"Blessed Are the Queer," by Zachary Helton
Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law.
Don’t commit adultery,
don’t desire what others have,
and any other commandments…
they are all summed up in one word:
You must love your neighbor as yourself.
Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor;
therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
When we first come to the conversation of what it means to be queer, Christians tend to start with the same, tired question:
Is it a sin to be gay? Doesn’t the Bible say it’s wrong?
So, we open our Bible, or, more likely, we open Google, and we type something to the effect of:
“Bible verses about being gay.”
And that’s where we find them: “the clobber passages.”
It’s a popular term for the six passages of scripture that have too often been fashioned into weapons to “clobber” queer people into submission and shame.
We start to walk through them, beginning at the beginning – in the book of Genesis, chapter 19:
“…all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
And we all know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah after that! But, at a certain point, we realize that doesn’t really sit right, because this story isn’t so much about being gay as it is about gang raping a vulnerable traveler that needed shelter. Even the Prophet Ezekiel wrote: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
So, we move on to the second and third on our list. A pair of verses from Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13:
“‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is an abomination.
If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
This one seems pretty clear and straightforward. But then, we look around Hebrew law a little more. “You shall not eat [the flesh of a pig], nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.” “You shall not […] wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.” “You shall not […] make any tattoo marks on yourself.”
Seeing as we still eat bacon, touch footballs, wear polyester, and get tattoos (sometimes even of crosses!), we start to ask what the difference. We aren’t we using those passages to condemn people. Why?
We realize there are Hebrew laws that assume men have the God-given right to own women and slaves, and we’ve pretty well set those aside. Why?
Because these aren’t ageless, eternal words of truth. They’re examples of a people seeking God and setting boundaries within a particular cultural context. As our context and understanding of God has changed, so has the way we understand these passages.
Alright, we think, but that’s the Hebrew Scriptures. Christians tend to emphasize, well, the Christian Scriptures, so we dive in there with Romans 1.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. […]
For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And right off the bat, there are three things that stand out as not quite right. The word “natural,” for example. Do same-sex relationships not happen in nature? Look a little closer and we find out that Paul is using “natural” synonymously with what we’re culturally used to. Breaking gender roles, then? That’s outside of cultural bounds. That’s un-natural. By that standard, a lot of what conservative evangelicals do today would come across as un-natural to Paul. How many women leave their hair exposed during worship? That’s just un-natural.
Then there’s “consumed with passion.” Paul seems to assume all same-sex relationships are only ever the result of unbridled promiscuity which, in his context, makes sense, because the only thing he has any cultural experience with when it comes to same-sex relationships is pedophilia, prostitution, and masters taking advantage of slaves. The problem is, when we are talking about same-sex relationships, that’s not what we’re talking about at all!
And finally, Paul seems to be assuming it’s a choice. He seems to be saying they’re choosing same-sex relationships when they could just as easily choose heterosexual relationships. But if we have learned anything from the painful failures and humbling apologies of conversion therapy ministries, it’s that this has nothing to do with choice. Paul is doing the best he can with his understanding of how sexuality works, but fortunately, we now know better. He also assumed the world was flat, so…
Going down the list, we move on to 1 Corinthians 6, which really gets to the heart of the problems we’re dealing with here.
“…do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
And by this point we’ve done our research and we say: Woah, woah woah, translators! Flag on the play! You just took two very different words and smashed them together into the charged phrase “men who practice homosexuality!” Even King James knew better than that.
In Paul’s litany of the unrighteous, of the people who let their egos block their way to the Kingdom of God, Paul lists two kinds of people: in Greek, it’s the malakoi and the arsenokoitai.
First, there’s the malakoi, which means, problematically… “womanish.” It means soft, weak, unable to rule even over your own body or control yourself, giving into whatever craving you have… because that was their cultural understanding of what it meant to be a woman. Now, that’s clearly a problem, and deserves a whole other conversation, but a lazy glutton who is unable to practice self-control? That’s not what we mean when we say “gay.”
Then, there’s the arsenokoitai, which, to be fair, is a conjunction of the words for “male” and “bed,” but in just about every other usage of the word in ancient Greek literature, it has something to do with economic exploitation through sex. (Which kind of makes more sense in Paul’s list since the two sins that follow are thievery and greed.)
In 1946, though, translators started retroactively projecting their own cultural baggage onto these terms and forcing them together in the word “homosexual.” In reality, though, they have nothing to do with what we’re talking about when we talk about LGBTQ+ justice.
Finally, we come to 1 Timothy 1. However, this text is actually using the same language from 1 Corinthians, so there’s really no need to spend much time with this one.
So maybe we start celebrating! We feel like we’re off the hook! We’ve seen what the Bible really says, and there’s no problem with LGBTQ+ rights! Right?
I’m afraid not. Turns out, there’s still a problem with how we’re approaching the Bible in the first place. See, when we talked about the malakoi translation issue, how it means “womanish,” the best we could do there was to shift our interpretation from heterosexist to just regular old sexist, and that’s without even touching the texts justifying slavery or the genocide of entire people groups. The truth is, it isn’t a question of exploring what the Bible says or what the Bible really says, because even though we wish it were otherwise, the Bible is contradictory and fraught with cultural bias, sexism, racism, ableism, and all sorts of other problems.
For folks who are emerging from a legalistic understanding of the Christian faith, it’s often really important to spend the time digging into the context around those clobber passages. And if that’s where you need to spend time, by all means, do it. But in my experience, people who spend any amount of time really sitting with the implications of those passages and how they’ve been used find themselves opening up a door to an entirely different way of reading scripture. And it changes everything.
What if, instead of treating the scriptures like they were written by the hand of God as eternal, unchanging, perfect laws and commandments, we treat them as a collection of literature composed by different people from different times with different prejudices and biases?
What if we treat them like what they are? As a diverse collection of stories, poems, letters, and history testifying, not about any kind of objective God, but about God as they understood God in their time, through a cultural lens that – just like ours – changed and evolved through the years?
What if that’s what the Bible is trying to help us do - point beyond itself to help us find God in our ownexperience? To see our own cultural lenses and biases more clearly, and better distinguish what is from God, and what is not?
Martin Luther (who had a whole host of problematic prejudices we won’t get into right now, but was also the father of the Protestant Reformation) once wrote, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” In other words, the Bible is only as useful as it points beyond itself and towards Christ.
So it’s okay to say not all scriptures are equally inspired, because some are more about fear and prejudice than they are about God. We could be totally wrong about our interpretations of the clobber passages, but it doesn’t matter! We have to judge them by how they reflect Christ’s Love, or fail to do that.
Or as Jesus and Paul both put it, “…the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So, what if we start judging scriptures, teachings, and our own lives, not by shifting cultural standards that happened to be written down at one point in history, but whether or not they really are expressions of the Spirit of Love?
What if we thought in terms of whether or not they bear the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
What if we started evaluating things by how much they look like, feel like, sound like Christ?
And if anyone wants to say that this is a pick-and-choose way of reading scripture…
…then just ask them how many slaves they own, or when was the last time they stoned someone – because there is no such thing as “just following what the Bible says,” and there is no "objective" reading of scripture. There is only the ability to name the lenses and standards through which we’re reading it.
Our lens is Love. Our standard is Christ.
How many stories do we have of people realizing they were wrong and making this shift? How many stories do we have of people thinking that God wholeheartedly disapproved of something or hated someone because of what the Bible clearly says, only then to be corrected by the Spirit of Love?
The Bible clearly says you shall not eat unclean animals. Then there’s Peter learning that what God has called clean, no one should call unclean.
The Bible clearly says you shall circumcise boys on the eighth day. Then there’s Paul learning the Spirit is just as alive in uncircumcised Gentiles as circumcised Jews.
The Bible clearly says you shall refrain from work on the Sabbath under penalty of stoning. Then there’s Jesus picking grain and healing people on the Sabbath because the Sabbath is for our restoration, not our oppression.
The Bible clearly says that you shall not engage in same-sex relationships or step outside of gender norms. Then there’s you.
You show us that queer people are just as much reflections of God’s image, just as beloved and worthy of love as anyone else.
Over and over, we made assumptions about who was in and who was out…
…and over and over, we, the Church, were wrong, and we are sorry. In our exclusion and certainty, we have sinned in thought, word, and deed – in what we have done and in what we have failed to do… and LGBTQAI+ children of God, we ask your forgiveness.
This party was never ours to keep you out of, and come to find out, the party isn’t complete without you! The church doesn’t need to tolerate you, as if you were an aberration from the norm who would choose to be straight or cis if you only could. No. You don’t need to change. You don’t need to want to change. You are notan aberration that the church has to settle for because you can’t be “normal.” Why would you choose to be otherwise? You were created the way you are and it is good and it is worthy of celebration. It is worthy of pride.
The scales having fallen from our eyes, we’re done trying to justify queer people or relationships. We’re donetrying to make a case for it, as if the beauty and the fruit of your lives did not speak for themselves.
We need you in order to see God more clearly, because you reveal something of God’s image that only youcan reveal. You teach us something about being a child of God that only you can teach, and the time has come to name that and bless that without hesitation or reserve. Blessed are you, children of God.
Blessed are the lesbians and gays, for you show us that the power of love is greater than the tyranny of fear.
Blessed are the bisexuals, for you show us a God dissatisfied with oppressive categories and absolutes.
Blessed are the trans sisters and brothers, for you reveal a God who tells the truth about the way things are even when they appear otherwise.
Blessed are the gender queer, intersexual, and non-binary, for in you we see that God created humans in God’s own image, both male and female (and something that transcends them both).
Blessed are the asexual, for you reveal a God whose expressions of love are infinite.
Blessed are the polyamorous, for you reveal a love unmarred by selfishness and avarice.
Blessed are the pansexual, for you reveal the wide and boundless love of God.
Blessed are the drag queens, for you are like a field of wildflowers, revealing something of God’s boldness, beauty, and holy pride.
Blessed are you, wherever you fall in the LGBTQAI+ alphabet soup, because Child of God, the Divine Spirit burns like fire in your soul, and you are worthy of love just exactly as you are.
To everyone within and outside of our walls. Happy Pride Month.