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Ten years from now ...

ten years after she had accused dozens of people of being witches--sending many to their deaths--Salem witch trial accuser Ann Putnam apologized to her victims and their families. Many, of course, were long moldering in forgotten graves but that didn't prevent the diminutive Putnam from stepping forward and acknowledging the hysteria and abject persecution her baseless accusations had caused. For almost a year, Salem, Massachusetts, had been a very perilous place to live, especially for those who were poor, were women, or had strayed from the orthodoxies of the small New England town.

Over three centuries later it was Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who stepped to the fore and acknowledged another lingering blight on the U.S. cultural landscape. In writing the majority decision in Lawrence v. Texas (joined by Stephen Breyer, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens, and Sandra Day O'Connor), the case that ended state-sanctioned persecution of gay sex, Kennedy argued that being safe in one's bedroom is a fundamental constitutional right. In articulating the majority decision, Kennedy wrote, "Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct."

What, one wonders, will Americans say about the persecution of gays a decade after this rather momentous decision? Will there be less homophobia and a collective cry of contrition for the murders, beatings, and national ostracism? Will the memories of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, and other gays who have been attacked of killed for their sexuality compel people to feel a tinge of remorse for such anachronistic sins? In admitting her culpability in the witch trials, Putnam signaled an end to witch scares, which had been sporadic throughout the seventeenth century. Never again would there be a concerted effort to execute people for being witches.

One might not be as optimistic in hoping for an end to the United States' long bout with homophobia. In writing for the minority, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia offered up many of the most vile and predictable prejudices about gays and lesbians. To suggest that archaic sodomy laws are unconstitutional--and to assert the right of all people to be sale in their bedrooms--was to advocate the "homosexual agenda" and precipitate a string of immoral acts and salacious behavior, Scalia suggested. This, we must remember, came from an educated person, someone who fancies himself to be part of the erudite few--a member of the Supreme Court. In a decade will someone declare an end to the kind of hysteria that seems to plague three U.S. Supreme Court justices?

Ten years from now one hopes there will be a minister with the fortitude to correct the many errors and misreadings that have been propagated by many homophobic U.S. religions. Decades after the Salem trials were only a dark memory, Minister Cotton Mather eschewed the use of prayer and more religious methods and advocated for a smallpox antidote in their place. Science and reason had animated the mind of the venerated minister and the result was thousands of saved lives.

Today Americans continue to be regaled with the same apocryphal stories about the Bible's condemnation of gays and the strict and dire penalties for anal and oral sex. Such stories, often told from pulpits, are as inaccurate as they are mean spirited. Indeed, as biblical scholars have argued in a collection of valuable writings, the Bible never impugns homosexuality (in fact, there is no Hebrew word for homosexual) but condemns practices that were inimical to the cultural mores of the time. In some cases, passages are used erroneously to vilify gays, while in other cases the attack on homosexuality is the result of mistranslations. It seems that many of our most celebrated ministers--and homophobes--have forgotten that the Bible was originally written in another language and translated to fit the views and paradigms of the people who translated the works.

Ten years from now it would be nice to see the Reverend Jerry Falwell step to the fore and herald an end to biblically based homophobia because the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has virtually nothing to do with homosexuality. Despite the fact that this story is most often used as proof against gays, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was not about same sex transgressions but about an evil that was long festering in the towns and the destruction they would endure because of God's wrath. Long before God destroyed Sodom, he was asked by Abraham to spare the town, since righteous people might be killed with those who were evil. Thus God promised to send angels to warn Lot and his family that the general ignominy of the town would lead to annihilation. What the angels found was a center of pernicious evil that transcended any simplistic reference of homosexuality. When the people asked Lot to "bring them out to us that we may know them," they were probably not speaking of "knowing" in a sexual manner but simply as a way to engage in social interaction. Mark Jordan, author of The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, argues that the word know in Hebrew is yadda and doesn't refer to sex when it is used 943 times in the Old Testament. Furthermore, Father John McNeill, in his book The Church and the Homosexual, asserts that the request to know them was about simply investigating outsiders who were new and possibly dangerous to the people of Sodom. Because the angels were strangers, it made sense that the people would be curious and have a desire to know the men. According to McNeill, "Throughout the Old Testament Sodom is referred to as a symbol of utter destruction occasioned by sins of such magnitude as to merit exemplary punishment. However, nowhere in the Old Testament is that sin identified explicitly with homosexual behavior."

In Genesis 19:5, Sodom was a small hamlet in a wasteland south of the Dead Sea. The only strangers that the people of Sodom ever saw were rival groups who sought conquest. Thus it was easy to understand why they would want to interrogate new people.

Many who use the Sodom story also forget that Lot's answer to the people was to offer his daughters in place of the men. Because Lot was protecting the two strangers--who were angels--from the sinful actions of a town that was about to be destroyed for its many immoral acts, it made sense that he would keep them in the house and away from such a bad element. So Lot offered his daughters--not exactly a logical step if the crowd was in fact yearning for a rousing homosexual experience.

Ten years from now religious broadcaster Pat Robertson should begin his television program with a stern rebuke to anyone who uses Leviticus to persecute gays or lesbians. Often used as proof of the Bible's disgust with homosexuality, Leviticus is a collection of caveats on how to live. Many of them seem absurd by today's standards, so one wonders why "good Christians" are so selective in their use of the verses. For instance, if Christians are to admonish gays because they "lie with a male as those who lie with a female" should they not also condemn people who eat pork and seafood or who have sex with their wives after they give birth to a daughter? In Leviticus 12:18 God declares that a woman is unclean for sixty-six days after giving birth to a girl. In Leviticus 18:19 God forbids a husband from having sex with his wife during her menstrual period. Leviticus 19:27 demands that "you shall not round off the side-growth of your heads, nor harm the edges of your beard." There are other passages that make clear remarks about eating unclean animals such as rabbits, pigs, oysters, shrimp, lobster, crabs, and clams. Either Robertson should declare an end to the use of Leviticus to persecute gays or demand a boycott of Red Lobster restaurants.

Today an incredible amount of rancor and antipathy targeted at homosexuals is based on Leviticus but this reflects a selective attention to what the passages state. In the book's declarations, there are caveats for basic living and the references to the lying with another man was simply a call to eschew playing the role of a woman when engaging in sexual relations. It wasn't about being gay but about maintaining the strict roles of a male, since gender was an important marker of power in biblical times. Why, one wonders, doesn't Robertson and other fundamentalists pay closer attention to the rest of Leviticus if they are truly interested in all of the Bible?

Ten years from now one hopes that the myth of gays being salacious people or irresponsible parents will finally be disposed of. The American Academy of Pediatricians has promulgated their findings about gays, suggesting that both gays and lesbians make good and responsible parents. Slightly over one year ago the association--representing pediatricians from all over the United States--made their support of gay adoption official, declaring that "children deserve to know that their relationships with both of their parents are stable and legally recognized. This applies to all children, whether their parents are of the same or opposite sex." Today there are fewer encumbrances from medical and sociological professionals than from ministers, politicians, and those who know little about children and their safety. It's no longer about kids but about prejudice and good old-fashioned homophobia. Indeed, one must only look at the integrity of gay and lesbian Americans--many who have or are raising children--to see their potential to be loving parents and sterling role models. With the divorce rate hovering at around 50 percent, how can heterosexuals suggest that gays and lesbians would undermine this beleaguered institution?

In writing of Scalia's dissenting opinion to the Texas sodomy law, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd accused the conservative judge of being an "Archie Bunker in a high backed chair. Like Archie," she continued, "Nino is the last one to realize that his intolerance is risibly out of date." Clearly, the times are changing and there is decidedly more room for those on the fringe to live without fear of being persecuted. However, as with the Puritan people of seventeenth century Massachusetts, there is much that still must be learned if we are to be a society that is truly free.

Three hundred years ago the lesson was simply to accept those who are different and resist the temptation to ascribe evil tendencies to people who marched to the beat of a different drummer. Today the lesson seems frightfully similar for a nation that has supposedly progressed and experienced a cultural and educational awakening. Along with our Scalia and his faithful minority followers--Clarence Thomas and William Rehnquist--Americans must again learn to be tolerant, accepting, and inclusive--reading the Bible not to condemn but to love. Such a lesson could begin with a rejection of distasteful sodomy laws and all the debris that comes with them.

Gregory Shafer is an assistant professor of English at Mott College in Flint, Michigan.
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Title Annotation:The Culture War
Author:Shafer, Gregory
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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