The Daily | June 3, 2012
WHEN President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage recently, he placed the decision in a Christian framework, invoking the self-sacrifice of Jesus and the Golden Rule. Not surprisingly, some Christians disagreed. “Folks were so determined to make Obama a Christian,” one minister was quoted as saying. “But Christians do not support gay marriage. So, what does that make him now?”
It makes him, quite arguably, a social reformer in the tradition of the Apostle Paul, who did more than anyone except Jesus himself to found and frame Christianity.
Paul? How can that be? Doesn’t he condemn homosexuality famously and in strong terms? From Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 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.”
Think again. In Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden, a classical translator and scholar, uses ancient sources to look at Paul as he would have been seen in his own time and context, and finds him to be neither the scourge of homosexuality nor the rigid puritan that today’s social right and left have seen in him. By the standards of his day, Paul was a progressive social reformer.
“Rather than repressing women, slaves, or homosexuals, he made—for his time—progressive rules for the inclusion of all of them in the Christian community,” writes Ruden. Ironically, the passages where he often seems most intolerant to modern readers are precisely the ones where Paul was trying hardest to reduce the appalling brutality of the Roman world he knew.
Paul commands women to be silent in church. Male chauvinism? By today’s standards, yes. But remember, Ruden says, that in Paul’s day women were excluded from worship and other public forums altogether. “It would not have been remarkable that women were forbidden to speak among the Christians. It’s remarkable that they were speaking in the first place. It’s remarkable that they were even there.” Where we see a reactionary effort to silence women, his contemporaries would have seen a daring effort to include them.
Slavery? Yes, Paul endorses it. So did everyone else in his day. But he calls on an owner to regard a slave as “more than a slave, a beloved brother,” a strikingly egalitarian and humane sentiment in a society which regarded slaves as objects.
And homosexuality? Again, context is all. No one in Paul’s day had any inkling of a loving, consensual homosexual relationship. “There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all,” writes Ruden. “The only satisfying use of an adult passive homosexual was alleged to be oral or anal rape—the satisfaction needed to be violent, not erotic.”
Roman mores of Paul’s day regarded male-male intercourse as an act not of love but of domination. The passive partner was contemptible; the active one was triumphant, proving his virility. But “partner” hardly seems the right word. “Target” or “victim” is more like it. Because families with social standing took pains to guard their children, “predators naturally turned to those with no protectors, young male slaves and prostitutes,” writes Ruden. “An adult could exploit an abused slave child’s loneliness and humiliation again and again.”
This had little or nothing to do with what we think of as homosexuality; think of it, rather, as bullying on steroids. Far from being ashamed, the predator would be boastful, as bullies often are. “In fact, society pressured a man into sexual brutality toward other males. To keep it unmistakable that he had no sympathy with passive homosexuals, he would tout his attacks on vulnerable young males.”
This was the context in which Paul condemned “unnatural acts” as “wickedness,” harmful both to self and to society. Where others before Paul had condemned only the passive partner, he condemned both. “He makes no distinction between active and passive: the whole transaction is wrong.” In his time, his teaching would have been a breakthrough, a blow against sexual relations which were at best radically unequal and which often amounted to what we would today call sexual abuse and sodomitic rape.
I read neither Greek nor Latin and am no historian of ancient times, but Ruden’s evidence is persuasive and her argument compels, at the very least, a hard rethink. What if she is right to see Paul as a reformer, less radical than Jesus, perhaps, but enlightened and bold by the standards of his day? What if his aim was to condemn brutality and inhumanity, not to stigmatize love and caring commitment?
Then his teaching comes into much closer alignment with Jesus’s teaching; and same-sex marriage comes into much closer alignment with Paul’s teaching. Someone with Paul’s values who is around today might look at caring and committed gay couples and conclude that there is an honored place for them within the church, and even within marriage.
We cannot know, of course, what Paul himself would make of today’s world. But we cannot assume Obama is wrong to see, in Christianity, a tradition that reasons its way toward humaneness, even when the result is to break with tradition and open a new path. If he were around today, the apostle might sound very much like the president.