Guest Blogger

The Use and Abuse of Scripture for Political Purposes

Filed By Guest Blogger | March 14, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Bible, interpretation, old testament, religion, renato lings, sexual, sodomy

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Father John McNeill is a pioneer in the gay liberation movement. John helped found Dignity New York City, a spiritual support group for gay and lesbian Catholics, in 1972. In 1976 he published The Church and the Homosexual, the first major theological critique of traditional church condemnation of lesbian and gay relations. In 2007 he was awarded The National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce lifetime achievement award "for leading the way in understanding that being gay is a gift from God."

McNeill.JPGThe recent effort of evangelical pastor Martin Sscampa, under the tutelage of American Evangelicals, to pass a "kill the gays" bill in the Uganda parliament and the extensive persecution of GLBT people throughout eastern Africa is based primarily on a highly questionable interpretation of a passage in Leviticus 18: 22.This passage has been traitionally translated to read: "If any man lies with another man as with a women let them be put to death!"

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican Council II deals with how to interpret sacred scripture:

Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in a human fashion, the interpreter of sacred sripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.

This cautious investigation of the intention of the human author is especially called for dealing with biblical passages which traditionally have been accepted as dealing with homosexual activity.

We are keenly aware that back in the days of slavery, slave owners routinely used passages from scripture to justify owning slaves as in accordance with God's will. There is a real probability that the homophobia of the translators and their culture has led to a distortion of the meaning of these passages.

The Hebrew scholar K. Renato Lings has offered a philological/literary analysis of Leviticus 18.22. Lings points out that most modern translations present this text as self-explanatory, which contrasts sharply with its opacity. The ambiguities embedded in the wording have received limited intention. There is no satisfactory method for converting the unusual hebrew phrase: "with a male you shall not the lyings of a women" in good idiomatic English.

Based on a careful analysis of the hebrew wording of the text Lings argues that the text does not prohibit all erotic expression between men.

The overall context seems to indicate that the scope of this verse is far more restricted. If the text is analyzed and translated carefully, there is reason to believe that Lev.18.22 is proscribing incest bwteen male family members.

A primary examole of what kind of activity is proscribed is Ham's act of sexual sodomy with his drunken father Noah as recorded in Gen.9: 18-27.

The best way to arrive at an understanding of what the author means by this text is to read it within the overall context of Leviticus. "Just as the overall aim of Leviticus is to ban incestuous heterosexual practices, Lev.18.22 may well be there to insure that homosexual incest is added to the list of proscriptions."

"A reading from this angle restores the verse to its biblical context, enabling Lev.18.22 to fulfill a logical purpose amid a series of ancient indictments of transgressive sexual practices. To use a paraphrase...that outcome may sound like something to this effect: you shall not commit incest with any close relative, male or female. If this approach is correct... it would seem the issue of incest deserves to be taken into account whenever Lev.18.22 is discussed."

This understanding of Leviticus frees us from making the blasphemous assertion that God wills the death or imprisonment of all those humans whom God created with a gay orientation.

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The U.S. legal definition of a religion is that it does not involve people thinking independently based upon logic. This was decided in a case involving conscientious objectors.

So if a person believes something due to being told their religion's deity is all for it then they have a religious belief and are entitled to special treatment.

Good luck convincing people that the Christian God *really* is OK with gays. No doubt this will happen in time as it has with God's change of mind about slavery (used to be great and now bad), the rights of women (previously a no go and now God is a feminist), pedophilia (previously supported*, now not so except by the Vatican) and more.


UNITED STATES v. SEEGER, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)
380 U.S. 163
No. 50.
Argued November 16-17, 1964.
Decided March 8, 1965. *

1. The test of religious belief within the meaning of the exemption in 6 (j) is whether it is a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualified for the exemption. Pp. 173-180.

(a) The exemption does not cover those who oppose war from a merely personal moral code nor those who decide that war is wrong on the basis of essentially political, sociological or economic considerations rather than religious belief. P. 173.

Thanks for your lifetime of work on behalf of the gay community.
I have enjoyed your books greatly. I am happy that you have preached the glorious liberation of being "out".

A. J. Lopp | March 14, 2010 9:32 PM

Yes, Father McNeill, I must echo this thanks. It is so important that we persevere in putting out the proper interpretation of these Bible verses, instead of letting prejudice prevail, even though it appears that this will be a life-long task for all of us now living.

To get right to the heart of the problem, it is man's interpretation of GOD's Holy Word, not the Word itself that is the problem!!!!!! If you read the Bible, you must use a Strong's Concordance to figure out what it really said!!! To not do this is to rely on a pastor's, priest's, minister's or rabbi's judgement which is not guided by GOD or inspired by GOD, thus it opens the Bible to be used against people that are not liked or approved of by the pastor's, etc!!!!!!!!!
This is what I have against organized religion!!! I pray to GOD nearly every day, but have not been in a church for many, many years!!!!Thank you for this article!!!! GOD bless you, Kori

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | March 14, 2010 11:19 AM

Though I am anti theist, I was raised in the Catholic church and attended mass once, and sometimes twice weekly and Sunday school and the whole indoctrinating nine yards. One of the very reasons that I left the church and indeed all religion is because of the blatant and unapologetic hypocrisy involved. Let's just take one example, part of which was thoughtfully provided by the author of this post

"If any man lies with another man as with a women let them be put to death!"

Leviticus was eloquent and generous in his book in the bible about so called abominations, citing many things that should carry the death penalty which included but were not limited to, eating the "flesh of a pig" on the sabbath and eating shellfish.
Yet for some reason, my family, my good CATHOLIC family and my good CATHOLIC mother, had shellfish regularly and pork in the form of bacon or sausage was a staple on the sabbath and many other days. You see, my mother was not only very Catholic but she was also very Cajun so oysters, shrimp and crab always had a place at our table and Sunday dinner was gumbo or meatloaf, both pork intensive dishes along with the one breakfast we always had as a family at which my (German descent) dad insisted on having sausage and potatoes. In fact, my father, being a product of his time would often tell "jokes" about LGBT people around a mouthful of sausage on Sunday and my mom, being a product of her church, would sometimes rant about that particular class of sin while preparing butterfly shrimp or crab cakes.
This is but one example of why I rebelled and left the Catholics at age 13, in spite of all of the punishment and all of the guilt foisted upon me by my pious parents for doing so. I studied religions after that for a number of years but by the time I was 18 I found that almost all of them were full of contradictions and seemed to be designed to uphold the authority of the clergy by keeping the population in fear of death. Both the fear of being put to death by the clergy in some cases and the fear of what comes after a death of any cause.
One thing I'm certain of: Whether or not the bible was written by "god", it has now been in the hands of flawed, sinful human beings for several thousand years, being poorly translated, translated in ways that uphold a specific point of view, edited in a way that elevates the clergy to the position of almost irreproachable wisdom, (in fact that's one meaning of the word "reverend" and of course the Catholics use "father" as a way of establishing inviolable authority over the masses), and in every way perverted to suit the wants and desires of mankind. It continues to this day with a group putting out a "conservative bible" in which they are removing all references to helping the poor, condemnation of greed and so forth. Even if, in the unlikely event it was written by a deity, it can scarcely resemble the content or the spirit of the original. I find the whole thing preposterous.
All of that aside, I've spent most of my almost 50 years being very respectful of peoples' beliefs and observances but that was when I wasn't being forced to comply with religious dogma by those who exempt themselves from it's stricture. The people who used to thump their bibles on street corners and call passersby sinners and other unfortunate names have become mainstreamed. They are pushing for and passing laws in state and federal legislatures. Laws which single me out for coercion, attempting to pressure me into gender compliance, (the fact that it is far too late for that notwithstanding), and into acknowledging their "god" and therefore, their authority over me of course. Discrimination, both subtle and overt, hatred of me and what I represent, belittlement of my life and challenges to my existence and my right to function in society come at me from all directions, backed by the force of government and condoned by the "legitimacy" by the church.
The atheists of the sixties and seventies were worried about comparably petty things, like the inclusion of references to god on money and in the pledge of allegiance but they were right. Religion has always been willing to take the path of incrementalism in order to achieve their ends. The marathon over the sprint. Now we have god in our childrens' science classes, god governing reproductive rights and indeed the very health and treatment options for women, even god in the military where belief is rewarded with advancement opportunities and unbelief is given officially sanctioned scorn and derision.
I still respect those who have an honest faith and a desire to use religion as a way to express their compassion and their generosity but far too often the face of organized religion is that of people who understand less of religion than this anti theist has forgotten about it. People who use it as a cudgel and a brand to use against those they disagree with on any range of subjects. While the official position of the church is to decry violence against other people, (i.e. love the sinner, hate the sin), they smile in the background and encourage it both overtly and tacitly, I assume under the medieval belief that such abuse and authoritarian lawmaking will drive more people into the church, thus enriching their coffers and consolidating their authority. It's heinous and it's abominable and I'm afraid it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to separate the honest believers from the blasphemous hate merchants.
Thank you.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | March 14, 2010 1:25 PM

Father McNeil:

Seeing your name and reading your post today brought back some personal memories from 1977 concerning my own coming out struggles and the role your seminal work, "The Church and the Homosexual" played in my own attempts to reconcile my own "cradle Catholic" faith with my sexual orientation. I thank you profoundly for that and all of your other efforts.

Coincidentally, I just finished watching some video which Andrew Sullivan has on his Daily Dish website of parts of his recent lecture at Princeton University. In that lecture he tends to downplay, if not outright reject, the notion that various biblical passages really are not a condemnation of homosexuality but are directed toward something else. He simply says the bible DOES have such condemnations, but then goes on to say that fundamentalists are inconsistent because very few would go so far as to follow the biblican injunction that homosexuals be put to death. He also goes on to demonstrate inconsistencies in the Church's "natural law" theory on the subject.

Would you care to comment on his position in this regard? It would seem he's saying, in effect: "Let's not do too many mental gymnastics that only moral theologians/textual critics understand anyway, just admit that the Bible DOEs say this or that, and deal with it accordingly"?

Nobody ever wins religious arguments. So, I won't try.

As a community our issue isn't "how" the Bible is interpreted (+1800 variations), but rather the distinction of whether or not a person (or denomination, soon) believes literally that the Bible is "God's word," or if it was inspired by God, or if it simply contains great spiritual "stories." Those distinctions are what make up the huge divide in religion today.

Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists are all splitting over literal and liberal interpretation. Liberal and progressive Churches that welcome the LGBT Community (yet do not quite "un-wrong" homosexuality formally) are on one side and the literal, Conservatives on the other side.

The good news is that "literal interpretation Christians are only about one-third of all Christians in America. This group will never support us because God (literally) told them not to. This is the group we spend all of our energy promoting (Waymon, Patricia) while ignoring the two-thirds that are likely to support us.

We don't need to argue about interpretation of scripture and try to change religious beliefs - that would be preaching. To obtain our equality we should be asking the two-thirds for their help. We should learn to do that without questioning anyone's personal beliefs.

Sooner or later we need people to join us in creating equality. Instead of promoting (and arguing with) a minority (literal interpretation) we should be creating a majority - those that believe in full equality. THAT would be helpful.

This isn't about "gay-friendly" churches, either. Those churches that fly a rainbow flag and are "inclusive" and "open and affirming" represent less than 1% of all US churches. I'm talking about half of all Catholics, 65% of all Lutherans, 60% of Methodists and 55% of Presbyterians, to name a few. Religious people are way ahead of their own denominations regarding equality.

We should focus on that reality and stop trying to compare beliefs because it simply isn't productive. Making them wrong, doesn't help create our equality. Winning a prize for the "gay-friendliest" interpretation of the Bible doesn't help, either. In America people are free to believe whatever they want - suggesting they've misinterpreted the Bible (what are the odds?) or promoting them with sky-is-falling-and they're-taking over-the-world rhetoric only harms our efforts.

It's worth thinking about. Letting go of being "right" or even semantically "righter" helps.

I never said what I believed (above) because it is far less important than our full equality. But, I do believe we can create a majority of people supporting full equality and many of them will be religious.

Thank God, or something.

Wait, Ham had sex with his dad? I thought he just saw him naked. That passage seems to ignore some of the other, more common euphemisms for sex, at least in the King James translation that I'm familiar with.

Otherwise, yeah, the Bible is always interpreted in the context of the current readers. They really can't escape seeing what they want to; it's just that some are more honest about their intentions than others.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | March 15, 2010 1:07 AM

The examples provided by the French Revolution, with it's liberal use of the guillotine on recalcitrant clerics and bishops, the Bolsheviks and the Poumistas in Spain have all had a sobering effect on the christian cults.

They may continue to quote their Book of Unbelievable Events and Superstitous beliefs but most of the christians have stopped calling for our murder. For now.

It's a good thing that a few cult leaders want to cross us off the list of ‘those who can be killed for no good reason’. They, however, are a tiny minority of cultists. Tutu is outnumbered millions to one.

Islamists, on the other hand, have actually gotten worse as the pogroms in US occupied Iraq Afghanistan and US threatened Iran prove.

In Africa local christer supporters of both US and EU neocolonialism are threatening a legal bloodbath. Right wingers are lining up behind the clerics but real African nationalists, like Tutu and many others oppose the reimposition of European and American divisiveness.

In Pakistan the government, trying to conciliate insurgents is imposing sharia law in the Northwest Province.

And in the vatican itself, as in the US, Ireland and Germany, the centuries old scandal of sexual abuse (rape) of children now directly involves der papenfuehrer. And his brother, another priest who directed a boys (ahem) choir in Regensburg, Bavaria. It seems that Ratzinger also protected other known clerical rapists in Germany. Ratzinger, who blames all these upsetting developments on devils in the vatican is not speaking figuratively.

He's going to have to quote extensively from the Book of Superstitions to get of this little mess.

In the US theocrats control both parties and continue their culture war to deprive us of equality and defeat our fight for liberation from the cults.

The answer to the murderous intent of the clerics, christian and islamists, is to a include hard anticlerical program in our agenda, calling for measures to tax them out of existence and secularize their schools to prevent clerical rapes by priests, pastors and rabbis.

Rick Elliott | March 15, 2010 3:19 AM

Andrew W, I'd like to look more closely at the battle you see going on in the Church. It's not liberal progressive vs. literal conservatives. Te conservative group9p described as literalist,in fact, practice selective literalism. In other words they pick and choose what they take literally, then claim to be literalist. I can't let them have their cake and eat it too. Selective literalism is no different from liberal use of the Bible. The only difference is a gratuitous selection of parts of the Bible reinforce their own opinion. To make matters more blatant--they have an opinion, then go to scripture to bolster their opinion. They don't begin with scripture and have their opinions shaped by scripture.

I don't see any research supporting the idea that "people use scripture to support their opinions," presumably anti-gay, or bigotry. It's actually a lot simpler than that. 50 years ago 90% of Americans believed the Bible was the literal "word of God." Today, it is less than half that.

If, at a very young age (impressionable), someone is convinced that everything in the Bible are actually "God's instructions," it is difficult to change that. But, the world has changed and for the last 30 years people have begun questioning "faith" and exploring their own beliefs. Out of this we have seen two very different groups - the literalists and those that seek spirituality, not answers. Half of US adults believe "there aren't any answers." They have ideals instead of rules.

In any event, we do not make any progress judging anyone's beliefs. We make progress by allowing freedom of beliefs, while putting equality before religion. Two-thirds of our fellow citizens are willing to do that, unless we start dismissing their beliefs or trying to preach to them. Religion is personal, equality is not.

If the Jesus Christ that I was raised to know were
to attempt to attend alot of Christian churches
today he/she would not be welcome. Can we say
certain groups have "hijacked" religion?

I personally don't have a problem with how anyone interprets the bible. My problem with it comes from the lack of a clearly defined religious freedom. At what point does someones interpretation of religion cross the line into religious oppression of another? There is a difference between someone saying homosexuality is a sin and pointing out their reasons for believing it.Verses someone believing that homosexuality is a sin therefore they have an inherent right to persecute others even those outside their belief system. Or using others by indoctrinating or inciting them to commit crimes against others in the name of the religious belief.This is a big problem for the ministers of hate for they realize that if my line of thinking were to be realized they could and probably would be imprisoned for oppression of religious freedom.

Thankfully, that crowd - literal interpretation zealots are only about one-third of all self-described "religious people."

We think it's a bigger crowd because we're always attacking them and paying them way too much attention. Indifference will marginalize them. We should make them the minority by enrolling people who support equality into the new majority.

It's impossible to interpret "God's law" of Abrahamic religions to equal U.S. Constitutional law. It's Democracy vs Theocracy. Breaking away from the oppression of "God's law" was what the Age of Enlightenment was about.