Bishop Robinson: What Are Religious Texts Really Saying About Gay and Transgender Rights?

Posted Jeff Krehely and Sally Steenland on

[Listen to the full interview below]


"Jeff Krehely: The Washington Post asked you to write a series of columns about the way biblical passages have been used to characterize homosexuality and gay rights. Why did The Post ask you to write on this particular topic?

"Bishop Gene Robinson: The Post ran a guest piece by Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. Readers were horrified that they would print something so backward and critical of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. In that article, as the religious right is wont to do, he quoted scripture—the story of the woman supposedly caught in adultery. Jesus ultimately says to her, “Go and sin no more.” Perkins claims the Bible sees homosexuality as a sin and suggests that Jesus would also tell gays and lesbians to “sin no more.”

"Sally Quinn [editor of The Post’s On Faith columns] was very interested in having someone counter that argument, so I wrote a piece refuting the use of that particular scripture. She then said, “We really should take a look at what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality.” So that led to this series.

"J: You write about selected passages and refer to them as “texts of terror.” They were written thousands of years ago. Why do they still have power today? And why are they such a core part of the debate around LGBT rights?

"G: I should say first of all that that phrase, “texts of terror,” comes from Phyllis Trible’s work about those portions of scripture that have been used to denigrate and subjugate women over the years. But it is a wonderful phrase and clearly LGBT people have felt certain texts—there are seven—condemn homosexuality. In some sense they are our “texts of terror.”

"Whether you are a religious person or not, these texts and their supposed meaning are literally in the air we breathe. A number of years ago I helped start a group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning teens in New Hampshire. One night I was sitting with five or six of them. Not a single one of them came from a household of faith. So they had never been in a Sunday school, never been in a church, and never heard a sermon. But they all knew the word “abomination” from Leviticus. You know, “a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination. They should both be put to death.”

"Everyone thought that was what God thought of them. Now, they couldn’t have found the book of Leviticus if you had a loaded gun to their heads. But they knew that word, and they thought that is what God thought of them.

"Before we became a post-Christian nation, those teachings became part of our culture. Even nonreligious people are infected by these words. As we see issues like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or gay marriage play out, those words are still buried in people. Sometimes well-meaning people don’t realize that those words have a kind of power and are the source of their resistance to LGBT issues. I think that 90 percent of the pain and struggle we have experienced as the LGBT community can be laid at the feet of religious people.

"Sally Steenland: Some of that resistance comes from people who say, “We are just reading what the Bible tells us.” You explain what an interpretation of the Bible would actually look like if all its texts were read literally. And you show the importance of reading the Bible in context.

"G: This is the discussion that one should have before tackling any of the passages. When people are confronted by someone who says, “I am just reading what is there,” I would encourage them to stop and call them on that because no one does that. Even if you are only trying to deal with the words as they are written, even your choice of which words you are going to deal with—which passages—requires interpretation.

"I can’t ever recall Jerry Falwell or Pat Robinson quoting the verse in Luke where Jesus says, “If you want to be a follower of mine, you must give up all of your possessions.” That doesn’t fit in too well with their appeal to little old ladies on Social Security to send in their five dollars to support the ministry.

"In the series, I point to a story that Dan Helminiak shares in one of his books where he posits a time in the future where the game of baseball has been lost. It’s not played anymore, and no one knows about it. You pick up a novel written in the year 2000, and it describes one of the characters as being “out in left field.” The reader in the future believes they understand what that means because they know what “left” is, and they know what a “field” is.

"But unless you know the game of baseball you don’t know that most people bat right handed and that they bat to the left field in order to catch the fly balls. You don’t know that the left fielder backs way up, and that it has become a metaphor for being out of the loop, isolated, out of the mainstream. So you might think you know what “out in left field” means, but unless you know the game of baseball you would miss the whole meaning.

"Most biblical scholarship of the last 50 years has been about the culture in which biblical texts were written and the surrounding cultures to which they were an answer. The ancient Hebrews—in what we would call the Old Testament—were surrounded by hostile pagan cultures that wanted to get rid of the Jews. Much of what we read in the Old Testament is about this struggle with those cultures. We now know a lot more about those struggles and the culture, and therefore, in some sense, we know the game of baseball they were playing. We have a context in which to sort through those words.

"Once we know what was meant by the author and what was heard by the people for whom it was written, we can ask the question, “Is this eternally binding or something culturally determined that applies only for that time?”

"If you don’t have that conversation first, you have already lost the conversation because you are arguing from two different planets. Certainly the mainstream religious way of doing scripture is to ask the questions: “What did it mean for the people back then? Has anything changed since to make it less binding on us?” None of us would doubt the eternally binding nature of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But some of the other things that we read in scripture have to be taken in context, and we have to say, maybe then but not now." 

[Listen to the full interview below]


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