The male sperm on its own contains all the ingredients necessary for life. In other words inside the male sperm there exists a complete miniature version of human life. This belief was uncontested in ancient times.
Male sperm was seen as a seed like all other seeds and all it required was to be planted in the correct ‘soil’ during the appropriate season for it to bring forth new life. The correct ‘soil’ was a woman’s uterus. This was easy to establish because when a man planted his seed anywhere else no human life ever came from it. Therefore the Bible held that for a man to ‘spill’ his seed anywhere other than inside a woman’s uterus was equivalent to murder, or in biblical language “an abomination unto the Lord”. Furthermore, if a man planted his seed in a woman during the ‘wrong season’ – during her menstrual cycle – it was also seen as “an abomination unto the Lord”.
Based on this ancient biological view, the Bible deemed masturbation or intercourse during a woman’s menstrual cycle to be a sin, a deathly deed. Accordingly if a man was to plant his seed inside another man it too would be a deathly deed and therefore “an abomination unto the Lord” requiring the punishment of death: a life for a life.
Putting aside the faulty science for a second, here we are given a helpful, though very basic, insight into the biblical notion of sin. In short: To sin is to do life in deathly ways. To demean, damage or destroy life is to sin. This occurs in myriads of ways and is not reduced to physical harm alone, for our humanity needs more than a healthy pulse to flourish. As Gianpiero Petriglieri (@gpetriglieri) so aptly tweeted the other day, “It’s the fortune of being loved that makes us human. It’s the choice of loving that keeps us human”. So we may extend our short understanding of sin to include doing life in ways that hinder or betray love.
Let’s return to the faulty science. With the invention of the microscope in the 17th century this biological view of pre-formationism was proven to be incorrect. Yet the theological view based on the disproven science stayed intact. According to the church it remained a sin to masturbate or have intercourse with a woman during her period or for a man to have sex with another man. This sin was institutionalised and normalised throughout the world for hundreds of years after its scientific basis had microscopically been found wanting. (While the reasoning pertaining to the view that being lesbian was also deemed a sin is not addressed here, it too has been institutionalised and normalised by the church.)
And herein lies the real sin: The real sin is that this was ever deemed a sin. The real sin is that by upholding this view the church did life in a deathly way. It demeaned, damaged and destroyed life. It hindered and betrayed love. It has brought hurt and harm to countless people, it has fuelled unnecessary guilt and soul-destroying shame. Too many 12-year-old boys have carried the guilt of the world in their palms not to mention the volumes of women avoided or banished for being ‘unclean’ or men not allowed to openly love the men they loved. Too many people have been ostracised from their families and communities; too many women and men have had to pay for this ‘sin’ with their lives in brutal hate crimes.
So when the United States Supreme Court voted in favour of marriage equality they were liberating their nation from years of institutionalised and normalised sin, as we in South Africa had done years before. Now while the South African Constitution and the US make same sex marriage legal and marriage equality a right, it all depends on people, on the church, ‘deinstitionalising’ the old belief in favour of one that is life-giving, that enables, not hinders love, that protects love instead of betraying it. While legally we have been liberated we need to liberate our minds, hearts and especially religious institutions.
Marriage equality is a profound matter of justice. And justice, as President Barack Obama so succinctly pointed out during the funeral service of Reverend Clementa Pinkney, “… grows out of the recognition of ourselves in each other”. Meaning that the moment I recognise my own humanity within yours I am bound to claim for you all of the rights and freedoms I claim for myself. This includes the right and freedom to love and be intimate with anyone who freely desires to love and be intimate with me.
For those who continue to say marriage equality is a sin, you are free to do so, but your freedom of speech does not include the right to determine how your views are heard, felt or interpreted. To paraphrase a Shona proverb, ‘Don’t ever ask an axe how a tree feels’. Over the past two weeks I have read statements from individuals and churches alike stating that marriage equality is unscriptural or a sin while at the same time declaring that they do not want to be labelled homophobic or bigoted in any way. Yet, if someone were to suggest we reintroduce the old Apartheid Mixed Marriages Act there would be no hesitation to label that person a racist, and rightly so. I personally interpret your views to be the sin that we have thankfully been legally liberated from yet sadly a sin that continues to bring hurt to so many.
The telescope was invented in the same century as the microscope. Galileo pointed one at the sky and saw that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round as was widely believed. Supporting Copernicus’ theory of heliocentricity put Galileo at odds with the dominant geocentric view at the time. It also placed him at odds with the church and those holding a literalistic reading of certain passages of scripture. This culminated in his trial and condemnation. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” and spent the rest of his days under house arrest.
It would take about two hundred years for Galileo’s work to be unbanned by the church and a lot longer before he would finally be pardoned of heresy. Please God it doesn’t take this long for the Church to confess its sin in making same-sex marriage a sin. DM