NOTE to our website readers: During this coming year (Nov 2015 to Oct 2016), in addition to comments on LGBT issues and reflections on Thai religion and village life, I will be providing a series of reminiscences about historic Christian buildings and programs in Chiang Mai and a few short-short stories. The following is the first of at least 5 stories about Professor Virgil Verbal who believes English language can be just as magical as other subjects taught at the world’s most famous school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As with most of the Virgil Verbal stories, I have investigated possible sources of J.K. Rowling’s magical ideas, and for this story came up with fascinating facts about hobgoblins, elves like the Kobold elf in the picture, and Samhain (November 1, a day far older than Halloween).
A familiar, large, maroon book hovered in front of Professor Virgil Verbal as his third year students came from breakfast into the semi-circular classroom. The November sky in the Great Hall ceiling had looked overcast with scudding clouds fleeing from the north. But the “Advanced Adventures” classroom had only an arrow-slit window at the far end which was always covered with thick black drapes. Student chairs had been replaced by cloak racks on which hung green capes and large scarves which Professor Verbal was modeling. Without needing to be coached, the students put down their backpacks and donned capes and scarves.
“Today we will venture into Sherwood Forest…” the teacher said, matter-of-factly, even though what was left of the famous forest was a long Hogwarts Express train ride south. “…into the fourth century,” Professor Verbal finished his announcement. “Ranklin will be our guide.”
Many of the ten students taking the elective course on Advanced Adventures knew that Ranklin was a house elf attached to the Attlee estate which Professor Verbal had inherited from his Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Like most teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Verbal did not talk about his family, although some students assumed he had descended from a long line of magical ancestors despite his affinity with Muggles and his love of history and academic studies. It was altogether possible that the ghost of Professor Binns had mentioned the Attlees and their aristocratic Verbal branch in some droning lecture the students had dozed through. If he had been more forceful they might have perked up because they liked benign, bland Professor Verbal. Quite despite his character, his imagination and creative teaching were such fun that he drew a loyal group of students year after year. There was nothing pale and colorless about the adventures that poured out of his maroon book floating in the center of the room. Unlike such standard courses as Herbology, Potions and Transfiguration, Adventures was not always confined to the present or even the past, as was History. Some stories moved students into the future, but it did seem that today’s adventure into Sherwood Forest in the fourth century would take them into the past.
“If we only had access to a preserved wisp of memory from our intended informants we could perhaps impose on our Headmistress to let us use the Pensieve for our journey, but you have now mastered the art of this sort of travel through the drier medium of old books,” he joked. In an earlier course the students had been “enchanted” into the stories they read. But by now, merely touching the maroon leather would get them transported. For a few students, just imagining touching the book or looking at its enthralling pages was enough.
However, to get them all to the same destination, Professor Verbal began reading, “On the day of Samhain in the Christian year 409 a fateful confrontation was undertaken in a little Roman village with the pretentious name Antonius, a short way north of Segelocum, which is now the hamlet of Littleborough in Nottinghamshire. In a field on one side of the village Druid priests prepared to sacrifice a virgin, while a Christian missionary just arrived from across the Channel was preparing to oppose it.” The classroom faded.
The students found themselves huddled in misty shadows at the edge of a thick wood. Before them stood a giant figure made of sticks and straw with a gaping hole in its torso. A young woman lay on the ground at its feet while townspeople watched a naked dancer feverishly menace the victim with a spear in one hand and a long knife in the other. The dancer was screaming chants while a chorus of townspeople droned responses accompanied by three drums. The woman, clothed only in tufts of dry grass bound by rope, was perfectly still, as though resigned to her fate or drugged.
Opposite them a lone figure holding a wooden cross accompanied by two boys, was also chanting from a book one of the boys held open. In truth, the Christian monk could not read the book, but he had memorized what he wanted to say. The monk was dressed as a Roman, as were the elders of the village. His chant was in Latin, the language of the Romans who had conquered all this part of the island of Britannia, which the people considered their whole world.
From time to time the naked shaman took a slice at the supine woman, catching a few blades of grass, making the people gasp. Each time he did this the monk thrust the wooden cross forward and forbade danger to come to the girl. It seemed a futile gesture. What could sticks of wood do against a flint spear and iron sword?
This contest was not what it appeared to be. It was not about the Roman-Celtic monk against the Anglo-Celtic Druid. Nor was it a battle between the old order and the new, as later accounts would have it. A much more definite and final struggle was going on with the Druid and the Christian just holding the attention of the townspeople to keep them out of the way. There was no clue that the monk and the Druid knew they were a sideshow while the main event went on deeper in the thick wood.
Ranklin tugged at Professor Verbal’s cape and he waved his students to follow him. They turned away from the unconcluded sacrifice that would decide if the village was to become Christian. They walked soundlessly into the dense forest. After but a few hundred paces they came upon a scene that blotted out all thought of the village and its drama. There before them gaped a large hole in the ground as if the earth had sunk causing a long hollow. Clustered around the rim of this crevasse were thousands of creatures. They were of similar build, like hairy little men and women the size of four-year-old human children, with big pointed ears, enormous noses, bulbous eyes and heads too large for their small powerful bodies.
At sight of this mob the students all glanced at Ranklin standing beside Professor Verbal. These were Ranklin’s ancestors, surely. The house elf paid attention only to the scene before them.
In the middle of the pit, two clusters of about ten individuals each were milling about and apparently jeering at each other. Then the action became more intense. With a sudden gesture, two of one group seemed to devastate two of the other. The attackers had not touched their targets, but the victims crumpled in agony.
Chaos ensued, accompanied by cracks as loud as thunder when boulders were hacked in two by unseen forces. This escalated the action and a group on the rim waved their arms as if to concentrate the air to produce a whirlwind. The wind was countered by bolts of lightning. Here and there the battle got personal and some individuals sparred, attempting to pull ears and gouge eyes. These attacks were all ineffectual, as no one was actually wounded. Pride, it seems, was the target. The goal was to humiliate each other.
The student spectators could make nothing of the fighting. The students couldn’t even tell who was on which side. The combatants looked the same.
But apparently some objective was reached because all at once, after quite a breathtaking final melee, half the group flocked into the cavern and were gone, while the other half clustered around their champions without, however, displaying signs of victory or defeat. Whatever had been decided was not about which side won.
A couple of student noticed that Ranklin was stock still, as if thunderstruck or dumbfounded.
The hundreds who had not withdrawn underground disbanded, moving away in all directions, until there were none left to be seen.
“What was that?” one of the students asked.
“That was the war of the Hobgoblins,” Professor Verbal replied. “On this day the Hobs and the Goblins separated, each withdrawing to the conditions they preferred.”
“Couldn’t they have done that without a fight?” a young wizard from Aberdeen asked.
“There was the question of whether one group could dominate the other, I suppose,” Professor Verbal replied.
“Was it a draw?” a witch from Surry asked.
“It was,” the teacher assured her. “From then on the Cofgodas of the Anglo-Saxons and the Lares of the Romans in Britain remained domestic. We think of them as elves, or Brownies in Scotland, although ones like the Kobold from Germany tend to be even more attached to hearth and home. The Goblins prefer the underground with its minerals and mines and are known throughout our lands as Dwarves.”
“But they are Goblins,” a Slytherin student insisted.
“How have the elves been turned into slaves?” a girl asked, avoiding a glance from Ranklin.
“I think you will find they are not all so subservient,” Professor Verbal suggested. “Those attached to magical families and households have been severely subjugated. But outside our magical world elves can be quite independent. They all retain great skills, when allowed to manifest them.”
“They can spin straw into gold,” one Muggle-born student recalled from the story of Rumpelstiltskin.
“And produce wonderful leather slippers,” remembered another.
“Puck,” announced a third. The students born in strict magical families had never heard of dangerous Puck or “Robin Goodfellow” as he was called. Even after the Battle of Hogwarts and the end of terror against the Muggles, independent elves were seldom mentioned.
“Perhaps it is time to return to our classroom,” Professor Verbal suggested since no further adventures seemed forthcoming right then in Sherwood Forest.
Ranklin, for once, was inattentive to his master. Still staring at the now-vacant crevasse he muttered, “We were once one. We were gods.”
“We were, we all were, if we go back far enough,” Verbal reassured his elf and his students.
Ranklin was never quite the same after that.
Essay 2: Women Are Too Dangerous to Be Monks
[This is a continuation of the discussion of why women are not eligible to be ordained in Thai Buddhisism. For the first essay in this series see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/monks-manage-pii ]
Ancient religious tradition is arrayed against women being allowed into the leadership elite.
Buddhism, as the narrative of Gautama implies, was born into a religious climate in which radical asceticism was considered the way to achieve insight. The Buddha was steeped in this severe tradition before deciding on a more moderate middle way. On the whole, the Jains were the most serious ascetics in history. Their attitude toward women practitioners is instructive.
The Jains were the archetypal ascetics of all time. Jains were adamant that women were incapable of advanced forms of renunciation necessary for religious achievement. Women supposedly emanated forces from their bodies that required them to remain clothed and not go “air clad” as Jain adepts did (and still do). Note, it was because of these “forces” (and for the protection of men and beasts) that the women were to be clothed; and it was this clothing which prevented women from subjecting themselves to the extremes of weather and nature that was the Jain key to religious attainment. Women were not too weak to be religious at the highest level; they were too potent to be allowed to be so.
The roots of this perception can be traced all the way back to Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Karen Armstrong, using her gifts of reducing complex religious topics to easy terms, describes how the hunters of ancient times dealt with the twin issues of killing in order to live and living in order to die:
Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy[as preparation prior to the hunt], could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. [Armstrong refers to Homo Necans, by Walter Burkert, 1983]. She continues, “The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. [Karen Armstrong, 2005. A Short History of Myth. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd. P. 39]
Judy Grahn agrees. “Women’s oldest magical-science powers revolved around menstruation and birth, and the blood of both these states of being was considered sacred.” [Judy Grahn, 1984, 1990. Another Mother Tongue, NY: Quality Paperback Book Club edition, p. 214] Armstrong gives the key as to how this sacred blood became so negative that religions everywhere loathed it. “The history of religion shows that, once a myth ceases to give people intimations of transcendence, it becomes abhorrent.” [Armstrong, p. 94] Armstrong follows Karl Jaspers and other proponents of the “axial age” analysis of history, that a new age required a new mythic narrative. In the axial age men took over, but they did not – they could not – forget the power of blood. Rites were created, therefore, by which men and boys also bled. Says Grahn, “To ritually shed blood, meant the ability to take on women’s ancient powers.”
Joseph Campbell frames it in Freudian terms:
…the mysterious (one might even say magical) functioning of the female body in its menstrual cycle, in the ceasing of the cycle during the period of gestation, and in the agony of birth – and the appearance, then, of the new being; these, certainly, have made profound imprints on the mind. The fear of menstrual blood and isolation of women during their periods, the rites of birth, and all lore of magic associated with human fecundity make it evident that we are here in a field of one of the major centers of interest of the human imagination. [Joseph Campbell, 1959, 1969.Primitive Mythology. NY: Penguin Books, Arkana edition, 1991. P. 59]
Campbell concludes, “There can be no doubt that in the very early ages of human history the magical force and wonder of the female was no less a marvel than the universe itself; and this gave to woman a prodigious power, which it has been one of the chief concerns of the masculine part of the population to break, control, and employ to its own ends.” [p. 315]
Still, through the new era of agriculture in place of hunting and gathering, the Great Mother ruled. That was true everywhere. “The interdependence of death and sex, their import as the contemporary aspects of a single state of being, and the necessity of killing – killing and eating – for the continuance of this state of being, which is that of man on earth, and of all things on earth, the animals, birds, and fish, as well as man – this deeply moving emotionally disturbing glimpse of death as the life of the living is the fundamental motivation supporting the rites around which the social structure of the early planting villages was composed.” [Joseph Campbell, 1962. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. NY: Viking. P. 164]
…The mythological foundation of the Indus Civilization overthrown by the Aryans appears to have been a variant of the old High Bronze Age vegetal-lunar rhythmic order, wherein a priestly science of the calendar required of all submission without resistance to an ungainsayable destiny. The goddess mother in whose macrocosmic womb all things were supposed to live their brief lives was in her sway; and no such puny sentiment as heroism could hope, in the field of her dominion, to achieve any serious result. “She is self-willed,” said Ramakrishna, “and must always have her way.” Yet for those children who submit without tumult to their mother’s will, “She is full of bliss.” All life, all moments, terminate in her insatiable maw; yet in this frightening return there is ultimately rapture for the one who, in trust, can give himself – like the perfect king: the son and yet the bull of his cosmic mother. [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 179]
As farm village culture gave way to cities another change in religious perception resulted.
A broad zone of readiness had … been established for the reception of a new approach to the problem of man’s highest good. Dislodged from the soil as well as from the old necessities of the hunt, a rather sophisticated urban population had appeared, with a certain leisure, considerable luxury, and time, consequently, for neuroses. Inevitably the new initiators appeared, who had, themselves, in their own experience, faced out the new anxieties: the first systematic psychologists of all time and in many ways, perhaps, the best. And their basic tools were everywhere the same: the old ritual lore, inherited from the hieratic past, with its concept of hidden harmony and equivalence uniting the microcosm and the macrocosm and of a consequent resonance conducive to magical effects. However, now the concern was no longer magical (the weather, crops, abundance of goods, and long years) but psychological (the detante and harmonization of the psyche) and sociological (the integration of the individual with a new society based on a secular instead of hieratic tradition). [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 251]
In the West, the predominance of social concerns over survival issues took the form of theological narratives, based on families of divinities with developed personalities, followed by a revolution of monotheism. In Campbell’s synthesis: “…the typical Occidental hero is a personality, and therefore necessarily tragic, doomed to be implicated seriously in the agony and mystery of temporality.” (That is, the god-hero must have some responsibility for “sudden monstrous death [which] becomes therewith a revelation of the inhumanity of the order of the universe,” and moreover, “a god-willed monstrosity”). [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 243]
The Oriental hero is a monad: in essence without character but an image of eternity, untouched by, or else casting off successfully, the delusory involvements of the mortal sphere.
The focus of concern is not the individual, but the monad, the reincarnating jiva, to which no individuality whatsoever intrinsically pertains, but which passes on, like a ship through waves, from one personality to the next: now a mealworm, now a god, demon, king, or tailor. [Campbell, Oriental Mythology. Pp. 242-3]
In India as well as Israel the chief effect of this intellectual triumph of mind over matter was firmly in the control of men. But the triumph was, obviously, incomplete. The reality of “sudden monstrous death” remained. The memory of the terrible-nurturing mother refused to dissipate. Eternal life might be subject to “an absolutely impersonal law suffusing and harmonizing all things” but daily life was fraught with more urgent mysteries. Men’s control over all aspects of concern remains tenuous. The scripted shedding of blood through ritual regicide, sacrifice of first-born sons, or symbolically through circumcision or the even less bloody shaving of one’s head to simulate initiation into the naked state of birth through death have not yet eclipsed the fearful force of Great Mother in whose womb we live until we die, as we surely shall.
[This is the second of three essays on the reasons why men are afraid to relinquish total control in Theravada Buddhism. Expect the conclusion before Christmas.]
The other day there was a funeral and cremation involving our extended family. Various aspects of the complicated event had to be performed by specialists. I paid attention to how few were turned over to women, and also how some things had to be done by Buddhist monks or former monks.
I was particularly interested in a short rite following the main service. The emcee announced that four monks would perform a tawn ถอน ceremony. Tawn means “extract”, “withdraw”, or “revoke”. It is a transitive verb with the implication that the thing being removed has little or no power to object. A tawn ceremony is intended to evict a pii พีthat may be recalcitrant or confused. Pii is a multi-functional term that includes almost all non-physical beings except divinities. Spirits of the dead are pii but they may have none of the personal qualities they once seemed to have when they inhabited a physical body. In the instance the other day, the four monks took positions at the corners of the prasat(see picture: www.kendobson.asia/blog/community-funerals) on which the coffin was elevated. The monks were given little baskets with traditional gifts to ameliorate the pii whichever way it might choose to go, and then with incense and candles the monks exhorted the pii to remove itself. It need no longer try to remain attached to the coffin and the corpse inside. Its destiny was elsewhere.
It is striking how this pii no longer was identified with the personality of the deceased. There was very little sense that the pii was our dead aunt or that anyone alive would want anything more to do with the pii. This attitude is borne out in the lack of a reunion narrative here in Thailand, in which we might imagine ourselves reunited with loved ones when we die. Death has severed body from spirit and the personhood of the deceased has, as the word implies, ceased. That person we once knew and to whom we related is no more. The person’s body is inert and decomposing, and the spirit is now alien. Affection for the dead person’s spirit is muffled by anxiety and suspicion. Affection for the person who we loved is now grief, which is a wall between the past and present. At the same time, attention is paid to the departed spirit. Here in Northern Thailand the spirits of one’s ancestors are less imminent and needy than in some ethnic subcultures in the region. They do not need to be fed or venerated. But since it is impossible to know when they might have been reincarnated, it is common to have merit transferral rites in their behalf. In fact, even if they have been reincarnated and no longer linger in heaven or hell (or hereabouts, or somewhere in-between heaven and hell), the merit made in their behalf never goes astray.
As the prasat was being pulled from the house where three days of funeral services had been concluded the procession was led by a fellow carrying a three-tailed banner with the name of the deceased written on it (see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/three-tailed-banners-varieties-of-faith). The purpose was to encourage the pii to notice where everybody was going with its former host. Further rituals were undertaken at the cremation grounds to expel thepii from the vicinity and send it on its way. Fireworks lighted the funeral pyre and sought to drive the pii into the beyond. This was not only to get the village rid of a potential malevolent, lost ghost, but for the benefit of the spirit itself. It needed, so the narrative says, to go “on” in order to have a chance to be reborn and continue its progress toward the enlightenment that brings final release through extinction, the eradication of ego, Nirvana (nibbana).
Almost all aspects of this are handled by monks and former monks, even though there is hardly any justification in theTripitaka, the Theravada Buddhist scriptural canon, for they being the ones in charge of this whole confrontation with piiand spirits. One analysis of this is that the supernatural aspects of Thai culture and religion are simply not Buddhist. Anthropologists and others who are not sympathetic with concern about pii call this syncretism. It is considered an accretion, an overlay that should be considered separately from Buddhism. It is clear that the ritualistic handling of piiwas once done by Brahmans in India, and that is still the case with Thai royal protocols and ceremonies. For people at every other social level Buddhist priests now fill the role. Another approach is to see Thai Buddhism as having synthesized the supernatural issues of life and become more holistic. This runs counter to the favorite academic perception that supernaturalism is more primitive and less evolved than rational naturalism, that it is going backward for Buddhism to accept responsibility for pii as well as for merit and reincarnation.
It can be seen that orthodox Theravada Buddhism is reticent about occult, supernatural, and metaphysical aspects of popular Buddhism. When asked directly, monks will tend to avoid using the same terms laity use in describing what is going on in tawn ceremonies, subjata life enhancement ceremonies (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/subjata), or even inauguration ceremonies for Buddhist temple buildings and images (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/awakening-buddha).
Nevertheless, Northern Thai Buddhism is fully involved with all these concerns of the people, and would be less popular without its strategies for managing spirits, connecting to divinities, and directing traffic to the next life. These are the very matters that constitute mystery in life (which is inevitable) and fear (which needs to be mitigated).
I believe it is beyond argument that Thai Buddhism as it is practiced and supported by the people is an amalgam of Buddhist narrative and philosophical doctrine including a way by means of yoga to achieve enlightened understanding of this doctrine, and at the same time a way of rendering manageable all aspects of existence not yet subject to that elevated understanding of the real nature of things. A rare few Buddhists achieve the break-through to enlightenment. Some sixty million Thai people have not achieved that blessed state and do not expect to. They need reassurance that something might be possible to ameliorate the random horrors, vicissitudes and consequences of life that are very real to them. Certain Buddhist priests and a rare few “hermits” have acquired special skill and gifts to intervene using one or the other of the esoteric arts to prolong life, enhance prosperity, command pii, and divine the future. In times of distress these specialists are invited to help people find the peace that comes from doing “all we could do”.
There is an area of sacredness as well as a corresponding area of evil that must be negotiated. Certain stories help explicate those areas and tell of heroes and villains who encountered the awesome power residing in those realms, which have tendrils and influences in our own world. But these stories can only go so far to help us traverse liminal regions and control their influences. Particular cases take particular intervention which depends on supernatural insight and inspiration. It is not relevant to try to ascertain whether or not anyone, supplicant or practitioner, is absolutely convinced that any given ritual or suggestion will succeed. Probably influences that produced the circumstances needing to be ameliorated are too great to render such certainty. The motivation is, “Here is something to try. If it works, great.”
The other day I overheard a monk recommend that our family burn pink candles on Tuesday and Thursday and put pink liquids and pink fruit on the household shrine-shelf in veneration of Mae Kuan Im (see:www.kendobson.asia/blog/mae-kuan-im) since little Pen, the person they were concerned about, was born on Friday. The monk did this after holding the patient’s hands and chanting an obscure blessing. [See the picture at the top of this essay.] I call it obscure because it consisted of a few syllables repeated rapidly and was not any Thai dialect or Pali. The inspiration to suggest colored candles and glasses of liquid came to him, apparently, during his chanting. That is how charismatic inspirations often occur.
[An essay to follow will review in greater detail how blood became the factor that prevents women from equality in world religions.]
The ten flags in front of a village school out our way are faded and a bit sad. They were put up at the crest of enthusiasm for the ASEAN Economic Accords of 2000 that promised an “ASEAN Economic Community” (AEC) in 2015. The agreement was touted as the way to coalesce the economic power of the hundreds of millions of people in South East Asia to challenge the European Union, upon which the AEC was modeled.
Gradually every school, community center and government office building displayed flags of the 10 ASEAN nations along with the ASEAN “hourglass” flag in the center. [I’m playing with words here; the ASEAN flag symbol represents a sheaf of “padi” (the Malay word for rice, usually written in English as paddy and mistaken to mean a rice field), symbolizing, ASEAN websites tell us, “strength and unity”.] It looks to me like the good times are over and the sand has run out in the hourglass. For a while schools invited each other to contests built around ASEAN. Companies planned how they would prosper in the wide-open market place. Ponderous academic conferences listened to distinguished speakers before dispersing into small rooms to hear summaries of important sounding research papers. Imagination flourished.
At this point this essay is supposed to tell of reasons why the ASEAN Economic Community is a dream that has only seemed to have faded as have the flags in the school yard. Actually, it is only just now sinking in that December 31, 2015, the delayed start-up date for the AEC, will not make much difference in critical matters like moving manufactured products, standardizing money, or opening labor opportunities. The hotel manager in Chiang Mai waiting for January to replace his Thai staff with cheaper workers from the Philippines who have better English, may be disappointed. What I have sensed is that the AEC will arrive entirely without impact. I do not pretend to know what is going on in the minds of Thai military ministers in charge of government departments, but they seem distracted from ASEAN. I have heard that ASEAN is dead, based on results of a natural gas agreement or something like that. I don’t know. But I think the AEC is further away than the end of the year.
I am living at a more grassroots level than many others pontificating on ASEAN and the Thai military government. But I can read signs of fading interest. This is a top-down society, and that helps me understand that when no sand is coming down it is because no sand is coming into the top. The ASEAN symbol is a funnel, to my way of thinking, and not an hourglass that can be turned over. There’s no chance of the people sustaining enthusiasm for the AEC if the government has lost interest in it. People out here in our neck of the valley never understood what the AEC was, never had high hopes of great economic improvement from internationalization, and never were much interested in the AEC beyond the pretty flags. Now that the flags are no longer pretty, even that mild interest is pretty much gone.
Many Christians say that Paul condemned homosexual behavior. It is clearest in Romans 1. Paul may have been wrong, but he obviously said that people who engage in same-sex activities are in line for judgment and condemnation. In fact, the whole Gentile lifestyle is wrong and must be given up. That’s how most Christians understand Paul’s position.
To be specific, Paul wrote, “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Rom. 1:26-27, NRSV). And finally, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (Rom 1:32, NRSV).
Paul goes on to say that the order of nature will bring about the downfall of those who oppose it. This natural order can be discerned by everybody, so nobody has an excuse for rebelling against it.
But there has long been a problem with this interpretation of Paul’s intended meaning in the opening stanzas of his letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome. There is something about its harsh judgmental tone that runs against the grain of the rest of the Book of Romans as we have it. Since no scholars could quite put their finger on what was wrong with this way of understanding Paul, and since the Church had a long history of reading Romans that way, the interpretation became rock solid in the church, and useful stones for hurling at those who are “exchanging natural intercourse … who were consumed with passion for one another.” Paul then seems to say, and modern preachers repeat this very thought, “Those who practice such things deserve to die….” This line of thinking was very prevalent in Jewish thinking, particularly among Jews living in overwhelmingly Gentile circumstances, as the Roman Jews were. Even though this condemnatory attitude is in marked contrast with all the rest of Romans, what else can we do but just accept it as it reads?
Calvin Porter of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis reconsidered this issue and came to another conclusion. Porter discovered that Romans conforms to a particular form of debate that Romans used. The key for Porter was the insistent use of the word “they” in Romans 1. “They” say these things. “They quote the law.” “They condemn and reject.” Furthermore, the people who do such things were Jewish legalists. But suddenly in Romans 2, Paul switches to “you”. Do you want to be treated that way, subject to those judgments? “You” know such condemnation is wrong. You know that Christ wiped out that condemnatory use of the law. You know God’s love and grace.
In other words, Paul is using a literary legal form of argument in which he summarizes a popular point of view and then rejects it. “You” Romans reading my letter, Paul seems to say, need not be that type of judgmental, condemning, self-righteous follower of Christ. You will know better. Paul’s whole argument in Romans is to be non-judgmental because that use of the law is destructive and has been over-ruled by what Christ did for us.
Paul did not condemn gays and lesbians, because Christ does not condemn.
Romans 1 is not available to lambaste us. Christians who use these legalistic, judgmental arguments do not understand the Gospel that Paul was advocating from Jesus Christ. Their condemnation, moreover, will rebound upon them.
Porter is more nuanced, naturally, than this brief extraction from his writing. You can read a helpful article about Porter’s writing here:
I also wrote a more complete review of all this which is now available here:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.