The Rev. Catherine Sider Hamilton
University of Toronto
The Primate’s questions raise one of the central claims of the argument for same sex blessings: that human relationships, in this case specifically same sex relationships, have “sanctity.” Behind the question of “Scripture’s witness to the integrity of every human person and the question of the sanctity of human relationships” lies the motion passed by General Synod 2004: that “this synod affirms the sanctity and integrity of committed same sex relationships.” This appears to be a bald affirmation of the innate or natural holiness of same-sex relationships. Indeed, the argument for same sex blessings has proceeded in part on the basis of an argument from nature arising from a reading of Genesis 1. Nature is God’s creation; nature includes the human being; what God created God declared “very good”; we are therefore, in our natural state, good. Our sexual drives are part of this natural state; they are therefore good. Hence the language of blessing: to bless same sex relationships is to recognize their inherent blessedness. It is also to bless God – to recognize that the creator God has blessed us in this aspect of our created lives, and to thank God for the blessing. The sanctity of the sexual relationship follows from the sanctity of the person as a sexual being. A rite of same sex blessing (which is indistinguishable from marriage, insofar as the only priestly act in a marriage is the blessing) is therefore theologically appropriate: it recognizes the natural sanctity of the relationship itself.
The argument for the sanctity of same sex relationships has a certain immediate appeal: every sunset, every newborn child is a reminder that God’s creation is full of goodness and beauty; why not, then, our sexual drives too? The question asked by the Primate and General Synod 2007, however, is how the claim to natural sanctity stands up against “scripture’s witness.” I propose to consider the claim against a close reading of Gen 3 and against two early scriptural interpretations of Gen 3, in Susanna and in Paul. I suggest we will find that both a close reading of the story of the serpent in the garden, and the history of its interpretation, do not in fact uphold either the claim to innate holiness for sexual relationships or the theology underlying it. Rather, they tell a story of a good creation gone awry and God’s work in Christ to redeem it, a story that issues for us in the mysterious joy of a cross-shaped life.
The claim to natural sanctity meets an immediate obstacle in Gen 3. There seems to be no place, in the paean to the goodness of God’s creation reflected in our natural lives, for the problem of sin. What happens to the people whom God created good (in his image) when they turn away from God? Interestingly, the Jewish and early Christian reading of Gen. 3 saw the immediate consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God in two things: the loss of the closer walk with God (in the garden at the time of the evening breeze) and the loss of sexual innocence. And these two things are related. “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen 2.25): that is the sole comment the creation narrative in Gen 2 makes about the life of Adam and Eve in the garden before the entrance of the serpent. The Hebrew verb “to be ashamed” (here in the hithpael) indicates shame “before one another” (BDB) — sexual innocence, that is, serves to sum up the uncorrupted state of the human being, what it means to be in a state of natural goodness. Conversely, it is the loss of sexual innocence in particular, and a concomitant awakening of shame, that marks their disobedience. When Eve takes the fruit and gives it to her husband and they both eat, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen 7); therefore they hide from God (Gen 8, 10).
The text of Gen itself thus links the disruption of the original human relationship to God precisely to the disruption of the human sexual relationship. Later biblical interpreters of this text read it in just this way, building from it a theology of human separation from God and from self evidenced in corrupted sexual desire. Sexual desire (epithumia), far from enacting the natural goodness of the human being, reveals the corruption and anguish of the human heart. Two texts, one a Jewish narrative from the 2nd century BC, the other Paul’s letter to the Romans, illustrate this reading. The story of Susanna retells (as George Brooke shows)the story of Eve in the garden in order, through the righteous Susanna, to reverse it. It is a story of human sin vs. human obedience to God, and it centres in sexual desire. It is because of desire (epithumia) that the lascivious elders hide in the garden and watch Susanna. They try to force sex upon her; when she refuses they try to force her death. Her obedience to God in refusing adultery, her innocence and her turning to God in the face of death form a deliberate contrast to Adam and Eve in that other garden — their disobedience, their loss of innocence, their consequent hiding from God. Susanna’s prayer saves her, through Daniel and by the grace of God: life, not death, is the outcome of her story – in contrast to the story of Adam and Eve. In this way the Jewish author of Susanna reverses the story of Eve: the righteous and beautiful woman chooses obedience to God in the garden, and finds that it is for her the way of life. What is crucial for our purposes is that the problem in Susanna’s garden is sexual sin: epithumia, lust. The elder’sepithumia sums up their corruption (their “wickedness,” as the text puts it): their history not only of sexual abuse (Sus 57), but of hypocrisy and injustice, though they are judges of Israel. And it is Susanna’s sexual purity that enacts her righteousness and turns shame into innocence (Sus 63) and death into life (Sus 62). This narrator reads the story of Genesis as linking the problem of sin in general to the problem of sexual sin. What happened when Adam and Eve turned away from God in the garden? Epithumia, of which disordered sexual desire is paradigmatic, was born.
So, too, for Paul. When in Romans 7 Paul describes the anguished lot of the person sold under sin, he calls up the story of Eden (“sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me” [Rom 7.11] – in Gen 3 the serpent takes opportunity through what God commanded [Gen 3.11, 17] to ‘deceive’ Eve [Gen 3.13], thereby bringing death upon her.) What is the sin that is for Paul paradigmatic? Epithumia: “but sin taking opportunity through the commandment worked in me ‘pasan epithumian’, every kind of desire.” Paul, like Susanna, reading the problem of human sin through Gen 3, sees it as centred in epithumia. Against the background of Gen 3’s emphasis on the loss of sexual innocence, against the background of Susanna’s reading of Genesis 3 in terms of sexual sin, the word epithumia in Paul’s retelling of Gen 3 evokes exactly the same problem. “Every kind of desire” emphatically includes, in this context, sexual desire. The commandment against coveting itself (ouk epithumeseis) further underscores the meaning of sexual desire inherent in epithumia: it reads in part (and, in Deuteronomy, with emphasis): You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). So Paul, like Susanna, reads the problem of sin created by Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Gen 3 as, paradigmatically, a problem of epithumia: desire, especially sexual desire.
These two works may stand as representative of a tradition of interpretation spanning centuries and historical settings, a tradition, moreover, which has in Paul found a place in the canon of Scripture. This tradition reads Genesis 3 as a story of the distortion of human nature (Susanna’s elders, however they were created, are no longer good; Paul’s “ego” is torn in two between the desires of the flesh and the will of the mind for good) and of the human relationship to God. The human person is no longer free simply to be “good”: the loss of the intimate walk with God entails also the loss of innocence. And the loss of sexual innocence, of a sexual life untroubled by distorted desires, serves to symbolize the larger human problem. The declaration of the inherent goodness of the human person and human sexual relationships thus runs exactly counter to the biblical story, as it is told in Genesis and retold in later biblical witnesses. This is one significant problem with General Synod’s affirmation.
A second problem follows from the first. The argument for same sex blessing, as it is reflected in the decisions of our General Synod, moves from the inherent “sanctity” of same sex relationships to the legitimacy of blessing them. But this is contrary to the logic of Scripture. In the whole span of Scripture, human relationships are “good” for exactly one verse. From then on, from Gen 3 to Revelation, the scriptural story moves from the corruption of the relationship between Adam and Eve to its redemption. The logic of blessedness, that is, moves from the redeeming act of God to the consequent holiness of the relationship. It is important to note that the New Testament does not impute “goodness” to the human person. Indeed, Jesus in Mark’s gospel emphatically denies that people can be called “good.” “Why do you call me ‘good’?” he says. “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18). Instead, the New Testament talks about “sanctification” or “holiness”. If humans are created good at the beginning of the biblical story, at the end of the story, in the NT, they are made good: they are sanctified. Sanctity is not a natural property, it is a gift of God.
Paul describes sanctity as the cleansing of the human person and the putting right of the human relationship with God: “but you were washed, you were sanctified (‘made holy’, hagiao), you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6.11). Sanctity requires washing because people are enmeshed in all sorts of corrupt and corrupting behaviour: they are “pornoi” (‘fornicators,’ to use the crusty old translation), idol-worshippers, adulterers, involved in male-to-male sex, thieves, drunks, loud-mouthed and abusive (1 Cor. 6.9-10.) So were some of you, Paul says – but no longer, because you have been baptized into Christ. Sanctity comes through Christ, in the Spirit. It is made accessible to us by the work of Christ, by his death for our sins (Rom 5.8 et passim), the saving death into which we are baptized. And by this baptism we are changed. No longer slaves of sin, our bodies become the temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Paul names humans “holy”, sanctified. (I Cor 6.19 – “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” I Cor 3.17. See also Gal. 5).
Paul’s understanding of sanctity is typical. Again and again throughout the New Testament, sanctity, expressed in morally (including sexually) pure lives, is the peculiar possession of the Christian, the person translated out of sin into holiness by the death of Christ and by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It is in John the final prayer of Jesus for his friends on the night before he is crucified and his work finished: “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17.17). “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God….From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace; for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1.1, 16-17.) Sanctity is the gift of God through the word made flesh, the Word giving up his life for all people. Sanctity is the gift of lives made true, in that Word.
To speak, then, of the sanctity of sexual relationships in and of themselves, to “claim the blessing” for our natural inclinations and arrangements, is to impoverish the gospel. We tell a story, as Christians, of a great and saving love, the divine love that sees and suffers for the corruption of the good creation in all its facets and relationships, the divine love that gives its own life to put that creation right. It is a story of grace and truth: grace bringing truth to a world that has lost its way. It is a story of transformation: from sin into righteousness, from anguish to peace, from death to life. It is the word of God in Christ and in the Scriptures about the world, a word made flesh in the living and dying and rising again of Jesus, Son of God. Sanctity is the gift of this word; it is ours now by grace and not by nature.
But perhaps one might ask: why then should we not bless same sex relationships, draw them into the sanctifying power of the Spirit so that they, like heterosexual marriage, might be made holy? If we grant that same sex relationships do not possess sanctity as such, if we cannot claim the blessing as our due, might we not still seek it, asking God to make blessed that which shares in the corruption of creation? How are homosexual relationships different from heterosexual ones in this way? For Scripture, the problem lies in the nature of the relationship itself: the turning for love toward one’s own sex is part of that distortion from which creation since the serpent has suffered. If we believe that creation, the physical world, matters – if we are not simply Gnostic – then the redemption we seek as a Christian people is the restoration of creation, in the world and in each one of us.
It is not an easy answer. It asks of people whose desire is for their own sex a degree of sacrifice and suffering that heterosexual people need never know. And it asks this in a society that understands neither sacrifice nor the power of God to save. It asks it in a church that no longer has the Bible in its blood, and so is not formed and shaped by the Scriptural story. It asks it in a church that struggles to live with the truth and the love that are the signs of Christian community and that make sacrificial living possible.
If the church is to ask sacrifice of homosexual people it must surely be driven to its knees in repentance and in prayer, for sacrifice is not its current style. The argument for the natural sanctity of same sex relationships, the movement to “claim the blessing” as a right forms a narrative of the rights and virtues of the natural human that has replaced in our lives the biblical story of sin and death, and the cross of Christ. As Christians we are invited to rejoice not in our natural blessedness, but at the amazing grace of God, to uphold each other in community in the sacrificial living that is part of God’s grace, and to see in those called to sacrifice an image of the Christ. The hope… the promise… of Scripture’s story is that if we dare to embrace that story, if we follow Christ, if we take up his cross, we will find it to be – against all expectation – the way of life. George Brooke, “Susanna and Paradise Regained,” in Women in the Biblical Tradition (E. Mellen: 1992).