Jeremy Punt is professor of New Testament (NT) in Stellenbosch University's Theology Faculty. His work is on the NT and hermeneutics, past and present; critical theory in NT interpretation; the intersection of NT and cultural studies; and regarding sociohistorical contexts, on configurations of power and gender, social systems and identities, and their significance for NT interpretation.
Christian churches in South Africa disavow LGBTQ rights and cite the Bible in support. Since same-sex civil unions were legalized in South Africa in 2006, no mainline Christian denomination has recognized or agreed to contract same-sex partnerships. The same holds true for Muslim and Jewish communities in the country. LGBTQ rights are entrenched in the South African constitution, which makes it one of the few countries on the continent (and in the world, in fact) to do so. In Africa, same-sex intercourse and relations are criminalized in the majority of countries, punishable by death in some cases. However, the prevalence of social discrimination and violence, and the particularly vicious “corrective rape,” against LGBTQ people remain high in South Africa, and is often substantiated by religious convictions deemed underwritten by the Bible. As far as religion is concerned, although some Muslim voices form part of the public debate about LGBTQ rights and relationships, given its strong presence in South Africa, the debate is framed mainly in terms of Christianity and biblical appeals and claim.
The claims that the Bible unambiguously condemns homosexuality derive more from entrenched heteronormative and homophobic positions than from responsible engagement with biblical texts. Three issues seem vital for addressing claims that same-sex relations are unbiblical: the focus on certain biblical texts to the exclusion of the rest of the Bible; the particular way in which these texts are read; and, the receptive or interpretive framing of the texts. These three factors co-determine not only the agenda but also the outcome of Bible and LGBTQ-rights discussions. Studying texts like Genesis 19:1-29, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 in their sociohistorical contexts shows that the texts are by no means unambiguous about what they condemn, nor is their applicability to modern-day contexts self-evident—especially when some modern translations’ skewing influence is removed. In the ancient context, neither sexual orientation nor sexuality were conceptualized along the lines we today do, as sex was often described as medium of power and sexual activities tended to be characterized by inequalities of power.
Paul’s emphasis on “natural” in Romans 1 was not directed at what we know as same-sex relations. Instead, his argument is framed by first-century notions that men could have passionless sex with women but that male homoerotic sex was akin to passions out of control and associated dangers. Homoeroticism was a problem for the ancients because it brought about excess and loss of control and subverted the conventional male-female hierarchy; not because homoeroticism represented a different form or same-gendered object of desire. The problem was passion which threatened reason and self-mastery; uncontrollable passion was equated with disaster.
In South Africa, it has been argued that same-sex relations are abnormal and morally abhorrent, not only for religious or moral reasons but also because of cultural concerns—same-sex is supposedly un-African. Even where its pre-colonial existence is not denied, same-sex relations in Africa are deemed limited to sexual pleasure and loosely ascribed to Western (American, in particular) influence amidst globalization. But same-sex activities of various kinds and for various reasons have always been part of the African society, existing in egalitarian, transgenerational, and transgenderal forms. The colonial conquest had a mixed impact but by and large, the influence of European values as well as Christianity destabilized same-sex behavior in Africa and, moreover, alienated it as an important source of spiritual power and religious education. Posing “homosexuality” as “white disease” and same-sex relations as un-African simply is historically inaccurate, and it submits to a homogenizing tendency towards Africa and its peoples which fails to account for the continent’s rich diversity of cultures and resorts to cultural stereotyping.
The New Testament clobber texts are not primarily denouncements of same-sex relations but arguments against sexual practices which lead to unrestrained desire, and can potentially subvert the community. These texts are not primarily concerned with contemporary homoeroticism and certainly not with modern-day same-sex relations. The texts’ negative references to homoeroticism serve other purposes, illustrative of practices that erode the patriarchal fiber of society and that give free reign to sexual passion. The nexus of these three factors—textual selectivity, deficient hermeneutics, and contextual deficits—negatively impinge on the use of the Bible regarding LGBTQ rights in general and same-sex relations in particular in Christian communities in South Africa.