Sunday, May 10, 2015

Picking the parts that suit you

The Supreme Court’s decision this past week to take up the case of the right of same-sex couples to marry has brought the homophobes out of the woodwork. Most people will simply want to turn and walk away from these folk with their limited knowledge of the Bible who nonetheless want to make their understanding of scripture the law of the land.  Fortunately, the tide has turned and most Americans no longer feel the need to demonize others for their sexuality.  But the ignorance persists and is getting quite aggressive in places. In Michigan there's a group now putting their ignorance on billboards.  "Homosexuality is a behavior," they tell you.  "Not a civil right."

Straight out of the Middle Ages.

These guys make me think of my dog Miki who brings me her rope toy every morning and wants me to play tug with her.  Not the best of comparisons, given I love that little girl almost beyond endurance, and don't actually want to engage with the god salesmen.

But OK.  I’ll play.

Not with all of them.  I won't play with Matt McLaughlin, the guy who has California State Attorney Kamala Harris’s office tied up with legislation he is proposing that would impost the death penalty on gay people.  No kidding.  It’s called the Sodomite Suppression Act.  You can read about him and his proposal here

I don’t want to play with him.

But let's have a go with in Michigan (photo above) who see the civil rights of LGBT people as a line in the sand.  They compare same-sex marriage to Roe v. Wade and insist God wants them to stop it.  They are drumming up a rush of mail to the Supreme Court urging them to "remove jurisdiction from the Federal Courts and appellate jurisdiction from the Supreme Court on all cases regarding the issue of marriage."  And their source of authority? Genesis 2:24.  The book that tells us the world was made in six days.  This from the folk who conclude that Noah must have had dinosaurs on his arc.

And with Minister Charles Williams of the Church of Christ on Nashville Road in Gallatin, Tennessee (photo right).  He’s posted a notice in front of his church informing locals (and the whole world with access to the internet, of course) that “People who practice homosexual acts will not inherit heaven.”  And he quotes one of the clobber passages homophobes love to cite from the bible.  This one is 1 Corinthians 6, verse 9.

In the King James version, 1 Corinthians 6:9 reads:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.

Inheriting heaven is not on my shopping list.  I decided years ago that if Jerry Falwell was there, I was taking my business elsewhere.  But for the sake of those really nice Christian gay people for whom such things matter, I feel obliged to speak up.  They deserve so much better than people like the Catholic Bishops and the Charles Williams of Gallatin, Tennessee types. 

Once again it's time for that rule of thumb.  Want to distinguish between good religion and bad religion?  Check out its followers.  Where you find charity, integrity, compassion and humility, you're likely to find decent religion.  When you spot people telling you they know the mind of God, beware. Be especially careful of people with signs.

I blogged recently about one of those Christians at the Supreme Court with a sign claiming that “God Hates Fags” who believes for all the world that the Bible is backing him up.  You know he does because he gives you a biblical reference for his assertion.  This wacko makes it easy by using a word from the list which also includes kike, wop, spic and nigger.

Not all homophobes are that open about their bigotry.  The nice folks from Gallatin, Tennessee, for example.  I doubt any of them use hate words like “fag.”  At the same time, though, they show little understanding of the biblical passages they throw at you.

For starters, somebody needs to tell the Reverend William and his flock that homosexual does not actually appear in the biblical passage of the English Bible most evangelicals show a preference for.  The King James version of the English bible came out in 1611, two hundred years before the word homosexual was coined in 1869 by the German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert.  The word homosexual as we understand it today didn’t exist because the concept as we understand it today didn’t exist.  That’s why Benkert had to invent it.  Words get invented as new notions are conceptualized and we feel the need for a new word to express them. 

When Benkert came up with the term, he wanted to convey what he saw as a medical model for same-sex behavior as being inherent.  This was a whole new way to go, a major departure from the old view of “sodomy” as a behavior any person might engage in if feeling wicked.  Any person, of course, being male.  It's not just that you stop using the old word sodomy and start using the new word homosexuality.  You also change all the connotations around the new word. Sodomy was used at a time when one didn't much care what your "nature" was.  Anybody could engage in acts of sodomy.  It was a sin of choice.  But a homosexual - at least as the coiner of the word understood it, was somebody inclined by nature to desire members of his or her own sex.

So back in the pre-Benkert days - when the King James Bible was written, for example, one finds two terms for what in post-Benkert days has come to be called homosexual, one more infelicitous than the other:  “Effeminate” and (this one needs a drum roll, I think) “abusers of mankind.”

(I hear Miki tugging and growling in pure delight.)

Now does anyone in his right mind really think the Apostle Paul (or whoever wrote that letter to the good people of Corinth in his name) actually thought that if you were not good at catching a ball or cried while watching soap operas or could correctly identify the colors mauve, cerise, puce and fandango pink, that there was no place in heaven for you?

You can’t condemn with the word “effeminate” today as you could in 1611.  People may be amused by flaming queens and Liberace types, but nobody is going to be persuaded they’re all going to hell.  Nobody who doesn't hang on to a medieval mindset, that is.  But note what happens if you take the word effeminate out and put in the word homosexual.  Notice how much easier it is to get behind the notion that we’re on the side of the Lord in condemning their behavior.  God won’t send you to hell for being effeminate, maybe, but he sure will for having sex with somebody of your own sex.  Male, that is.  Women aren’t important enough to worry about when determining who is too wretched to merit heavenly reward. 

Paul used the Greek word malakoi here.  It means “something soft.”  You know, the way women are soft.  More on that in a minute.

Right after malakoi, Paul condemns people he calls arsenokoitai.  That's the word that got translated in the King James version as “abusers of mankind” and in more recent translations as “homosexual.”

Consider the 17th century expression “abusers of mankind” for a minute.  Some monk really had to pore over his thesaurus to come up with that one.  What does it mean, anyway, to “abuse” mankind?  Just think of how erotophobic you have to be to define bringing somebody to sexual ecstasy as sexual “abuse.”  Unless, of course, what’s being referred to is forcing a minor into an activity that causes pain or humiliation.  That’s a horse of a different color.  What exactly did Paul mean by arsenokoitai? 

Luther’s translation comes in handy here.  Martin Luther, remember, was the guy who gave Protestantism its first real start when he translated the New Testament from the original Greek into language the people of his day could actually understand.  Not exactly; he was making a standard for the German language up as he went along, since there were so many dialects to contend with.  Today he is considered the great unifier of the German language for his efforts.  But I digress.

Here’s how Luther translated 1 Corinthians 6:9:  The word-by-word gloss is mine:

     Wisset ihr nicht, daß die Ungerechten das Reich Gottes nicht ererben werden?
     know    ye  not   that  the  unjust        the kingdom of God not inherit will? 

     Lasset euch nicht verführen! Weder die Hurer noch die Abgöttischen                          
     Let yourselves not be misled!  Neither the fornicators nor the idolaters

     noch die Ehebrecher noch die Weichlinge noch die Knabenschänder
     nor the adulterers nor the “sissies” nor the boy-abusers…

Aha.  The “abusers of boys.”  Not the same thing as “abusers of mankind” at all, is it?

And if you think this 16th century German is too unreliable a text to take literally, check out the modern German translation by Schlacher from1905, revised in 2003:

    Wisst ihr denn nicht, dass Ungerechte das Reich Gottes nicht erben werden?
     Irrt euch nicht: Weder Unzüchtige noch Götzendiener, weder Ehebrecher
     noch Weichlinge, noch Knabenschänder 

Note that the crucial terms – Weichlinge – sissies, and Knabenschänder – abusers of boys - are unchanged.  Modern German readers of Greek think Luther got it right.

Luther isn’t the only guy who had to come up with words to describe the original Greek ρσενοκοται – arsenokoitai, and, like everybody else, he ended up giving it a twist that reflected the notions of his age.  Arsenokoitai, it has been argued, is a word which Paul made up.  There is no evidence of its having been used before this reference in Paul’s letter to the Corinthinians, so in trying to figure out what he was conceptualizing by the coinage there is bound to be uncertainty.  People were certainly familiar with same-sex activity.  The Greek word for people who engaged in it was paiderasste, from which our word “pederast” is derived – and note the word identifies a “lover”  ραστής (erastēs) of πας (pais) "boys."  Prepubescent or adolescent. If he meant what we mean today by homosexual, or pederast, why did he coin a new word instead?  Why didn’t he just use the words available at the time?

Scholars have speculated over this question.  Was Paul referring to sexual “offenders” – i.e., people (of whatever sexuality – remember sexuality was not considered a static identity) who manipulated others, raped them or otherwise coerced them into sex?  Male prostitutes with female customers?   Pimps – people who lived off sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual?  One source suggests malakoi and arsenokoitai should be taken as a pair, meaning “passive” (bottom, “insertee”) and “active” (top, “inserter”), respectively, but that is a dead give-away that it comes from somebody with no idea of how gay men have sex, an ivory tower assumption that gay men determine among themselves who is going to "play the man" and who is going to "play the woman."

Others have suggested that the two words together represent a person with “soft morals,” i.e., anybody who does any number of bad things, sexual or otherwise. 

You can keep this going.  A French translation gives arsenokoitai as infâmes, i.e., vile, nefarious, villainous, sordid.   The Castilian Standard gives it as los pervertidos sexuales (sexual perverts). A look at the many attempts across different languages and across time in the English language to guess what Paul meant by arsenokoitai only reveal the fact that we simply do not know exactly and are filling in with the version of the moment.

Here are some other examples of English translations.  As I mentioned above, the other pre-Benkert (i.e., pre-1869 coining of “homosexual”) translation we have available to us beside the King James version, Young’s literal translation of 1862 also uses sodomite as the predecessor of homosexual. “Malakoi oute arsenokoitai” is rendered “nor effeminate, nor sodomites.”   Even after the word reached some currency, not all translators jumped to homosexual. The Darby Bible Translation of 1890 reads: “…nor those who make women of themselves, nor who abuse themselves with men” – again putting the notion of men acting like women into the category of sin, and suggesting it is not merely unbecoming, but enough to cause one to spend an eternity in hell.  Then there's the Weymouth New Testament of 1903, which uses the circumlocution “…nor any who are guilty of unnatural crime….” mixing the notions of “sin” and “crime,” although it hardly matters, since both are clearly worthy of the death penalty.

Few know to ask any more what Paul intended to say in this letter to the Corinthians.  They don’t ask because they think they know.  Modern people – in the English-speaking world, at least – have taken the notion of homosexuality as we conceive of it nowadays and run with it, putting the word homosexual into Paul’s mouth to condemn gay men to death.  Never mind that Paul might well have been referring to same-sex behavior associated with the temple prostitution, the worship of false gods.  By putting the word in his mouth that we use for sodomite today, we make him out to be saying anybody with a non-vanilla sexual nature deserves eternal damnation.  

It's not surprising that the modern word with all its baggage has worked its way into several modern New Testament translations.  There's the World English Bible (1901) – “…nor male prostitutes, nor homosexuals…”; the NET Bible – “passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals”; the International Standard Version (1998) – “male prostitutes, homosexuals.”  If once there was room for the possibility that Paul was talking about temple prostitutes, or simply people behaving lasciviously, today we simply sweep it all together under the rubric of homosexual and believe we know what we are talking about – men and women whose entire identity can be reduced to their sexual natures.  I say men and women because modern-day lesbians are swept into this category, although it is clear Paul was paying little attention to them at the time he was writing.  It doesn’t matter what he intended.  It only matters what we want him to have intended.  Never mind that few words have one single meaning for all time.  Never mind that social and cultural attitudes change, even within a single generation. 

For a more complete list of English translations of this passage in Corinthians, click here

Now when you look at the bible translation overseen by the authorities in the Roman Catholic Church, you note something else interesting.  They are aware of the evolution of the term from sodomite to homosexual, including the switch from focus on behavior to focus on identity, and they make use of that distinction.  Evolution does not occur all at once and you can still see the concept being fought out in America’s culture wars – between those who insist one “chooses” to do gay things and those who understand gays are born with an established sexual nature (which includes, in many cases, a great deal of fluidity).  The official Roman Catholic position has changed with that evolution.  Today, the church tells you it’s all right to be gay.  You just can’t do gay.  Your homosexual nature will be tolerated as long as it is stifled.  The split is complete.  Note the footnotes:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral,[a] nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals,[b][c]
Footnotes:a       the immoral: Literally, “fornicators.”
b      Two Greek words are rendered by this expression
c    homosexuals: Greek has “effeminate nor sodomites.” The apostle condemns, not the inherent tendencies of such, but the indulgence of them.
Come again?  The apostle condemns not the tendencies but the indulgence?  Where the hell is that in the text?  That’s current Roman Catholic doctrine, updated for the new catechism.  Nowadays we should hate the sin but love the sinner, and the sinner who has gay tendencies can live with them as long as he lives a life of celibacy.  (Once again, note that women aren’t important here.)  That’s nowhere in the Greek text.  It’s simply the latest church teaching of the day,  the interpretation du jour.  Just as Luther’s understanding of arsenokoitai was that it referred to “abusers of boys” ­­– i.e., what today we would label pederasts and consider a subset of homosexual.  Or, depending on your political orientation, not a subset, but something else entirely.

Words reflect the environment in which they originate.  If you read the biblical story of Onan,  the guy who was supposed to "plant his seed" in his sister-in-law following his brother's death, it’s clear God killed him for practicing coitus interruptus.  Once your imagination spends a little time with the notion of “spitting your seed into the sand,” though, it’s ready to stretch this act that offends God to include masturbation, as well.  Start with one notion, and in time a living culture will modify it and make it work for another age.  Onanieren is German for “to masturbate,” and cognates exist in virtually all other European languages as well.

Homosexuality has travelled a similar path.  Where one society finds having sex with boys acceptable so long as the boys are slaves but condemns it with boys of noble birth, another society extends condemnation to sex between any two persons of the same sex, even consenting adults.  The term then evolves to remove that condemnation provided it is freely engaged in, and society battles over how fast that evolution ought to be allowed to take place.  Which gives us the absurd reality that some conservative religious groups read a text which tells us of a belief that a man who refuses to impregnate his sister-in-law should be put to death and conclude that lesbians should not be allowed to marry.

But I've spent all this time fussing over the evolution of the understanding of arsenokoitai, and a couple of curious assumptions - that we know what it means, and that Paul speaks for God.  And in doing so, I've ignored something even more mind-blowing, the ability of Rev. Williams to prioritize which sins God will excuse and which ones he won't.

Unless the good reverend Charles Williams of  Gallatin, Tennessee intends to post a sign next Sunday declaring that adulterers too cannot enter heaven, any more than gays and lesbians can, and reminds his flock the week after that that divorced people too have no chance of heaven, and the week after that reminds them that the price of having a party with their weewees is millions of years in hell, the reverend is nothing more than a man who wears his bigotry on his sleeve for all the world to see. Somebody picking the parts his internal homophobia dictates he should emphasize and excusing, or at least overlooking the rest of the text.

 Seriously.  You have to wonder how he can read:

neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

then skip the first few words, and get all hot and bothered about the last.

On the Gallatin, Tennessee Church of Christ website, you read:
“Historically, our church has sought to ground its faith and practice in the Bible as the written word of God,”

What’s missing, unfortunately, is the admission that "sometimes we really mean it and sometimes, not so much."

picture credits:

Church sign (partial selection grab)

Here, by the way, is 1 Corinthians 6:9 in the original Greek (in the SBLGNT version): οκ οδατε τι δικοι θεο βασιλείαν ο κληρονομήσουσιν; μ πλανσθε· οτε πόρνοι οτε εδωλολάτραι οτε μοιχο οτε μαλακο οτε ρσενοκοται – in case you’re interested.

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