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What Are Religious Texts Really Saying About Gay and Transgender Rights?

An Interview with Bishop Gene Robinson

SOURCE: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, center, delivers his remarks during a news conference on Capitol Hill to support the Marriage Protection Amendment, on June 6, 2006, in Washington. Perkins claims the Bible sees homosexuality as a sin and suggests that Jesus would tell gays and lesbians to “sin no more.”

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Listen to the interview (mp3)

Jeff Krehely: The Washington Post asked you to write a series of columns about the way biblical passages have been used to characterize homosexuality and gay rights. Why did The Post ask you to write on this particular topic?

Bishop Gene Robinson: The Post ran a guest piece by Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. Readers were horrified that they would print something so backward and critical of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. In that article, as the religious right is wont to do, he quoted scripture—the story of the woman supposedly caught in adultery. Jesus ultimately says to her, “Go and sin no more.” Perkins claims the Bible sees homosexuality as a sin and suggests that Jesus would also tell gays and lesbians to “sin no more.”

Sally Quinn [editor of The Post’s On Faith columns] was very interested in having someone counter that argument, so I wrote a piece refuting the use of that particular scripture. She then said, “We really should take a look at what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality.” So that led to this series.

J: You write about selected passages and refer to them as “texts of terror.” They were written thousands of years ago. Why do they still have power today? And why are they such a core part of the debate around LGBT rights?

G: I should say first of all that that phrase, “texts of terror,” comes from Phyllis Trible’s work about those portions of scripture that have been used to denigrate and subjugate women over the years. But it is a wonderful phrase and clearly LGBT people have felt certain texts—there are seven—condemn homosexuality. In some sense they are our “texts of terror.”

Whether you are a religious person or not, these texts and their supposed meaning are literally in the air we breathe. A number of years ago I helped start a group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning teens in New Hampshire. One night I was sitting with five or six of them. Not a single one of them came from a household of faith. So they had never been in a Sunday school, never been in a church, and never heard a sermon. But they all knew the word “abomination” from Leviticus. You know, “a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination. They should both be put to death.”

Everyone thought that was what God thought of them. Now, they couldn’t have found the book of Leviticus if you had a loaded gun to their heads. But they knew that word, and they thought that is what God thought of them.

Before we became a post-Christian nation, those teachings became part of our culture. Even nonreligious people are infected by these words. As we see issues like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or gay marriage play out, those words are still buried in people. Sometimes well-meaning people don’t realize that those words have a kind of power and are the source of their resistance to LGBT issues. I think that 90 percent of the pain and struggle we have experienced as the LGBT community can be laid at the feet of religious people.

Sally Steenland: Some of that resistance comes from people who say, “We are just reading what the Bible tells us.” You explain what an interpretation of the Bible would actually look like if all its texts were read literally. And you show the importance of reading the Bible in context.

G: This is the discussion that one should have before tackling any of the passages. When people are confronted by someone who says, “I am just reading what is there,” I would encourage them to stop and call them on that because no one does that. Even if you are only trying to deal with the words as they are written, even your choice of which words you are going to deal with—which passages—requires interpretation.

I can’t ever recall Jerry Falwell or Pat Robinson quoting the verse in Luke where Jesus says, “If you want to be a follower of mine, you must give up all of your possessions.” That doesn’t fit in too well with their appeal to little old ladies on Social Security to send in their five dollars to support the ministry.

In the series, I point to a story that Dan Helminiak shares in one of his books where he posits a time in the future where the game of baseball has been lost. It’s not played anymore, and no one knows about it. You pick up a novel written in the year 2000, and it describes one of the characters as being “out in left field.” The reader in the future believes they understand what that means because they know what “left” is, and they know what a “field” is.

But unless you know the game of baseball you don’t know that most people bat right handed and that they bat to the left field in order to catch the fly balls. You don’t know that the left fielder backs way up, and that it has become a metaphor for being out of the loop, isolated, out of the mainstream. So you might think you know what “out in left field” means, but unless you know the game of baseball you would miss the whole meaning.

Most biblical scholarship of the last 50 years has been about the culture in which biblical texts were written and the surrounding cultures to which they were an answer. The ancient Hebrews—in what we would call the Old Testament—were surrounded by hostile pagan cultures that wanted to get rid of the Jews. Much of what we read in the Old Testament is about this struggle with those cultures. We now know a lot more about those struggles and the culture, and therefore, in some sense, we know the game of baseball they were playing. We have a context in which to sort through those words.

Once we know what was meant by the author and what was heard by the people for whom it was written, we can ask the question, “Is this eternally binding or something culturally determined that applies only for that time?”

If you don’t have that conversation first, you have already lost the conversation because you are arguing from two different planets. Certainly the mainstream religious way of doing scripture is to ask the questions: “What did it mean for the people back then? Has anything changed since to make it less binding on us?” None of us would doubt the eternally binding nature of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But some of the other things that we read in scripture have to be taken in context, and we have to say, maybe then but not now.

J: One of the stories that so-called biblical experts use when fighting LGBT equality is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How do you set that story in the context in which it was originally written versus how it is used today?

G: This is a really important story because it’s where we get the word “sodomite” used to describe homosexuals, and nothing could be further from the truth. This story is about a very wealthy city. Perhaps it was the prototype of the gated community. Because they wanted to protect their wealth they canceled a very important tradition throughout the Middle East: welcoming the stranger. That kind of hospitality makes life possible in a desert culture. Travel was very difficult, and you would offer hospitality to anyone because not to do so might mean death.

Some men in Sodom didn’t want strangers coming into city because they feared they would see the wealth and return with an army. Lot, the central figure in the story, welcomes two men into his home who turn out to be angels of God. The men want Lot to send the men out to them so that they can rape them. And Lot refuses to do so.

When the Bible talks about the sin of Sodom, people have mistakenly thought that the sin was men having sex with men. The story goes on to say that Lot would not turn over his guests but was happy to send his virgin daughter out to them so they could rape her instead. This is not a story about two men who fall in love and pledge themselves to a monogamous, faithful, lifelong intentioned relationship. This is about homosexual rape. No one is arguing for homosexual rape—or any kind of rape—because it is an act of violence.

With Sodom and Gomorrah, we have internal commentary on the story elsewhere in scripture. Ezekiel has virtually the same story, and the prophets talk about the sin of Sodom as being that of greed and lack of care for the poor. Cancellation of the law of hospitality was a sin against the poorest and most vulnerable. That is the same conclusion that Jesus himself draws in citing Sodom when he talks about the disciples going into a town and not being received. He says, “Shake the dust off your feet and go on into the next town. It will be worse for those folks who did not receive you, welcome you, offer you hospitality than for the people of Sodom.”

Within the scriptures themselves, homosexual rape is not the right interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah—yet those who argue against homosexuality keep using it.

I would say one more probably outrageous thing, which is if the sin of Sodom is greed and not taking care of the poor, then it would seem like the sodomites in our culture are those who do things to keep the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. If we want to talk about sodomites, let’s talk about that.

S: One of the things you write about is that God continues to talk to us and reveal truths. You say that God didn’t just close the book and say, “Now you are on your own.” God still wants to be in a relationship with us, and the evidence is that truths that seem obvious now, people struggled with a long time ago.

G: You know, this may be one of the great divides between fundamentalist Christians and other Christians. I think that most of our brothers and sisters in the religious right would say that God said everything that God needed to say by the end of the first century when the canon of scripture—the books that were put together and called the Bible—was closed.

But I don’t believe that God finished talking to us at the end of the first century. I believe God continues to interact with us and reveal God’s self to us on an ongoing basis. My scriptural text for this is an amazing passage in John’s gospel, much of which is the dialogue at the Last Supper. Jesus says to his disciples, “There is much that I would teach you, but you cannot bear it right now. So I will send the Holy Spirit that will lead you into all truth.”

It is a remarkable window into Jesus’s revelation of God. I think he was saying: For a bunch of uneducated fishermen you haven’t done too badly. There were some days I didn’t think you were the sharpest knives in the drawer, but you have done a pretty good job. And you will go on to do amazing things, but don’t for a minute think that God is done with you. God has much more to teach you. But honestly, given your historical and cultural context, you can’t handle it right now. So I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you over time into a greater fullness of your understanding of God.

Closer to our own time, our understanding of people of color and their full inclusion in the reign of God and in our culture, society, and government is a great example of changed understanding. We used scripture for 18 and a half centuries following Jesus’s death to justify slavery. Now we look back and think, “My god, what were we thinking?” A year after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Episcopal Bishop of Vermont wrote a whole book justifying slavery using scripture.

Similarly, women were kept in a secondary role and status using scripture. Many women remember wearing hats to church because St. Paul said that a woman’s place in church is with her head covered and her mouth shut. There are denominations today that still exclude women from leadership positions because of that scripture. Yet many of us think, “What were we thinking?”

This is a very exciting time because we are now asking that question about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Could this be yet another time when the church got it wrong about what God’s will is? Could this be a time when we admit that we got it wrong—not that God got it wrong but that we got God wrong? And that God, through the Holy Spirit, is leading us to the truth about God’s gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender children? I think so.

J: Can you talk a little more about how faith communities are changing regarding LGBT issues?

G: I am 63 years old, and when I was growing up in the 50s, we didn’t talk about this. First of all, the word gay just meant a nice party. We didn’t use it to describe homosexual people. And homosexuality, if spoken about at all, was spoken about in whispers. I think the British phrase is a “love that dare not speak its name.” Clearly we have come a long way, and the reason is that so many of us came out.

Twenty years ago most people would say they didn’t know a gay or lesbian person. They might have felt a little uncomfortable around Uncle Harry or referred to those two wonderful ladies who live down the street and take such nice care of their lawn. But what they meant was that they didn’t know anyone who was self-affirming and proud of who they were. Now, is there anyone in America who doesn’t know some family member or co-worker or neighbor? Or as often happens, someone goes back to a class reunion. My husband Mark and I went back to his 20th reunion at Middlebury College. He introduced me to one of his best buddies in college and said, “This is my partner, Gene.” And the guy said, “Oh, what business are you in?” So we had to start at the beginning. Not that kind of partner. We are talking about a life partner.

Everyone knows someone gay. That has changed institutional religion because we are sitting in churches, synagogues, and mosques and letting ourselves be known as LGBT people. That causes dissonance. People can’t know and love us and at the same time hold on to traditional understanding of scripture. Something’s got to give. They have either got to give us up or give up traditional understandings.

When push comes to shove, people will mostly choose people over something they have been told. Parents have chosen the love of their children. Mainline denominations are taking a hard look and asking, “Have we gotten this wrong?” I think you see more and more religious people answering yes to that.

There are some denominations where it’s a very tough go. Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Roman Catholics—at least in terms of the official teachings of the church—are pretty rigid in sticking to original understandings. But even people within those ranks are facing this. Remember, there are just as many gay kids growing up in the Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, or Mormon churches as anywhere else—and the parents of those kids are presented with dissonance between the kid they love and what the church is telling them.

S: Let’s talk about kids and some recent headlines about the tragic suicides of gay teens who’d been bullied. You did a video for a project called “It Gets Better” that went viral. What did you say and why do you think it was so powerful?

G: I did this video for the kid in nowhere Idaho and Georgia for whom the Internet may be the only place to get some good news for who they are. They are bombarded by the culture and most likely by the church saying they are despicable in the eyes of God.

It is important for someone like me to use my position as a bishop of the church to have another voice coming from the institutional church and a place of authority, saying, “I know you have been told these things, and I am telling you they are flat-out wrong.” I wanted them to know that there are legitimate leaders in the mainline churches who read the Bible differently, who know a God that loves and accepts them just the way they are.

Having that said by a bishop who happens to be an openly gay man can pack an even greater wallop because they know I have gone through what they are going through. I can say, “I promise you, it gets better. You know those people telling you that God doesn’t love you? They are flat-out wrong. Don’t take your own life. Hang around long enough for those of us who know differently to convince you otherwise. For God’s sake, don’t hurt yourself. Hang in there long enough to hear voices like mine, and others that will join mine, to let you know that you are absolutely beloved by God and absolutely nothing can come between you and that love.”

J: Moving from this place in time and thinking ahead—knowing that predictions are tricky—what do you see for LGBT people both here in the United States and around the globe?

G: I believe that we are well on our way to bringing LGBT people into the promise of America, which is equal treatment for all our citizens. We will keep on working until that is a reality. It matters who is elected to Congress and who is elected president. There is no question in my mind that we have been able to do things because of who is president right now.

I think progress in that realm is inevitable. We are not arguing if it’s going to happen, just when. We would like it to happen faster. We would like it to happen tomorrow, but it won’t, so we have to be in this for the long haul. On a longer trajectory, I would like to see our movement mature. We have been concerned with our own issues, and we have every right to be. But we also need to move ever outward.

First of all, I think we will see our community becoming more concerned with the plight of LGBT people around the world. The “kill the gays bill” in Uganda was the first time in my recollection that the LGBT community in America got exercised over something going on outside America. That is all to the good. It is going to take activism on our part to change life for LGBT people in the rest of the world.

Two years ago I met a young woman in Africa. When she came out to her parents, they took her to the local police station where all the policemen gang-raped her to cure her of her lesbianism. That’s what is going on in some countries. It’s my great hope that we will make enough progress on our own issues to be able to expand our concern to include people around the world.

The other expansion I want to see in our community is a greater understanding of the connections between heterosexism, which oppresses us, and racism, sexism, ableism—all of the isms. While the specifics may be different, the dynamics are the same. The way one group oppresses another works out the same. And yet we have been rather siloed in our concerns.

I am horrified to hear someone in the gay community speak about women in a sexist way, or be racist. I sometimes grab these people by the shoulder and say, “Haven’t you learned anything from your own experience?” But people don’t always make those connections.

When I talk to young LGBT people they talk about these intersections. Intersectionality is the new buzzword in the younger gay community, and I think that is exactly right. I would like to see us becoming activists in antiracism and antisexism. I would like to see us learn from our own experience, and use it as a tiny window into what it is like to be a person living in a wheelchair or a person who is female or a person of color.

One of the great gifts that comes from being gay is you get the experience of being on the receiving end of oppression. We don’t have to compete with one another as to whose oppression is worse. A way for the oppressor to get away with murder is to keep us fighting with each other rather than fighting the oppressor. In the future, I would like to see us expand our vision of what it means to work for justice—for all people, not just ourselves.

A sidebar to that: I think the reason Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was seen as dangerous is because he began to think in broad terms. He began to put together race and poverty and militarism. He started talking about the Vietnam War and who was being used as cannon fodder—partly because they were black and poor. When he started doing that, he became hugely dangerous to the status quo. I hope the gay community can become courageous enough to begin to put things together and call the world to become a more just place.

J: Inspiring and insightful as always, Bishop Robinson. We are so delighted to have you here at CAP.

G: I am excited to be here. It has been a wonderful association, and I hope it continues for a long time.

Listen to the interview (mp3)

Bishop Gene Robinson is a visiting Senior Fellow, Jeff Krehely is Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project, and Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at American Progress.

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