Archbishop John Holder put a biblical case for decriminalization of homosexuality under the noses of hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans this week, as his talk about sexuality and the Bible was reported by the Gleaner newspaper on Page 1 and by the Observer on Page 4.
The Gleaner’s headline was “Sodom and Gomorrah does not support sodomy law — Anglican archbishop.”
The Observer’s was “Archbishop of the WI says Bible does not support anti-sodomy laws.”
Holder, who is the Anglican bishop of Barbados and the Archbishop of the West Indies, was the keynote speaker for the Oct. 12-13 Intimate Conviction conference in Kingston, Jamaica. The gathering focused on the historical role that churches played in helping to create anti-sodomy laws and now, for some churches, the role of advocates for repeal.
Holder, who has a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies, put his biblical scholarship on display as he reviewed Bible passages that are often used to justify anti-LGBT laws. In each case, he concluded that the text either had been misinterpreted or was written in a particular historical context that does not justify criminal penalties for same-sex intimacy today.
In the Caribbean, religion has supported injustice and engendered passionate divisiveness, he said:
“Religion has functioned in many capacities in shaping the lives of the people of this region. It has functioned to legitimize oppressive systems as it has been a source of comfort and hope that has allowed us to survive these systems and struggle for our liberation.
“It has functioned in assisting us to create some sharp divides between right and wrong as it has functioned to confuse the same divide. But whatever position is taken, religion brings an abundance of passion to the discussion of any issue. No other area generates this passion as much as human sexuality.
“In the discussion of human sexuality in general and the Sodomy law – the prohibition against the act of homosexuality — in particular, these many sides of religion surface. In this context, religion often becomes the instrument of division rather than one of healing and enlightenment as it ought to be.”
The Bible came first from the Middle East, where the region’s earliest surviving literature took no stand against homosexuality. Holder stated:
“There is the acceptance that homosexuality is an expression of human sexuality. There seems to be no outright condemnation of homosexuality.”
He also noted that God’s actions in the Bible were not constrained by biology or the limits of traditional sexual relationships:
Abraham and Sarah
The “power of Yahweh can utilize human sexuality for his specific purpose and take it beyond its functional barrier as established by nature.”
Mary, the virgin birth and other miraculous births
“Yahweh here is putting human sexuality to work for its primary purpose of procreation when all the signals from the body clock indicate that this is not possible. Sexuality can be used by Yahweh as the basic material for miracle (cf. birth of Samuel, Samson; cf. birth of Jesus). He has the power to override the laws of nature.
“We must note and retain for discussion this very profound and important point that Yahweh’s use of sexuality is not restricted by traditional boundaries, even by those imposed by biology and nature. Christians celebrate this on Christmas day in tradition of the Virgin Birth.”
Moses and the Cushite woman
“God’s great gift of sexuality should not be subjected to and be distorted by race or other human barriers.”
Ruth and Boaz
“The unusual, nontraditional, and devious, are all drawn into the sexual act here and the writer does not add any condemnation. If he does not, why should we. It is presented as of the will of Yahweh. Yahweh can deal with the non-conventional activities of human sexuality.”
Sodom and Gomorrah
“As soon as the word homosexuality is mentioned in Biblical studies, we may want to make a bee line for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here is one of the favourite hunting grounds for those who want to use the Bible to condemn homosexual behavior, and find support for the retention of the sodomy law.
“The use of this story to do this is fraught with the danger of imposing our convictions, and a bigotry about this practice onto the story. This use, or should I say misuse of the story, is built on awful exegesis. Indeed, the word ‘Sodomy’ as a designation for homosexuality rejects a sensible understanding of the story that is based on sound scholarship. The story is found in Gen.13:5-13; and 18:16 – 19:29 … is not making points about SEXUAL ORIENTATION….
“The evil of the city is identified at several levels. The primary level is the refusal of the people of the city to be hospitable to Lot’s guests who are strangers. The fact that both Abraham and Lot are also strangers, in a new land searching for a place to rest compounds the guilt of the men (people) of the city. The men of Sodom reject one of the basic elements of human decency, the compassion that should be extended to the stranger (cf Ex.23:9; Lev. 19:33; Deut.24:19-21).”
The interpretation of the Sodom story as a story about homosexuality arose much later, Holder said. He cited English theologian D.S. Bailey:
“The homosexual conception of this sin (of Sodom and Gomorrah) first appeared in the second century BC among Palestinian rigorists and patriots and seems to have been inspired by hatred of the Greek way of life.”
Prohibitions against homosexuality in Leviticus were written during the Jews’ exile in Babylon, when procreation was crucial to the continuing existence of the Jewish people, Holder said:
“This community, now obsessed with a sense of survival, had to reproduce itself and keep on doing so. Homosexuality in this context was nothing short of self-destruction. “
The passages in Leviticus (Lev 18: 22 and 20:13) “address a specific set of conditions and so cannot be extracted from the context of the priestly writer and transformed into a universal edict. … They cannot be transformed into a base for the retention of sodomy laws.”
Holder noted that Jesus did not refer directly to homosexuality and accepted people involved in non-traditional behavior, including sexual behavior (the woman at the well, John 4; and the “woman of the city,” a sinner, who anointed his feet, Luke 7: 37-38).
He considered the context of anti-homosexuality language in three epistles.
Romans 1: 18-32 –As with the Jews in Babylon, “There is an issue of survival at work in this section of Romans. The Church can only survive if there is a total rejection of the way of the non-Christian.”
Corinthians 6: 9-10 — Homosexuals are rejected for God’s Kingdom along with idolaters, adulterers, drunkards and the greedy. “That this type of behaviour is one mentioned among many that are the type to be avoided by Christians, again seems to suggest that the homosexual is not identified as being worse, or better than the others. It however remains a practice that is to be rejected by the Christians at Corinth.”
1 Timothy 1:8-9 –– Homosexuality is rejected along with lying, disobedience, kidnapping and murder. It “is one among many. It is not identified as the worse among a batch of practices that should be rejected by Christians.”
Holder called for tolerance and patience in discussions about sodomy laws in the Caribbean:
“We speak in religious language of hell fire and damnation. We become stuck in the mud of intolerance where no one can make progress. We forget that the two virtues so soundly establish in the Old Testament and proclaimed by Jesus in the New are love and compassion.
“I strongly believe that we should continue the discussion. We need to move beyond intolerance and only discussion can help us to do so. We should not close the doors to any side, to any opinion. This region is going to take some time to work through the issue. We must take this time and protect our freedom to travel at our pace. But we cannot close the door to discussion.
“As a student of the Bible I am intrigued that the writers of the Exodus story claim forty years of travel from Egypt to the land of promise. This has more to do with an understanding that it takes time and a lot of time to make a transition from one condition, one understanding, to another that is the complete opposite, than with miles or kilometres.
“Here is a model for us as we grapple with the issue of the sodomy law here in the Caribbean. Let us not see the pace of the journey as a waste of time or as a failure. It surely is not. No change in thinking is easy. But change is always possible.
“As we engage in discussion, we must note (and retain for discussion) the very important point that God’s use of sexuality his gift to humanity, is not restricted by traditional boundaries, even by those imposed by biology and nature. Christians celebrate this on Christmas day in the tradition of the Virgin Birth.”
For more information, see the full text of Holder’s keynote address, titled “Examining the church and anti-sodomy laws across the Commonwealth.”.
- Taking aim at anti-LGBT laws dating back to Henry VIII (October 2017, 76crimes.com)
- “Sodom and Gomorrah does not support sodomy law — Anglican archbishop.” (October 2017, The Jamaica Gleaner)
- “Archbishop of the WI says Bible does not support anti-sodomy laws.” (October 2017, the Jamaica Observer)
- Church leaders target anti-gay laws; conservatives protest
- ‘Advancing LGBT rights in the Commonwealth is a delicate task’ (March 2017, 76crimes.com)
- Be brave, Anglicans; oppose Jamaica’s anti-gay law (November 2016, 76crimes.com)
- Archbishop of Canterbury to LGBTI community: Sorry! (January 2016, 76crimes.com)
- Anglicans discipline Episcopalians over same-sex marriage (January 2016, 76crimes.com)
- 39 Commonwealth nations still have anti-LGBTI laws (76crimes.com)
- Commonwealth Day: Queen calls for inclusiveness (March 2016, BBC)
- Commonwealth: Maybe talk about LGBTI rights in 2018? (December 2015, 76crimes.com)
- Archive of this blog’s articles about the Anglican Communion.
- Archive of this blog’s articles about the Commonwealth.