Continued from Part I
Nowhere in the Epistle to the Romans or anywhere else in the Pauline canon, nor in the Gospels (which were written later), nor in any New Testament text is same-sex attraction or homosexual sex specifically condemned. What is condemned is rejecting the love of God, since such rejection, Paul argues, leads to lust, the antithesis of love. Because the power of Christ’s gospel is the power of love, it is important to recall that in the New Testament’s earliest texts —all written in Greek—five Greek words were used for the single English word “love”: eros, thelema, storge, philos, and agape.6
We would be mistaken to believe that the New Testament advocates a hierarchy of these loves with agape at the top and eros at the bottom. We would likewise be mistaken to envision these words as representing widening concentric circles of love, in which the smallest, most inward circle, eros, is included in the next largest circle, philos, and so on—the largest and most inclusive circle representing agape. Rather, a more appropriate symbol for love, as the concept is used in the earliest and most authoritative New Testament texts, would be the image of a human being to whom love is revealed sometimes in the head as affection or esteem, sometimes in the heart as passion or compassion without sexuality, and sometimes in the genitals as sexual attraction, longing, and desire. These loves can reach out to others or can be called forth from others; they can involve any one or more of these representative body parts in various combinations and degrees of intensity.
The most controversial of these loves in Christendom is erotic love, which gives rise to the desire to touch, fondle, or even taste the body of another, or to kiss, suckle, or enfold another’s bodily parts. Particularly repugnant to many, at least to contemplate, is sexual stimulation of the anal orifice. The greater the desire for this particular type of contact, the greater the embarrassment many feel and the greater grows the need for privacy, for secrecy, and even for denial—negative feelings shared by many humans and encouraged by most Christian communities.
Sex has ever been a problem for Christianity. Many Christians have been erotophobes, not just homophobes. (I am using these terms in their clinical sense, not to name-call). Years ago, Laurie Mecham Johnson made this point in a stand-up comedy routine in the persona of a clueless Relief Society president, Fonda Alamode. She summed up the sex advice of LDS Church leaders to young people in these words: “Sex is disgusting, degrading and vile, and you should save it for the one you love.”7 This is the same message organized Christianity gives its adherents.
The reason so many in the Christian world despise eroticism generally and homoeroticsm particularly is because sexual love necessarily involves the physical body and the physical world, which are assumed to exist in opposition to the spiritual world. In the main, Christianity has opted for the apophatic over the cataphatic view—that is, privileging the road of abstinence and denial over the road of pleasure and excess. The pleasures of the flesh are suspect because they are so powerful, so enticing, and so self-indulgent—able to tempt even decent people from their duties and responsibilities into patterns of behavior that can be destructive. The quest for sexual pleasure can easily become excessive and obsessive. Sex can get out of control. It can be messy. It can produce children—wanted or unwanted. It can transmit disease. It can create connections—desirable and undesirable. It can produce poverty or wealth, changes in circumstances for good and ill, and realignments of loyalty, both advantageous and detrimental. It can instigate troubling combinations of class, ethnicity, and race with sometimes unhappy consequences. It can cause as much pain as pleasure. It can arise upon love and attraction as well as upon hatred and indifference, upon cruelty and brutality. It can quickly flip from helpful to hurtful. It can both burden and benefit, sometimes simultaneously. It can afflict and inspire, exhaust and energize, bless and curse. It is often uncontainable and unmanageable, even when it springs from the love of God. For these reasons, sex has ever been suspect in the minds of those duty-bound to impose order, whether as heads of state, church, academy, military, industry, tribe, clan, or family.
If, in Christian communities, heteroerotic love can alarm, homoerotic love can incite near-hysteria. Homoeroticism has been disapproved of in almost all Christendom. It has increasingly become the object of public censure and demonization in the decades since the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde. Most will agree that since World War II, homosexuality has come out of the closet where it had remained out of sight and mind for generations. And since the Stonewall riots of 1969, “the love that dare not speak its name” has become very daring indeed, achieving wide public awareness, acquiring the dubious status of a political issue, serving as a legally acknowledged basis for discrimination, and becoming a point of intense theological contention.
The teachings of Christ as preached by Paul not only fail to condemn sex, they propose a doctrine of holiness that does not exclude homoerotic love, attraction, or consensual sexual contact. True, these writings warn against lust, but lust is not sex. It is not sexual pleasure. It is not the passionate desire for physical or sexual contact that builds to a climax in orgasm. Rather lust is the rejection of the spiritual in pursuit of physical pleasure. Lust requires first the separation of the material from the spiritual, the temporal from the eternal, and then a full immersion into the creation, while rejecting the Creator. The New Testament doctrine of love acknowledges the spirituality of physical and sexual love but also warns that the pleasures of the body can blind us to the reality of the spirit. Paul recognized that sex can be messy and can lead to all-consuming complications in an individual’s life. For these reasons, he suggested that it might be better for some Christians to voluntarily become like eunuchs, especially if they wish to serve fully in the Christian ministry. But this recognition does not rise to a condemnation of sex, hetero or homo. Sex, like life itself, is sacred, even if dangerous.
Organized Christianity has little to gain from sanctifying sex—it actually doesn’t want to trouble with sex at all. It wants compliance. It wants what all successful corporations want: good little widgets it can present to the world in the form of respectable members. Public assertions to the contrary, corporate Christianity is not even interested in family values—not unless the family answers to the rigid requirements of the company. Over time, organized religions tend to slip toward the most repressive values of the collective at the expense of personal gifts and individual rights.
A few years ago, a member of the First Council of the Seventy advanced this very position in an address given at an annual conference of Evergreen International, a group dedicated to the view that homosexuals can be reclaimed from their same-sex attraction. This speech, couched in very loving and accepting terms, is a near-perfect modern example of the claims and techniques of the Judaizers that Paul refutes in his Epistle to the Romans. The speech focused entirely on outward behavior. Although the speaker allowed that feeling attraction to people of the same sex is not sinful, he asserted that to act on those feelings is to give into the lies and temptations of the devil. I respect the speaker personally but disagree with him on the following point, stated: “whenever the adversary [the devil] tries to convince you that you are hopelessly ‘that way’ so that acting out your feelings is inevitable, he is lying. He is the father of lies.”8 This statement makes it appear that for this particular elder and his brethren at the head of the LDS Church, the management of the body—not the transformation of the soul—is the basis of righteousness. LDS leaders counsel their members to control, to repress, and even to kill their inward feelings so that their outward actions will conform to the expectations of the Church community.
This is exactly what the Judaizers were teaching—and probably in very sympathetic and loving terms, too. For Judaizers ancient and modern, the inward manifestation of authentic love is not enough to sanctify the individual. Something more—something visible—is required. In the Judaizers’ view, true Christian converts must conform to the outward law: if not the law of circumcision then the law of sexual circumspection and sexual repression. Jesus himself criticized this obsession with outward performance:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matthew 5:27–28)
Is the Lord condemning sex and sexual feeling? No. What he denounces here is not sexual attraction but the practice of defining sin by exteriorities so that people can present themselves as righteous though they are corrupt within. Jesus’ opposition to such masks and counterfeits is clear in his scathing denunciation of the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which are beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Matthew 23:23–28)
Both Jesus and Paul argue for inner transformation so that outward actions may be pure. They do not teach that opposite-sex attraction is good and that same-sex attraction is bad; they teach that spiritually untransformed sex is unrighteous. But they do not call for the elimination of sex. Rather, they call for the sanctification of sex and the redemption of pleasure.
What nearly every organized Christian religion in the world calls for is not the sanctification of inner feelings and thoughts, sexual or otherwise, but the sacrifice of those feelings and thoughts for the alleged good of the individual and, perhaps more importantly, for the good of the image of the Christian community. Of course, self-discipline is a worthy goal. But it is not goodness; it is not holiness; it is not Christianity. Obedience to rules and the concomitant requirement for self-discipline were the very requirements demanded by the Judaizers and rejected by the disciples who had personally known Jesus on earth. These notions of conformity and compliance to outward performances were rejected because the Jewish disciples of Jesus knew from personal experience that self-discipline and obedience were insufficient to sanctify human nature. Rather, these were more likely to create anxiety and despair in individuals who recognized their own inability to live up to such standards; they were more likely to encourage arrogance and pride in those who deceived themselves into believing that their outward performance was equivalent to inward holiness.
Jesus did not die for the corporation. He did not die for patriarchy or matriarchy. He did not die for the family or for family values. He died for each individual soul. Corporate Christianity, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice the individual for the family, the tribe, the clan, the priesthood, the church. It is willing to sacrifice the soul for the body, and holiness for regimentation. It does this because the main power of the corporation resides in judgment and punishment. But it can judge only by outward performance; therefore, it must give outward righteousness priority over inward spirituality. Thus, leaders of churches can and do assert that sexual feelings are not as great a concern as are sexual acts—particularly homosexual acts—because the corporate church cannot judge feelings; but it can and will judge acts.
Church leaders in every denomination have so little respect for interiority that they can lightly assert that same-sex attraction can be repressed and killed so that gays and lesbians can live acceptable lives within their religious communities. For example, the general authority cited above appears to have little concern for the problems his notions may pose to those heterosexual women who marry “reclaimed” gays or those heterosexual men who marry reclaimed lesbians. This is to say that the corporate church is as indifferent to the sexual feelings and desires of heterosexuals as it is to those of homosexuals, expecting the heterosexual spouses of homosexuals to kill their feelings as well. Organizations like Evergreen can probably point to individual gays and lesbians who have repressed or controlled their same-sex attraction and have even married the opposite sex. Such programs may work for those who freely elect to become celibate or emotional eunuchs (Matthew 19:12) or for those who desire to repress or even change their sexual orientation for their own sake or that of others. But such programs should not be imposed on people who are forced, shamed, or manipulated into them by the judgment of others. Such compulsory or pressure-driven programs are not only unlikely to help but are much more likely to do great harm by damaging and even destroying the foundations of a person’s emotional and personal identity.
This general authority’s speech, like those of leaders in other religious communities, does not attempt to show why homoerotic feelings must be neutralized or why homosexual sex is wrong. He assumes they are and then applies the Judaizing solution of corporate conformity to this alleged problem. It is a standard propagandistic rhetorical technique to assert the reason why an opponent is wrong or has done wrong before actually supplying any evidence of such wrong. Assaults on homosexuality suffer from this same defect—lack of evidence. The assumption that homosexuality is unnatural is refuted by the fact that it exists in nature. The assumption that homosexuality is unspiritual is refuted by the fact that many active homosexuals are known by those who love them to be spiritual. The assertion that same-sex attraction or consensual homosexual sex is contrary to the gospel must invariably rest on the Judaizers’ assumption that the outward righteousness of a person is the righteousness of God, when more often than not, outward righteousness is merely a means for people to acquire power over others. The anti-gay rhetoric of most Christian churches is advanced to direct spiritual power away from the individual into the ecclesiastical collective, where it can be harnessed by the group’s leaders to outdo rivals, exert political influence, or increase revenues.
Sex is sacred even though it can be desecrated by force, intimidation, manipulation, deceit, or other forms of power abuse. Yes, although troublesome, sex is sacred. It is the opposite of money, which though seldom troublesome, is nevertheless always profane.
Homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, is sacred when it is dissociated from any form of debasement. Homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, is sacred because it can connect the soul to the body, because it requires us to accept the material on an equal footing with the spiritual, because it gives equal dignity to the eternal and the temporal, and because it requires us to accept the redemptive power of pleasure as being on an equal footing with the redemptive power of pain. Homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, is sacred because it is essential to the development of personhood and identity. It can be sacred even when not part of marriage or a committed relationship, just as marriage can be sacred even when it does not involve sex. Homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, is sacred because it answers the desire and longing for the other, physically and spiritually—because it drives the self and other toward equality in love.
In fact, homosexual sex serves the community in two ways that heterosexual sex cannot. Gay and lesbian sex exposes as simplistic and inadequate the notion that human sexuality can be neatly divided into masculine and feminine. The multiple categories of sexual orientation, sexual desire, and even gender (think of the phenomenon of hermaphrodism) outnumber the limited categories of the genital structures of the human species. The second way that homosexuality serves the community is to expose the anti-gay posture of today’s Christians as a resurgent heresy, a modern denial of the gospel ratified at the Council of Jerusalem by the disciples who knew Jesus personally, heard him teach, and agreed with the interpretation of his gospel set forth by Paul.
I am persuaded that the love of God cannot exclude the love of self, the love of others, the love of body, parts, and passions, the love of physical pleasure. The love of God calls us to accept all of its manifestations. To those into whose hearts this doctrine strikes terror—including, of course, the parents of sexually awakening teenagers—I can give only this comfort: unchastity is no greater a sin than greed or gluttony, than wrath or envy, than sloth or pride; it is no greater an error than indifference, cruelty, unkindness, or impatience; it is certainly not a greater sin than the exercise of violence, force, coercion, manipulation, control, domination, intimidation, and punishment. The heart of Christ’s teaching is that rules don’t save. Conformity does not transform. Compliance does not justify, or sanctify, or glorify. Obedience cannot raise the dead.
It is not easy to accept a religion that predicates holiness on an invisible power from an invisible source that operates beyond human measure or control. I have trouble believing in it myself. This is why the first—and therefore more important—principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not obedience to the norms of the corporate church. Obedience is not easy, but neither is faith. Faith requires every serious and mature Christian, especially those who have their doubts, to arise every morning and choose again to believe the improbable story that God came to us when we could not go to him; that he appeared on earth as a Jew born of a virgin; that he suffered in Gethsemane a mysterious agony on our account; that he was betrayed, tried, and convicted of treason before Pontius Pilate; that he was scourged for our sins and that somehow with his stripes we are healed; that he was led as a lamb before the shearer to Golgotha, where he was nailed to a wooden cross and raised between two quarrelling thieves; that he died and was buried in a borrowed tomb; and that three days later, he rose from the dead to guarantee his promise that the whole of creation should not perish but have everlasting life. It is hard to accept all this—at least for some of us. It is often easier to obey than to believe. It is often harder to contemplate the divine than to comply with the directives of the church incorporate. Rules can, no doubt, help. But rules cannot free the self from itself. That freedom is offered us by a mysterious act of a mysterious God worked in a mysterious way in a mysterious world. Christians should not be surprised that the most influential of all apostles should warn them against trusting too much the visible world or mistaking guilt for grace, duty for holiness, or lust for love.
It is divine love that gentles our condition, that does not “alter when it alteration finds,” that does not bend “with the remover to remove,” that is an “ever fixed mark,” and “bears it out even to the edge of doom.”9 This love is not restricted to the spiritual plane. It penetrates and enfolds the material realm. It hovers over the bent world. It stands on tiptoe, waiting to redeem and sanctify all those who hunger and thirst for divine righteousness and human intimacy, not only through consecrated physical pain but through consecrated sexual pleasure as well.
1. In Romans 5:14–25, Paul supports this assertion by noting that Adam was saved not by obedience but by faith despite disobedience. Paul argues astutely that since by Adam’s sole transgression in the Garden of Eden, death fell upon his descendants before they had been born and had the chance to disobey, God deemed it just that without the necessity of their obedience, all Adam’s descendents should be redeemed by faith through the atoning sacrifice in the Garden of Gethsemane voluntarily made by Jesus alone. “For through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many” (v. 15). “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (v. 19).
2. He explains: “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (v. 3–4).
3. At the end of Chapter 9, Paul chides the Jews that they should not be surprised that God would bestow the Holy Spirit on the “Johnny-come-lately” Gentiles because that same God had chosen the younger Jacob (representative of the later-converted Gentile Christians) over Jacob’s older twin, Esau (representative of the first Jewish Christian converts). Paul concludes Chapter 9 with the observation that Gentiles who have received the Spirit of God are equal at least to Jews who have disobeyed the Mosaic Law.
4. Paul then revisits his points that the purpose of the Law of Moses was to set forth rites and rules that would prefigure and prepare the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus, the anointed Messiah, and that salvation comes by the Spirit of the living God, bestowed by an act of grace or unconditional love through the predestined atoning work of Jesus Christ. Note that Paul asserts that Christ’s work—not human action—is predestined. Salvation comes not by decree, but by faith, which Paul equates with one’s longing or willingness to be saved.
5. Despite Paul’s efforts early on in this epistle to expand the meaning of lust beyond the sexual, many of its readers have insisted on understanding lust to mean any and all sexual feeling, a definition that would call for Christian celibacy except (possibly) for the purpose of reproduction—an idea never asserted in Christian scripture. Others insist that lust means any sexual contact outside of formal marriage, an interpretation nowhere asserted in the New Testament. Others read lust to mean excessive sexual appetite and its indulgence, an interpretation too subjective to be meaningful since excessiveness to one may be insufficiency to another. All these interpretations ignore Paul’s arguments in chapter 1, where he presents lust as the self-preoccupation that fills the spiritual void created by an individual’s rejection of God and as a predatory and rapacious appetite for self-indulgence in the form of pleasure, privilege, power, and possessions acquired, he implies, at the expense of others and often achieved by indifference, deceit, manipulation, and even force.
6. Agape was not commonly used in Paul’s time although it is a common word for love in modern Greek that denotes love for a family member, a friend, or someone held in high esteem. It is arguable that Paul and John (or whoever wrote John’s texts) seized upon this word, not yet invested with supernatural connotations, to denote divine love, including God’s love for an individual, an individual’s love for God, God’s love for the world, and an individual’s love for others.
Philos means friendship in modern Greek, referring to a dispassionate, virtuous love that includes loyalty to friends, family, and community, and is characterized by virtue, equality, and familiarity. Anciently, it denoted love among family members and friends as well as the love for particular pursuits or activities. It could also be used to denote romance or sexual attraction between lovers.
Storge in both ancient and modern Greek means natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring. It was rarely used in ancient works and then almost exclusively as a descriptor of relationships within the family. It is also known to have expressed mere acceptance of or putting up with situations, such as a slave’s affection for a master, or a citizen’s respect for a leader.
Thelema is both ancient and modern Greek for love of one’s occupation, for being useful, and for making a contribution to the community. I am uncertain if this word ever appears in the New Testament.
Eros denotes passionate love, with overtones of sensual desire and longing. The modern Greek word erotas can denote romantic love although it does not necessarily mean sexual love. Eros can mean a more intense love than is connoted by the word philos; it can apply to romantic relationships as well as marriage. Although usually applied to another person, it can also connote an appreciation of beauty in or of a specific person or an appreciation of artistic beauty or beauty in the abstract sense. Plato used the term to advance the notion of aphysical or asexual love—that is, Platonic love, which helps the soul recall knowledge of beauty and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth. For this reason, Plato observed that lovers and philosophers are each inspired to seek truth by eros. In any of its connotations, eros always involves physical love—whether it is sexual desire or the asexual physical affection for a child, a parent, a grandparent, a pet, or one’s clients, patients, neighbors, or even love for forests, deserts, the sunset on the sea, or even one’s first automobile. I believe eros is a revelation of God’s love because it includes the desire to be immersed in God’s physical creation, even if one accepts that this creation is imperfect.
7. Fonda Alamode and Laurie Mecham Johnson, Special Living Lessons for Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996).
8. “Elder Bruce C. Hafen Speaks on Same-Sex Attraction,” LDS.org, 19 September 2009, http://newsroom.lds.org/article/elder-bruce-c-hafen-speaks-on-same-sex-attraction (accessed 13 December 2011).
9. Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.