Gays, AIDS, and Biblical Authority
When I told you last Sunday that I had two recent requests to say something about homosexuality, I told you that I had not talked about that topic for a long time. I was wrong, a fact pointed out gently by a woman in the choir who has more reason than the rest of you to keep up with what I’m doing. Almost exactly one year ago I responded to some of the antics of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his reprehensible attacks on the homosexual population, but no single sermon can come close to exhausting that complex topic, so I can respond to my questioners without repeating anything from last year.
“Dear Dr. Meyers,” a recent letter began, “you’ve requested potential sermon topics from the congregation. I have two topics on which I would like to hear your views from the pulpit. One is that of homosexualty, a lifestyle I struggle to under-stand. There are times when I feel Christianity and homosexuality are mutually exclusive. Other times, I think it is possible to be both gay and a Christian. People do not choose to be gay any more than they choose the color of their skin. If there is no choice, involved, is being gay a sin?” (This writer had a second question, about AIDS, which I shall address briefly at the end of the sermon).
I should indicate first the background out of which I attempt a response. In a lifetime of ministry and university teaching I have confronted this issue over and over, counseled with male and female homosexuals, and seen problems resolved wisely in some cases, tragically in others. I have close and dear friends who have told me of their feelings when they heard these words: “Mom and Dad, I must make you aware of a part of my life that you may not understand. I am gay.” I know of cases in which someone has said, “Bishop, there is something you need to know about me since I am a priest in your diocese. I am a homosexual.” With words like those, both men and women have identified their sexual orientation, often at enormous risk to relationships which mean a great deal to them. It has happened so often in recent years that we found a phrase and called it, “coming out of the closet.” And because it is happening more and more often, all of us — in or out of the church — have had to face up to a reality we preferred to ignore. When I went just last week to visit a young gay man who happens to be dying of AIDS, it was not my first such visit and it is not likely to be my last.
Let’s deal for a moment with certain facts we can take for granted. People with homosexual orientations are all around us. They are our doctors, lawyers, business associates, college friends, our sisters, brothers, and children. Many of them choose to remain as invisible as possible, to hear our derogatory jokes in silence. Humanity has a powerful herd instinct and it is never easy for those who are different. It is especially painful when, as I believe to be true in this case, they did not choose to be different. We have been flooded with research in the last 20 years which suggests that truly homosexual persons have no more control over their sexual orientation than over being lefthanded or redheaded.
If this is true, many of us in the heterosexual majority have related to those who are diffrent from us in ways that twist and warp the human soul. The first inclination of a dear friend of mine in Texas, when his daughter said, “Dad, I am a lesbian,” was to close the family circle and shut her out. We talked about it for hours, and among other things I reminded him that while she was not promiscuous, he had been — that in the heterosexuality he celebrated he had more than once risked destroying his family. There are two sons and two daughters in that family, and I am happy to tell you that because they are intelligent and caring, they will all be together in love and understanding for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Not every family can manage that. In Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate, published just this year, he tells of his friend Jeffrey’s struggle with homosexuality, an orientation he did not will but which, because of the judgmental religion of his childhood, made him feel a hopeless outcast. He ended up in a state mental hospital after castrating himself with a razor blade. His father, an evangelical pastor, said: “We don’t know why. He almost killed himself, and we still can’t understand it.” Apparently it had not occurred to him that a boy who had been taught to hate himself because he was different might be plunged into unbearable mental anguish. A young man I came to know well seriously considered killing himself when he realized that he could not change his nature and that what he was might harm the reputation of his prominent father, whom he dearly loved.
Speculation is endless in psychology, medicine and religion about the origins of homosexuality — whether it is genetic, environmental, or both. There is no scarcity of studies, if you care enough to seek them out, so I shall not pursue that complex matter. What I believe, with as much confidence as I believe anything, is that people do not choose their sexual orientation — that while most of us are attracted to the opposite sex, some of us are attracted to the same sex, and that is how it has been for as far back as we can find any evidence. Studies I have read indicate that children raised by homosexual parents almost always grow up heterosexual, which if true suggests again that our sexual orientation is influenced more by body chemistry than by environment.
Our reaction to all this would be much simpler if we could settle it by an appeal to Scripture, but despite the Rev. Fred Phelps and my many fundamentalist friends, this is not as easy as it appears on first glance. The Bible, as is obvious to any careful student, is influenced by the thought world in which it was written. It sanctions slavery, for example, and nowhere attacks slavery as an evil. So, in Civil War days, southern churches argued that slavery is justified by the Bible. Reading literally, with no allowance for cultural influence on the Bible, they could make a strong case. We think the Spirit of Truth has led us since then into more informed techniques of interpretation and into clearer knowledge of the will of God.
Again, the overwhelming burden of the Biblical message is that women are inferior beings. Those of us in this room do not accept that. We understand that some attitudes in the Bible were conditioned by the cultural matrix from which it sprang, and that they are neither useful nor right in all times and places. The power of Jesus to change life for the better is not diminished for me when I see hints that he, too, was a child of his times. How could it be otherwise, if he lived a life truly human? And if he didn’t, of course, then he can hardly be an inspiration to us because we are human and not gods. So, when a woman accused of adultery was about to be stoned to death, Jesus did not seize that occasion to speak out against what we all now see as a cruel and terrible law. According to his biographers, at least, he simply chose to shame those eager hypocrites out of punishing a vulnerable woman for the same weakness they had kept hidden in their own lives. Jesus, I judge from such incidents, was at the same time better than his times but historically part of them. Revelation, we Congregationalists believe, is an ongoing process guided by the Spirit of God. We believe that more truth has been revealed to us about slavery than was revealed to Moses, and that we have come closer to the mind of Christ about women than the author of Timothy and Titus had managed. I would like to think we understand considerably more of the truth about sexual orientations than people did in the first century, and that as the famous old Congregational slogan says, there are principles in the Word of God itself which shine out with sudden new clarity in every generation to help us know the truth that sets us free. You must remember, after all, that if Jesus knew the true nature of God, then the God of the early Old Testament, the God who ordered the massacre of innocent children, is a creation of people who needed that excuse to seize property. Jesus reinterpreted God, which turned out to be such a risky enterprise that he died because of it. I hope you are remembering still the point I am trying to make: that the Bible, and religious history itself, is the record of our struggle to rise above local custom and prejudice to know the mind of God.
You must be thinking right now, if you are engaged with me in all this, that we are dealing with one of the most crucial areas in Jewish and Christian life when we confront the question of the Bible’s authority. I cannot even begin to tell you of the human misery and heartache caused by people who think the Judeo-Christian literature representing religious thought from two to four thousand years ago is to be followed, inflexibly, by those who seek to know God in this century. Need I remind you of those Jewish fundamentalists in Israel who justify their inhumanity and stubborness and opposition to peace by quoting Biblical verses most of us feel are no longer applicable? Those of us who profess Christianity have a model in our own Scripture about how we as disciples — that is, students — are to test the letter of the law by the spirit of love and compassion and justice, as Jesus did himself, over and over. Remember? “The law says….but I say unto you” — and religion, as it must do forever, takes another step forward.
I spoke of a model. You can find it in Acts 10 as you watch Peter struggle to give up some of his powerful religious convictions. He protests vigorously three times when in a trance he hears his Lord order him to rise and kill and eat the birds and reptiles and pigs before him in that didactic vision. No wonder he is appalled, when you remember that from childhood he had it drilled into him from his Scripture that he absolutely could not eat those things — that to do so was an abomination. And now God suddenly is telling him just the opposite. “Kill and eat….What God has cleansed, you must not call profane or unclean.” The question is whether those of us — drilled, as Peter was, to think a certain way — are as willing as he was change when both reason and love demand it. We have already done it, often, of course, in matters with no great emotional weight for us.. We read the words of Christ in which it is perfectly obvious he intended us to fast as a religious exercise, but we view that as a first century way of expressing devotion and without any sense of betrayal or guilt we find other ways of doing that . Paul tells us five times to greet one another with a holy kiss, but most of us feel that a handshake will express his real intent just as well. James tells us to anoint the sick with oil, but we have learned other ways to heal so we give antibiotics. Only the most rigid literalist would say we were being disobedient to the intention of those verses of scripture.
I am trying to say that sexuality is a branch of scientific knowledge, and that the Bible is a book of spiritual teaching and not of scientific revelation. Have you ever tried to imagine how many lives would have been saved — how many innocent children would have lived to grow up, how many mothers spared from inconsolable heartbreak — if the secret of penicillin had been revealed to the Apostle Paul? Was it really more important to God to insist that women keep quiet in church than to reveal the mercy of antibiotics or the comforts of anesthesia, or is it simply that the Bible reflects its own culture and leaves us to shape our own forever and ever in the spirit of Christ?
I believe in the latter, of course, and so do those mainline American churches which have recognized in recent years that our sexual orientation is determined for us, rather than chosen. I suppose it comes as no surprise that these are not fundament-alist churches, since fundamentalism reads the Bible with little, if any, allowance for how culture conditioned much of what its authors had to say. But among those Protestant churches which do make that allowance and therefore call for a more enlightened understanding of homosexuality are the Disciples of Christ, United Methodists, Episcopalians, the Lutheran Church in America, the National Council of Churches, the United Presbyterian Church, the Unitarians, the Congregationalists, and the United Church of Christ. And while the Roman Catholic Church is not willing to go quite as far as the Unitarians, it does say formally: “Some persons find themselvs through no fault of their own to have a homosexual orientation….and should not suffer from prejudice.” This is an incredible change of attitudes over the last couple of decades and I think Jesus of Nazareth would be pleased by it.
I should tell you that you will mistake my feelings if you think I approve of everything I see in the world of homosexuals. I do not, anymore than I approve of everything I see in the world of heterosexuals. I am not convinced that flaunting the gay lifestyle in garish parades has brought society in general to a deeper and warmer understanding, although I realize it is meant to say, “Here we are, there are a lot of us, and you need to know it.” I long for a time when we shall not have to identify ourselves publicly by particular aspects of our behavior. I do not like having the mind-boggling diversity of heterosexuals defined so narrowly as the word “straight” does it, and I think that for homosexuals there is something demeaning about defining their daily existence by a word as confining as the word “gay.”
I spoke of parades. I think I have some notion of how it would be to come out in the open after all the years of hiding and pretending, but I would be dishonest if I did not say that I hope homosexuals will soon have no more reason than heterosexuals to publicize their lifestyle. As Robert Coles puts it in his Harvard Diary: “The point for these men and women is their privacy, their dignity, their struggle to live on their own an honorably decent life — without being hectored, yes, but also without becoming themselves hectors: members of yet another pushy, truculent, self-important pressure group…..”
I have been appalled at the promiscuity of some gays, but no more appalled than are many other gays. Promiscuity is cruel and degrading in any sexual orientation, and God knows there is enough of it among heterosexuals who, by the way, bear some responsibility for the promiscuity of gays. Just as blacks were called shiftless by whites who helped make them that way by refusing to make their work honorable or rewarding, so straights call gays promiscuous while they deny the kind of support that might make for open and stable relationships.
There was a second question I told you I would reply to briefly. My letter writer is bothered by the “ultra conservative far right’s view that AIDS is God’s punishment on those who are homosexual.” The writer is convinced God doesn’t work that way, and wonders how I feel. That one is easy. I feel the same way. If it were otherwise you would have to say God’s aim is terribly bad, since innocent wives and mothers and children and hemophiliacs have all died from that dreadful disease.
Next week, I shall respond to a note which says: “I have been away from churches for years because I could not stand the self-righteousness I saw while I was growing up. I have visited this church several times without hearing what put me off a long time ago, but I don’t know whether that is just an accident or something you try to teach. Would you talk about it?” I shall, under a title that may be more creative than the sermon: “The Bishop and the Bottlegger.” It would be a pleasure to have you come back.
Perhaps if we can learn, gracious God, to take less credit for what we are,
we will be able to see much more clearly what others are, and why, and
extend to them our love in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen .