November 26, 2011
Suppose the Bible said that being a redhead was sinful. Well that’s ridiculous you might say, because you don’t think the Bible says any such thing. There aren’t very many redheads in the Bible. Esau and King David are described in ways that leads some translators to present them as redheads. And Mary Magdalene and, yes, Judas, that most dramatic sinner, are generally pictured as redheads even though there is apparently little Bible foundation for these depictions.
When I was doing research in Mexico in the 1970s I learned that some Christians, especially in Spanish speaking countries, regard redheads as the devil in the flesh. In the subway in Mexico City, in rural towns, in parks and along city streets (pretty much everywhere I went) I would see people cross themselves as I passed by. Others would pull their children close and cover their eyes so that they would not see me. Being so treated was a little dismaying.
Of course I can’t help but be a redhead: it’s how God made me. How could that be sinful if that’s part of my given-ness? I believe the Bible doesn’t say being a redhead is sinful, but some people think it does.
And suppose it did? Do we see sinfulness as any trait or behavior that is mentioned negatively in the Bible? Or do we expect there to be some larger understanding that makes sense of what God considers failures to follow God’s will? I believe that what God considers to be sin is not just a long, apparently disordered, bewildering list of God’s dos and don’ts, likes and don’t likes. Rather I believe that there is a sense-making logic to what is sinful. And I believe that the two Great Commandments of Matthew 22:36-40 are the best short key to that logic.
So that brings us around to homosexuality and what Paul says in Romans 1:26-27. Without question, in any discussion of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, the passage in Romans 1 is the most important. I think it’s clear that in this passage Paul is describing what some people are doing as sinful, but is it homosexuality? Is this an instance where something like ‘being a redhead’ has found its way into the Bible, mentioned in a negative way?
I find the few paragraphs below from theologian Walter Wink to be especially useful in sorting out what that passage in Romans likely means. [Wink is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary.]
“For Christians, Old Testament texts have to be weighed against the New. Consequently, Paul’s unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behavior in Rom. 1:26-27 must be the centerpiece of the discussion.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
“No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently no choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seemed to assume that those he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychological understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them.
“In other words, Paul really thought that those whose behavior he condemned were ‘straight,’ and that they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul believed that everyone was straight. He had no conception of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world. There are people who are genuinely homosexual by nature (the exact cause no one really knows, and it is irrelevant). For such a person it would be acting contrary to nature to have sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex.
“Likewise the relationships Paul describes are heavy with lust; they are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple. That was something Paul simply could not envision. Some people assume today that venereal disease and AIDS are divine punishment for homosexual behavior; we know it as a risk involved in promiscuity of every stripe, homosexual and heterosexual. In fact, the vast majority of people with AIDS the world around are heterosexuals; we can scarcely label AIDS a divine punishment.
“And Paul believes that homosexual behavior is contrary to nature, whereas we have learned that it is manifested by a wide variety of species, especially (but not solely) under the pressure of overpopulation. It would appear then to be a quite natural mechanism for preserving the species. We cannot, of course, decide human ethical conduct solely on the basis of animal behavior or the human sciences, but Paul here is arguing from nature, as he himself says, and new knowledge of what is ‘natural’ is therefore relevant to the case.“
[pp 35-37 from Walter Wink, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” in Walter Wink, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), pp 33-49.
I take Wink to be saying here that Paul is not describing homosexuality, the God-given condition of some humans. Rather, Paul is describing lustful, wanton behavior of people acting against their God-given nature.