Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is God a homophobe?

It’s perfectly understandable why people want a loving God who forgives faults and imperfections. After all, that’s the God Jesus describes in his parables, especially that of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), in the same chapter where he describes God as pursuing the lost soul like a shepherd pursuing a lost sheep (vv. 3-7) and a woman who pursues a lost coin (vv. 8-10), even though they have others which will not leave them wanting.

But God’s forgiveness of sins makes no sense if we don’t concede that there is such a thing as sin in the first place. It also makes no sense if we don’t concede that, as Creator of the Universe, and having nothing and no one superior to Him, He is the One who can ultimately determine what is right and wrong, good and evil (leaving aside the “Euthyphro dilemma” for the sake of argument). If there is no sin, then He has nothing to forgive. But if we assert His forgiveness, then we concede by implication that there’s something to forgive, and that He has the authority to decide what it is that needs forgiveness.

So much is simple logic. What’s hard to understand about it? In that context:

Recently Frank Kameny, whom Pres. Obama has praised as a pioneering gay activist, wrote an open letter to Peter LaBarbera of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality. In this letter, he fumed: “Your God of Leviticus (and of the whole Bible) is clearly a sinful homophobic bigot.  He should repent of his sinful homophobia.  He should atone for that sin. And he should seek forgiveness for the pain and suffering which his sinful homophobia has needlessly inflicted upon gay people for the past 4000 years. It is not homosexuality which is always wrong, immoral, and sinful.   It is homophobia, including the homophobia of your god himself which is wrong, immoral, and sinful.  And so your god is a sinner….”

Sometimes you just want to reach across impassable distances to give someone a well-deserved smack in the back of the head: “Just what the hell is your major malfunction, jackass?” Yet the charge isn’t answered by such a dismissal, no matter how deserved.

So let me repeat the question: Is God a homophobe?

The answer for the orthodox Christian is No. God doesn’t hate homosexuals, no matter what Fred Phelps (the living best argument against sola scriptura) says. In case you’re having trouble reading this, let me repeat: GOD DOES NOT HATE HOMOSEXUALS.

“For God so loved the world”—the whole world, not just a select handful—“that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17 RSV).

But how, then, do we reconcile this loving God against Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman: it is an abomination” (Lev 18:22 RSV)? Or Paul’s warning: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals,* nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10 RSV)?

To understand this, we must first understand what sin is, and what it does. Strictly speaking, a sin is an offense. More importantly, for our purposes, a sin is not an offense because it hurts God in any meaningful sense; rather, it’s an offense because it misuses gifts that God has given us. In doing so, we do spiritual damage, and often physical harm as well, to ourselves and (more often than not) to others. Christians and Jews often speak of this as temporal punishment, but we can think of it as the natural consequences for inordinate behavior; consider, for example, the health problems that are the consequence of eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia or obesity.

Sex is a gift. However, it is an extremely powerful gift with remarkable potential for misuse. For this particular gift isn’t meant to stand by itself; sex, after all, is not love, nor is it necessarily an expression of love. It only reaches its full potential in a marriage radically open to the miracle of children; that is, it only becomes an act of love within the context of building a family. To put a finer point on it, the children of the union are the fullest expression of that love. But even if one or both partners is sterile, the inability to produce children doesn’t by that fact alone make the union a sin. (There’s a qualification here, but it’s not to the purpose.)

Gay sex, no matter how the partners feel about one another, is by definition an act closed to reproduction; in strict evolutionary terms, it has negative genetic survival value because it closes off gene paths. Thus, the union can be about nothing more than the sexual experience itself, since it doesn’t lead anywhere or generate anything.

Since we are given the gift of free will, two people of the same sex can experience philos (fraternal love) and even agape (selfless, self-sacrificial love) without feeling or indulging in eros (sexual love). The beliefs that sexual desire must be indulged to be healthy, and that chastity and celibacy are unhealthy practices, are urban legends created almost fifty years ago in a stew of pop psychology and social rebellion.

“But homosexuality is natural,” you protest. If by “natural” you mean that it is produced without intention or invention or craft, certainly it’s natural. However, naturalness in this sense gives us no guide to moral or psychological value. Violence, to give just one example, is just as natural. Yet we prefer to restrict it as much as possible, releasing it only when necessary and just, and remanding for treatment and even imprisonment those who can’t control their need to indulge it.

Let’s grant, for the sake of the argument, that the homosexual orientation is incurable and permanent; let’s go even further and say that it can’t even be attenuated. Long-term commitment to a single partner is, in this perspective, a bare-minimum response rather than an ideal. Even better would be a commitment to chastity.

Realize that we’re not debating whether such a response is fair; as a matter of fact, fairness isn’t germane to the issue. Rather, the point of such a restriction is to limit the spiritual harm done, as pursuing gay sexual liaisons reinforces and extends the initial damage which created the orientation. Nor should the homosexual feel singled out, as the obligation to chastity embraces the single heterosexual and forbids extramarital sex.

Is this hard? Is this harsh? “He who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38 RSV). Were Christ preaching the Gospel in our times, he might very well put it, “Suck it up” … or “step up”, or “man up”, or “cowboy up”, or “put on your big girl panties and deal with it”.

After all, it’s easier than dying on a cross. A religion whose primary symbol is an ancient form of torture can’t promise its followers that life in faith will be a picnic. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29 RSV) ….

Despite the claims of non-Christians, particularly atheists, Christianity is not a flight from sorrow and suffering as is Buddhism. Rather, it is an acceptance of suffering for ourselves even as we try to ameliorate the sufferings of others, turning the consequences of original sin into the means of our salvation. We suffer because we deal with the universe as it really is, not by wishing away those realities we’d rather not experience. But our afflictions have meaning for us, because in suffering for Christ we help to complete his own suffering, which was for the sake of our redemption (cf. Col 1:24). In our trials, through the grace of God we find purification.

If we restrict the definition of homophobia, so that it mean “hatred of homosexuals”, then certainly there are Christians who are homophobic, who have used Scripture as justification for their hatred of gay people. But to love another person is not necessarily to deem all his actions acceptable, or to tolerate the beloved’s self-destructive behavior: ask any good mother or father.

Ultimately, not to say paradoxically, we must restrict the meaning of homophobe so that it doesn’t lose meaning through overuse as an ad hominem slam. The Christian challenge to the conventional wisdom is too weighty, too pertinent to be dismissed so.

No, God does not hate gay people. But I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of gay people who hate Him. No one likes to carry a cross.

* Gr. malakoi oute arsenokoítai; NIV has “male prostitutes [and] homosexual offenders”, while NAB has “catamites [and] sodomites”. The emphasis is on the practice rather than the orientation.