Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Greeks Had a Word For It

Recently there circulated reports that some Salvation Army official had said that "Gays Need to Be Put to Death", which were duly referenced on Facebook.  Then a friend posted a link to the evaluation of the reports by, who found the claims to be "a mixture" of truth and falsehood.  It turned out that an Australian Salvation Army Media Relations Director, Major Andrew Craibe, had the following exchange with a radio interviewer.
RYAN: If I go and read that [Handbook of Doctrine], and I connect with my [homo]sexuality, then that says, according to the Salvation Army, that I deserve death.  How do you respond to that, as part of your doctrine?

CRAIBE: Well, that's a part of our belief system.

RYAN: So, we should die.

CRAIBE: Well, we have an alignment, but that's our belief.
I don't think it's just "according to" the Salvation Army that Romans 1:26-32 says that men who lust after and have sex with other men (not "gays" or "homosexuals") deserve to die: the text says so, quite explicitly, just as Leviticus 18:22 requires the death penalty for sexual relations between males.  Paul's remarks should be read in context, however, for he also says that
29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,
30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:
32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
Which gives us homos plenty of company at the gallows, or on the chair, in the gas chamber, or in the burning lake of fire -- whatever.  It would include many if not most Christians.  I'll see you in Hell, bitchez!

Before anyone objects that I'm being literalistic here, I submit that a little healthy literalism is useful when dealing with the Bible, since it means paying attention to what the text actually says.  What it means is another matter, open to a great deal of dispute, and has been for thousands of years.  In this case, I don't see that Paul was even directly calling for the execution of such people, though he might well have desired it.  After all, in Paul's (and later orthodox Christian) theology, everybody is "worthy of death," because all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God, yadda yadda yadda.  So I don't feel singled out here.

On the other hand, it is open to debate whether the offenses Paul enumerates really do deserve death, even the death by "natural" (that is, God-ordained) causes that most human beings succumb to -- let alone the spiritual "death" by torment in Hellfire that Christianity fantasizes about.  And it's a legitimate question besides, whether people who identity themselves as Christians, whether they accept the authority of the Bible or not, should be challenged on why they align themselves with a tradition that has such values.  As Antony Flew (I think -- I must track down the exact reference) once remarked, if anything at all can be known to be wrong, it is to condemn anyone to eternal torture for any reason.  Since Major Craibe and the Salvation Army generally refuse to separate himself from such a tradition, they're open to criticism; they can't simply pretend that they are stuck with whatever is in the Bible, especially since they don't accept its mandate for the execution of men who have sex with each other.  What is the difference between disobeying God's command to kill sodomites, and denying that sex between males is a sin at all?  In for a penny, in for a pound.  "It's part of my belief system" isn't an excuse; it's an abdication of responsibility.

The Snopeses went on to note that "interpretations of the referenced portion of Romans vary widely, with various theologians and writers arguing that it condemns anything from homosexuality to child sexual abuse to all non-procreative sex."  This is true, but it hardly lets the Salvation Army off the hook, though it also affects any other interpreters, including pro-gay ones.  Where the treatment of other real-world people is involved, let alone one's eternal destiny, it's not enough to point out that interpretations vary.  Why should I take anyone's interpretation of this, or any other Biblical passage, seriously?  Liberal Christians think that they deserve points for sidestepping troublesome Bible teachings because their interpretation is possible.  Anything is possible, but is it likely?

The Snopeses linked to a site of interpretations of the "referenced portion of Romans", to support their relativism on this matter.  I clicked through to see what sort of stuff it included.  The site appears to include any and all interpretations, whether they're well-argued or not.  Mostly they're not, though I can't be sure whether the incoherence is due to the interpreters or to those at the site who paraphrased them.  My favorite was this one:

The passage may refer to child sexual abuse:

Some interpret the "men...with other men" clause to be a translation of the original Greek word for "pederasty" which was commonly practiced at the time by adult males with male children (often slaves). Thus Paul might have been criticizing child sexual abuse.
This is marvelous in its own small, daffy way.  The "original Greek word for 'pederasty'" is, basically, "pederasty" -- paiderastes, or 'lover of boys.'  I can't tell whether whoever wrote this reference thought that Paul's original Greek text included "the original Greek word" which was translated sloppily into English, or whether Paul wasn't writing in Greek and so had to translate "the original Greek word" into some other language (Hebrew, maybe?), or what.  If Paul had wanted to condemn pederasty, he could simply have used the word.  Unlike "homosexuality," or even "sodomy," it was one of the current words in his day.  Or he might, like some other early Christian writers, have referred to "them that corrupt [or abuse] boys" or some such.  He didn't: he wrote about males who, "leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet."  This sounds much more like the supposedly modern, "egalitarian" conception of homosexuality, where what matters is that both participants have male bodies, not the roles they play in the sexual act, than it sounds like pederasty.

(Bonus fun fact: some modern interpreters have suggested that "that recompense of their error which was meet" referred to some venereal disease.  Maybe so, maybe not, but I doubt it.  In context, Paul probably meant that they eventually died, like everybody else, which was God's punishment for Adam's sin.  But it's possible; who knows for sure?)

The interpretation right after this one is that Paul was condemning all non-procreative sex.  It has no basis in the text except for a confused and ahistorical understanding of Paul's "against nature." 

Oh! Oh!  I have to include the next one:

The passage may refer to dominant/submissive relationships

... Thus, Paul may be writing of men involved in dominant/submissive relationships and/or of heterosexuals involved in sex with male youths. Neither has any connection to modern-day, consensual, committed same-sex adult relationships.
First, modern "dominant/submissive relationships" are consensual: the partners consent to play out certain stereotyped, ritualized dramas of dominance and submission, obedience and discipline.  Whether such relations occurred in the ancient Mediterranean world, no one knows, and there's no reason to believe that Paul was sophisticated enough about human sexuality, even in his own historical/cultural terms, to understand them.  Second, Paul (like most ancients and most religious teachers down to the present) was in favor of dominant/submissive relationships.  He did not consider heterosexual marriage to be a bond between equals, but between a dominant husband and a submissive wife.  All human relationships for Paul were modeled on a dominant God/submissive believer model; as he says explicitly, a woman's head is man, a man's head is Christ, and Christ's head is God.  I know of no evidence that Jesus was any more interested in egalitarianism than Paul was.  And so on.  The Stupid -- It Burns!  In Hell.