This is an older, never before published essay, but we felt it was still worth including on here.
When a hate-filled gunman unleashed terror on Pulse nightclub in Orlando over a year and a half ago, he became the latest and perhaps deadliest in a long list of murderers who have perpetuated acts of violence against LGBT establishments. Until the Orlando massacre, the fire attack on the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans seems to have been the worst attack. 32 people lost their lives in that hate crime back in 1973. On the day of the attack, the Upstairs Lounge happened to be holding a worship service for the Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian denomination formed in 1968 for LGBT people. MCC churches have been the targets of at least twenty arson and bombing attacks.
So when right-wing politicians and commentators tried to make the Orlando hate crime just about “radical Islam,” the LGBT community was not having it. As Amanda Kerri wrote in the Advocate, “you cannot for one second try to pretend that the actions of one Muslim man with a rifle let radical Christians off the hook for all the terrible things they have done to LGBT people here.”
We know that the murder of these 49 people is an expression of a culture that marginalizes, abuses and mistreats LGBT people. And the main contributors to that culture, in the US, are Christians. There is no meaningful distinction between Omar Mateen, the Orlando mass murderer, and Eric Rudolph, Ronald Gay, Jacob Robida, and David Copeland, all non-Muslims who perpetrated acts of violence against LGBT venues.
Religion, while not the sole contributor to anti-LGBT violence and marginalization, is a major factor. At the root of the problem are ideologies of male domination, which the religious and non-religious can hold. Unfortunately, Abrahamic religions, which preserved aspects of ancient Near Eastern and imperial Roman patriarchy in their sacred texts, are among the worst contributors to these poisonous worldviews.
It is common to dress up Scriptural passages used against homosexuality in convenient euphemisms. The Bible “disapproves” of homosexuality. The Qur’an “forbids” homosexuality. Homosexuality is “wrong.” These euphemisms mask an unpleasant truth, which is that our Scriptures do not merely “disapprove;” they speak of what religious conservatives claim is “homosexuality” in brutally violent terms.
Many Christians and Jews believe that God rained fire and brimstone on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for homosexuality (Genesis 19), and that God also commanded that homosexuals to be put to death (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). These interpretations are extremely problematic, but the point is that many believe that these passages refer to LGBT people as we understand them today.
In the Qur’an, if the story of the people of Lut is understood as a reference to homosexuality, as we understand it today, some intensely violent rhetoric is used against gays as well. According to one passage, whatever the people of Lut did amounts to the worst act of lewdness that had been committed up to that point. Similar to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God sent “stones” to rain down on the people of Lut. Several Hadith also mandate execution for people committing the sin of the “people of Lut,” though interpreting Islamic jurisprudence is complicated.
Also like the biblical story, it could be argued that the sin of the people of Lut was not “homosexuality,” per se, but rape or another sexual crime. Ancient and medieval texts do not use the same terminology, nor do they have the same understanding of sexuality that modern people do. Consequently, to argue that an ancient or early medieval references to same-sex relationships should be applied to modern “homosexuality” or trans issues, as we understand them, is a matter of (largely subjective) interpretation.
Some try to make unconvincing distinctions between the violence in Christianity and that of Islam, but dysfunctional views on sexuality within both Christianity and Islam are cut out of the same material—ancient Near Eastern and ancient Mediterranean patriarchy. True enough, the New Testament does not explicitly advocate the death penalty for whatever same-sex relationships it condemns. But this might be an expression of the historical context in which the New Testament was written. When the New Testament was written, the Roman state was in charge of civil justice and so New Testament writers could not prescribe the death penalty. The Apostle Paul did not have the political power to institute the death penalty, but he used pretty vicious rhetoric, just short of that. If understood as a reference to homosexuality, Romans 1:18-32 associates it with various socially destructive behaviors and adds that people who practice it are “deserving of death.”
Many Christian politicians and pastors gleefully employ the violent rhetoric in these verses to attack LGBT people. Two weeks before the Orlando attack, Georgia Rep. Rick W. Allen read Romans 1:18-32 at a House Republican committee meeting, prompting at least a handful of Republicans to walk out in disgust. And Kevin Swanson, a Colorado based pastor, actually called on the government to execute gays at the National Religious Liberties Conference that he organized. Presidential candidates Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz spoke at Swanson’s conference, giving tacit approval to his violent rhetoric (though they later pleaded ignorance or expressed muffled regret).
It is theological malpractice to apply prohibitions on sexual activity between men in ancient or early medieval societies to modern LGBT people. It is also a distortion of the social and historical context of Scripture. These Scriptures were written at a time in which people believed sex was about who “used” whom, and they were working with ideologies of ancient patriarchy and gender hierarchy. Their concerns cannot be used against people of the same-sex who want to live in egalitarian, loving relationships or against transgender people, as the social structures and assumptions that they addressed are obsolete.
The idea that Scripture opposes “same-sex acts” or “homosexual acts” in-and-of themselves assumes that “acts” can be isolated from the social and cultural context in which they appear and the culturally-inspired motivations behind them. It illegitimately conflates men who have sex with men for power, or money, or social standing, or dominance, or as part of a ritual or social custom with the lives of contemporary LGBT people. This is an ethical absurdity.
Yet, most Christians and Muslims believe that these passages apply to modern LGBT people, the objections of many scholars and theologians notwithstanding. And so, what we have, in practice are texts that advocate violence against LGBT people. Translations of our Scriptures deploy words like “abomination,” which literally means “something to be hated,” against LGBT people, but our religious leaders then turn around and claim that we should feel no hate or revulsion towards LGBT people.
“Love the sinner; hate the sin” has been one way Christians have tried to deal with the dissonance, and it has been an unmitigated theological and pastoral catastrophe. In the late 1970s, Anita Bryant, the former beauty queen and orange juice spokeswoman turned anti-gay activist said she “loved” homosexuals, too. She also said that gays were pedophiles and she took political action to bar them from teaching in public schools. She insisted that she “loved” homosexuals enough to tell them the “truth”: that they were going straight to hell and should be excluded from civil society. This is the typical result of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” There are softer versions, but all versions of this trite cliché lead to a disingenuous, incoherent mishmash of violent, condemnatory rhetoric mixed with hollow appeals to “love” and “compassion.”
Too many people who belong to Abrahamic faith traditions live under the delusion that they can deploy these Scriptures against LGBT people and then contain the toxicity and violence inherent in them. With LGBT people, the notion that one can hate the “sin” without alienating the so-called “sinner” has been disastrous. Hate, whether it is directed at the alleged “sin” or the alleged “sinner,” has no place in any discourse about LGBT people. Hate, of any kind, when deployed against a vulnerable and marginalized population, will eventually lead to hate-fueled violence. Somebody will notice that it is impossible to justify the hair-thin line between hating the “abominable” act and hating the people who unrepentantly and without shame, commit and even celebrate the “abominable” act.
To be sure, when people hear and internalize these violent scriptures, most people—in this country, at least—will not resort to physical violence. But the use of these passages does profound psychological violence to LGBT people, and makes others feel justified in inflicting psychological harm on them. The most common and frequent way that this happens is by threatening a young gay or trans identified person with Hell. If emotional abuse is defined as “behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, or manipulation” then threats of hellfire to coerce a person to “change” certainly constitute emotional abuse.
Name-calling is another way in which LGBT people are psychologically abused. It makes no sense for Christians to decry the use of “faggot” or “fag,” saying that is beyond the pale, but then affirm that the name-calling that appears in Scripture should apply to LGBT people. The King James Version and Revised Standard Version of the Bible frequently use the term “sodomite” to translate some Hebrew and Greek words. Just because the demeaning name comes from a holy book does not mean it is any less damaging than “fag.” The terrible consequences of emotional abuse are demonstrated in the higher rates of suicide and homelessness among LGBT youngsters. LGBT youth are driven to suicide, run away from home or are thrown out of the house at a much higher rate than their non-LGBT peers.
When it comes to the Muslim community, the outpouring of support after the Pulse attacks was thrilling. I have no doubt that the revulsion that Muslims have shown to these brutal killings is sincere, and that their compassion for the victims is real. Notably, Muslim advocacy organizations such as CAIR expressed solidarity with the LGBT community, while almost all right-wing politicians and pundits, who happen to be Christian, could not even bring themselves to acknowledge that this was an anti-LGBT hate crime.
One statement written by a group of Muslim leaders says that hateful acts like the Pulse night club attack “violate every one of our Prophet’s teachings.” Yet, while this specific attack may fall outside of Islamic Law, some of the Prophet’s other teachings (according to tradition) seem to advocate other forms of violence against LGBT people.
Attempts to harmonize our use of the violent, hostile language of Scripture against LGBTs with the core message of love and compassion found in Christianity and Islam has only led to mixed messages and doublespeak. They cannot be reconciled. When the toxicity endemic to these passages spreads, grows and festers it can lead to deadly outbursts like the one in Orlando. Usually, however, it just leads to profound emotional damage. If Christians and Muslims continue to be intransigent, if we dig our heels in and refuse to reassess the relevance of these toxic verses for LGBT people today, then we should not be surprised if the LGBT community comes to see the Church and the Mosque as their mortal enemies.
Brian Rainey is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.