Ideasroom

Church must renounce biblical-based homophobia

The history of homophobia within Christianity is a matter too potent, too loud, too entrenched for churches to stay silent about, writes the University of Auckland's Harriet Winn

Israel Folau’s now notorious declaration that queer people (“homosexuals”) are going to hell is not only harmful to our queer and takatāpui youth, it is also theologically incorrect.

But it is not just Australia experiencing an overtly public wave of religiously motivated homophobia. Brian Tamaki, controversial leader of Destiny Church and co-founder of the Coalition Party, voiced unequivocal support for Folau on Twitter. There are several verses in the Bible which are traditionally used to bolster homophobic rhetoric, but 10 minutes spent reading about the religious and historic context of these verses would leave anyone with the ability to disarm a scripturally-rooted homophobic argument.

On an even more elemental level, though, the homosexuality that Folau and Tamaki are presumably referring to is a modern concept describing an identity premised on romantic love between people of the same gender. Homosexuality as we currently define it did not exist as a concept until the late nineteenth century. Previous to that, within the Western world, sexual acts between two people of the same gender were viewed as a form of “sinful temptation,” but not the foundation of an identity.

Bible verses that refer to sexual behaviour between people of the same gender do not condemn homosexuality, or queerness, because homosexuality, as we now define it, did not exist in either Old Testament times or the first-century world of the New Testament. That’s not to say that people in biblical times didn’t have loving relationships with partners of the same gender (although, we don’t have the evidence to accurately assert this), but we can say quite certainly that homosexuality as a social categorisation did not exist.

Sexuality has had divergent meanings projected onto it in every successive human society. The homosexual/heterosexual divide is simply how modern, predominantly-Western, society has chosen to understand human sexuality. In Greco-Roman society sex was related to power. Now it’s about personal identity. A historically consistent, monolithic understanding of sexuality simply does not exist.

If Folau and Tamaki are going to base their homophobia on Bible verses written thousands of years ago without any recognition of the need to contextualise these, I would ask them if they then refrain from eating oysters and always check to make sure a t-shirt is pure cotton and not blended with polyester before wearing it?

Leviticus 18:22 is one of the Bible verses plucked from its original context and used to argue that condemnation of homosexuality is scripturally based. This verse, which reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” is not referring to a loving relationship between two consenting adults – it is a law prohibiting sexual promiscuity. The Levitical laws were received by Moses from God as the guidelines which the Israelites (who had fled Egypt during the Exodus) were to abide by in order to retain God’s favour. There are 613 of these laws and they also command that the Israelites were not to eat shellfish or wear garments made from mixed fabrics.

If Folau and Tamaki are going to base their homophobia on Bible verses written thousands of years ago without any recognition of the need to contextualise these, I would ask them if they then refrain from eating oysters and always check to make sure a t-shirt is pure cotton and not blended with polyester before wearing it?

Being able to disarm a homophobic argument premised on religious belief is useful, certainly, but does not rescue young queer and takatāpui people questioning their sexuality from the harm caused by violent rhetoric spouted by public figures such as Folau and Tamaki. This was the point adamantly made by Labour MP Louisa Wall in a recent Q&A alongside David Seymour on TVNZ 1. It was the point made by a clearly emotional Ian Roberts, the world’s first openly gay rugby player, on Australian TV channel 9News, who pleaded: “There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves … these kind of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”

How then do we protect queer and takatāpui people from homophobic hate speech? Churches cannot leave queer and takatāpui people second guessing whether or not they will be welcome there. They need to be explicitly and unwaveringly affirming of queer identities and relationships. The history of homophobia within Christianity is a matter too potent, too loud, too entrenched for churches to stay silent about.

Being queer and Christian has become, for many, an intrinsic, harmonious part of their identity, and the hostile claims of Folau and Tamaki cannot undermine this.

It was Christian institutional indifference, not even homophobic biblical interpretation, that cost me my relationship with the church. When I enquired about the Bible’s position on gay people at a Christian youth camp, the only answer I received was, “Do we really need to talk about that?” The complacency of the church in its response to queer young people seeking guidance from mentors in faith-based communities is deeply damaging to our wairua.

Queer theology offers churches an invigorating opportunity to challenge the roots of normative Christian theology which has traditionally contributed to the exclusion of queer people. As articulated by Episcopalian priest Patrick Cheng, queer theology offers a vision for an unconditionally accepting Christianity which embraces diversity and uses it to create an ‘external community of radical love’. This inclusive theology patiently clarifies how scripture has been misinterpreted, gently challenges Christians to acknowledge that homophobia is not biblical, and consciously embraces queer people into its fold.

Queer communities of faith do not exist abstractly, in theology books and in covert corners of unknown churches. They exist vibrantly and vividly here in our own country of Aotearoa New Zealand. The Auckland Rainbow Community Church meet weekly at St Matthew in the City and provide queer Christians with turangawaewae: an affirming standing place.

The conversation within churches needs to move on from discussion over whether queerness is morally acceptable to how they can proactively demonstrate that there is a place for LGBTQIA people in their pews. Queer theology has allowed queer Christians, on the whole, to reconcile their sexuality and their belief in a genderless God – a proponent of ‘radical love.’ Being queer and Christian has become, for many, an intrinsic, harmonious part of their identity, and the hostile claims of Folau and Tamaki cannot undermine this. To be queer is simply to be human.

The challenge now is how queer Christians resist being rendered invisible by a church which continually fails to confront its own destructive legacy of homophobia. Silence from churches whenever a public figure uses their faith to justify homophobia has a tangible impact. It breeds institutional complacency which causes queer people to leave the pews, and vulnerable young people to doubt their self-worth.

The conversation is shifting and individual Christian allies are not enough. We need churches as collective communities to speak out; we need united voices renouncing homophobic biblical interpretation.

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