

TOfficeCropIf you live in Springfield, Missouri, and if you have been paying any attention at all, you know that the city is divided over a ballot question concerning SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity). And unsurprisingly, the rhetoric often settles upon interpretations of Biblical texts. The schism isn’t, of course, unique to Springfield; it is one that has always been central in religions of Western origins; it is, at its core, a tension between faith and reason. The interpretation of scripture remains, always, at the fault line of these quakes: how does (or should) one use scripture that was written thousands of years ago to talk about our modern world? This tension tends to manifest itself in the simplistic terms of “fundamentalist” and “progressive” when we talk specifically about Christianity. And in Springfield, MO, right now, these different approaches to scriptural authority are in the spotlight.

Most recently, the print, audio, and social media have exploded around an upcoming ballot question: should we repeal a law that protects LGBT persons against discrimination in employment and housing? Though this question and its tangential issues are complex, I will purposefully over-simplify here. Not surprisingly, both sides of this public discourse go directly to the Bible for the foundation of their arguments. On the one hand, the “Vote Yes” camp argues that a law protecting LGBT persons infringes on their religious beliefs; they argue that the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is wrong. Those in the “Vote No” camp appeal to a broader spirit of Biblical interpretation: the Bible is central, yes, but should be accepted without its historical baggage, and within a broader range of interpretation: love one another, don’t judge, etc. The “Vote Yes” camp tends to quote specific verses and passages that are interpreted as anti-gay, (e.g., Lev. 18:20, Gen. 19, 1 Cor. 6:9, and Romans 1:18-36); the “Vote No” camp tends to cite scriptures that illuminate forgiveness, mercy, love, charity, and acceptance (e.g., Mt. 25:35-40, 1 Sam. 16:7, Gal. 3:28). Those who could care less about what the Bible says about anything, though vocal, are probably in the minority in Springfield, MO. These two positions, in a nutshell, sum up fundamentalist vs. progressive Christian approaches to the Bible.

Now, this over-simplified “either/or” doesn’t represent the reality of Springfield’s diverse Christianity (nor does it represent lived Christianity anywhere). This current political clash brings an unexpected and inspirational visibility of evangelical gays and gay allies, and it has reminded me of why I became a Bible scholar. When young (or older) evangelical Christians come to a realization that they are gay, or that their gender identity does not align with their physicality, it often creates a crisis of faith. The things that have been drilled into their heads and hearts their whole lives as “God’s Truth” are now writ large: men who lie with men should be killed (Lev. 20:13); God blew up a whole town of homosexuals (Gen. 19); sodomites cannot enter heaven (1 Cor 6:9); and lesbianism is unnatural and brings God’s rejection (Rom. 1). The LGBT fundamentalist Christian had few choices: leave the church (rejecting Christianity altogether), remain in that church and deny one’s authentic self, and suicide (suicide rates for LGBT youth in prominently evangelical areas is 8.6 % above the average).

But I think now there is a fourth path – a path that has shown itself in the swampy weeds of Springfield, Missouri’s current religious and political maelstrom. The rhetoric that is emerging from religious conservatives here seems to be a hybrid of progressive (liberal) Christian ideals and Biblical foundationalism. On the one hand there remains the absolute that the Bible is the word of God, yet there is a recognition that there is more than one singular “truth” revealed in those texts – or, perhaps, that Truth is greater, more comprehensive than our human pettiness can see.

As a professor in the Humanities, a Bible scholar whose entire body of work centers on how the Bible informs modern notions of gender and sexuality, I feel hope for my LGBT evangelical friends when I see this. It reminds me of something I have forgotten: Who I am. As an adolescent, I loved church; a Southern Baptist girl who was there whenever the doors opened – but I left. I couldn’t calm the cognitive dissonance between my own lesbian identity and that world. I distinctly remember loving the Bible, loving Jesus, and most of all, wanting to KNOW what it all MEANT. I would learn Greek, Hebrew, history, whatever it took so that I would KNOW. I smile now. Bible scholars know that the more we know, the less we know. But…I do know some things. And I forget that the knowledge I take for granted (the history, the language, the many complexities and nuances behind those supposedly anti-homosexual passages and the myriad pro-gendered-others passages) would be such a clean and sweet drink of water to those LGBT Christians who are dying under the relentless yoke of fundamentalist pressure. I teach my students these things: learn the history, learn the comparative literature, learn the languages, and entertain a plurality of points of view. But I forget that this is a luxury of a liberal arts education. My evangelical friends, mostly, must rely on what they hear in from the pulpit; and in some cases, what they hear is a corruption of scripture. Below is a Bible, Sexuality and Gender Cheat Sheet. It is my gift to those who hold the Bible close to their hearts, yet are struggling with the alienation that it can bring when its used as a weapon.

Gen. 19: The Story of Sodom. This one is a no brainer. First, the prophets (the mouthpieces of God) in no way understand “the sin of Sodom” to be sexual. Isaiah, for example, does not tell us what he thinks the sin of Sodom is. His complaint is that they do not hide it; that they are proud in their sin (Isaiah 3:9). Jeremiah writes that the sins of Sodom were like the adulterous Jerusalem, lying, and a refusing to stop (Jeremiah 23:14). Ezekiel is clear and sure about the sins of Sodom: Sodom had pride, a surplus of food, and an easy luxurious life, but did not aid the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49). Jude says that the sin of Sodom is that they went after “strange flesh” (ἀπελθοῦσαι ὀπίσω σαρκὸς ἑτέρας) Yeah – they wanted to rape ANGELS. In verse 4 All of the people of Sodom surround Lot’s house. Traditionally in interpretations of this story, the “crowd” around Lot’s house is assumed to be entirely male because the English “men” is used. But the Hebrew word here, enosh, means the generic, non gender-specific person, or humankind. In fact, it makes it clear that “all of the people” of Sodom surround the house (in contrast to zakar, which indicates the male person). There isn’t a speck of “homosexuality” in this text. There is a threat of mob violence against angels.

Lev. 18:22; 20:16

There is much more to this verse than meets the eye. The word toevah, translated here as abomination, means “mixing” or “confusion.” The idea of mixing unlike things (seeds, clothing, species, for example) was repulsive and dangerous to the Israelites. Their cultural and physical existence, as they saw it, depended upon remaining separate (translates: Holy). Staying separate not only meant keeping apart from other peoples, but keeping all things in their proper categories – this was a condition of God’s blessing. The “confusion” of homoerotic sex is that two unlike things mix together. I know you’re thinking, “How are two men ‘unlike’ things?” In the minds of the Israelite priests, one man must be the active partner and one man is being penetrated. Passivity is not “natural” for men; for a man to be the passive sexual partner, he must act like a woman. The two categories that become confused are Man and Woman. According to Leviticus, a man who acts like a woman is toevah. This is one understanding. Jennifer Knust sees these passages as a veiled attack on the monarchy. (Unprotected Texts)

The death sentence seems, um, harsh to us for sexual intercourse, yet the Israelites would have understood that this sexual act is equal to the death sentence for the whole community. In situations where the survival of the whole community is threatened the offending “thing” is extracted and destroyed. If these ideas sound strange and foreign, it is BECAUSE THEY ARE. Making sure that things stay in their proper categories to the point of executing the one who confuses categories is not something we do today. These laws are not for us. Our whole survival does not depend on staying separate and not confusing categories. Even if it were, it would be impossible today (as it probably was in ancient Israel). These laws were more than likely never implemented.

Romans 1:18-36

Paul is a Hellenistic Jew, and we see this in his ideas about sexuality and gender. For example, today, we know that gender markers (the clothes we wear, how we wear our hair, our jewelry, and even how we walk) are things that are specific to our culture, not something we are born with or that is “natural” for us. For Paul, gender markers were “natural.” If women cut their hair, or if men wore their hair long, it was “unnatural” or against God’s design. Paul, as a Roman citizen, a Jew and a product of his world, had the same assumptions about human sexuality: elite men were active penetrators, women, boys, and slaves were passive receptors. If women have sex with women, Paul assumes that one must take on an active, that is, masculine “penetrating” role. In Paul’s eyes, as it is with some of his contemporaries, this is “unnatural.” Paul’s thinking on this seems to be that God’s response to the unwillingness of gentiles to worship Him (which would be a natural thing to do in Paul’s mind) is to let them do whatever unnatural thing they choose. In other words, by not keeping the first law, to have one and only one God, Paul’s God, then they are free from all matters of God’s laws. Though this is where most people stop talking about this passage, Paul goes on in chapter two to criticize the Jewish Christians for passing judgment on those gentiles. Paul’s final point in Romans 3 is this: Yes, gentiles have “unnatural” sex, and yes, you have sinned by judging them. Therefore ALL have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.

1 Cor. 6:9

I would direct you to an excellent essay by Dale Martin (“Arsenokoites and Malakos”) devoted entirely to the words usually translated here as “male prostitutes” and “homosexuals.” In short, translating malakos in a way that denotes homosexuality is anachronistic; it uses modern stereotypes to interpret a 2,000 year old text. Malokos, literally “soft man,” in Paul’s contemporary literature, would align today with the word “effeminate.” In Paul’s time, men who cared too much about their appearance, or men who spent an inordinate amount of time with women (even if they were having sex with them) would earn the label “soft men.” Arsenokoites, according to Martin, is a vague term that tends to show up in vice lists (like the one we see in 1 Cor. 6:9-10) grouped with economic sins. Martin understands this word to be associated, possibly, with sexual extortion. In any case, Martin, after a thorough investigation of every known use of this word in the ancient world admits that he’s not sure what it means – which makes it even more egregious that modern translators think they do.

Here are a few “pro gendered-other” passages you may not know about.

Dan. 1:9

God allows the chief eunuch to have tender love and, therefore, compassion for Daniel. That way, Daniel can then serve God by keeping the laws. If the eunuch did not have feelings for Daniel, he would either have forced him to eat the forbidden food, removed him from the palace, or even have had him killed. The Lord indeed works in mysterious ways. This passage suggests that a man’s desire for another man is something that God has created; it is depicted here as something useful for continuing the worship of God.

Jer. 38:7

The Ethiopian Eunuch Ebedmelech (a gendered other) saves Jeremiah. He talks the king into letting him go on a stealth “black ops” mission to rescue the prophet Jeremiah out of a muddy pit and imminent death.

Whatever the outcome of this April 7 ballot, I think gay evangelicals and their allies can take heart from all of this. The platform has given them visibility and has shown them how much love many (most?) Springfieldians are capable of. And most importantly, I think we are seeing the way forward in terms of deconstructing the illusion of a gridlocked “progressive vs. fundamentalist” Christianity.

I’ve gone WAY over my word limit – so thank you for reading this far. And if you’re in Springfield, MO, please vote on April 7.


Teresa Hornsby is a Professor of Religion and Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at Drury University.