By Frederick Sparks
Matthew Vines is a gay Harvard student reared in a “loving Christian home” and church community in Kansas. After finally reconciling himself to his sexual orientation, Vines took a two-year leave of absence to research what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. In March of this year, Vines gave a speech at a Kansas United Methodist Church, giving an overview of the verses that have been traditionally viewed as condemning of homosexuality. Gay columnist Dan Savage has referred to the video of the speech as “brilliant”.
Vines is clearly a bright, thoughtful young man who values his faith and who cares deeply about the experiences of LGBT Christians in their church communities. The most compelling portion of the video comes at the end when Vines speaks directly to straight Christians about their interactions with their gay brothers and sisters. However, I did not find Vines arguments particularly unique or consistently persuasive. At one time I was a gay Christian trying to reconcile my sexual orientation with a belief that the Bible was a “good” book that expresses God’s love, and most of the alternative explanations here I’d heard (and said) before. And like the arguments often heard from African-American Christians about how the slavery seemingly endorsed in the bible wasn’t REALLY slavery, what I see here is a person making indefensible apologetics for oppressive dictates in order to hold on to a belief system that provides emotional sustenance in other ways.
Vines best arguments concern the prohibition against homosexuality associated with the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He convincingly demonstrates that taking this story as a general condemnation against homosexuality is unsubstantiated…both by looking at the context of the story itself and from other scriptural references that refer to Sodom’s chief sin as one of “discourtesy” to visitors (who also happen to be emissaries of the almighty). He as well makes easy work of the clumsy and presumptive translations of arsenokoites (abusers of themselves with mankind) and malokos (effeminate) which appear in 1 Corinthians. Vines rightfully dismisses later translations using “homosexual” as completely unsubstantiated, particularly given the ambiguity around the meaning of the greek words.
But he loses me in his disposition of the Leviticus injunction against “lying with mankind as with womankind’. Vines makes the standard Christian argument when dismissing the most odious of the Old Testaments moral precepts: this does not apply to the new covenant and is therefore inapplicable to Christians. This argument not only ignores the inconsistent statements regarding the continued applicability of OT laws, but also has the unintended consequence of maintaining the death penalty for gay Jews. And, Vines of course never addresses the morality of a god who would make gay sex a death penalty offense under ANY ‘covenants’ or circumstances.
The handling of the odd-even-by-biblical standards section of Romans also falls flat. Vines points out that the verses are rendered in a way to describe idolatrous believers being given over to desires, including same-sex behavior. He then inconsistently argues that this verse describes behavior that was against a “naturally heterosexual’ person’s normal orientation while at the same time asserting (correctly) that the ancients had no concept of sexual orientation. He also puts forth a rather binary viewpoint of sexuality as either heterosexual or homosexual. Does he agree that a primarily heterosexual person who has homosexual activity deserves to be condemned or criticized for that as a matter of course? Again the defensibility of condemning the sexual behavior even under those circumstances isn’t questioned.
More generally, throughout the talk Vines makes the common and cloying distinction between “loving, committed same sex relationships” and the type of licentious sexual relationships which he believes the relevant verses condemn. This implies that the writers would have made a similar distinction, which is an unsubstantiated assumption.
And as a secularist, my overall critique is against the impulse to reconcile homosexuality to a barbaric book of mythology. Of course my viewpoint is “who gives a damn what the bible says one way or another?” I also think the approach of changing minds about the morality of homosexuality by offering alternative biblical explanations gets the process backwards. As much as some claim that their morality comes from the bible, what seems to be the case to me is that changes in moral viewpoints of believers result more from cultural, political, and temporal factors and the degree to which relationships and identities are modeled in works of popular culture. The position is then “retrofitted” in a new look or take on scripture, so that the illusion that moral judgments come from the bible can be maintained.
But as a secularist interested in social justice issues, including the experiences of LGBT Christians, I have sympathy towards those working no matter how incrementally to push for progressive change within religious communities. At the same time I still see pointing out the fallacy of using this ancient text as a moral guideline as the more sensible and defensible approach.