Journey - Chapter 5
Sources of Distress
BY JERRY MCKAY
Having read the Bible for years, I was familiar with the book of Romans but not the details. I was more familiar with the story of Sodom because my read-the-Bible-in-a-year momentum had usually dried up by April—well before I would have reached Romans. Besides, I usually focused on reading the gospels. It was only when I studied Romans for those Bible classes in high school that I become aware of what Paul seemed to say about people like me.
Perhaps you have never read Romans chapter one; or, if you have, it may have been awhile. I have included the relevant section here—Romans 1: 18-28. As you read it, try to put yourself in my shoes—a teenager who had had unrelenting attractions to the same sex since adolescence. The verses that haunted me most are in bold.
18. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
19. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
20. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
21. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
22. Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
23. and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
24. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.
25. Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26. For this reason God gave them up to the dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
27. and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.
Now that you have read the text, I must ask: If you believed this passage applied to you, how would you have felt? What would it have done to your spirit?
It is next to impossible to describe the effect this passage had on me. Imagine the frustration and angst it created every time I felt some variation of those unnatural desires Paul spoke of. Add to that the fact that my attracttions involved my Christian friends. With every attraction, I heard Paul talking about the wrath of God, ungodliness, suppressing the truth, becoming fools, and God giving those people up to their dishonorable passions and shameless acts.
The knockout, however, came from my plain reading of the text. I mention this interpretative principle, because in segments of the church it is emphasized as “the way” to interpret scripture.
If we were discussing a legal statute, Wikipedia would remind us that in a plain reading world each word should be interpreted according to the ordinary meaning of the language unless otherwise defined. Ordinary words should be given their ordinary meaning, technical terms their technical meaning, and local, cultural terms recognized where applicable.
When it comes to the Bible, the application is similar. The plain meaning of plain reading is that the Bible should be taken at face value—it says what it says and it means what it means. That interpretive principle also suggests that we not read anything into the text. In reality, this principle is seldom applied consistently because very quickly we realize that scripture has to be interpreted.
In a recent conversation, a friend made this insightful comment about plain reading as it applies to scripture. He said he found “the idea of a ‘plain reading’ to be a rather frightening and obscuring phrase. You are reading ancient texts; there is, therefore, a richness and mystery inherent in it. There is nothing ‘plain’ about the process of encountering such a phenomenon.”
No matter how much I agree with his sentiment now, I did not approach Romans chapter one as a mystery with richness to be mined when I was in my teens. I was very much a plain-reading guy.
It is not my intention to contextualize, analyze, or interpret this passage here. I’m only going to share how I read it and applied it to myself. There are others that have researched this passage competently. If you are interested in that research, I recommend these authors.
When I was in my teens, I didn’t use an interpretive filter. Without a filter, Paul said that it was because “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator” that “God gave them up to the dishonorable passions.”
From this, I understood that my attractions were the result of my failure to worship God correctly. I did not understand scripture to say that God was angry because they did unnatural things. Rather, God had handed them over to their dishonorable passions because of their idolatrous ways. For me, this scripture said that the impure hearts and shameless acts of those people were because of their distorted worship of God. Reading Paul this way had profound implications for me.
At the time, I was not able to make the distinction between what I was feeling as a teenager and the ritualized sexual practices of those idolatrous worshipers. I had become a Christian as a child and had been as intentional about worshiping God as faithfully as possible. The idea that God did this to me, or allowed this to happen to me, because I had failed to worship Him properly was confounding.
Even though I never had one unnatural exchange during high school, I did long to hold a friend’s hand or snuggle up to a friend or two. When I found a friend’s eyes beautiful, I wanted to look into them as he looked into the eyes of his sweetheart. Because all of my emotional and physical responses were directed toward my male friends, I saw myself in the same crowd as that described in Romans.
Link Paul’s comments with Jesus’ statement, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he,” and you can understand how I felt I couldn’t win for losing. Believing that Romans chapter one was speaking about me was spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. It contaminated my understanding of God, and it added to the insidious numbing of my soul. The prayer life that I enjoyed was constantly overshadowed by this passage. Years later, I would become aware of the nuanced ways theologians could interpret this text, but it was too late. The damage was done.
In a later section, I will expand on the nuanced interpretation I was introduced to and give examples of how I was to apply it to changing my orientation. In short, I was encouraged not to take the reference personally. Rather, I should see it as having a universal application. I was told Romans one was speaking about the human condition in general. We are all idolaters by nature, and we are all complicit in suppressing the truth of God. The phrases wrath of God and handed them over meant that God has left all of us to our own devices and the consequences of our choices.
Romans does imply choice when it says, “women exchanged natural relations for unnatural and the men likewise…” In context, it is speaking about the choices adults make. I was introduced to an application of the word exchanged for an adolescent context. I will get into the subtleties of that interpretation later, as well. For now, you need only know that I was encouraged to see my orientation as one manifestation of all human brokenness.
As if to minimize or normalize my sin, I was reminded that “we are all sinners.” That nuance was supposed to be of some comfort. In some ways, I guess it was. However, I soon learned that with this topic few people really think this way. All sin and sinners are not treated equally in scripture, and we do not treat each other as though all sin were equal.
In reality, under this collective experience of God’s handing us over, most of humanity struggles with gluttony, drunkenness, anger management, or gossip; and five percent of us get to be homosexual.
If the we-are-all-sinners sentiment were true, folk like me would not be labeled the abominations of the world, blamed for the destruction of two Old Testament cities, and constantly reminded that scripture orders that I be stoned to death. As well, all the woes of the world from terrorist attaches to catastrophic natural disasters would not be attributed to my existence. More often than not, the phrase “we are all sinners” has a very hollow ring to it.
Years later, when I did share my plain-reading understanding, I could tell many were uncomfortable with it. The idea that a young adult would think such harsh things about himself or believe God would do this to me disturbed people. I was often puzzled at how quickly my plain reading of scripture was, in fact, interpreted. As I said, more about all of this later.
One upside to being a teenager in the ’70s was that I was spared the experience of sitting through sermons focused on that passage. At that time, few pastors preached on the topic.
The Stonewall Riots in New York City in June of 1969 that set the “gay liberation movement” in motion were given little notice by most Christians. I don’t remember being aware of what was happening in New York City, either. Even if people were aware of those events, most dismissed them as far removed and in the gay ghettos of notorious cities. No one assumed that a student at a Christian school, especially one on track to become a minister could be one of those people—a homosexual.
There have been great strides in understanding since then, but there is a downside. In the ’70s, most Christian campuses and Christian homes were relatively safe places for an LGBT teenager—the loneliness, confusion and isolation, notwithstanding—because we were not subjected to the hurtful comments we often hear today.
The public nature of the topic means we are talked about everywhere. While dialog is usually a good thing, many continue to assume that we are not sitting in the pews of local churches or around the dining room tables of the nation. Never make that assumption. Either as guests or as your children—we are there.
I have often felt the sting of comments that are devoid of understanding and empathy, because I can pass! I can pass as heterosexual, I mean. I can sit at your table and you would not assume I was one of those, because I don’t present with all the stereotypical mannerisms that secular and church media like to focus on. Sadly, the secular media likes to shock with sensational images while the church uses the same images to mock. In all cases, we are all diminished.
I am well aware of the larger concerns that seem to be buried in this text, but unexamined comments have the potential to create more harm than good. I don't mean that we should dismiss what the Bible says. Rather, if we are going to make this passage in Romans the basis of our next sermon, I hope we do the hard work involved in mining it for the “'richness and mystery inherent in it,” as my friend suggested. It still hurts when I hear or read certain comments, but I am able to recover faster now. It’s the teenager or the person too emotionally beaten up to defend himself or herself that I really feel for.
The Wikipedia entry had a very important caveat to the plain-reading approach. It should be used “unless,” Wiki cautioned, “the result would be cruel or absurd.” Good advice, I think.