If you read my last post, Have We Gone Too Far, I am sure you can imagine that it stirred some debate, given that the subject was same-sex marriage. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most responses in the comments section were quite conciliatory, even though many people were not supportive of gay relationships. If I had to sum it all up, it was more like, ‘live and let live, and if we’re wrong, let God be the judge’.
However, from my old school friends on Fortis 78, an email forum for all kinds of debate, the reaction was markedly different. Some of the guys were quite clear that same-sex unions had no place in church, while conceding that the Supreme Court made a legal, not moral or spiritual, decision. Others formed a vociferous opposition, full of fire, brimstone and destruction, prophesying that the United States would pay for its decision in eternal punishment. Yes, seriously.
Interestingly, I had no issue with their opposition to the very notion of homosexuality, given that I still struggle with the concept and mechanics of gay male sexual intercourse. But what captured my attention and left me almost transfixed was the idea that homosexuality was the worst of all sins, maybe except for murder, and that any condoning of its practice would lead to eternal damnation. This led me to thinking about sex in general and how it is represented in the Bible, versus what is commonly taught.
My adolescent awakening
When I was growing up in Jamaica, I was very fortunate to have a highly-literate grandmother who read widely and was fascinated by the works of Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters and Alexandre Dumas, amongst others. Her favourite book was the Bible and, much as she believed in Jesus Christ, she loved to explore the hidden meanings and contradictions she discovered in its pages. She was convinced that its contents were inspired by God, but understood that it was written, translated and edited by human beings, with all their frailties and fallibilities. This made for fascinating discussions in the kitchen when I returned from school in the afternoons and watched her prepare the evening meal.
One fateful afternoon, I summoned up the courage to ask her about girlfriends. I was at that awkward stage of puberty when such matters are exciting, confusing and daunting, all at the same time. Mama didn’t even look up at me as she launched into all the ‘dos and don’ts’, according to the scriptures. I figured I knew all of that, so I pressed her on more complex issues such as liking two girls at the same time and what to do about it. And that’s when she levelled with me that the Bible was quite ambivalent about some aspects of human sexuality. To illustrate, she talked about the many wives and concubines of David and Solomon, and how their royal needs did not appear to affect God’s attitude towards them or the favour he bestowed. Furthermore, she admitted that there was no single verse in the Good Book that prohibited having more than one wife, although there were lots of passages that recommended it.
Obviously, these examples were put into the context of that particular period of human development, the workings of patriarchal societies and the privileges accorded to kings and wealthy men. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that there were exceptions to the seemingly rigid rules laid down from the pulpit of our Pentecostal church, right there in the pages of the very book that prohibited them.
It was good to be a patriarch
In the years following that confusing conversation, I was to encounter other contradictions that didn’t appear to bother anyone else. Maybe I was just a weird kid who thought too much, but I remember a Sunday School moment when we were learning about the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, meant to exemplify love, faith and perseverance. It was a fascinating tale but I couldn’t help but notice that there was no reproach from God, or anyone else, for a man who marries two sisters, sleeps with them on rotation and gets Rachel’s maid pregnant, with her permission, because she couldn’t have children. No one else seemed to notice, so I kept quiet.
The truth is that ‘traditional marriage’, as we have come to know it, didn’t exist in those early days. Men virtually owned their wives and could have children with the hired help (Abraham, Sarah and the servant Hagar is another example); fathers protected their daughters’ virtue but could give it away at a moment’s notice (Laban, Leah and Rachel; and Lot offering his virgin daughters to the baying mob outside his house); and polygamy was rife (too many male Biblical characters to mention). A woman became your wife if you ‘went into her’, a charming scriptural phrase for entering her tent and consummating the relationship. Note the lack of consent by the women – fathers gave away daughters and wives gave away servants.
But, by far, the most fascinating biblical discovery of my adolescence was the Song of Solomon, a beautiful, erotic poem about two young lovers that is rarely credited for what it is. The first time I read it, with its graphic, lustful descriptions of the female anatomy, I wondered whether I had stumbled upon some forbidden text that had been left in by accident. Grandma was relaxed about it and explained that Solomon really loved everything about women and that this was his tribute. Since then, I’ve heard pastors attempt to describe it as ‘God’s love for Israel’ and other such nonsense. Read it and decide for yourself the spiritual meaning of, “Between your thighs lies a mound of wheat bordered with lilies.” Or, “You are slender like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters of fruit. I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its fruit.”
The marriage myth
Anyway, what am I getting at? I am suggesting that, when it comes to sex, the Bible is not as black & white as it is portrayed by the church. It does make room for people’s traditions, allows for extra-marital solutions to problems like childlessness and reflects the nature of the societies that existed at the time it was written. Most importantly, it documents an evolution of mankind and shows a marked difference between ancient Jewish/Hebrew/Muslim practices and the relative simplicity of Christianity, which has given rise to our modern views on marriage, fidelity and family life. I don’t believe it’s possible to reconcile the practices of the Old Testament with the way most societies function today.
And yet, many priests and pastors suggest, or rather insist, that marriage, as practiced today, started ‘in the Garden of Eden’ and has continued ever since. Really? Then how do they explain the polygamy, sexism and misogyny of the patriarchs? Or the insatiable sexual appetites of David and Solomon, the most beloved of a God who never condemned them for it? These were ‘men of God’ who founded the most favoured of nations and built His temple. Surely, we can have a more intelligent conversation than this. Or do we somehow believe that God will be reduced if we admit that the Bible is more complex than a set of ‘unbreakable’ rules.
Time for a more honest discussion
The sad truth is that much of the breakdown in society has come from the disconnect that people have with this uncompromising approach to Biblical infallibility. And what gets lost is that the principles and laws in the Bible are the very foundation of our civilisation, the bedrock of our constitutions and legal systems. They have helped us to keep our families together and build more compassionate societies, in which welfare systems and charities do their best to support the weak and vulnerable.
We have used those same principles to go way beyond anything that existed before Christ, in areas such as gender equality, civil rights, child adoption and monogamy; outlawing slavery and segregation, granting women the vote and allowing females in the pulpit. We frown on societies in the Arab world that still practice what we preach from the Old Testament and vilify them for holding to those values which we have long since abandoned.
A world without pre-marital sex?
And so, we come full circle to the question of gay marriage. I suspect that it will always be a bridge too far for most of us to cross but I believe that as we continue to evolve, gay relationships will become more accepted. A precedent has already been set in Western society with pre-marital sex which, despite its clear prohibition in the Bible, has become an acceptable norm. So normal that our lives, as currently lived, would disappear without it.
And if you think I’m exaggerating, try this out. Close your eyes and imagine a Christian utopia with no more gay sex. Perfect – life as God intended! Ah, not so fast – keep them closed. Now imagine a world without pre-marital sex. That’s right, delete all your romances, most of the movies you’ve ever watched, the books you’ve read. Erase all the love songs that are wired into your subconscious and trigger great memories every time you hear them. No Marvin Gaye, Teddy P, Babyface or Motown. Cancel your magazine subscriptions, your cable TV and the Internet. Why? You would have to, because the suggestion, promotion and depiction of pre-marital sex is so woven into the fabric of modern society that only a deep-cleanse could bring us to the perfection we require of gay people.
Now open your eyes. Our imperfect world is still here. Your music collection is safe, along with all your books and DVDs. Your intellect, sharpened by these somewhat tainted materials, is intact. Let’s face it; we’re all leading imperfect lives, doing the best we can to live up to the moral and spiritual values we hold dear. Everyone has their own struggles and each man should “work out his own salvation”, without judgement from the rest of us.
I’ll leave you with this thought. A long time ago, a group of righteous men were intent on following the laws laid down in the Old Testament. Like some of my friends, they believed in the divine destruction of people who wilfully committed heinous crimes of the flesh. Luckily for the accused, the judge was a bit unusual for his time; somehow he had evolved and had a more sympathetic view of the situation. Rather than pronounce the woman guilty or innocent, he issued a challenge:
“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
I think he deserves the last word.