A little over 100 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois rightly predicted that “the problem of the 20th century [would be] the problem of the color line.”
The 20th century has come and gone, and while the “problem” of race relations has not been completely “solved,” we as a people have made some incredible strides toward equality since DuBois first published Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Sure, as a black man, I could be killed by the police at any given moment for no good reason, and that really isn’t cool. But even with that hanging over my head, I still feel like an empowered, full-fledged United States citizen. That’s a claim neither of my grandfathers could have made, even though they were both born here, too. I hesitate to say Jim Crow is dead, but he is on life support.
If racial issues dominated the 20th century, perhaps sexuality is the the battleground of the next great civil rights struggles.
Day before yesterday, I was leading the weekly Bible class at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem. I started going there a few months ago, but that’s not the point. We were dealing with Leviticus, so I had to point out the oft-quoted chapter 18 verse 22: “Do not lie with a man as with a woman; that is detestable.” For many Christians, that’s the beginning and end of the discussion. There were several sincere, God-fearing students in my class who got quite passionate when I defended gay rights in spite of this text. Here’s a recap of some of what I told them.
-“Text-proofing” is the act of taking one verse or thought out of the Bible and applying it blindly as a binding rule to be followed in all circumstances. Everyone does this at some point. For example, Galatians 5:22 says that there is no law against such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. I like that idea.
The Bible also teaches in Numbers 5 that if a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful (no proof is necessary), he can take her to the priest, and the priest can make her drink poison. If she is innocent, God will protect her and the poison will have no effect. If she’s guilty, the poison will do the irreparable damage that it does. In all of this, by the way, the man is held blameless. I teach that to people as an anecdote, but it’s not a part of my Christian marriage counseling, fortunately.
This doesn’t mean that the whole Bible is not the word of God–it just means that when we read it, we have to understand the cultural context it was written in, keeping in mind that no society is perfect. John Wesley argued that reason and personal experience are just as important as scriptural authority, and I tend to agree.
Also, Christians can’t ignore the fact that Jesus never spoke against homosexuality. Maybe he did and no one wrote it down, but judging gay people goes against my understanding of his teachings. He said that we are all neighbors, and the call to compassion is greater than the call to follow human rules and laws. He also said that what goes in your mouth doesn’t make you unclean, but what comes out of your mouth is what gets you in trouble. He was talking about food and speech, but maybe the idea can extend to various form of sex, too. ;0
Besides, messages of acceptance and hope were preached to eunuchs in the Old and New Testaments (see Isaiah 56 and Acts 8). There are different ideas about what a eunuch was in biblical times, but if they were around today, they would certainly be a part of the LBGT community. More importantly, they would be eligible for salvation just as they are.
By now, one of the sweet old ladies in the class raised her hand and asked me if I thought homosexuality was a sin. I gave her a short answer–“no.” As an analogy, people have destroyed their lives with alcohol, but one sip of wine passing your lips at a party is not in itself a sin. Similarly, homosexuality is not inherently sinful, but anytime anyone throws morals, wisdom, and restraint out of the window, as many gay and straight people have done, it’s sinning and people eventually pay the price for their actions.
But back to Jesus, and his call to “judge not lest we be judged.” It’s okay to be turned off by the thought of two men kissing–it’s okay if you think it’s a sin. But Jesus begs the question in Matthew 7: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Spirituality is a personal thing, and if you’re really dedicated to getting yours right, you have very little time left over to worry about other people’s.
Finally, as a black church leader, neither the pastor nor the capitalist in me will allow me to start kicking sinners out of the church. If I did that, where would we be?