Live Together More: A Conversation With Craig Greenfield

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“Gustavo Gutierrez’s provocative words rang in our ears: ‘You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?’

Subversive Jesus

Craig Greenfield is a man who has made a lot of remarkable decisions. A living embodiment of Jesus’ instruction to practice table fellowship with the poor, Greenfield has dedicated much of his adult life to caring for and empowering children, especially orphans of AIDS and systemic injustice. Greenfield decided to spend six years living in the slums of Cambodia, and then when he needed a break from having his family’s home demolished repeatedly by the Cambodian government, decided to spend six years practising fearless community in the infamous “drug ghetto” of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Along the way Greenfield became the leader of Servants, an international fellowship of people dedicated to living in community with people in some of the world’s toughest places. Greenfield then went on to found Alongsiders International, an organisation which follows that mandate according to his own vision. More recently he wrote a bestselling book, Subversive Jesus; and has become a social media presence as a loving critic of mainstream charities. On Mayday 2016 I sat down at a Tim Horton’s, Canada’s iconic working class coffee shop, in East Vancouver, to talk with Greenfield.

The Tim Hortons on Commercial Dr is cramped, plastic, and opens into a mall. Inside Craig Greenfield was doing what he does, bringing life regardless of surroundings. I found Craig seated at a table with a friend, John Baird. John had tattoos on his face and hands, and his warm brown eyes paid close attention from under his scraggly grey hair. He was wearing a neck brace from a recent bicycle accident. John is a resident of the downtown eastside who became a member of the Servants community Greenfield co-founded in Vancouver more than a decade ago. “When Craig was here”, Baird said, “Craig and his wife, three days a week I went to the community for dinner there. We would sing songs just before dinner. It was the best time of my life, the best time ever.”

John stayed to join in the conversation, complementing it with his thoughtful presence. Craig looked like a friendly pirate, with goatee, broad, open face, and sunglasses perched on his greying hipster mohawk. In fact, Greenfield spent a few rare moments in the spotlight in Vancouver for his Pirates of Justice flash mobs where protesters decked out like swashbucklers shone a light on slavery-like working conditions on the cruise ships that pull into the city. Greenfield played Jack Sparrow to a tee, and you could see it wasn’t that much of a stretch.

Craig’s new book is doing well, #1 in it’s category on Amazon. “It’s been a really positive response. I’ve been waiting for the pushback.” He laughs, and adds, “There was a line in one of the reviews that I loved, ‘Greenfield  veers into leftist economics at times, but we can forgive him that’.” Craig points out that John is in the book too.

“Without Craig and his wife Nay I wouldn’t be here today”, says John. “I wouldn’t have lived.”

Greenfield’s work in Cambodia, which continues today, centres on empowering Cambodian youth to walk alongside younger children, forming mentoring relationships and offering love in a way that saves lives and changes futures. “The children’s needs are so great”, says Greenfield. “Half of their mothers are sex workers. They are thrilled just by the sight of a piece of bread. They will fight over slices of cucumber.”

Craig sees the root causes of poverty in Cambodia and Vancouver as both similar and different. “There is systemic injustice in both countries and poverty that flows out of that. The details are different- war there, the residential schools here (where the government attempted to forcefully integrate Indigenous children). The similarity is that poverty flows out of multiple generations of systemic injustice.”

Greenfield is critical of institutional charities. Echoing the sentiments of activists like Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Workers Movement) and Gustavo Gutierrez (Peruvian liberation theologian), Greenfield argues that instead of advocating for justice, a lot of charity work stops at taking care of the victims of injustice. “I critique it because I want us to go further”, he says, “It’s done with a good heart and I don’t want to discourage people,  I want them to think deeper and more structurally. What transforms lives is mutual relationship, not just hand-outs.”

I pointed out that a friend of mine who works at an institutional charity had said something almost identical to me. Well, I still have to critique those institutional charities, because they may say that, but within their policies the relationships they can have with people are limited. I believe we need to invite people into our homes. People long for change, people have a sense that they want to do things differently. But systems are there to stop us and set us up as benefactors and beneficiaries.”

Living in community with the poor, instead of hiring other people to be charitable for us, is at the heart of Greenfield’s mission. The scriptural heart of Greenfield’s vision is Luke 14:12, which reads:  When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.It’s so funny”, says Greenfield, “because, how clear is that passage? People don’t even try to reframe it or interpret it so it says something else, because they can’t. No one applies it!“

Craig frequently mentions a Cambodian proverb at the heart of Alongsiders:, “It takes a spider to repair its own web.” The vision at the heart of Alongsiders could be summed up as the intersection of Luke 14:12 and this Cambodian wisdom: it is about empowering others through fellowship, not practising charity toward them.

Greenfield says that he grew up with a domesticated image of Jesus. In his teenage years, he rebelled against that, walking away from the faith for years. His parents, though, practised radical hospitality and lived in “a very radical way”. Greenfield seems to have imbibed his parent’s way of life while rejecting the “Jesus meek and mild” of the conservative Church he grew up in. Greenfield prefers the Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.

Despite Greenfield’s passion for his own mission, he is not calling all people to imitate what he has done. “There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book”, he writes in Subversive Jesus. His advice for those inspired by his message is simple: community. “Wherever you are, find ways to bring people together. This is my advice: live together more.”

 

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the Leper Messiah

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The world reels this week from the loss of it’s leper messiah, David Bowie, the man who fell to earth. Bowie positioned himself consciously as a spaceman, an enigma, a “blackstar” which emitted not light but mystery. Bowie gave hope and consolation to outcasts throughout the world- especially artists, LGBTQ people, musicians and poets, and even bookish Jewish misfits like me (as discussed by Jay Michaelson here).

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was more than anything a brilliant musician and lyricist and that was what I loved him for. Yet contemplating his career one cannot help but meditate on the power of his persona. Bowie’s greatest creation, apart from his art, was “David Bowie”, an alias which itself had so many aliases that it was practically Talmudic in its self-referential hypertextuality. In actual practice the two went together, persona and logos, and Bowie created a legacy of intertwined words and images which shed light on each other.

Bowie contemplated spiritual matters throughout his artistic career, though this often came through in subtle, enigmatic ways. Songs like Sex and the Church, Saviour Machine, and  Loving The Alien explored Christian themes, and Station to Station even references Jewish Kabbalah when Bowie sings, “here we are, one magical movement from keter to malkhut”, ie. from the unmanifest down the pathways of the tree of life. On top of that “station to station” is, Bowie said, a reference to the stations of the cross. On his brilliant last album this becomes even more pronounced, as Christian imagery plays out in at least three of the songs (Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Blackstar muses on the enigmatic presence of God and Bowie’s own identity as an icon soon to live beyond his own lifetime; Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away explore the theme of resurrection (“the pulse returns to prodigal sons” in the latter). Lazarus contemplates Bowie’s own impending death. It opens “Look up here/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars you can’t see” ( a clear contrast to Jesus who after his ascension has visible scars). In the song Bowie indeed pictures himself ascending to heaven (and amusingly losing his cellphone along the way) and then becoming free “as a blackbird, ain’t that just like me?” The video, which ends with Bowie disappearing into a dark closet also depicts him as a blind prophet on a hospital bed cavorting in movements halfway between levitation and crucifixion.

Messianic imagery appeared early on in Bowie’s career and has been a staple. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicts an androgynous alien rockstar messiah ultimately destroyed by the masses he came to save. Bowie tellingly refers to Ziggy as a “leper messiah”, a saviour who is himself a frightening outcast. In one of the album’s songs, Starman, a child hears a late night transmission on the radio about a “starman/waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The child tells a friend (“don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in fright”). The starman’s message to the children: “He’s told us not to blow it/cause he knows it’s all worthwhile/He told me:let the children lose it/ let the children use it/ Let all the children boogie.”

Messianic imagery continues to haunt his lyrics and iconography right up to his last two albums. On his penultimate album The Next Day he featured a song (and even moreso a video) which is a daring and disturbing midrash on the messiah and the institutional church. The song is narrated from the perspective of an aging Bowie, who sings “Here I am/ not quite dying/ my body left to rot in a hollow tree/ its branches throwing shadows/ On the gallows for me”. He tells a story of a hunted prophet/christ figure who is chased through the alleyways with whips by a “gormless (i.e. foolish) crowd” who bring him to a sadistic priest for death. The demonic priests  “live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/They can work with satan while they dress like the saints/They know god exists for the devil told them so.” The unsettling video (which is not for young viewers or the faint of heart) depicts a shady, worldly club frequented by Catholic priests. One of the priests, played by Gary Oldman, assaults a poor beggar on the way in. Once inside the priests enjoy the company of prostitutes and the spectacle of a flagellant whipping himself. Bowie, dressed like a Franciscan Friar, denounces the crowd from the stage. In the bizarre denouement one of the prostitutes, who has been dancing with Oldman, suddenly develops stigmata and begins spouting blood from her hands.

This controversial video, which understandingly upset Catholics a fair bit, seems to me to make a valuable point that is consistent with Bowie’s use of messianic and prophetic imagery throughout his career. In this video the institutional priests are pharisees and hypocrites. The true form of Christ appears in the prostitute who is a scorned outsider being humiliated and exploited, giving up her body and blood for others.

In Bowie’s art the messiah is an outsider, an alien, who comes from outer space. This messiah affirms the outcast and outsider, and is himself “leprous”- strange and frightening. It is clear to everyone that to some extent this reflects Bowie’s self-understanding, and to some extent is a mission statement for the icon he was trying to create in Ziggy Stardust and the persona of “David Bowie”. What made Bowie strange, frightening and liberating was his radical affirmation of art and freedom of self-expression (including cross-dressing and using the male body as a canvas for art) and his open-ness about his bisexuality.  As comedian Sara Benincasa wrote, “I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie….he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist.”

While today we may take for granted the freedom in much of Western culture, it was not always so and still isn’t so in much of the world. Bowie started off as a tall, strange looking artist walking around London in a dress being sweared at. By the mid-70’s he had changed the landscape. We may not agree with everything he stood for at times (like promiscuity, drug use, or for some the gender-bending sexuality itself) but aside from the power of art and the mind Bowie’s legacy still stands for something else even more important: loving the alien.

Bowie’s understanding of the Messiah has in the end a surprising depth. Bowie’s saviour figures are not figures of power or awe. They are strange and unsettling and they come “to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10) and “not for the righteous but for sinners” (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32). The Talmud asks, “Where now is the Messiah?” and answers, “He sits outside the gates of the city, changing the bandages of lepers (Sanhedrin 98a).”  Bowie’s alien messiah is the saviour of the lost sheep, whose stigmata appears not in priests who protect boundaries but in hookers, addicts, and yes- artists.

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Update (Jan 14): In a pleasantly surprising move,  Christianity Today, which is the #1 mainstream Christian magazine (and was made what it is mostly by Billy Graham) has published an authentically appreciative and thoughtful eulogy about Bowie here.

 

Chatral Rinpoche Passes Away (with some thoughts on Thomas Merton)

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On Jan 5 the Himalayan sage Chatral Rinpoche passed away at the age of 102. Rinpoche was a long time ascetic, practitioner of dzogchen (a Nyingma meditation tradition), and spiritual teacher. He studied with many of the masters considered “greats” within the 20th century Vajrayana Buddhist world, and taught many of the leading teachers of today at some point in their lives. He was a man of enormous spiritual “weight”, an old elephant, a true sage. With his passing there is a feeling the earth just got dangerously lighter.

Here are some words from Harold Talbott, who travelled with Thomas Merton in Asia. From a Nyingmapa website:

“In Asian Journal, Merton refers to the Dzogchen Nyingmapa lama Chatral Rinpoche as the person he would choose as his teacher.

Talbott: He was Merton’s man. Chatral Rinpoche really gives the flavor of the Tibetans. I wouldn’t dream of studying with him, or anybody remotely like him, because he is totally and completely unpredictable. He is savage about ego and he will put you on the spot and I am not prepared to up the ante to that degree.

Tricycle: Why did you choose to introduce Merton to him?

Talbott: I wanted to make sure that Merton met all the outstanding lamas that I could dig up. In Dharmasala he met Avalokiteshvara-the Bodhisattva of Compassion-in the person of the Dalai Lama and I think okay, I’m doing my job, I’m getting him the whole spectrum of the force field. But of course that will an opportunity for me to hide behind Merton’s skirts and also meet Chatral Rinpoche who I’m terrified of.

He could throw stones at you- as he does do-and so I will use Merton as the front. We caught up with Chatral Rinpoche down the road from Ghoom in Darjeeling. He was painting the nuns’ house and he put some planks on some bricks and we sat and talked with the help of an interpreter. Chatral Rinpoche started by saying “Ah Jesus lama; you know I have never been able for the life of me to get a handle on Christianity so I’m real glad you came this morning.”

Tricycle: Did he know who Merton was?

Talbott: No. But he explained his perplexity about Christianity. He said, “The center of your religion is a man who comes back to life after death and in Tibetan Buddhism when you have one of those people, a rolog, or a walking corpse, we call our lama to put him down.

So I want to know what kind of a religion is Christianity which has at its center a dead man coming back to life.” So Merton explained the Resurrection in tantric terms about the overcoming of fear and the utter and complete power of liberation which is the center of Christianity. And this satisfied Chatral Rinpoche.

Tricycle: Freedom from fear?

Talbott: Freedom from all kinds of constraints and restraints. A man has died and he has come back in a glorious body and he has freed us from fear of death and fear of life. That’s freedom.

Tricycle: Because it’s eternal.

Talbott: No. If the universe is a place where a man can live again in a glorified body and teach the truth, then the world is a free place. And Chatral Rinpoche says, “At last I understand Christianity.Thank you very much.” And Merton says, “I would like to study with you.” And Chatral says “Right, we can work together. And so you’ve got to do your own ngondro (the preliminary practice of Dzogchen, which usually takes a Tibetan about a year).

We’ll get you a hermitage in Bhutan and that is where you should do your retreat. And I challenge you: see, I’m not enlightened yet, so let’s work

together and see which one of us can get enlightened first.” And so Merton said, “it’s a deal.” And so then we split and Merton says, “That’s the greatest man I ever met. That’s my teacher.” But they weren’t his exact words.

Tricycle: In Asian Journal he says if he took a teacher, that’s who it would be.

Talbott: Yes, but he would never have left the Church.”

Merton is a truly inspiring man: a devout Christian capable of revering and learning from the sages of other religions. My reading of the above meeting is that Chatral Rinpoche may have been testing Merton when he referred to Jesus as a “rolog”, a kind of Tibetan zombie, to see where Merton was coming from. If Merton has gotten offended or launched into a hyper-intellectual explanation he would have been revealed as coming from a place of ego or intellect, not heart practice. Instead Merton was unoffended and met Rinpoche skillfully, explaining the resurrection in a way which held true to the Christian view of it yet presented it in a way a man like Rinpoche could understand and value. Bravo, I would say. Having practiced the ngondro myself I have doubts that an orthodox Christian could practice them (they involved worshipping gurus and spirits) but I think Merton and Rinpoche would have worked out some way to work together if only they had had more time together. As it stands Merton was electrocuted in an accident in Thailand shortly after their meeting.

Rinpoche was a vegetarian and an advocate for animal rights. He was also concerned about nuclear weapons, and wrote the following prayer. It might be fitting to post it today, given the recent activities in Iran and North Korea. Here is an excerpt from the prayer (omitting a lengthy intro addressing the buddhas and spirit beings Rinpoche revered):

  

 We are beings born at the sorry end of time;  

 An ocean of ill-effects overflow from our universally bad actions.  

 The forces of light flicker,  

 The forces of darkness, a demon army, inflames great and powerful men.  

 And they rise in conflict, armed with nuclear weapons  

 That will disintegrate the earth.  

 The weapon of perverse and errant intentions  

 Has unleashed the hurricane.  

 Soon, in an instant, it will reduce the world  

 And all those in it to atoms of dust.  

 Through this ill-omened devils’ tool  

 It is easy to see, to hear and think about  

 Ignorant people, caught in a net of confusion and doubt,  

 Are obstinate and still refuse to understand.  

 It terrifies us just to hear about or to remember  

 This unprecedented thing.  

  

 The world is filled with uncertainty,  

 But there is no means of stopping it, nor place of hope,  

 Other than you, undeceiving Three Jewels and Three Roots,  

 (Buddhas, Teaching and Spiritual Community, Lama, Deity and  

 Dakini)  

 If we cry to you like children calling their mother and father,  

 If we implore you with this prayer,  

 Do not falter in your ancient vows!  

 Stretch out the lightning hand of compassion!  

 Protect and shelter us defenseless beings, and free us from fear!  

 When the mighty barbarians sit in council of war  

 – barbarians who rob the earth of pleasure and happiness  

 – barbarians who have wrong, rough, poisonous thoughts.  

 Bend their chiefs and lieutenants  

 To the side of peace and happiness!  

 Pacify on the spot, the armed struggle that blocks us!  

 Turn away and defeat the atomic weapons  

 Of the demons’ messengers,  

 And by that power, make long the life of the righteous,  

 And spread the theory and practice of the doctrine  

 To the four corners of this great world!  

 Eliminate root, branch and leaf – even the names  

 Of those dark forces, human and non-human,  

 Who hate others and the teaching!  

 Spread vast happiness and goodness  

 Over this fragile planet!  

 Elevate it truly with the four kinds of glory!  

 And as in the golden age, with all strife gone,  

 Let us be busy only with the dance of pleasure, the dance of joy!  

 We pray with pure thoughts-  

 By the compassion of that ocean the three supreme refuges  

 And the power of the Realm of Truth;  

 The complete sublime truth,  

 Achieve the goal of this, our prayer  

 Magically, just as we have hoped and dreamed!

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Father Louis (Thomas Merton) and Chatral Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well known postmodern Lama and film maker (eg. the Cup) had this to say about Chatral Rinpoche (here):

“…make no mistake: Many lamas like myself, who make the loudest noises, display the most jarring images, and travel every inch and corner of the world, have achieved next to nothing compared to this man who appears never to have done anything except for keeping his meditation mat from ever getting cold. And if he did manifest in action, this is the man who spent 99.99% of what he had rescuing the lives of animals. So for ignorant beings like us to try and express the great qualities of this enlightened being is like trying to measure the depth and width of the sky.”

“In my limited life I have seen very few anti-hypocritical beings, and he was one of them. He meant business, there was no negotiation, and of course he never traded one single word of the dharma for money. Time and again, he refused to bow down to the mighty.

He made a lot of us hypocritical beings shudder. Just knowing he was alive and breathing somewhere between Siliguri and Pharping made our hearts quake. Even though we never got to see him, especially towards the end of his life – and I myself was refused an audience 20 times or more – his mere presence on this earth shattered hypocrisy.”

 

All A Horrible Mistake: The Bible’s Supposed Condemnation of Homosexuality

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Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even things we’ve believed for a long time. The sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. What? But don’t most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don’t they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?

The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it is a misunderstanding.” I myself was unhappily convinced, until a few years ago, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don’t agree. Homosexuality seems to me ethically neutral and grounded in genetic predispositions.

All of this changed when I took a closer look through the lens of some excellent Biblical scholarship basing itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.

When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.

First off, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.

What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.

Friedman and Dolansky (2011) offer a very compelling historical and cross cultural analysis here (For a detailed discussion and defense of their argument see here, what follows is a summary).

They agree with the mainstream Judeo-Christian interpretation the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). The Israelites most likely understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him. Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you’d be wrong.

First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can’t be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that “the misogynists” just didn’t bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals. Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time (Lev 18:18). Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be necessary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females.

A Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically sexual intercourse.

To understand why male homosexual intercourse  would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures. A Babylonian divination text says that being the passive recipient of homosexual anal intercourse brings bad luck. Two Assyrian laws discuss anal penetration: The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated. In other words: being penetrated by another man is degrading, and is a common enough form of male social violence to be mentioned in law. One very important detail: anally raping a social inferior is not punished. The reason for this is simple: the problem is not anal sex per se, it is the socially degrading nature of being the passive recipient. If you are already a social inferior of the one who pentrates you than there is no problem in the eys of the Babylonian law. All of this is relevant to understanding the Biblical law, as we shall see.

Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as weak, cowardly and effeminate. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus a struggle between the gods is decided by who has managed to place his semen inside the other: the implanted god loses. What about famed Greek homosexuality? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.

Plato comments on the practice (with a strong note of misogyny): “Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?” Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”. Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrote, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”

What Leviticus forbids is not what we call homosexuality, but the degradation of another man’s dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, an intent brilliantly showcased by Joshua Berman. As Berman’s book shows masterfully, we mistake the laws of the Hebrew Bible when we see them as primarily about individual morality instead of economic, social and political dynamics (though grounded in a radical concern for individual human dignity). As Berman shows, the laws of the Hebrew Bible prevent the formation of a class structure; put the King under the law with everyone else; undercut the practice of slavery; alleviate poverty; prevent the formation of an inherited aristocracy, and restrain prejudicial treatment of foreigners and non-citizens, among other social justice measures unheard of in contemporaneous middle eastern and mediterranean societies.

Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting equal dignity among men and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. This doesn’t mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still contain inequalities, most notably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn’t change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.

The New Testament

This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul’s time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.

A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who have turned away from God and are overcome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon and others argue that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies. The Evangelical ethicist David Gushee, following others, argues that this text may be a veiled reference to debauched behaviour at the Roman imperial court by the likes of Caligula and Nero. Either way, it cannot be taken refer to committed homosexual romances of the kind we know today.

The Consequences

We simply cannot take the Torah’s condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one might outlaw one man touching the head of another man. In our culture, however, touching another man’s head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.

Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts is incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.

The consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people are free and equal before God.

Works Cited:

Berman, Joshua. Created Equal: How The Bible Broke With Ancient Political Thought. 2008, Oxford University Press.

Cannon, Justin. The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. 2012, Justin R. Cannon (Ebook).

Friedman and Dolansky; The Bible Now. 2011, Oxford University Press.

Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind. 2014, Read The Spirit Books.