A Saner Interpretation
Last night was a long time coming. After watching the setback of Prop 8 in California (the appeal is probably heading to the Supreme Court), the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York feels like another jittery step forward in the march of ethical progress. It feels like the issue of gay rights, a movement that began in the late 60’s but picked up considerable steam in the 80’s and 90’s, will define my generation in much the way that civil rights defined the previous. But the issue is more important to me than just a natural progression of the betterment of mankind. I, like practically everyone, have gay relatives. And my wife and I probably have more gay friends than straight.
A few months ago, I realized why this is the case. It isn’t like we seek out and befriend gay people; it just so happens that most of the people we commune with are homosexual. And then it hit me: My wife and I are in our mid-30’s and intentionally childless. Gloriously childless, if you will. Most of our friends have veered away from us as they raise families and fall in with other people raising families. I’ve known hardcore Democrats who have bonded with hardline Republicans simply because their children are the same age. Playdates, carpools, and babysitting trump all else. As someone who spends time at dogparks where he knows the names of all the dogs but hardly any of the owners, I completely understand.
So the issue decided last night in New York is a continuation of a movement that affects people I know and love. It isn’t just the sensible thing, it’s a personally satisfying thing. And to help those who are being swept up in this wave of progress, for those who were raised to judge the predilections of others, for those who may have heard that homosexuality is a sin, I have a saner interpretation of biblical passages to offer. It is, I think, an interpretation that could reduce an incredible amount of heartache, not just in the gay community, but in congregations all over. It’s a way for those of faith to reconcile their beliefs with this inevitable moral progress. And it came to me during a conversation I had with a conflicted gay friend, who also is a Christian.
I know quite a few people in this situation. They were indoctrinated early, and sometime after puberty, realized they were bound for hell. Fear and sex are two of the strongest drives (if not number 1 and 2 outright). Rationalizing this clash between the two, between fear of damnation, of eternal punishment, of familial ostracization, of peer pressure and the just as primal sexual urges driven by our hormones … well, you wonder how anyone survives this ordeal. (And it makes me wonder how anyone in their right mind can suggest that a person would “choose” this torment.)
My normal reaction to meeting someone with this conundrum is to point out that religion is bollocks, that they’ve been unfairly (and cruelly) brainwashed, and to boycot their church until their ethical failures are modified to fall more in line with the superior moral truth held by most atheists. And well, that’s not so helpful, is it? The wonder of brainwashing is that it removes the very tools one would use to free themselves of unhealthy thoughts. That portion of the brain that can choose good from bad has been excised; it’s been replaced with dogma. A quick conversation or snappy wit isn’t going to undo years and years of fire and brimstone.
So there has to be a better way. Somehow, eventually, religion was able to let go of its screeches about slavery being morally justified, backed by the Good Word, encouraged from the pulpit, built on “tradition,” etc… If we can stop owning people, perhaps we could also graduate from the need to control who is in love with who, and what kind of sex they have. Maybe there’s a better way to argue for this. An argument from the inside, rather than an assault from without.
The problem, as I suddenly saw it while speaking with my Christian/gay friend, is that we’ve done a bad job of grouping the Bible’s sins. The current interpretation of homosexuality is that it is to be grouped with lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, etc… We have made it a cardinal sin. And, of course, we ignore the fact that the majority of marriages involve cheating, most people lie about their taxes, and almost everyone listens to music they didn’t pay for and does work around the house on Sundays. Even though we don’t take these sins seriously, they are the big ones, the top 10, and homosexuality is lumped right in, even though it is never mentioned alongside these sins.
But there’s another class of sins in the Bible. These are the “survival” sins. Back in the day (which is to say over two thousand years ago), life was hard. Without an actual god to watch over their health, the Jewish tribes who would write the Old Testament had to rely on dodging the harsh realities of science with the tools at hand. They had to eat, to fight off sickness, to reproduce, and to not let internal fighting undo any of this progress. They could have done this by rational discourse, but why waste time and court disagreement when they had more powerful tools at their disposal? Like almost every culture known to anthropology, they used superstition, dogma, fear, and brainwashing to enforce survival techniques. There was no time for anything more methodical or prone to hemming and hawing.
Rules for what kinds of foods to eat (both to protect working animals during bouts of hunger and privation, but also for nutritional and health reasons), abound throughout the Bible. Rules for how to handle one’s shit shovel (obvious health problem here, prayer be damned) can be found in Deuteronomy. But the health instructions are nothing compared to the reproductive ones. And not just those to guard against being cuckoled (if a woman doesn’t produce evidence of her wedding night virginity, such as a stained sheet, she is stoned to death. The accuser, if wrong, pays a fine), there are the ones that guarantee the survival of the tribes in the first place.
What’s the key to growth in a world that seems to have been designed to winnow a species down? Growth. More babies. The only thing we can do, with this well-constructed maze of tenuous life that includes toxic plants and poisonous animals, microscopic bugs that infect us, parasites that use us, things that eat us, not nearly enough things that we can eat in return, the murderous rage amongst ourselves, etc., is to keep throwing more of us into the fire. With enough babies, we survive. Our mantra to Mother Nature might as well be: “You can’t take all of us!”
And the Bible is rife with pleadings. What’s the first thing god told us? His first command? Be fruitful and multiply. Please, people, get it on. And don’t wrap that thing, no contraceptions of any kind. And no masturbating. I gave you that unquenchable urge for a reason: so quench it properly. Oh, and no abortions, either. I don’t care if you don’t want that kid, I want you to have it. More fodder for all the barbs and obstacles I’ve put in your way. So, don’t spill your seed, don’t trap it, don’t block it, don’t swallow it, don’t misfire it, and don’t stop what it starts to do once it gets to doing it. “MORE BABIES!” the Bible screams.
Now, does the saner interpretation click for you as it did for me? Does it sound audibly in your skull? Think about all the various categories into which the Bible’s sins might be lumped. There’s the behaviorally evil sins (theft, murder, rape, lying, cheating) that we demand people adhere to or they are damned to hell for all eternity. And then there’s the behavioral survival sins that ensure an ancient and primitive people aren’t crushed by the harsh world god made. It is to this latter category that the (just a few) mentions of homosexuality must be lumped. If not, then damned are those who masturbate, who use contraceptives, who choose, despite God’s pleading, that we be fruitful and multiply. Damned are the non-virgins on their wedding night. Damned to hell for eternity are they all.
But these aren’t serious sins, are they? We forgive all of these. They are seen as a necessary guide for an older time, when each offspring was crucial to a population’s survival. In the modern world of excess, they no longer apply. And neither should homosexuality.
Can we really put two people loving each other in the same context as murder, rape, and theft? Even worse, can we make-believe it’s an EVEN WORSE sin? Because the pulpit would lead you to believe this is so. I say this: the current stance of the church is more evil and less Christian than the act of two consensual people loving and being good to one another. Far more evil. Nearer to theft and rape, even, than what any homosexual couple is doing. But it’s there in the Bible, right? It says not to do it. So I offer this to those who are conflicted, who cannot shake the damage done to their young brains, ruined by uncaring, unthinking parents who drilled this doggerel in before they were old enough to think for themselves, before they were old enough to know they were gay. I offer a saner interpretation, a more logical one, a less evil one: Homosexuality was frowned upon for the same reason masturbation and contraceptives were; it was for maximum growth and population sustainability.
Of course, I don’t believe a single thing in the Bible. I don’t think you should either. This entire argument is for those who need to see how they can rectify the sexual orientation and religion they were born into. You didn’t choose either, I know. You were born Christian by dint of geography, and gay by dint of your unique and wonderful DNA. What you got was a potent mix, an incongruent tincture. So while you’re ignoring the sins in the Bible that you commit each week, and while you’re forgiving thieves and murderers who repent and allowing them into your personal heaven, why not do this as well? Why not read that book with a modicum of humanity and see how victimless crimes can be as forgiven as what foods we mix on our plates, how we cut our hair, and what we do with our shit shovels?