I’m going to take a step away from talking about dissociation today. I’d like to share a bit about my religious upbringing. I’ve spoken a bit about this before, but not to this detail. The reason I think it is important is because spiritual abuse has seriously damaged me psychologically, and I’ve struggled with religion and faith all of my adult life.
I chose to go to a private Catholic university after high school. At the time, I knew I was bisexual, but I wasn’t out. It was this one part of my identity I avoided and ignored. Although I knew my parents would always love me, regardless of my sexuality, I also knew they believed homosexuality was sinful.
At university, we were required to take a number of theology credits. Most of those offered, obviously, were regarding Catholicism. The first course I took was called Theology of the Bible which was taught by Sister Sheila.
On the first day, Sister Sheila asked us to keep our Bibles closed. “Tell me, without looking, ” She smiled, “What type of fruit was the forbidden fruit?”
Of course, we all chimed in that it was an apple.
She gave us a knowing look, “Ah.” She said. “Now open your bibles and tell me where it says apple.”
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
She launched into a speech about how we cannot take anything from the Bible at face-value. It is our responsibility as Catholics to study it, including studying the culture of the authors, the idioms of their time, and how through the study of linguistics and translation, words can change or lose meaning.
After all, she mused, in order for the Bible to get to the American English translation sitting on our desks that day, it had to be translated from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek to Latin, and finally to our modern day languages. Sister went on to explain: In the Hebrew bible, a generic term, peri, is used for the forbidden fruit. This could mean any fruit. But when translated into Latin, the word was changed to malus. This has two very different meanings in Latin. One is bad or evil. Ok, that makes sense. The other is apple. Huh!
You have to think when you read the Bible, she urged us.
So that gives you an idea of what our class was like. Let’s fast forward to everyone’s favorite topic: homosexuality in the Bible.
Sister Sheila was very careful with this topic. She never outright said homosexuality was condoned by the church, because it still isn’t. However, she was clear that it is never our place to judge others, and Jesus’ new commandment (to love one another) takes precedence always.
That being said, she led us down the path of cultural context and linguistics starting with Leviticus 20:13:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they have committed an abomination; the two of them shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them.
“Abomination. That’s the word everyone uses, isn’t it? Let’s look at the definition of abomination.” She turned to the chalkboard and started copying out of the old dictionary sitting at the front of the class room: a thing that causes disgust and hatred, or is considered extremely offensive. “Disgust. Hatred.” She frowned, “The tools of discrimination and evil.”
We all shifted uncomfortably, averted our eyes, or just sat in the cold silence.
“Yet there are three separate words in Hebrew that have been translated into one word, abomination, in English. Three separate meanings have been lost.” In Leviticus, she explained sheqets was used to describe what was ritually wrong, not something innately immoral. For instance, eating pork was described with the word sheqets, as it is an abomination of ritual requirement, but not innately immoral.
She then moved back to Genesis, to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. First, we had to read the story, to truly understand what was happening. In this story, God says he will destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because they are exceedingly wicked. He sends 2 angels as investigators, who take the form of 2 males. They arrive at Lot’s house in Sodom. For the Hebrew people, it was required that if someone came to your door, you took them in. One of the most serious social breaches was to not entertain a stranger.
However, Sodom was a wealthy community, that feared travelers passing through may abuse welcome behavior and try to steal their wealth. They cancel the law to welcome travelers. As Lot has violated the rule of Sodom, men show up to his home to enforce the law. They threaten Lot and his guests with violence.
They called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to your house tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have sexual relations with them.”
These men wanted to gang rape these 2 male strangers as an act of humiliation. Anal rape was a way at the time to punish and humiliate. This story is about cruelty and inhospitality, not sexuality. The Angels strike the men with blindness and usher Lot and his family to safety.
Sister ended this with a final statement of what the bible says about homosexuality. She referred to Romans 1:26-27.
Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.
When Paul uses the words what is “natural” vs. “unnatural” he is really meaning what is customary or uncustomary. It wasn’t customary for men to have sex with men in the Jewish context, but Paul saw it happening in the Greek world. So he concluded it as evidence of worshiping the wrong God.
The Bible otherwise doesn’t actually deal with homosexuality because there was no word for it–there were no Greek words, Hebrew words, or Aramaic words to describe these concepts. Therefore the few references lifted out of the bible to be used in religious teachings to condemn homosexuality really are inappropriate.
I didn’t agree with everything Sister Sheila said in that class, but her taking the time to explain cultural context and translation gave me an understanding of the Bible nobody had ever stopped to explain before. It made me feel hope. It was okay to be who I was.
The church, and Christianity as a whole, still has a long way to go to purge itself of hate and discrimination. But her ending note was clear. “The sin here is not homosexuality.” She said, “People are using the Bible, the word of God, to justify their fear and hate. Taking God’s words and using it this way–that is the real sin.”