Being raised in a conservative, Catholic home and being gay, gives one a unique perspective on the issues of equality and spirituality. On one hand, through my loving family I was raised to respect and honor the traditions of a religion, and institution that is not always known for being a pillar of equality, but nonetheless is an institution that at least in my family’s case, that has given meaning their lives, and to millions of others. Indeed, religion has helped them be better people. That is positive side of religion, and of course there is a negative one as well.
As a gay man, it’s hard to understand why our government and many religious institutions don’t view my love, my rights, and indeed my equality, as an issue of religious importance or simply justice. In fact in many cases, it is these institutions that can often be credited for hindering advances in equality of homosexuals. Why is this?
For Muslims, there are scripts in the Koran which describe homosexuals as “perverts” and condemn homosexuality, but very importantly – no penalty or torture is allowed to be prescribed. As we know, many Muslim societies take a much harsher tact on the issue of homosexuality. In fact, it is common for homosexuals to be publicly tortured, hung, or stoned to death in Islamic societies, such as 16 year old Mahmoud Asgari, and 18 year old Ayaz Marhoni who were publicly hung in Edelat Square, in Mahshad Iran in 2005. A woman I spoke to who lived in Egypt, personally witnessed a lesbian woman being stoned to death for being gay. Atrocities such as this are unacceptable, regardless of one’s religion. It does put our struggle for equality in the West into perspective when we compare what is going on in much of the Middle East, but left unchecked, legislating morality in the West could one day become just as deadly.
Some Christian denominations and Jewish sects have a literal interpretation of some bible verses, such as the verse in Leviticus that states “for man to lie with another man, is an abomination”. However, many biblical scholars, and less fundamental believers question the wisdom of a literal interpretation of these verses. After all, if every Christian or Jew truly followed every rule given in the bible, even the most righteous person would likely be sinning almost every moment of everyday. In Deuteronomy alone, man would be sinning by eating meat from a cow, by plowing with a cow and donkey together, by being barren, and for being a bastard. Losing your genitalia also denies you entry into the Kingdom of God. And that’s just one book in the bible! Of course the bible has also been used to justify terrible things throughout history, such as slavery, war, denial of equal rights for women, etc. My point isn’t to discourage people from reading the bible or to discard any lessons that might be learned. It’s to encourage people to read it in the right context, and to simply remind people of its limitations. It is after all a product of man, and suffers from periodic traditions and mores, lack of scientific and psychological knowledge, and dozens of translations by imperfect servants of the Lord over the course of thousands of years. Also remember, nothing was known about what causes homosexuality when the bible was written. All that was known was that it was a pagan ritual practiced by the Greeks and Romans in which older men had sexual relations with young boys. Given that context, of course it would be viewed as a perversion or as evil. We know now that while slavery, animal sacrifice, and limited rights for women are taught in the bible, Christians have accepted that these things should not be practiced today. Why is homosexuality treated differently?
By the time Martin Luther translated the bible from Greek to German to be read by the masses, it had already been translated dozens of times, and with each translation, comes the likelihood of words or ideas translating differently between the language or culture, or even an intentional slant that reflected the transcriber’s world view. Even the original texts were often written by those who did not experience what was being written, but were simply retelling what had been told to them by others, or passed down from generations.
As those who speak more than one language know, there are often no direct translations for words or expressions between languages, and some words in one language don’t exist in another, creating contextual challenges for many of the lessons, characters, issues, and stories told in the bible. We also know the very human tendency to slant or bend stories to fit our own beliefs, which has no doubt affected the literal accuracy of the bible throughout the ages. Remember that Martin Luther was vehemently anti-Semitic, and some of his writings were used by Adolph Hitler to justify the extermination of the Jewish people. You think some of those opinions might have crept into his translations of the bible where Jews were concerned? It’s only natural. Also, keep in mind, as Luther was translating the bible, the Catholic Church still taught that the sun revolved around the earth, and that anyone who said otherwise, was excommunicated or worse.
The Catholic Church, prior to Martin Luther, did not allow individuals to own a bible, and refused to translate it for the masses, for the reason that they knew the average person was not capable of understanding what it is all about. I would even wager that the church’s top biblical scholars struggled then and now with many of its meanings, and knew that if even they couldn’t properly grasp it in its entirety, how could the masses? I believe they knew that the danger of misunderstanding the bible had potentially far worse consequences than limiting its availability to the general public.
Again, don’t misunderstand the purpose of my argument. I am not trying to knock down the bible, or stick it to Christianity. I still consider myself Christian, and I still believe that the broader lessons of the bible, such as the Ten Commandments, and the stories of Jesus’ ministry, have an intrinsically good value to individuals and society. I just don’t pretend to understand the less clear lessons of the bible and all the different meanings it could have and does have for many people. Nor do I believe my personal interpretation should be legislated and used to negatively affect the life and liberty of those who aren’t causing me or society harm.
Any rational person does not believe practicing your religion should be limited or looked negatively upon. Our personal faith, and literal or non-literal interpretation of the bible can guide public policy as long as it doesn’t contradict the Constitution or Bill of Rights, nor infringe upon the rights of the citizenry. That’s how our Founding Fathers envisioned American. They were persecuted in their home countries by the majority who believed and worshiped differently than them. They wanted America to be different, and indeed better than that. In America, we rightly criticize Muslim societies such as Iran for implementing Sharia Law, and yet if we create laws at the expense of the minority because the bible says too, we are operating under a similar concept, albeit on a much less extreme level.
All people, left and right, gay and straight, American, and non-American, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, need to have a better understanding of their religious books as well as their limitations. There’s nothing wrong if you personally choose to have a literal interpretation of the bible, just as much as I choose not to. But all people should agree that the rights of American citizens should come first and not be at the mercy of one group’s interpretation of a religious book.