Monday, January 31, 2005

Anglicans and Sodomy:

"America must repent, they must put a stop to that practice. If God says (homosexuality) is an abomination, they should say it is an abomination. ... If God says it is wrong, then it is wrong."

So says Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, commenting on a statement released this week by 15 Anglican archbishops from Africa, Asia and Latin American criticizing the U.S. Episcopal Church's consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as the church's first openly-gay bishop. The operative word in the archbishop's statement, of course, is "if." One might also question why the archbishops have decided to make this issue the line in the sand. Why not something more fundamental like heresy? For years the recently-retired U.S. Bishop Shelby Spong publicly disclaimed belief in the resurrection and divinity of Christ, two beliefs that would seem to be at the center of orthodox Christianity. Yet no one in the Anglical Communion seriously threatened schism until the U.S. church installed an openly gay priest.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that -- as so often seems to be the case with those in the church speak the loudest against homosexuality -- something other than a concern for orthodoxy is at work here. My guess is that this something has a great deal in common with the same sensibility that motivated Lot's actions in the strange biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah:

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them." Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, "I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof. (Gen. 19:4-8)
Scholars sometimes suggest that this story tells us more about ancient near-eastern hospitality customs than it does about homosexuality. But this way of interpreting the text has always seemed to me to miss the most startling twist in the story: Lot's attempt to turn his virgin daughters over to be raped in an effort to prevent his adult male visitors from being violated. This is not the way most of us would deal with this dilemma. Indeed, it's probably not even a "solution" many of us would think of, let alone actually try to carry out. But this is what Lot does. The question is why.

I've always been wary of those who claim to have found the key to interpreting any passage in the Bible or, indeed, any ancient text. The fact is that in most cases there either is no one key or it has been lost in history. And yet Lot's actions in this story do suggest a certain underlying conception of masculinity that may not be very different from what motivates Anglican bishops today as they wink at heresy -- even heresy which denies the divinity of Our Lord -- but determine they will not suffer the presence of homosexuals in the church. It suggests a reason as well for why our own western culture has always set male homosexual behavior apart for special opprobrium through biblical injunctions (the Old Testament does not mention lesbian sex), criminal sodomy prosecutions, and even simple childhood bullying on the playground. It suggests why lesbian sex is ubiquitous in heteroporn, but the two gay characters on Will & Grace don't even hold hands with other men. And it suggests why men in prisons and other settings where men who are not gay have sex with men almost always display signs of asserting their masculinity by, for example, adopting the top or "male" position during the act. Surely it is telling as well that, even in ancient Greece where pederasty was sometimes celebrated, the man was expected to end the relationship as soon as the boy began to grow facial hair.

The question that faithful Christians responding to the Anglican archbishops must consider is whether the motivation for their condemnation of homosexuality expresses a genuine concern about holiness, or whether it is instead simply a visceral expression of masculinity -- something more akin to what little boys mean when they "accuse" other boys of being "girls" or "sissies" than what Saint Paul meant when he wrote:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:38)

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