With scholarly insight and painful personal experience, author Jay Michaelson goes far beyond debunking the 6 verses of scripture so often used to condemn LGBT persons by conservative religious leaders. In his new book, God vs. Gay: the Religious Case for Equality, Michaelson makes a compelling case that the Old and New Testament, taken in their entirety, are far more supportive of sexual minorities than today’s conventional wisdom would suggest.
Michaelson talks to Welton Gaddy about the conclusions of the book, as well as the process of writing it.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Jay Michaelson, author, God vs Gay? The Religious Case for Equality[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio everyone, I’m Welton Gaddy.
When the state of Georgia executed a man who was widely thought to be innocent several weeks ago amidst a global uproar, we here at State of Belief turned to Jay Michaelson for some thoughts on the whole eye-for-an-eye matter. He’d written in Religion Dispatches Magazine on the subject, and he brought some valuable scriptural and ethical insights to the discussion. We promised then to have him back to talk about his new book, which has just been published by our friends at Beacon Press. It’s called God vs Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, and I’m very happy that it does, indeed, bring Jay Michaelson back to State of Belief Radio. I know you’re on your book tour right now, Jay, so thanks for making time for us on State of Belief![JAY MICHAELSON, GUEST]: Absolutely. It’s great to be back. [WG]: Having heard your insights on the death penalty debate, I’m sincerely excited that you’ve turned your hand to this particular subject, because you seem to find clarity where many others don’t. And you do it in a – what I can only term a scholarly way. So, let’s start with the title for the book. It’s “God vs. Gay, question mark.” If that’s the question, what’s the answer? [JM]: That’s great. The answer is right there in the subtitle, and it’s The Religious Case for Equality. Not against equality, and not a case for equality despite religion; but the answer is that neither God nor gay wins. Both win when the conflict is resolved. And, you know, that title cam from – it’s meant to be kind of a catchy title, but there’s something fairly serious behind it – and it came from my own experience spending 10 years in the closet, and thinking that if I were to come out and, you know, admit who I am to myself and to other people, that that would be the end to my religious life. And the truth was that “God vs gay” was a myth, and that coming out was actually one of the most religious things I ever did. [WG]: You know, I agree with what you just said. I often scratch my head, Jay, and try to answer the question: “Where did we go so wrong?” I mean, can you point to that? And we’re going to get into what you say about some of the scriptures and all that in just a minute; but how far back does it go? I mean, I’ve got some suspicions about that, but how do you answer that question of: “Where did we go so wrong?” [JM]: Well, it’s a really important question. I think, in, particularly, a number of Christian traditions, and also in the Jewish one to a lesser extent, there’s a lot of suspicion of what I’ll just call, for lack of a better word, “lust.” Firstly about sexuality in general, and just for the last – it’s really recent, just for the last couple of hundred years – folks we now call gay or lesbian have been, kind of, seen only through that prism; you know, that the only kind of same-sex intimacy is lust. And I think we’ve now seen, just in the last few years, how untrue that is; that that’s just not factually the case, and that to judge all gay or lesbian people by what somebody – the most flamboyant person at a gay pride parade – would be like judging all straight people based on the most flamboyant person in Las Vegas. You know, there are straight folks who are very sexually expressive, and there are straight folks who are more conservative; and likewise, there are gay folks on the entire spectrum. So I think that, for me, where we went wrong has been in closing our eyes and closing our ears to the witness of people around us; and just as we found in the African-American civil rights movement, and just as we found with women who have taken increased roles in our religious and our civic lives, it’s actually just about lifting that veil of ignorance. And when we see people for who they are, some of these so-called problems just disappear. [WG]: I’m very open to you correcting me, but I work with the assumption that just because you’re a good theologian, you don’t necessarily know everything about everything else. And I have the hunch, Jay, that some early theologians who were formative thinkers in our tradition in Christianity had such messed up sex lives themselves, from reading their autobiographies, that they wrote all of their paranoia and misunderstandings into their theology, and we took it as fact. Is that getting somewhere close to the truth? [JM]: Well, I think… You said the phrase “messed up,” not me, so I’ll go along with it. I think, you know, the issue of gays and lesbians – it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic a little bit. You know, if you really look at what some of these same – we don’t take seriously what some of these same figures had to say about women, for example. You know, who women are, and about how they should only serve their husbands, and never have careers, and things like that. So I think we’re accustomed to understanding that these were very gifted theologians and possibly deeply inspired human beings, but they were of a certain time and place, and – you’re right, of a certain disposition. You know, the more you read about Augustine and his own personal life, the less inclined you are to take him at face value when he has something to say about sexuality. [WG]: And so, you used the name “Augustine.” That’s true. Now, I have one other question that I want to ask you, somewhat preliminarily: you, in your book, go at this by taking very seriously the Holy Scriptures. What makes you think that people really care what the bible says about this? I mean – I’m sorry to be so cynical – I think some people hide behind the bible and use that as an excuse for not doing what they don’t want to do. [JM]: Well, that’s certainly true. I think there’s at least three kinds of people on this issue, this particular issue. There are folks who are already committed on the equality side and, you know, maybe they have gay or lesbian friends or relatives or people they go to church with and that’s, you know, preaching to the choir. And then there is that percentage, like you said, who are just committed; and they’re committed to an anti-gay reading for their own psychological reasons that I’m not qualified to go into.
But I think there’s a much larger group in the middle, and those are folks who are sincerely wrestling with what their traditions and teachings say because they’re aware of the contradiction. They don’t understand how a loving God could possibly want their friends and relatives and neighbors to lie about who they are, or to deny themselves the possibility of love in their lives. And it’s really for that third group, that much larger group, that I’ve, really, written this book. And I’ve met them, you know, as I’ve gone across the country doing my work and interfaith work in particular. These are folks who are really sincerely struggling and, you know, it’s, the truth will set you free. I mean, it’s really wonderful that when one actually takes a fresh look at these texts that crisis has a way of disappearing.[WG]: Well said. This issue obviously has been talked to death in many circles, and so has received the dubious benefit of being reduced to bumper sticker-like sound bites. Maybe the most common version, if this is the Leviticus conversation, you know, one side says: “Man will not lie with a man as with a woman, it’s an abomination;” and the other side says “Pigskin! Football is also an abomination.” You go a lot deeper than that. Talk about the depth of what you’re trying to do. [JM]: Well, the first piece is that I don’t get to Leviticus until part two of the book – and that’s for a particular reason. You know, when we approach these problem texts in the bible, and there are six verses out of 31,102 – I didn’t count by the way, Google counted – but there’s 31,000 verses in the bible, the Hebrew bible and the New Testament together, and there are six which may have something to say about homosexuality. Maybe. So, we come to those six in the light of the other, you know, 30 thousand. And there are way more important teachings about the acceptance of sexual diversity and gender diversity than Leviticus. So the very first piece in answering your question is: we don’t start with Leviticus, because, you’re right: it just gets reduced to sound bites. And that, actually, that last point about the sound bites is an important one, because, actually, I don’t argue that my readings of scripture, of Leviticus and Romans and Corinthians, of the problem verses, is a home run that’s the only possible correct answer. It’s not. The anti-gay readings are also possible; but only the more accepting readings square with everything else that we have in the bible and in our religious traditions about love being important, about loneliness being the first flaw in creation – that’s in the Genesis story – about justice and equality and about honesty. So, you know, my readings of these particular verses – they don’t have to win, they just have to tie. Because only the accepting, inclusive readings fit with the rest of our religious traditions. [WG]: That’s really just a terrific point. And I know people who say, “Well, look, I know those six verses, I know what they say, there’s nothing you can say that will refute that.” But let me ask you a question. When you were dealing with these scripture passages, did you learn something you didn’t know before? [JM]: Absolutely. You know, one thing you said I just wanted to jump on. It is actually, it’s not the case that these are unambiguous passages. They are, I don’t know if “refuted” is the right word… They just can be interpreted in lots of different ways. Just one example – we could spend an hour just doing this one piece – but one little example is that piece from Leviticus where you used the word “abomination.” You know, that’s the King James translation; that’s not actually what the word says. In the bible, the Hebrew word is To’ebah, which really means “taboo.” It’s only about, really, idolatry; and it’s about a very, very specific, one sexual act between men in the context of a foreign religious practice, in an ecstatic religious practice that involves sexuality. So, if you read the verse narrowly, which I choose to do instead of broadly, it actually has no application to the way men – and certainly women – lead their lives today.
But I did learn quite a lot, actually. I spent a while, in particular on – I have a degree in early Christianity, so I knew my bible decently well; but I did not know my Catholic theology, in particular, very well. I learned a lot about that, and, you know, I just I learned… I’ll share one little story which a lot of people might not know, and which I didn’t until I was doing my research. You know, there is the tale of the “Faithful Centurion” in the gospel, where Jesus heals the servant of a roman centurion. And what’s interesting is that the word for servant doesn’t mean “servant,” the word is pais, which really means kind of an intimate servant, like a sidekick; and in Roman culture that was understood to include a sexual relationship. It doesn’t mean they were gay, that’s our word; in their language this pais relationship included a same-sex sexual component. So, you know, this was an example of Jesus healing someone whom he had reason to believe was not just a servant of the centurion, but also his lover as well. And it’s striking, you know, that there is nothing in the gospels at all about homosexuality; and it is just that great silence that really, I think, we just need to keep remaining ourselves of. But I did learn one thing I didn’t know was that story, and the importance of that word pais would be understood by any contemporary reader of the gospel.[WG]: Yeah, and the reason I ask the question is because I want people to understand that though we’ve read some passages over and over again, a really disciplined, in-depth study of those passages can indeed reveal to us something that we hadn’t seen before. Let me ask you this now, against that background: if a person came to this issue, God vs gay, with a completely open mind and no preconceived notions, what would a purely bible-based investigation lead them to think? [JM]: Well, the first task would be to – just clearly with no preperceptions – that these are ambiguous verses, and that they can be read in lots of different ways. You know, the sixth commandment says really clearly: “Thou shalt not kill;” it’s only four words in English and actually only two words in Hebrew. And yet, that reader of scripture would then realize, just a few chapters later, there is talking about war, talking about what we talked about the last time I was on the program, capital punishment, so there are obviously exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill.” There are cases where killing a person is actually justified in the eyes of scripture. So, clearly even when a verse is so clear as that, two words, it’s not as clear as it seems.
So with a fresh reading of these problem verses they would see… They’d be stumped. Because it could admit of a very broad reading that would ban all same-sex relationships; or a very narrow reading that has to do only with very, very specific activities in a very, very specific context. And so the reader would have to then look at the rest of scripture. Because the verses themselves are not nearly as clear as some would have us believe; and so that reader would have to then look elsewhere, and look and say, “Well, geez, it’s not good for the human beings to be alone – that’s a really important value. Honesty is really, is an important value. There is the notion that God loves us and doesn’t want us to harm ourselves, that’s a really important value…” So then, adding up all of those other values, they would say, “Well geez, I guess only the narrow reading of these verses makes sense.”[WG]: Jay, I’m trying to stop the clock, but it’s still running and we’re running out of time. I want to be sure we don’t lose ourselves here in subtlety and nuance. I think we’re being very specific, and that’s good. Is there a simple overarching thought that come through in your book, and is that thought tied to some very specific conclusions that you reached? [JM]: Absolutely. That religious people should support equality, not to spite religion but because of it. The overwhelming majority of our religious traditions and teachings tell us about the importance of some of the values we’ve talked about already: honesty, love, inclusion, justice and so on. And while it’s true that there is this handful of verses that are ambiguous and unclear, the overwhelming majority of our traditions support inclusion and equality and justice. And all the footnotes are right there in the book, I’m very specific on verses and teachings. I’m not just speaking in generalities. And we should really celebrate this new frontier of inclusion because it allows us to exercise our religious conscience and contemplation on such an important issue. [WG]: Oh, that’s great way to describe it, and I think that group that you said you targeted in writing the book – that group of people is going to devour this book. I have to ask you one other question. Do you think the days of religiously-based anti-gay rhetoric in our government and in our politics, as well as in our worship centers, are those days numbered? [JM]: I think they are. You know, you’re probably familiar with all of the studies that have been done which show that this is a little bit generational. You know, those of us who grew up – and I’m actually one of those people – I grew up thinking that being gay was the worst thing in the world, and there was nothing worse than that. Before I even knew what the word meant I knew that it was terrible.
Kids today, in a lot of communities, are not growing up that way. They’re growing up knowing people with two dads, or people coming out in high school, and it’s just no big deal. You know, they understand that people are good or not so good; we’re all in between, and it has nothing to do with sexual orientation, just as it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity or national background. So I think the days are numbered, but that doesn’t mean we can just be complacent. You know, there is – just as there is racism and sexism all around us, and prejudice all around us – there is also homophobia all around us. And so it’s a process. I know we’re going to win, because I know that what we’re fighting against is actually just ignorance, and ignorance really can’t stand up to the truth in the long haul.[WG]: Jay Michaelson is the author of the new book God vs Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. I think from what you’ve heard today, you’ll want to go out and get that book and study it. Jay and his work have been featured in The New York Times and on NPR and CNN. He is the founder of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies. Rabbi Michael Lerner says that this book, quote, “Shows that “God vs gay” is a myth, and that the overwhelming majority of our shared religious values favor equality for LGBT people.” I think so too.
Jay Michaelson, thank you so much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio.[JM]: It’s my pleasure, thank you.