Phil Robertson, St. Paul and the Problem of Christian Homophobia
“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
“It seems like, to me, a vagina – as a man – would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
[What do you consider sinful?] “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there — bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
— Phil Robertson, GQ interview, Dec. 18, 2013
Mass Outrage: A Good Thing
The fact that Phil Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality in an interview with GQ should have produced mass outrage, causing A&E to (initially) announce it would drop him from the popular “Duck Dynasty” series, suggests that we have come a long ways towards becoming a more tolerant society—that is: a society less tolerant of intolerance. There was an immediate deluge of criticism of Robertson, and A&E decided that in the current environment it would make best business sense to cut ties with the Duck Dynasty patriarch.
Some called it a victory of capitalism over free speech. I would say rather that it was a (short-lived) victory of the gay rights’ movement in the battle for g public opinion. A&E probably wanted to avoid the prospect of a boycott following a sponsored figure’s hateful remarks. If the Food Network yanked Paula Dean from the air earlier this year for her allegedly racist comments, A&E was surely under pressure to yank off Robertson. This was all good.
But the very fact that Robertson could express such views in the interview—and expect that the readers would simply nod in agreement—attests to the fact that we have a long way to go in curbing homophobia in this society. So too, the outpouring of support from some fans, defending him overwhelmingly on religious grounds. So too the decision of A&E to reinstate him!
Still, I wonder if Robertson’s comments on gayness would have even raised many eyebrows a decade ago. I suspect they would have gone unnoticed. As recently as 2003, according to a National Opinion Research Council poll, 56% of people in this country thought homosexuality (whatever that term meant to them) was “always wrong.” Only 32% thought it “not wrong.”
In 2010 the NORC poll figures had changed to 46% “always wrong” and 43% “not wrong.” The new balance indicated (I think) the much diminished influence of religiously-based views of sexuality among the young—as well as the more frequent and positive depiction of gay characters in popular culture, greater familiarity of straight people with bi and gay neighbors and coworkers, more access to information, etc.
A June 2013 Gallop poll indicates rapid change even since 2010; 53% of people in the U.S. now approve of gay marriage. This would suggest that a majority hasn’t just come around to the position that being gay is “not wrong” (as in, gays shouldn’t be stoned to death); most seem indeed to think gay people worthy of equal rights.
There has been a sea change in attitudes, in the U.S. and globally. In 2003 gay marriage was recognized only in the Netherlands and Belgium. At the end of 2013, same-sex marriage is recognized legally in thirteen countries including Spain, France and the U.K., and seventeen U.S. states. This attainment of legal equality does not insure an inevitable attainment of social equality and integration—such goals, indeed, confront powerful obstacles. But the progress is very impressive.
The first decade and a half of the 21st century will be recalled forever as a time when the U.S. government ran amok and declared war on the Greater Middle East, with endless disastrous repercussions (in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria etc.). At the same time it declared war on its own people, constructing a national surveillance state more powerfully intrusive (even) than that of the old East German police state. Federal prison population swelled from under 150,000 in 2000 to over 200,000 today. The U.S. now, with 5% of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s prisoner population, largest in absolute numbers of any country. More people are locked up proportionately than in any other country. The expulsion of illegal immigrants has soared, peaking at 410,000 last year.
Anyone who expected “the first Black president” to bring “hope” and “change” has long since either given up in disgust or decided to stand by their man—and in so doing, stand by his seamless continuation of George W. Bush’s policies. These include ongoing, regime-changing aggression in the Middle East and threats of unilateral U.S. action; the increasing coordination of police forces to monitor not only “terrorists” but dissidents of all types, and to (for example) crush the Occupy movement in late 2011 through an FBI-centered national effort that included intercepting the communications of student activists on six campuses; the ongoing capitulation to Wall Street, including the insurance companies who are the primary beneficiaries of Obamacare, etc. Young people who believed in Obama and voted for him (at least the first time) now look at the youth unemployment figures, student loan debt figures, average wages, cost of housing, even cost of signing up for Obamacare; and they feel cheated. Few things have changed.
And yet…. in an atmosphere of general gloom, in an era of ongoing imperial recklessness seemingly designed to provoke more terror, in a period of nauseating revelations, we have this one bright area of ongoing victories: gay rights. (The only thing to compare with advances in GLBT rights and acceptance is the slough of ballot victories for decriminalization and even legalization of marijuana in 20 states and Washington D.C. Who would have thought that recreational marijuana would be legal in Colorado and Washington in 2013?)
Yes, St. Paul Did Really Say That
It’s a good thing gay rights are advancing and that Robertson was attacked for “hate speech.” On the other hand, Robertson backed by a swelling chorus of supporters, declared, “All I did was quote from the scriptures.” And you know, that’s what he did.
Well, it’s not quite all he did. He also implied that bestiality and heterosexual profligacy are somehow rooted in homosexuality, as though it were the mother of vices. And he rather ridiculously depicted blacks in the Jim Crow South as always happy and singing back in the day. None of this is Bible-based. But in one of his most often (and most indignantly) cited offerings, Phil Robertson did cite scripture.
“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes…”
When I first heard this quoted on cable television, I thought it sounded familiar. Sure enough, I soon found (in my Jerusalem Bible, the best translation in my opinion), in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 6:9: “Make no mistake—the sexually immoral, idolators, adulterers, the self-indulgent, sodomites, thieves, misers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers, none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. ”
It sounds like the 67-year-old Robertson had this verse memorized from repeated exposure from the pulpit in the King James Version preferred by fundamentalists: “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”.
As controversy erupted, Sarah Palin chimed in, arguing that Robertson “was quoting the gospel.” In fact he wasn’t quoting the gospel, in the sense of any saying of Jesus from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. He was paraphrasing words from an epistle (letter) in the New Testament attributed to an apostle. But the words are, by definition, scripture, believed by tens of millions of Christians in this country to be the revealed Word of God.
A Gallop poll taken in 2011 showed that 49% of Americans believe “the Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally,” while 30% believed “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” (That 79% of the population closely corresponds to the Christian headcount, so apparently few self-defining Christians contest the notion of some kind of divine input into those writings.)
Thus it is not enough for Christian clerics and religious organizations to rail against Robertson for saying hurtful, hateful things. They also need to admit that those things are indeed in the Bible, and that Robertson’s homophobia has a solid biblical basis. One cannot just wish this away, or accuse Robertson of distorting the “real” Christian message. But one could meditate a bit on the meaning of St. Paul himself, who helped create that message.
(By the way: we actually don’t know that much about Paul. Some scholars question whether he ever really existed. Some argue that he’s the invention of Marcion of Sinope, the leader of a Christian faction that flourished from around 120 and circulated the earliest New Testament, including a version of what became the Gospel of Luke and nine letters attributed to Paul. But I’m assuming that Paul was real, flourished ca. 35-67, and left writings that came to shape the early Christian community from its inception. There were also anti-Paul Christian schools such as the Ebionites who retained a strong Jewish identity. Paul’s status as a “Father of the Church” was only firmly established after 300.)
It should go without saying that Paul made a tremendous impact. Thirteen of his letters (including six many scholars think spurious) comprise over half the New Testament (as it was finally compiled in the fourth century). While he was not a systematic theologian, Paul presents a coherent interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life that’s not so clearly indicated in the gospels. It’s often argued (appropriately, I think) that St. Paul was the real “founder” of Christianity.
Recall that Paul was not among the twelve original disciples of Jesus who appear in the gospels and the Book of Acts. If we believe the New Testament narrative, he joined the Christian movement a few years after the death of Jesus, after a period spent persecuting believers. On the “road to Damascus” to organize attacks on Christians, he was by his report blinded by a light, falling from his horse. He saw and spoke to (the resurrected) Jesus, who instructed him to enter the city and await a visit (Acts 9:3-12). He was soon visited by a disciple, baptized, and after his blindness lifted he decided to shoulder the task of proselytizing to non-Jews (Gentiles).
This was at a time when “Christianity” was an obscure Jewish sect active around Jerusalem, headed by James and Peter, promoting the rather un-Jewish notion that the recently prominent Jesus of Nazareth had been the Son of God, born of a virgin, sacrificed on the cross to save the world from its sins but resurrected and now in Heaven at the right hand side of the Father. Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city at this time (see Acts 2:5-12) but mainly Judean, and one wonders about how successful the disciples’ were initially in making converts. Acts 2:41 gives the figure of 3000 in Jerusalem. Philip visits Samaria to peach the gospel (Acts 8) and then, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, meets and Ethiopian eunuch who accepts the gospel. These are the only examples of missionary outreach beyond Judea mentioned in the New Testament. Then comes Paul.
Paul more than anyone helped make this Jewish sect a world-religion. He was well equipped to do this. Born in Tarsus (modern Mersin, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey), “a well-known city” as he put it (Acts 21:39), an historic center of Stoic philosophy, he was an observant Jew living among Gentiles and holding Roman citizenship. He wrote Greek eloquently and had had some exposure to the classics. Perhaps working with the author of the Gospel of Luke, who may have been a Gentile, Paul was able to baptize numerous Gentiles and establish mixed Jewish-Christian/Gentile-Christian communities all over the eastern Mediterranean. The Book of Acts is largely an account of his wanderings. Roman Catholic tradition has him dying in Rome, like Peter, in 67 CE.
Paul’s missionary procedure was to visit synagogues in the cities he visited. Long before the Jewish Revolt and Bar Kochba rebellion (66-135) that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and deportation of a limited number of Judeans from the Roman province (the “Diaspora”), there were Jews living all over the Roman Empire (and the Parthian Empire) in Paul’s time. Maybe a million lived in the city of Alexandria in Egypt alone. They maintained their ethnic identity by religious observance, but they were not exclusionary. Indeed, this was a rare period in Jewish history in which converts (proselytes, mentioned for example in Matthew 23:15) were welcomed into the community.
“From about the second century B.C.E. until the reign of Constantine,” writes Robert J. Miller, editor of The Complete Gospels (Sonoma, Ca.: Polebridge Press, 1994), “it appears that Judaism engaged in a strong program of conversion. Monotheism, strict sexual morality and Sabbath practice were very attractive to pagans.”
In Paul’s time many non-Jews had access to the Old Testament in the Greek Septuagint version, which some believed was older, and therefore more authoritative, than Homer’s epics. They were impressed with its rigorous law code and its fabulous stories. They were perhaps curious about attending a synagogue service. If they wanted to observe, they were allowed to do so as “God-fearers.” (The Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:2 is one such God-fearer.) God-fearers were spiritual “fellow-travelers” of the Jews but declined to accept the burdens of Mosaic Law including circumcision. The Pharisees at this time however actively encouraged full assimilation, after which the convert was referred to as a proselyte.
Paul’s procedure is made clear from the following incident described in the Book of Acts. When Paul and his companion Silas arrived in the city of Thessalonica, in northern Greece, “there was a Jewish synagogue. Paul as usual went in and for three consecutive Sabbaths developed the arguments from scripture” for the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. “Some of them were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, and so did a great many godfearing people and Greeks, as well as a number of the leading women. The Jews, full of resentment, enlisted the help of a gang from the market place, stirred up a crowd…” (Acts 17:1-5).
That is, Paul goes to the synagogue, and preaches to a mixed congregation. He tells the Jews about how Jesus is the Messiah (and more than that, the son of God) predicted by prophecy, and preaches to all (with the uncircumcised God-fearers in the audience in mind) that a new testament or covenant has replaced the old. He produces a violent split in the congregation, which results in the formation of a new congregation.
These early groups typically met in “house-churches” (oikos), where they sang Psalms, prayed together, listened to a leader’s homily, enjoyed a common meal, and took up a collection for those poorer than themselves or for the poorest among them. (Even in Paul’s time there were many slaves joining the movement; Paul mentions by name quite a few of them.) This is the beginning of separate Christian identity.
Paul himself was a member of the Pharisees, (Acts 23:6), the Jewish religious party encouraging full assimilation of converts. So when Paul stands at the lectern of a synagogue and says, “No, you don’t have to become a Jew to become a Christian. The Laws of Moses are not binding on you!” he must’ve annoyed most of his fellow Pharisees as well as those of other factions. When Paul pits the Law against Christ, Jewish exceptionalism against Christian universalism, he is creating a very new sort of religion.
Within decades the majority of Christians were Gentiles. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans following the great revolt in 70, many concluded that the failure of the Jews to generally embrace the Jesus movement and recognize Christ as Messiah had produced this divine punishment. (See Jesus’ “prediction” of the fall of the temple in Mark 13:1-4. Matthew 24:1-3, and Luke 21:5-7.) Paul was dead by this time, but he had done more than anyone to establish an early form of Christianity as a world religion rather than a local sect.
Homophobia throughout the Bible
The First Letter to the Corinthians cited by Phil Robertson is considered authentic by most New Testament scholars. It was composed by Paul around 55 CE to members of a church he had founded in the great Greek city (and slave market) of Corinth. Two-thirds of it deals with divisions and scandals, disciplinary problems, questions about morality, etc. The letter includes a significant description of the Eucharist (Communion) ceremony confirming the ones in the Synoptic Gospels, and detailed affirmation of the doctrine of the resurrection. Chapter 13 contains some of the most beautiful language in the New Testament. So this is a well beloved text.
The controversial reference to sodomites being denied the kingdom of God occurs early in the letter, after Paul expresses shock at reports that a member of the Corinthian Christian community is cohabiting with his widowed stepmother (something forbidden in Roman and Jewish law). “Hand such a man over to Satan,” counsels Paul, conceding however that if he changes “his spirit might be saved “ (5:5). Then Paul berates the Corinthian Christians for taking one another to civil courts. Declaring “people who do evil will never inherit the kingdom of God” he lists various types of malefactor, the aforementioned “sexually immoral, idolators, adulterers, the self-indulgent, sodomites, thieves, misers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers.” (I take it these are the types taken to court by the Christians addressed in the letter.)
Paul adds that some of those in the flock he’s addressing “were of that kind” (or one of the types listed) in the past but were “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” after being “washed clean” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Presumably this includes the effeminate and the sodomite.
There’s no question that Paul is expressing hostility to homosexuality here. He does so even more famously in the Epistle to the Romans, where he describes the habits of the Roman elite as “God’s retribution against the Gentiles.” “…God,” Paul declares, “abandoned them to degrading passions…their women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural practices; and the men, in a similar fashion too, giving up normal relations with women, are consumed with passion for each other, men doing shameful things with men and receiving in themselves due reward for their perversion” (Romans 1:26-27).
Paul perhaps had Leviticus 20:13 echoing in the back of his head: “The man who has intercourse with a man in the same way as with a woman: they have done a hateful thing together; they will be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” This is supposed to be a “law of Moses,” handed down to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. But it is, if we follow Paul, part of the Old Law, from which the Christian is anyway free (Romans 7:1-6).
The Bigger Meaning of Paul
So yes, Paul was a homophobe. Some might say he was “a man of his times,” but I think he was unusually intolerant on this issue. We have to assume a range of opinions about what we now call “homosexuality” among the various ethnic groups and classes in the Roman Empire. Craig A. Williams, whose Roman Homosexuality (2010) is the leading work on the topic, argues that for the Romans themselves, manhood was defined by control over others and of self.
It was perfectly acceptable for a man (so long as he maintained control over his sexual appetites) to bugger any slave, especially a good-looking boy, or a non-citizen. But a Roman man submitting to penetration would lose status, including his right to testify before a magistrate. The modern western concept of “homosexuality” as an identity or lifestyle did not exist. Nor was there any onus attached to any particular act. There were only forms of behavior that might be more or less threatening to gender ideals and social order.
There seems little doubt that the general opposition to male-male sexual contact found in Judean society was unusual in the Roman Empire, and indeed is rivaled only by the homophobia found in Iranian Zoroastrian writings (which may well have influenced Judaism). (See Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, 2006). It seems the polar opposite of the classical Athenian attitude, which virtually celebrated some forms of same-sex attraction.
Roman sexuality was of course deeply influenced by the institution of slavery. When Paul refers to men doing shameful things with men he is probably not describing men of comparable age and equal status meeting in the public bath or gymnasium for casual sex with one another. He is probably referring to men of means having sex with slaves or hired boys.
I don’t think Paul was so much interested in arguing (with Robertson), “C’mon, guys, a vagina’s better than a man’s anus.” Paul advocated obtaining a “mind free of all worry” committed to the Lord’s affairs rather than preoccupation with obtaining “better” sexual pleasure (1 Corinthians 7:32). Paul was rather arguing that the same-sex behavior for which both Corinth and Rome were famous was just one more evidence of the Gentiles’ alienation from God.
But what is the larger meaning of the First Letter to the Corinthians? What’s whole point of Paul? Why is he revered as the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” regarded by many scholars as the “real founder of Christianity,” lionized by Martin Luther and recently popularized by the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou (in his admirable St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford University Press, 2003)?
Was it not because he announced that the Old Testament laws—the Laws of Moses–are not applicable to the Christian? As I understand it, Paul had expounded his famous argument of “justification by faith” by the early 50s at least. According to Paul, one does not obtain spiritual freedom and eternal salvation through faithfully following the ancient religious law but through sincere belief in Christ (Galatians 3:23-29).
To join the special community (of people convinced Christ is returning to save them soon), a man doesn’t need to get his penis cut, nor does he need to follow all the Laws of Moses. All he needs to do is follow some basic rules and have faith in Jesus, that powerfully attractive god-figure who is all about love, acceptance and forgiveness, who waits in Heaven to welcome his believers upon their deaths.
The Christian doesn’t need to make offerings of turtle-doves after the birth of a child (Leviticus 12:8), or wash and be considered “unclean” until the evening after each emission of semen (15:16). He or she doesn’t need to avoid eating seafood without fins and scales (Leviticus 11:9), or observe so many laws that seem unreasonable and petty to most people. So why should the Christian bother about Old Testament teachings about homosexuality?
Paul is dead and cannot answer. But he did write: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female—for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28-29).
Can Christians Break with Paul’s Homophobia?
Would Paul today add, “there can be neither straight nor gay, for we are all one in Christ”? We can’t know. We can’t resurrect “the real” St. Paul, who is a legendary figure anyway. We can just note how rapidly people have changed in our own time.
For example: from 1975 to 2001 the Revolutionary Communist Party in this country upheld a program associating homosexuality with capitalist degeneracy and declaring that under socialism “struggle will be waged to eliminate” it, along with drug dealing, prostitution and pornography. The statement was as dogmatically homophobic as any religious text, as anything out of Paul. It was truly tragic, I thought, since the party was doing some good work (for Mumia, against police brutality, Nepal solidarity, etc.), but alienating many with a position on the gay question that was simply wrong.
(Party members could no doubt point to the fact that Marx and Engels had seen homosexuality as something “unnatural” and that the USSR had from the early 30s banned it. These people too of course were wrong. Anyway you’d think it’d be easier for a Marxist to disagree with any particular Marxist thinker than it would be, say, for a Christian to disagree with Paul, whom they might imagine to be a spokesperson for God. But there are left political ideologues as bull-headed as religious fundamentalists when it comes to upholding some piece of orthodoxy.)
Finally the group made a (sort of) self-criticism and repudiated its line, maintained for over a quarter-century. It argued that it had had to study the question scientifically, and that had taken time. It pointed out that in its new draft program (which has actually never appeared) there was specific wording about the protection of gay people in socialist society (while including wording that emphasizes that homosexuality isn’t an alternative to sexist oppression and can be the expression of hedonistic individualism). In the end the change in line was so half-hearted and defensive that longstanding members and supporters of the RCP left in disgust.
This shows, anyway, that even the most slow and grudging can at least try to get over their homophobia. But maybe some will wake up too late.
Even the Roman Catholic Church may be feeling the need for a change. Pope Francis, who in response to a question last July about the possibility that there might be gay men in the Catholic clergy, replied, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” It was the first time a pontiff had used the word “gay.”
Some are hollering out: “You’re the pope, for Christ’s sake! You can use your authority as head of the Roman Catholic Church, one-half the world’s Christians, to quote the scripture—to quote St. Paul who says very clearly that homosexuals can’t enter the kingdom! It’s cut and dried!” And someone could respond to that loudmouth: “St. Paul said some contradictory things, and unclear things, and it’s not all cut and dried.”
But back to First Corinthians. The most famous passage is this one:
“Though I command languages both human and angelic—if I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal bashing. And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains—and if I am without love, I am nothing. Though I give to the poor all that I may possess, and even give up my body to be burned—if I am without love, it will do me no good whatever.”
In the letter Paul writes about the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” something he takes seriously, and recommends. But here he writes that, without love, it’s just so much noise. And the ability to prophesize, charitable works, and self-immolation mean nothing without love.
“Love is always patient,” Paul continues. It’s not boastful or rude. It doesn’t rejoice at wrongdoing. It’s always willing to make allowances and endure. It never comes to an end. Prophecies will come to pass, tongues fall silent, knowledge itself “will be done away with.” Our current knowledge is that of a child, or someone looking into a mirror rather than seeing an image directly. We know “imperfectly.” Paul concludes that of “faith, hope, and love” the “greatest of them is love.”
Could not the Christian believer (or anyone) say to Paul: Didn’t you—man of your time—have an imperfect understanding of homosexuality? Weren’t you influenced by the uniquely homophobic content of the Hebrew scriptures, whose ultimate authority you yourself undermined in your epistles to the churches you founded? Doesn’t the value of Christian love (this agape you adulate here) oblige you to examine the phenomenon sympathetically, and back off from sweeping condemnations of “women [who] have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural practices” and “men doing shameful things with men”? Just a thought.
The Compassionate Missionary Impulse
I’ve often thought that agape (translated as “charity” in the King James Bible) is a close to the Buddhist concept of compassion (Sanskrit karuna or metta). This is what prompted the beginnings of the Buddhist missionary movement about 2400 years ago.
“Go ye now, O Bhikkus,” the Buddha is supposed to have exhorted his disciples, “and wander, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, for the welfare of gods and men. Let not two of you go the same way…” Vinaya Pikata, Mahavagga, I:11(1).
Notice how much this sounds like Mark 16:16, in which Jesus tells his disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…”) In either case the point was to go out into society, and perhaps wander the earth, to teach a doctrine of salvation in a spirit of selfless compassion. This they have in common.
But while the Buddhist brings a message about suffering, and the cessation of suffering through disciplined thought and behavior, the Christian brings a message about sin, and how to find redemption and eternal life in Jesus. Both Buddhist and Christian scriptures mention hells, and both even consign certain evildoers to long-term hell-fire. But the Buddhist focus is on helping the individual attain mental peace, not frightening him or her into obedience. (And Buddhism, while advocating the suppression of desire generally, has rarely been homophobic.)
I think it possible St. Paul—who again, is all about missionary work—knew something about Buddhism, which in his day flourished in parts of Asia visited by Roman merchants and travelers. It was the only model for a world missionary movement at the time. (I even think his reference to self-immolation above, which he lists as a positive thing, may be a reference to the self-immolation of the Indian priest Zarmanochegas in Athens in 22 BCE, by some accounts, in the presence of Caesar Augustus. It made a lasting impression on the Greeks. There was a commemorative plaque there marking the spot, and people in nearby Corinth seven decades later may have been well aware of the story.)
Paul’s knowledge may have been a factor inspiring him to organize the world’s second missionary religion, motivated, he tells us, by agape.(so similar to karuna). I think this is this same sort of emotion—this same basic missionary impulse—that buoys the left radical activist and the Seventh Day Adventist as either goes door to door, persuading and recruiting. (It is no accident that the Jesuits used the term “propaganda” to refer to the militant dissemination of Roman Catholicism versus Protestantism long before the Bolsheviks used it in the modern sense.)
They have in common a genuine desire to share with all humanity something positive they believe in. While that motivation isn’t that uncommon in world history, it’s not the norm either. Most people are comfortable enough with their own explanations for things, but not driven to convince others that they’re right. The occasional Paul (or Buddha, or Marx) with an urgent message for the world is different.
I confess I myself know what it’s like to advocate for a version of Christianity, filled with conviction and fervor. I know the pleasure of easily quoting chapter and verse, demonstrating my (imagined) closeness to God and my comparative righteousness. (I knew this at least until I concluded, some time during adolescence, that I could no longer reconcile my religious premises with my understanding of science and history.)
I also know what it’s like to be a political missionary, to argue for a political action–nd maybe in the course of discussion advocate for a different vision of society in which the 1% don’t oppress the rest of us. I know what it’s like to try to unite people about addressing urgent human needs, like ending a war.
Based on such experiences, I imagine the serious advocate for Jesus or any other movement must realize that you can’t posture as a lover of all humanity, and certainly can’t effectively advance your causes, if you vilify, and treat as symptomatic of social decay, behavior that is central to the identities of decent people.
When Robertson announces his scripture-based belief that certain categories of people will be excluded from “the kingdom” in the world beyond, doesn’t he tar them in this life as well? When he denies salvation to “dudes” who don’t agree that “a vagina [is] more desirable” and “has more to offer than a man’s anus” (as if these were the only options available), isn’t he attacking male-male sexual intimacy in general, and gay male identity (while exposing some physiological ignorance)? (Robertson might mull over the possibility that “a man’s anus” is much like a woman’s anus, and that some straight men find the latter more “desirable” than the vagina. Are they doomed for hellfire too?)
While he declares he “loves everybody” this stance is really not so far from that of the Westboro Baptist Church folks with their “God Hates Fags” signs.
Contemporary Christians might consider the possibility that St. Paul, confronting today’s realities, the evolution of knowledge, and the ramifications of his own reasoning—concluding perhaps that there’s nothing worse about male-male anal sex than eating the once forbidden pork or lobster—might indeed say: “In Christ there is neither gay nor straight.”
They might further imagine that, feeling compassion for the world, the “founder of universalism” would add with the current pope: “Who am I to judge?”
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org