Disarming the Clobber Passages
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 7, 2012
Do you know what the ‘clobber passages’ are? Did you know of the phrase before you read about my title and the accompanying sentence description in the newsletter? The phrase ‘clobber passages’ refers to a set of specific biblical verses that are used by conservative Christians to condemn homosexuality.
Let me start with a brief explanation of why this matters to me. I am not gay but I am an ally and an advocate for broad civil rights. I do not buy into the misunderstanding that says I am not personally affected by the oppression felt by other people. I do not buy into the idea that as a straight white man the concerns of people who are not straight or not white or not male are some how not my concerns. No. I am an ally and an advocate for broad civil rights. For when the rights and liberties of oppressed minorities and otherwise disenfranchised people are protected and upheld, then the rights and liberties of the whole are protected and upheld; and that is good for all people. So when religion is used as a weapon against gay and lesbian people it matters to me and I will not stand by doing nothing. It matters not just to me personally because I know and care about people who are gay – it matters to us all on the big scale of the common good.
Far too often religion is used as a weapon to exclude and injure and condemn. That is not what religion is for. This also matters to me as a person of faith. I am not a Christian and the bible is not my sacred book, but the bible and Christianity are too important to me to stand by watching them be corrupted thus. Unitarian Universalism grew up out of liberal Protestant Christianity, we are not longer, strictly speak, a Christian community. Yet we remain in deep relationship with Christianity. As a Unitarian Universalist I am free to simply ignore the parts of the Bible I don’t like. That was part of our heresy, part of how we moved beyond the Christianity of our time. Theologically I am free to challenge or even dismiss any aspect of the Bible that my conscience leads me to find wanting. The easiest way for me to disarm the clobber passages is to simply say they are wrong, I don’t believe them, to declare that they are not the divinely inspired ‘word of God’ but rather the flawed words of specific human beings from a specific time in history and that they have no relevance to our life and culture today. The end.
Except, it is not so simple. I may deem these passages to have no relevance to my life, to our life; but there are countless other people of faith who find these passages to be significant and very relevant. These Bible verses affect me whether I want them to or not. They are part of the cultural conversation and the political discourse. Laws are passed based on these passages. So it matters not just because I am a person of faith who cares about how others use religion, it matters because I am part of this culture that is so heavily influenced by the Bible and its interpretations.
Let me clarify for you just what the Clobber Passages are and then show you how you might disarm them. There are seven passages to consider. I can’t sustain a full and careful sermon walking through all seven, but I’ll go far enough to make it clear how this works. One of the seven is a story in Genesis, two are verses in Leviticus, two more are verses from Paul’s letters and the last two are verses from other later letters.
Let us begin with the story. It is perhaps the most familiar of the Clobber Passages. It is also the longest, taking up the entirety of Chapter 19 in Genesis – where the other six Clobber Passages are each only one or two verses long. Chapter 19 is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are several elements to the story, but the heart of what is pertinent this morning is recounted in verse 5. In the story, two angels have come to Sodom to see if they might find ten righteous men on behalf of Abraham who does not wish God to destroy the city – and God agreed to not destroy it if ten righteous men could be found. These angels did not find ten righteous men. They found a man named Lot. Lot jumped up when he saw two travelers, he did not recognize them as angels, he jumped up and offered them the hospitality of his house. He brought them to his house, fed them and prepared beds for them. However, (and here is the troubling part) that evening …
all the men from every part of the city of Sodom – both young and old – surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” (vs 4-5)
Lot then goes out and tries to calm the crowd but he refuses to turn over the strangers. This paragon of hospitality and righteousness offers them a deal if they’ll leave the strangers unmolested. He says
Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” (vs 8)
But they don’t take Lot up on his offer. They would rather gang rape the two male strangers than Lot’s two virgin daughters. The angels intercede on Lot’s behalf and they get Lot, his wife and their two daughters out of Sodom before God destroys the place that night. There is more to the story but the crux of it is the behavior of the men of Sodom.
It is from this story that the term ‘sodomy’ arises. Every state in the union had Sodomy laws on the books at one time. Thomas Jefferson put forth a Virginia State law in 1778 proscribing castration as the maximum punishment for sodomy. The Virginia State legislature did not accept Jefferson’s attempt at leniency, instead choosing to keep the maximum punishment of death that they already had on the books. Illinois was the first state to repeal the laws in 1962. By 2002, 36 states had repealed the law, courts were largely ignoring the law anyway. In 2003 the Supreme Court invalidated all of the state laws across the board. Many countries around the world have similar histories with such laws.
As you can see, there is a long standing interpretation that this story is all about how anal sex is immoral and even criminal. When I was in seminary, a liberal Methodist seminary I attended for two years before transferring to the UU seminary in Chicago where I graduated, the Bible courses I took offered a different interpretation, a liberal interpretation. I was taught that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality or anal sex. It was inhospitality. What Lot offered the two strangers, the two disguised angels, was hospitality. There are other places in scripture where the value of hospitality is lifted up and lauded as a good and great virtue. The story is about hospitality, I was taught; that is what we can learn from this text.
I have to tell you, I see a lot of space between Lot’s behavior in the story and the behavior of the rest of the men in Sodom, and while ‘inhospitality’ doesn’t quite cover it – I also don’t think we are talking about homosexuality in the least. I find both interpretations to miss the point. I think this story shows us violence and sexual brutality. If nations the world over had looked at the story of Sodom and made laws against gang rape and non-consensual sex, I’d be right there supporting them. I think to claim the moral of the story is a warning against the sin of inhospitality is rather weak. But the claim that it is an indictment of homosexuality takes it too far into absurdity. It would be like hearing a story about someone being killed by a drunk driving and concluding that driving a car is immoral, disgusting, and evil.
This first of the seven Clobber Passages is the most disturbing because it is in the form of a story. It also happens to be the easiest to refute. If you fall into conversation with someone about this story, don’t let them claim it to be about homosexuality. It is not. It is about sexual violence.
The next two Clobber Passages are in Leviticus and are the most commonly used by conservatives to make their point because they are written as laws. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” And a few chapters further on, the law is repeated with a slight nuance in Leviticus 20:13 which says, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” The conservative interpretation of this is that God’s law says men can not have sex with men; therefore homosexuality is immoral and wrong.
Liberal interpretations point out that Leviticus is also where we find laws against wearing mixed fabrics, eating shellfish, gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and instructions on how to sell your daughter into slavery. Liberal interpretations point out that the Leviticus laws are in the context of a particular time and culture that is largely irrelevant today. By this reasoning we can and should ignore the laws that do not fit our contemporary time and culture. A deeper contextual interpretation says that the restrictions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 refer specifically to ritual sex between two men in a pagan temple, not all forms of sex between two men. The first dozen and a half verses of Chapter 18 line out various incestuous relationships that are against God’s law. Then there is a shift away from defining incest to laws against behaviors that make you ritually unclean – don’t sleep with a woman when she is menstruating and do not sacrificing your children to the pagan god Molech. It is in this second set that we find the verse that says “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” In the context of the surrounding verses, according to a liberal interpretation, this verse refers to ritual sex between two men, not all sex between two men. While I personally lean toward the simpler interpretation that says this verse, and its echo in chapter 20 are irrelevant to modern life, if you want to go for the deeper interpretation, there it is.
Consider all the verses that support slavery, in Exodus and Deuteronomy, in Ephesians and Colossians; verses that describe how one can be justly made into a slave or how a slave ought to obey his earthly master. We have been able to see our way to ignoring these passages as irrelevant. Consider all the verses that support a subservient role for women in society, family and church life, in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, in Timothy and Corinthians; verses that tell women to obey their husbands and to not speak in church. We have been able to see our way to ignoring these passages as irrelevant. And consider all the scripture passages about mass murder, the murder of children, the murder of innocent people … all offered as the work of God or the good work of God’s righteous people. We can see past such horrible and – by today’s standards – immoral verses to the gems of spiritual truth still found in scripture. Let us do the same with these Clobber Passages, I say.
There are four more passages to consider, and frankly I am not going to go into them in detail because I’ll just be saying more of the same and I think you get the point. For the sake of thoroughness I will tell you the remaining four are: Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, and Jude 1:7. The Corinthians and Timothy passages make a list of people who are going to hell, homosexuals are on the list. Romans equates godlessness with sexual amorality. And Jude is a repeat of these three with the twist of bringing up the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as proof that such immoral people shall end up in hell. You can look them up if you wish. I can even offer a balanced website to peruse: www.religioustolerance.org. In fairness I will say the author of most of the essays on this website is a Unitarian from Canada.
Stepping back from the specifics about the Clobber Passages themselves and ways to disarm them let me wrap up with a broader perspective on both the Bible and Sexual orientation. For I find something lacking in the details of these passages. Both liberal and conservative interpretations focus exclusively on sexual behavior and not at all on loving relationships. And of course, that is only fair for the interpretations to be thus focused because the details of the passages have that focus. Yet my own beliefs and understanding of homosexuality comes mostly from my personal experiences with people I know now and knew when I was growing up. As a child I saw same-sex couples in loving committed relationship. One of my best friends has two moms. I took piano lessons from the music director at church, I remember sitting at the piano bench with him while my mom sat in the kitchen with his partner. These same-sex relationships were – to my young eyes – in a word: normal. The Clobber Passages show me nothing resembling these relationships. Perhaps I could look elsewhere in the bible, for example to the Biblical stories of Ruth and Naomi or of Jonathan and David.
The big message in the Bible, to the best of my understanding, is the message of God’s love. Everything we read in Christian scripture ought to be filtered through that lens. The Bible is not my only scripture. It is one source among several sources I turn to for wisdom. On an interesting note I am reminded of a pamphlet I once saw entitled “What Jesus Said about Homosexuality.” The inside of the pamphlet is blank. On the back in small letters it says, “That’s right; Jesus did not say anything about homosexuality.” Really, if sexual orientation were a big deal for God, Jesus would have talk about it. Instead Jesus talked about forgiveness, he talked about helping the poor, he talked about not judging others, and he talked about love. Would that we all could learn to do the same.
Each of us reads our scriptures selectively. All of us lean toward certain interpretations over other interpretations. Let us ever remember to read through the lens of love and grace rather than the lens of judgment and hate. The Bible should not be a weapon to wound or exclude others. The Bible is at best a tool. It is a book written by people seeking to understand God and faith and how to live well in this life. A higher authority and arbiter of truth and faith is found in the depths of every human heart. Use the Bible as a guide, but trust the spark of God within you over all other authority.
In a world without end,
May it be so.