One of the more interesting discussions at the recent conference I attended in South Africa concerned the nature of homosexuality in those parts of Africa where its presence is most vehemently denied or persecuted. Several of the lay and clergy leaders from those areas indicated that “homosexuality” was widely seen as some kind of alien import. They allowed, however, that as long as a man was married and had children, a concurrent sexual relationship with another man could — while still being viewed with opprobrium — likely be given a pass. Such a man would not be labeled as “homosexual.”
This reminds me, of course, of the situation in many communities even in the United States — thinking in particular of some Latino and African-American communities — based on their cultural construction of homosexuality. That is, a “man who sleeps with men” might well not be seen as “homosexual,” while an effeminate man or sissy-boy might be described as such even if he is a virgin and completely heterosexual in his orientation.
This is in part due to the confusion of the many variable axes that combine in human personality to define one’s identity. It isn’t just a matter of male and female (biological sex, and allowing for the reality of intersexuality), but of feminine and masculine (cultural or societal gender), attracted to one’s own sex or the other (sexual orientation), and so on. The simple fact, put simply, is that many gay men are not effeminate, and many effeminate men are not gay.
More importantly, the African situation reminds me of how it is that David and Jonathan’s relationship (with the emphasis on Jonathan’s attraction and attachment to David) can also be covered from perception as a same-sex relationship (which it no doubt is, regardless of whether acted upon erotically). The fact that both are “manly men” and warriors, both married (in David’s case we have quite a bit of evidence along that line), shields them — in cultures that cannot distinguish sexual orientation from notions of gender — from any suggestion of being what C.S. Lewis so revealingly called pansies. (The Four Loves, 62) While it is questionable to attempt to craft a psychological profile at such a remove, it is fair to say that David’s relationships with women all seem to be based either on the desire to possess and control or some kind of political or dynastic interest (as indeed may be true of his relationship with Jonathan in taking advantage of the latter’s attraction to him), while the relationship of Jonathan to David appears to be one of deep and lasting love. At least that is the language of the text. “Pansies”? No. Oriented towards a romantic relationship towards each other?” Very likely yes. At least David is not reported to have shed any tears over his female partners, and Jonathan’s testimony of complete dedication and what the text reveals as “love at first sight” is amply clear.
The role of choiceThe question, “Is homosexuality natural or a choice?” also came up at the Conference in South Africa. The implication is that if it is a choice, it is a wrong choice, or at the least a choice that need not have been made, or could have been made otherwise. In earlier times it was assumed that the choice was a conscious act to choose wrongly — a perversity: doing deliberately and willfully what is known to be wrong.
Most gay and lesbian persons do not feel their orientation to be a choice, but something about which they become aware at some point in their life — just as do heterosexual persons of their sexual orientation. Most people, it seems, do not have much of a conscious awareness of sexual attraction in very early childhood, and begin to become aware of sexual attraction later in childhood or in early adolescence.
At this point the question of choice arises: do I choose to accept my inclinations? to act on them? to suppress them? Some people choose celibacy, while others choose relationship.
This leads me to reflect on the question, “Is choice a bad thing?” Aren’t we blessed to be chosen by the one who chooses us for life? The language of choosing and taking to oneself is intimately (!) connected with both salvation history and the life of human relationships; so much so that marriage is held to be an image of God’s relation to God’s Chosen.
Can this apply to same-sex relationships? Let me take another look at the relationship from Scripture that is often held up (and at the same time denied) as being homosexual, to which I alluded above: the story of the love of David and Jonathan. This is clearly a relationship between two men, but some do not see it as sexual in nature. It is true that sexual acts are not clearly recorded (though in a few places suggested) in the text — but this is true in large part of the Scriptural attitude towards descriptions of sex, which are usually veiled in metaphor or euphemism.
But let me start with a strongly negative view of the relationship between David and Jonathan from the text of Scripture itself. Jonathan’s father Saul verbally assails his son, when he says, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your confusion, and the confusion of your mother’s nakedness.” (1 Samuel 20:30) Jonathan’s choice, is of course a choice, but it does not come from perversity. He has no wish to see the kingdom of his father fall to confusion, and to see the swift end of that dynasty. But Jonathan knows that he had little power not to chose the one whom he has chosen; the one to whom he knew his whole being to be bound when he first laid eyes on him, the one whom he loved as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1) This covenanted love (1 Samuel 18:3; 20:8,16,41-42; 23:18) was the greatest love he would ever know, the love for which he would eventually risk everything (1 Samuel 20:33) and lose his life; this wonderful love surpassing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)
Was Jonathan wrong so to choose? I don’t think so.
Tobias Stanislas Haller