Racism, Homosexuality, and Paul

Photo by Tony Sebastian on Unsplash

Racism and homosexuality are two pretty hotly debated topics in Christian communities, and since Paul wrote a substantial portion of the New Testament, it’s hard to discuss either without bringing up Paul. Similarly, it’s hard to discuss scripture or current events without discussing how we perceive the New Testament church. Unfortunately, these conversations often lack any nuance; they tend to devolve into dualistic arguments. “If it’s not this one thing, then it definitely has to be this other thing.”

I’m not going to be telling you what to believe, so if you’re looking for something decisive, you might be disappointed. This is mainly an exploration of how our language, ideas about modern science, and our assumptions about Paul and scripture are in continual conversation with each other. There are a lot of “ifs” to consider.

Racism is part of this post because it was meditations on systemic racism that inspired it, but a lot of the discussion about Paul and scripture will center around homosexuality.

Racist Language: Permanent Characteristics vs “Temporary” Status

Racist language is essentially anything that carries a negative, racial bias, whether it’s intentional or not. A good example that I heard recently is the term “Black comedy” (referring to the racial descriptor, not dark comedies). Some Americans use it as a category of comedy movies, arguing that it’s a sub-genre. If we have other racially-based sub-genre terms then there’s consistency (e.g. Asian comedy, White comedy, etc.), but if the distinction is between “comedy” and “Black comedy,” then Black culture gets singled out.

How is that negative? While it’s probably not intended to be negative or offensive (most of the time), it perpetuates a subconscious understanding that “Black culture” isn’t part of the larger culture. It’s its own thing, separate and apart, and everything else gets to be unified. That’s part of how systemic racism subtly operates.

Howard Zinn, in his book A People’s History of the United States, writes about a lot of the disparities between upper and lower class citizens throughout American history. At one point, he quotes someone who lists several rebellious groups, such as servants. (I tried to find the exact quote, but I’m listening to it on Audible and wasn’t able to find it; it was over a month ago.) While most of the groupings were based on economic status or occupation, groups of Black people were listed separately, even if they shared economic statuses or occupations with other groups (e.g. servants and negro servants). Where everyone else is identified by a theoretically temporary status, the permanent characteristic of skin color is “arbitrarily” added to create a unique group. (Here, “temporary status” refers to things that can be changed, such as occupation or economic status, while “permanent characteristics” refers to things that are inherent, such as skin color.)

Enter: Paul and Homosexuality

As I considered the possible implications of language that mixes temporary statuses with permanent characteristics, I was reminded of Paul including homosexuality in his lists of sins. Have Western understandings of homosexuality been impacted by the language we use for Blacks and POC as separate from “the whole?”

By continuing to list permanent characteristics as identifiers for groups of people alongside temporary traits, such as occupation, we may be inadvertently conditioning ourselves to treat permanent traits as temporary traits. We might be subconsciously conditioning ourselves to disdain black skin because we keep lumping it in with things like career choices, economic status, laziness, servitude, or some other potentially “temporary” status. A similar effect might happen for our thinking about homosexual relationships, particularly male/male relationships, since that’s what Paul calls out explicitly (Romans 1:27, 1 Corinthians 6:9).

One of the big discussions in last few decades about homosexuality and pretty much all LGBTQ is whether those dispositions are permanent (i.e. genetically/physiologically driven) or “temporary” (i.e. learned behaviors or something chosen). If they are genetically driven, then Paul may be grouping a permanent characteristic with potentially temporary statuses, such as being a prostitute, a drunkard, or a thief.

If we are being, or have been, conditioned to subconsciously approach race and sexual orientation as controllable or temporary statuses, that might explain a lot of the struggle that many Christians have with accepting LGBTQ: the way we talk about race and sexual orientation teaches us that both can be changed, like our careers or lifestyle choices.

How many times have you heard that sort of language? “I can’t support their ‘lifestyle’ choice,” as though LGBTQ persons have a choice. In other words, why should people give any special consideration to Blacks or LGBTQ persons? We’ve been taught to respond to them the same way we respond to drunkards and thieves — “shame on you; you should be better.”

There are other factors, I’m sure (such as the way human beings are generally uncomfortable with unfamiliar situations), but with racism, I see this recurring theme throughout American history, and I would be surprised if that same theme didn’t undercut many other critical issues in American Christianity and probably Western Christianity.

Some Possible Approaches to Paul

For the sake of time, I’m only going to briefly consider three possible approaches to Paul and homosexuality. Obviously, this isn’t exhaustive, and my considerations of each won’t be exhaustive, either. This is just an exercise in thinking more broadly and creatively about the situation, rather than dualistically.

  1. Paul is mixing permanent characteristics (i.e. sexual orientation) with temporary statuses (e.g. drunkenness), and presenting them as fundamentally the same. In other words, Paul’s making a categorical error by lumping these things together.
  2. Paul isn’t making any mistakes; he knows exactly what he’s doing. Or, similarly, he’s inerrantly inspired to write exactly what he writes.
  3. Paul isn’t mixing permanent characteristics with temporary statuses and he’s inerrantly inspired.

What I want to examine is the idea that how we approach Paul isn’t independent from our beliefs about other things, like science or scriptural inerrancy. Our interpretations of Paul’s writings don’t exist in a vacuum but are part of our entire hermeneutic.

First Approach

If we take the first approach, we’re probably beginning with the premise that sexual orientation is genetic (i.e. it’s an inherent trait, like skin color). I think this premise is necessary if we’re calling homosexuality permanent, as opposed to the other things Paul lists. Scientifically, it’s pretty well accepted today that physical attraction between one person and another is mostly, if not entirely, physiological and not something that a person chooses. Sure, there’s still debate about it, but my understanding is that a lot of the debate comes from outside the scientific community.

As a side note: yes, we can “train” ourselves into enjoying certain types of stimulation, but we’re not talking about sexual activities. We’re talking about being homosexual. That is, there’s a distinction between physical pleasure and basic attraction.

If we take this approach, we should acknowledge that Paul probably wouldn’t have understood this. He wouldn’t have had scientific studies to influence his perception of homosexuality. In that case, we have to wrestle with why Paul may have taken the position that he did. Why does Paul list them together? Does he assume, like many conservative, American Christians, that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice? Also, if Paul is grouping these things as “equivalent,” how do we deal with this passage in light of scripture’s “inerrancy?”

What I mean is that this becomes more than just an examination of Paul. For example, if Paul is just being cultural because of his personal hermeneutic, we also have to take a serious look at our understanding of scripture as a God-breathed or Holy Spirit-inspired work. What does that mean to us? Is it possible for Paul to say something purely cultural and be writing an inerrant message from God? If so, how? If not, is scripture not inerrant?

Conversely, if Paul is writing exactly what God wants him to write (i.e. if “inspired” means inerrant), we’re either cornered into accepting that permanent characteristics and temporary statuses can be treated in the same ways, or we have to re-examine our premise that homosexuality is a permanent characteristic.

Second Approach

If we’re going to approach Paul as though he knows exactly what he’s doing or as though his writing is inerrant, we might accept his statements literally and at face value. In that case, Paul would be in line with many traditional interpretations in Western Christianity: homosexuality, in the same way as lying, slave trading, etc., is a sin.

I think the easiest way to take this position is to also say that homosexuality is not physiological but purely conditioned or chosen. This is a common position for people who support things like conversion therapy. If we’re going to take this position, then we have to wrestle with our view of scientific data. This is the sort of interpretation that warrants a serious discussion about whether science and Christianity are in contention with one another.

Many studies show us that conversion therapies and psychotherapies aimed at “helping” LGBTQ persons to “become” heterosexual can cause long-term trauma. Do we dismiss those studies outright? I don’t think it would be appropriate for anyone claiming to be a theologian or attempting to do sincere theological study to simply say that those studies are “just” science, pseudoscience, or secularism attempting to override faith. Those statements don’t approach the conversation with humility or compassion, and they begin with a posture of blind faith. That is, “God either doesn’t want us to understand or it’s beyond our understanding, but in either case, I’m simply going to accept it and not question anything God tells me.” For many people, this is a tough pill to swallow, but if we’re not going to swallow it and we’re going to take Paul literally and at face value, then we have to wrestle with the relationship between science and Christianity.

Third Approach

If we’re going to presume that Paul’s brief mentions of homosexuality are inspired by the Holy Spirit and inerrant but we also want to give serious consideration to scientific studies and data that he didn’t have, it might look something like re-imagining our understanding of the term homosexuality as it’s used by Paul.

If Paul isn’t mixing permanent characteristics with temporary statuses, then the term homosexuality has to refer to something that’s consistent with terms like drunkenness, malice, or slave traders. For example, the other things that Paul lists in these sorts of passages tend to be extreme versions of possibly acceptable things. It’s possible that he’s giving a similar treatment to homosexuality. Paul doesn’t say that a person can’t drink alcohol, but he does say that a person shouldn’t be prone to drunkenness. He doesn’t say that a person can’t have material wealth, but he does say that people shouldn’t be greedy or cheat others. Paul doesn’t say that people can’t have servants, but he does group slave traders (enslavers) with the ungodly. How do we interpret homosexuality in a way that is consistent with the rest of Paul’s lists?

It’s possible that Paul is looking for consistency in a thing’s permanency or degree of severity. We could just ignore studies that suggest homosexuality isn’t a permanent characteristic, but in order to take that position and still maintain a consistent theology, I think we would have to concede that scientific data and scientific studies hold very little weight, if any at all. If Paul is being consistent and we’re going to give weight to scientific studies, then we probably need to reinterpret Paul’s use of the term homosexuality.

Is It Really This Complicated?

I’ve heard many Christians argue that dealing with Paul’s mentions of homosexuality isn’t all that complicated. Whatever we believe about homosexuality, we may be perfectly content to accept our understanding without feeling the need to justify it, reason it out, or be able to articulate it in any way. But how can it be that simple? If we argue that we should just trust God and “God’s word,” that’s just another way of saying, “Take Paul at face value,” which brings us back to the tension between science and Christianity. If we say that we should just love people for who they are, that just brings us back to the question of how we perceive scripture — inerrant, not inerrant, inspired but contextual, etc.?

I submit that saying it’s not complicated is too dismissive of the positions and beliefs of others. In the same way that I don’t want others to simply dismiss my perspectives, I also don’t want to do that to someone else. I think humility demands a certain amount of nuance and openness, and that’s where the complexity of these explorations comes from. Anything approached with humility is going to become increasingly complicated, because that’s the nature of humility. It leaves that little bit of room for other people to come in and share their understandings and their perspectives and their experiences and be taken seriously, and anytime we’re going to do that, the conversation becomes more nuanced and, therefore, more complicated.

So, is this issue of interpreting Paul and our understanding of homosexuality really that complicated? Can we just trust in Paul and what he says? Yes and no, respectively. It really is that complicated, if we want to have real conversations with people. We can’t just take Paul at face value, because “face value” is always going to be determined by what a person sees most prominently. That’s always going to be impacted by our experiences and our understandings of other things, like whether or not science matters in this conversation. For a scientist, even if they are also a Christian, the conversation of homosexuality taken at face value must include their understanding of science. For a Christian whose faith is entirely built on how they feel about things, taking Paul at face value might look very different. In other words “face value” isn’t an objective thing. It’s a term people throw out there that doesn’t actually point to anything specific. It’s not helpful to the conversation at all.

One Last Thing…

As I said, this isn’t an exhaustive exploration of Paul, homosexuality, or racism. I began this post by talking about racism and the way that we condition ourselves in American society to talk about skin color, ethnicity, and heritage in the same way that we talk about jobs, emotions, clothing styles, or economic status. That was the topic that sparked my revisiting of Paul and homosexuality, but the hermeneutic circle brings this conversation back around on itself.

Whatever you decide about Paul and homosexuality should circle back around and question your understanding of systemic racism, and whatever you decide about systemic racism should circle back around and inform your understanding of Paul the next time you revisit homosexuality.

I only briefly touched on a few possible interactions between our understanding of homosexuality and our interpretation of Paul. I’m sure there are far more postures and premises that influence people’s understandings of homosexuality in the Church, and even my examinations were far from exhaustive or definitive. Still, I hope that if you’ve read this far, you have something to think about and talk about with others. It’s an important conversation to have and to keep having, and it shouldn’t be boiled down too often or oversimplified. Wrestle with the realities and inconsistencies of whatever you choose to believe.

If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.

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