Press-Republican

November 10, 2012

Same-sex marriage and the book of Leviticus

By Courtland Milloy
The Washington Post

— Amid concerns about voter intimidation, little mention has been made of Leviticus, that strong-arm book of the Bible that for years has tried to dictate my thoughts and actions through fear and guilt, and on Tuesday dogged my every step to the polls.

"Leviticus, 18th chapter, says that a man lying with another man is an abomination," Bishop David Allen Hall of the Church of God in Christ had told me a few days earlier. He is the spokesman for the Coalition of African American Pastors. His group was demanding that President Barack Obama and the NAACP tell same-sex marriage supporters in Maryland to "stop urging black Christians to ignore their own pastors' teachings."

Lord knows I had heard it all before, having grown up in the Bible Belt during the 1950s with that Old Time Religion.

Walking to my polling place in Fort Washington, Leviticus appeared, as if rising from a stake in the grass: "Don't Redefine Marriage! Vote AGAINST Question 6," read the yard sign. "Marriage = One Man + One Woman."

Of all the holiness codes implanted in my head as a kid, one involved a sin so vile that its name dare not be spoken. All I needed to know about it was Leviticus 20:13, which warned that if I "lie with mankind," I will surely die.

Early on, I came across William Blake's depiction of a stoning, "The Blasphemer," based on a verse in Leviticus, and it made quite an impression.

"Neither the concept of homosexuality as we know it today, nor the word, is in the Bible — from Genesis to Revelations," said Ronald Hopson, a professor in Howard University's School of Divinity and its Department of Psychology. "Condemnation of gays as we see it expressed today is not what the ancient writers meant. Part of the concern back then was not so much with men having sex with men, but with men losing their status. To be a man of means meant you could own women, but men who seemed to be taking on the role of women were regarded as a threat to that privilege."

Bishop Hall scoffed at such talk.

"There are plenty of false prophets out there," he said.

Hopson noted that when it comes to reading the Bible, there are many who are "literalists but not literate" and don't seem to understand how words that have been translated from "original tongues" evolved over time.

"Besides," he said, "Leviticus also says you shouldn't cut your hair, wear clothes of two different materials, eat pork, commit adultery or charge interest. So why not take that literally as well?"

Hopson was certainly right about that last part. Leviticus had a list of do's and don'ts so incomprehensible that I might as well kiss Heaven goodbye. No bacon? Come on, God.

No matter how much I wanted to dismiss the Living Word as so much mythology, years of church and Sunday schooling just couldn't be willed away. The Bible, for better or worse, was in the bones. The stories and parables had been used to teach me how to read, write, memorize and speak onstage. And to pick up a few pointers about recognizing "right from wrong."

Being in that voter line for an hour and a half, inching up to the table where poll workers checked for names on the registration rolls, I imagined this is how it would be at the Pearly Gates: St. Peter scrolling through the Book of Life, then waving me on one way or another.

The Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., and a supporter of the marriage equality initiative, told me that theological views on homosexuality had nothing to do with the vote I was about to cast.

"There is a difference between the religious rite of marriage and the civil right to marry," he said. "We live in a free, pluralistic democracy, not a theocracy, and the notion that civil marriage has to conform to the canons of conservative biblical theology is very troubling."

In other words, whether or not a gay couple can marry is really none of my business. And I certainly wasn't going to vote to stop them.

That settled, I began admiring a photograph of Michelle Obama on some campaign literature: She had a radiant smile and seemed to be staring back at me, audacious in a sleeveless black dress and . . . wouldn't you know it: Leviticus pops up in my head, warning me, "Don't even go there."

But that's not what I was thinking, honest to God.