Saturday, November 21, 2009

Jim West and Homophobia revisited

The other night my sister asked me if Jim West had actually put up his reasons as to why he condemned homosexuality as a species of depravity. She was referring to an inter-blog discussion earlier this month between Jim, Roland Boer and myself on homosexuality and the bible stemming from Jim's very public and often averred homophobia. You can read my previous post on the discussion here.

Well, Jim finally did put up his reason and one that was rather surprising given that he seems such a minimalist otherwise on matters biblical. Here it is

διότι γνόντες τὸν θεὸν οὐχ ὡς θεὸν ἐδόξασαν ἢ ηὐχαρίστησαν, ἀλλʼ ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς αὐτῶν καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ἡ ἀσύνετος αὐτῶν καρδία. φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν καὶ ἤλλαξαν τὴν δόξαν τοῦ ἀφθάρτου θεοῦ ἐν ὁμοιώματι εἰκόνος φθαρτοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πετεινῶν καὶ τετραπόδων καὶ ἑρπετῶν. Διὸ παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς ἐν ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις τῶν καρδιῶν αὐτῶν εἰς ἀκαθαρσίαν τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσθαι τὰ σώματα αὐτῶν ἐν αὐτοῖς· 25 οἵτινες μετήλλαξαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν τῷ ψεύδει καὶ ἐσεβάσθησαν καὶ ἐλάτρευσαν τῇ κτίσει παρὰ τὸν κτίσαντα, ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν. (Paul, to the Romans 1)

My reason is purely theological and has everything in the world to do with the setting aside of God’s revealed purpose for human life and the usurpation of his will by mere human desire. In sum, your desires are not more important than his purpose. In sum, it is idolatry- the worship of an object (whether it be self or other) that is not God.

For those of you who can't read Greek, here is an English version of the Greek text that Jim has quoted from Romans 1:24-25

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

Now there is no reference to homosexuality in these two verses unless Jim reads it as meant by 'impurity' or 'dishonouring of their bodies' so I found it odd that Jim quoted this passage and not the verses following it

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 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 their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.

Now I wish Jim had quoted this passage and not the generic condemnation preceding it because this is substantial and provides grounds for a discussion. But I don't think Jim wanted that, he wanted certainty as a way of closing down discussion. Because these verses in Romans are not quite as cut and dried as people think. I plan to come back to them later in this post but first off I want to deal with verse 26 which is regarded by most people as the one explicit reference to lesbianism anywhere in (Christian) Bibles. I used to think that myself until I discovered about 5 years ago that early Christians did not think so and that reading it as a reference to lesbianism only happened about 3 - 4 centuries after Paul. In the East, John Chrysostom has the dubious honour of pioneeering that reading. (He is also, in my research, the pioneer of the Christian homophobic reading of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). At about the same time, Ambrosiaster (Pseudo-Ambrose) launches that reading in the West. And it took several centuries for the reading to stick as the dominant one. Other readings of verse 26 included women engaging in adultery, prostitution or even adopting the wrong sexual position with their husbands (being on top rather than on the bottom).

So in other words, in the centuries after Paul, there was no automatically recognisable reference to female homo-eroticism in verse 26. Indeed the verse had no clear explicit reference to any specific female sexual behaviour without such being read in for many centuries of the first millennium of Christianity. James Alison puts it nicely:

irrespective of who is closer to the mark as to what St Paul was referring to, one thing is irrefutable: what modern readers claim to be ‘the obvious meaning of the text’ was not obvious to Saint Augustine, who has for many centuries enjoyed the status of being a particularly authoritative reader of Scripture. Therefore there can be no claim that there has been an uninterrupted witness to the text being read as having to do with lesbianism. There hasn’t. It has been perfectly normal for long stretches of time to read this passage in the Catholic Church without seeing St Paul as saying anything to do with lesbianism.
James then continues:

This means that no Catholic is under any obligation to read this passage as having something to do with lesbianism. Furthermore, it is a perfectly respectable position for a Catholic to take that there is no reference to lesbianism in Holy Scripture, given that the only candidate for a reference is one whose ‘obvious meaning’ was taken, for several hundred years, to be something quite else.

This point is a negative one. It clearly demonstrates that there is no obligation on a Catholic to agree that what St Paul is saying is obvious, or to read those words as referring to lesbianism

James then goes on to cite the contemporary Catholic position on biblical interpretation which warns against "‘actualization’ of the texts, ... reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities" as spelt out in the 1993 document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, which says:

Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary ... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people

James concludes:

if we are urged to avoid absolutely any actualization of the text, then the following statement must, a fortiori, be at the very least perfectly reasonable, if not actually highly recommended, as a guide to a properly Catholic reading of a passage dealing with something rather less important. Here it is: given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one.

In which case then, as a Catholic, not only am I not under any obligation to read Romans 1:26 as a reference to lesbians but I should actually RESIST such readings because of the effects they have "contrary to charity", as James puts it, on modern women so categorised.

Jim West is not a Catholic, of course, so he might not feel such an obligation. But even so, Jim has no secure grounds for claiming that female homoeroticism is singled out or even specified in this passage or indeed anywhere in any Bible, Christian let alone Jewish.

If I seem to have laboured this point it is because the received wisdom is that here in this passage we have the one scriptural condemnation of female homoeroticism. It has been a certainty that has sustained generations of Christian homophobia but one which on closer examination disappears as the smoke and mirror trick of over determined reading that it is.

So what about the other part, what about us guys? Well, here I would agree with Jim that this text clearly refers to male homoeroticism. I would go so far as to say that it is the only text in the New Testament that actually does so, and I might go into that topic in a subsequent post. So does that mean that Jim can rightly refer to male homosexuality, homoeroticism, and love as depraved? Well no, not at all. As I responded to Jim "Paul is wrong. I accept he’s referring to male homoeroticism of some form here – it’s not clear what though, presumably he and his audience had a shared suite of references that we don’t possess, even if it’s just a prejudice based on the Levitical proscriptions." And that's the point I want to develop here.

Now according to Roland, while Jim is a maximalist on Paul and the New Testament, he is, it seems, a minimalist when it comes to the Old Testament. In which case, I gather he's not someone who puts very much weight on Leviticus. Now I don't know that for sure so I'm not going to make assumptions on Jim's attitudes let alone make my case dependent on them.

But I first want to make it quite clear that I have no doubt that ancient Judaism in most of its pluriforms, at least, did not endorse male homoeroticism. The reasons why can only be conjectural but textually it all goes back to Leviticus, the two proscriptions in Leviticus 18 and 20. I also agree with those who argue that these two passages condemn anal sex between men only. They do not condemn or refer to other sexual activity between males at all. That's why many observant gay Orthodox Jews abstain from anal sex so as to maintain loving and sexual relationships that conform to Torah.

Now interestingly, read in that light Leviticus seems to fit a pattern of proscriptions on male male anal sex found in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. A very similar set of proscriptions are found in the Zoroastrian scripture, the Zend Avesta:

The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva [demon]; this one is the man that is a worshipper of the Daevas, that is a male paramour of the Daevas (Vendidad, Fargard 8:26-32)

Now I don't think the Zend Avesta borrowed off Leviticus although I would be inclined to think that perhaps this passage may even lie behind, so to speak, the Levitical proscriptions. It doesn't bother me either way because both are representative of a broader cultural tabu underpinning them. The tabu was specifically on the penetrated, the feminised male. Prisoners of war were subjected to anal rape before being sent off into slavery. Anal sex was not seen as anything other than an assault on male integrity of the person who was the bottom. As penetrator, the top was performing the masculine role and so there was no opprobrium attached. These attitudes are not just part of the ancient cultures but have continued through to the present in Western cultures and others including the modern Middle East (where I suspect they are fueling a postcolonial homophobia).

I was reminded of the currency of such attitudes by a beautiful essay in today's Age by Christos Tsiolkas reviewing a documentary on aboriginal actor, Jack Charles. Charles' life has been a representative horror story of what life is like for an indigenous Australian, particularly for one who has had a momentary escape into fame and acclamation in the dominant white society. Tsiolkas, a gay man, addresses the question of Charles' loves and sexuality:

Jack Charles is possibly a homosexual. That word is never used; what we hear instead are reminiscences and regrets about a man he loved, the one man who he believes showed him love.

They never f---ed, did "that act", not Jack to him, not him to Jack, because that act is the violence that occurs in the institutions meant to protect him, meant to reform him. "That act" is not about love.

In a different world perhaps Jack Charles and and the man he loved would have expressed that love with anal sex, or any form of sex, but not in the world in which he's lived. Tsiolkas understands that and so can I. And for all my studies of the ancient Middle Eastern world it becomes pretty clear that anal sex between men in that world functioned pretty much the way it has done in Jack Charles' world. That's not to say that there weren't men in that world for whom that construction didn't apply although in the ancient world there were third sex options sacral and 'secular' by which they were not covered by the tabu because they were no longer counted as men.

So I think Leviticus should be read with those worlds in mind. Read that way, Leviticus seems to be promoting a form of male bonding and respect by precluding sexual power games in which anal sex, anal rape, play such a strong part. I don't say this to justify Leviticus or let it off the hook but rather to to understand it and thus to avoid actualisation. I would also accept the consensus whereby Leviticus is dated to some time in the Persian period. It could be later, I don't think it's much earlier. But the thing is after Leviticus is written comes Alexander and the supremacy of Greek culture in the Levant. Now I don't subscribe to the notion that ancient Greece was a homosexual paradise or Eden but the Greek/Hellenistic attitudes are different to the Jewish on what we might term homosexuality. Given the globalist, colonial and multi-cultural dynamics of both the Hellenistic and subsequently the Roman worlds, and the minority colonial and diasporic realities of ancient Jewish life, I can also understand how the Levitical proscriptions can be redetermined to fuel minoritised prejudices against the ruling Gentile cultural groups especially after the successful Maccabean revolt against Seleucid rule. in the 2nd century BCE. Add to that mix good old fashioned patriarchy shared by Jew and Gentile alike with the fear of the feminised and you have a nice brew of Jewish homophobia at the turn of the era. And while I have to read more details about it it appears that there may well have been growing Gentile homophobias at that time too.

Now Paul was a Jew, there's no doubt about that. He was most likely Pharisee, for whom Torah observance was central in a way that was not for other more Temple focused Jewish groups. So I have no doubt that Paul had his own share of homophobia. Did he ever get over it? I'd like to think so, not least because I think his Master can be counted in the category of the Not Straight. But that's not a question I'm going to address here. More importantly I want to return to this passage in Romans on which a lot of homophobic scaffolding has been built. As I said before I think Paul is wrong in what he says here. I don't have a problem saying it, I'm not a Bibliolater. Scripture is not always right and when it's wrong there is no need for us to be complicit in such errors. I would regard that as also consistent with a practice seeking to avoid actualisation.

But I also agree with Roland Boer when he says:

On the terms of this debate, both Jim and Michael opt for that well-tried canon within the canon approach, preferring some texts over others. Obviously, any position one wants to take on the Bible has to follow such an approach since the Bible is such a various and contradictory collection of texts.... The same applies to politics. We don’t even have to go outside Paul’s letters, since he was a thoroughly contradictory thinker, writing letters on the run, making things up as he went along, never quite clear where he stood. (I’ve argued in my Irreligious Criticism that Paul’s contradictions are actually a desperate effort to make sense of thoroughly contradictory and tension-ridden social and economic situation, but that’s another argument.)

Paul is a contradictory thinker and his letters are shaped by the circumstances generating them. I would argue that no one can maintain a strictly coherent stance in that situation. Now Romans appears addressed to a Jewish/Hebrew community in Rome. James Alison argues that what Paul is doing in the opening chapter is setting up his audience to take the fall by way of arguing against any sort of complacency on their part because they are followers of the Mosaic Law. As part of his strategy Paul plays on their anti-Gentile prejudices before puncturing their balloon. It's probably best if I let James speak:

At this point, please notice something quite subtle: Paul is shading towards puncturing the pride of those he has been building up for a fall. After the graphic depiction of a set of practises which were self-evidently pagan, and would allow the Jewish listeners to feel very much a ‘we’ against the silly ‘they’ being described (and the words Paul uses are those concerning purity and shamefulness rather than morals and evil which is why I use words like ‘silly’ and ‘idiotic’ rather than ‘wicked’), Paul moves on – still talking about ‘they’ – to a list of much more serious things: deep internal attitudes of heart. And of course he would still have his listeners absolutely on side:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.

You can imagine that we are still in the realm where the listeners will have been able to say ‘Right on, Brother!’ – this was still the sort of thing they were used to hearing. But Paul sweeps on, moving on from those deep attitudes of heart which the silly ‘they’ are full of, to what one might call a list of rather more banal, domestic, common-or-garden forms of wickedness:

Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.

You can see why those who divided the chapters divided the argument here: it sounds like the end of a breath – and it is. It is the end of a breath, but not the end of the argument, because the sting is still to come, and without the sting the argument is not complete:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

Now you can see what the effect of this phrase is on the preceding argument. The effect is rather similar to what would have happened if Paul had said ‘We all know that the gentiles do idiotic things, get involved in bizarre rites and frenzies, and guess what terrible consequences this leads to: they become gossips, disobedient to their parents! Behave foolishly! How unlike anyone we know!’ and then paused for the first giggles of self-recognition to break out.

Now of course this rhetorical device of building up his listeners for a fall, and then puncturing their balloon, wouldn’t work at all if Paul were claiming that his listeners had been doing the same things as the pagans – that is the bizarre cults and frenzied sexualised rites leading to castration. His point is not that his listeners have been doing these things, but that even though they haven’t, and wouldn’t dream of doing them, they share in exactly the same pattern of desire, and the ordinary banal wickedness which flows from that pattern, the really serious stuff, which they have in common with the pagans who do indeed do those silly things.

Paul confirms what he has been doing all along by moving, at last, from ‘they’ to ‘we’, and his use of ‘we’ is interesting:

We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.

Paul appears to repeat the anti-pagan charge – that ‘they know God’s decree, and still do these things’. His repetition of it here, but in the form of ‘we’ sounds awfully like; ‘Whether or not they know about God’s judgment, we certainly do’. And then he goes on to address ‘you’ – not just a Jewish you, nor just a Christian you, but the human ‘you’ that is any of us.

Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

From here Paul will go on to develop his understanding of how the human problem is fundamentally one of desire, and it is at the level of a change in the pattern of desire that we are saved by and through Christ, a change in the pattern of desire which even the Law, which was good in itself, could not effect.

I like James Alison's argument, even if he's rather ready to identify the specifics of what sort of homosexuality Paul is referring to, i.e. transgender sacral homosexuality. But apart from providing an example of how to avoid interpretation that actualises to modern day realities, I think James also raises the very important question of whether those who, like Jim West, take Romans 1:24-28 as a model for denoting and identifying DEPRAVITY are most likely missing the point that Paul wants to make altogether, not to mention sinning against charity. Indeed I think it was Augustine himself who said that any interpretation of scripture is okay provided it advances the cause of charity, by which he and James Alison and I mean care and concern , love, for our fellow human beings (although I'm pretty sure Augustine would not feel very charitable towards the likes of James and I).


  1. A minor point: do you have any references for the notion that "many" observant gay Jews live as homosexuals but do not practise anal sex? Excluding the time you told me this in person, I've never heard of such people.

  2. Simon, it's based on reading I've done in the past and the articles are packed away now. There was an essay I read that was published a few years back now by a US gay man who was also an Orthodox rabbi. He used a pseudonym, of course. But he argued that strongly and made the point about gay and Orthdox male couples abstaining from anal sex. Reform and Reconstruction Jews, of course it's different as there is a different attitude to Torah and full acceptance of gay men and lesbians including in the rabbinate. As for the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, well wouldn't want to speculate at all. Mind you Orthodoxy can be a bit of a broad church so to speak. I have friends who worship in the local Orthodox synagogue here in Brisbane, including a gay friend, who I would have expected to be in the Reform congregation here but they stick with the Orthodox. THey don't like that they are stuck with a Lubavitch rabbi however.

  3. Speaking from memory I believe the Rabbi's name you are looking for is Rabbi Alan Greenbaum.

    It's an interesting point raised about Orthodox Jewish practice but let's remember it would not be essentially different from those who advocate the Frott trend on a purely secular basis. They believe it's healthier and makes more sense (and they may also imply avoids gender-psychological type associations) if one just practices homosexuality without anal sex.