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“If Brownson is correct and Paul is referring to Gaius Caligula’s actual behavior, which Paul’s contemporaries, Philo, Dio Cassius, and Dio Chrysostom all wrote about with similar language, then he is describing harmful behavior that most LGBTQ people would condemn alongside most straight, cisgender people.”
In part four, we’ll look at a passage that Christians have used in harmful and destructive ways against the Christian and non-Christian LBGTQ communities: Romans 1.
I want to begin with the basic understanding that the culture in which Paul wrote this passage was one where the earth was thought to be at the center of the universe. That culture knew nothing of germ theory. It held women as of lesser than men. It practiced slavery as morally and ethically innocent. And it knew nothing of what we understand today as a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Paul’s society assumed everyone was born what we’d call today “straight,” and they thought that gender was binary and static.
Matthew Vines tells us how Paul’s society, therefore, viewed same sex relations: “The fact that societies of the biblical world associated same-sex relations with sexual excess rather than sexual orientation has been conceded even by a number of non-affirming scholars” (God and the Gay Christian, p. 38).
If we are going to interpret Paul’s words in Romans 1 without harming those who are demonstrably different from cisgender, heterosexual people, we must first understand that Paul’s society assumed all people naturally possessed a straight orientation and same-sex relations could only result from straight people with out-of-control lust being satisfied by different-sex and same-sex sexual acts. Again, this society had no understanding, as we have today, of humanity’s ability to naturally possesses other orientations. Today we know that humanity can also naturally possess lesbian, gay or bisexual orientations which do not in the least bit imply the simultaneous possession out-of-control lust or what we might call today a sex addiction. Out-of-control lust can occur within all orientations. And I have bisexual friends today that practice a more holistic, non-objectifying, values based, humanizing sexual ethic than do a lot of my “straight” friends.
With this in mind, let’s begin.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1:20-32)
At this point I want to turn to Brownson’s work on this text. His evidence for what may be lying behind this passage has resonated the most with me. He writes:
“We see a similar connection between idolatry and excessive lust and perversion in the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish apocryphal text dating from a period not long before Paul’s writings.
‘For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life. . . . For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.’ (Wisdom 14:12, 23-28)
(Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 154)
The fact that these authors tie idolatry to objectifying lust is telling. As we continue, ask yourself: is what Paul could have been writing about even remotely related to committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex relationships then or today? Paul’s culture viewed same-sex relations as conducted by straight people going against their natural, straight orientation because of insatiable sexual lust.Brownson offers more evidence from Roman orator Chrysostom:
“The Roman orator Dio Chrysostom, for example, who wrote shortly after Paul’s time, speaks of same-sex eroticism as the manifestation of insatiable lust: The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given — in fact, too utterly feminine — and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure. His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweating, salted foods, and condiments.” (Ibid., pp. 154-155)
So far, what Paul is describing looks nothing like committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex relationships aligned with whichever orientation one naturally posseses.
But the example that forever changed how I read Romans 1 is the story of Gaius Caligula, a Roman emperor whose excesses and lust fit Paul’s description in Romans 1 perfectly.
Please forgive the length of this next passage from Brownson. I want you to get the whole story. Content note: this story contains graphic sexual violence, including rape and forced same-sex relations as entertainment.
“Neil Elliott has called attention to the striking similarities between Paul’s language and the incredible greed, violence, and sexual excesses of Gaius Caligula, an emperor who reigned in a period not too long before Paul wrote Romans. First of all, Gaius is closely linked to the practice of idolatry. The Roman writer Suetonius reports how Gaius
‘set up a special temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind.’
Another Roman writer, Dio Cassius, comments negatively on how Gaius was the only emperor to claim to be divine and to be the recipient of worship during his own lifetime. Gaius also tried at one point to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem; he was dissuaded only by a delegation from Herod Agrippa. Hence the link between Gaius and idolatry would have been well-known indeed, particularly in Jewish circles.
But Gaius also serves as “Exhibit A” for out-of-control lust. Suetonius reports how Gaius
‘lived in perpetual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above’.
He records gruesome examples of Gaius’s arbitrary violence, vindictiveness, and cruelty. Later, Suetonius chronicles Gaius’s sexual liaisons with the wives of dinner guests, raping them in an adjoining room and then returning to the banquet to comment on their performance. Various same-sex sexual encounters between Gaius and other men are similarly recounted. Finally, a military officer whom he had sexually humiliated joined a conspiracy to murder him, which they did less than four years into his reign. Suetonius records that Gaius was stabbed through the genitals when he was murdered. One wonders whether we can hear an echo of this gruesome story in Paul’s comments in Romans 1:27:
‘Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own person the due penalty for their error.’
Gaius Caligula graphically illustrates the reality of which Paul speaks in Romans 1: the movement from idolatry to insatiable lust to every form of depravity, and the violent murderous reprisal that such behavior engenders.
Interestingly, Elliott notes how the Jewish writer Philo writes in similarly scathing terms of the evils of Gaius Caligula, interpreting his depravity as the result of his refusal to honor God, and his death as a manifestation of divine justice. This suggests that Gaius’s excesses and the divine judgment incurred by them were a common theme that would have been familiar to many Jews in the ancient world.”
(Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, pp. 156-158).
If Brownson is correct and Paul is referring to Gaius Caligula’s actual behavior, which Paul’s contemporaries, Philo, Dio Cassius, and Dio Chrysostom all wrote about with similar language, then he is describing harmful behavior that most LGBTQ people would condemn alongside most straight, cisgender people. Like everyone else in his society, Paul knew nothing of what we refer to today as someone’s sexual orientation. The only instances of same-sex relations that Paul wrote about were rooted in Gaius’ violent lustfulness. Gaius’ narrative doesn’t even remotely represent the numberless committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex couples whose love—not lust—was forcibly hidden for their own safety from straight, cisgender people like me.
The violating behavior of Gaius Caligula should be rightly condemned. And still I have yet to meet a Christian LGBTQ person or couple who even remotely resembles what we have read here.
Do we have the courage to admit our interpretations have been wrong? Can we own up when our interpretations have done demonstrable bodily harm to a group of humans born different than others? Do we have the courage to let go of those damaging interpretations and make them give way to life-giving interpretations instead?
We have much to ponder here. We also have much to apologize for.
In part five we will consider one more New Testament passage and then return to the Genesis story.