I recently heard sex described as the “Achilles heel of Christianity.” Christians just can’t seem to come out of conversations about sex looking good. Sex is complicated and the (stereotyped) Christian response has often been too facile: don’t have it. A young woman told me the other day that “the greatest sin is immorality” (she meant sexual immorality). I wanted to protest – what about the Bible’s repeated condemnation of economic injustice? What about structural sin? – but it was clear she would not budge from this position. It was what she had been taught.
A few posts back, I pointed to an example that suggested that fidelity to the Bible is not actually what is driving opposition to homosexuality among Nigerians and others similarly opposed. (You should read that post if you haven’t because you won’t understand this one without it.) If fidelity to the Bible mattered, then the practice of giving in the Nigerian church might be different. So what might underlie this opposition?
In the Greco-Roman world, one reason Jewish people were misunderstood or discriminated against was the practice of male circumcision. For the Jewish, this was and is a sign of their membership in the covenant. For the Greeks and Romans, it was a difficult practice to accept. Intentionally “mutilating” the body was hard enough to accept. But to mutilate THAT part? Well, that was just too much. The Greeks and Romans, I think it is fair to say, reacted with disgust and horror at a practice they didn’t understand.
It strikes me that in the conversations I’ve had with many Africans about homosexuality, disgust is always present. We can talk the issue round and round, from cultural differences to Biblical interpretation. At some point, however, my interlocutor will say something like, “OK, fine. In our culture we have close friendships between two men and there is nothing wrong with that. But to have sex? That is not OK.” You see the same thing in people who agree homosexuality is fine so long as people are celibate and do not “practice” it. There was one moment in my conversations in Sudan last year when I was asked, “How do two men or two women actually have sex?” I didn’t answer because they didn’t need me to tell them. They were already revolted and disgusted at the thought.
I think there’s a good deal of similarity between the Greco-Roman reaction to Jewish circumcision and the conservative Christian reaction to “practicing” homosexuals. Men – and it is men driving this conversation – just can’t handle the thought of gay sex. (Women are maybe the same way but, for various cultural reasons, I haven’t been able to talk to as many of them about this.) There are many possible reasons for this – I think the most likely is that it relates to a particular idea of what it means to be a man – but the reaction is, to judge from my experience, disgust.
I’m not a psychologist but it’s easy to see that disgust is a pretty powerful emotion. It can lead to involuntary physical reactions. I used to dry heave just when I looked at the cooked carrots my mother put on my plate. (She made me eat them anyway.) Disgust can also lead to all manner of attempts to rationalize, justify, and provide a framework to explain the disgust. The Bible provides a handy tool for doing just that.
If there’s one thing I learned in CPE, it is that feelings matter. Indeed, they often precede the thoughts we have, often without us even realizing it. I think disgust is one possible explanation for the (one might argue) excessive fidelity to the Bible on the question of homosexuality but not on other counts. No one gets disgusted when you give money publicly.
If I’m right about disgust, the work of reaching consensus on homosexuality, then, will not be done by lengthy conversations about the Bible or culture or biology. That has been done, many times over, and has amounted to almost nothing beyond preaching to the choir. It will require addressing some pretty serious emotions and feelings surrounding sex, sexuality, and gender, especially, I think, masculinity.
Unfortunately, history shows us that the church has continually failed to talk about these subjects in a way that befits their importance.