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From A Catholic To A Muslim: Let’s Shed Our Shared, Shameful Tradition Of Homophobia

People hold up candles against a rainbow lit backdrop during a vigil for those killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Monday, June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (David Goldman/AP)
People hold up candles against a rainbow lit backdrop during a vigil for those killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Monday, June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (David Goldman/AP)
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To my brothers and sisters who are Muslim:

As a Catholic, I, like you, worship at one of the three points in the triangle of Abrahamic faiths. Conservatives in both faiths emphasize the differences between them; I’d like to focus on one of the similarities, and a shameful one at that, in the wake of the slaughter in Orlando. I presume to address you as one whose own tradition falls short here:

Both of our religions must shed their theological homophobia.

We don’t know yet what motive, or ratio of motives, drove Omar Mateen to butcher 49 people in the Pulse nightclub. His family and acquaintances point to wife-battering and signs of mental illness long before his final rampage; he also was the latest sick mind to swallow ISIS’s con job. The usual suspects brayed about this; Donald Trump, running to be our toddler-in-chief, vomited publicly about how the killings demonstrate the need for his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants. (Since Mateen was American-born, such a ban, of course, would have done precisely nothing.)

Nonviolent prejudice is still prejudice, and there’s always the threat that it can tip the unhinged into atrocities like we saw in Orlando.

Others point to our ludicrously easy access to guns, a critique with which I agree. But anti-gay animus also seems to have played into this tragedy. Mateen’s father reported his son’s rage when he saw a same-sex couple kissing, and gays had been among the targets of his bigoted comments over time. Friends and others report Mateen was secretly gay himself; in which case, all those people may have died because of his own conflicted sexuality — a sexuality his Islamic faith condemned. I and other Christians and Muslims must challenge that attitude, even when its adherents don’t mean to incite violence.

This theology started with a scriptural story shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their inhabitants’ homosexual relations. For Christian, Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists, this clinches the case, and later scripture proscribes gay sex, notably the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Leviticus, with some translations calling homosexuality an “abomination.” Uncertainty as to whether Sodom and Gomorrah actually existed is just the beginning of this particular theology’s woes.

Theologians debate whether the Jewish scriptures prohibited gay sex for moral or pragmatic reasons (some say that heterosexuality was promoted as a way to populate Israel), or whether homosexuality was condemned because it was practiced by the hated Greek conquerors later in Israel’s history. This academic rat-a-tat probably convinces few laypeople one way or the other.

Members of Congress join the LGBT Congressional Staff Association and the Congressional Muslim Staff Association for a prayer and moment of silence on the steps of the Capitol to stand in solidarity with the Orlando community and to remember the victims of Sunday’s shooting at an LGBT night club, in Washington, Monday, June 13, 2016. Father Patrick J. Conroy, center, chaplain of the House of Representatives, delivered an interfaith message. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Members of Congress join the LGBT Congressional Staff Association and the Congressional Muslim Staff Association for a prayer and moment of silence on the steps of the Capitol to stand in solidarity with the Orlando community and to remember the victims of Sunday’s shooting at an LGBT night club, in Washington, Monday, June 13, 2016. Father Patrick J. Conroy, center, chaplain of the House of Representatives, delivered an interfaith message. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Here’s what I do find persuasive: Modern anti-gay sentiment can’t rest on Scripture, which was a product of its time, and even fundamentalists reject some outdated scriptural rules. The late Harvard theologian Peter Gomes noted that Leviticus bans “eating raw meat, planting two different kinds of seed in the same field and wearing garments with two different kinds of yarn,” as well as tattoos and sex during menstruation.

That’s a lot of people to abominate, if you’re going to follow the letter of religious law. What’s true of my scripture is true of the Quran; like the Jewish and Christian scriptures, it has passages of both nobility and hate. The Quran is arguably less violent, even as several Muslim countries unconscionably allow the death penalty for homosexuality. Which passages you live your life by is a choice.

Benevolent traditionalists argue that it’s possible to love the sinner but hate the sin: However much you abhor gay sex, there’s no moral justification for shooting up a nightclub. But that’s the problem with severe mental illness or amoral personalities, which flourish in the soil of social acceptance. Nonviolent prejudice is still prejudice, and there’s always the threat that it can tip the unhinged into atrocities like we saw in Orlando.

Some Muslims grasp the need to reboot the faith’s take on gays. They know a final thing that fundamentalists (and religion’s critics) don’t know: Historically, great religions have changed with changing times.

Some Muslims grasp the need to reboot the faith’s take on gays. They know a final thing that fundamentalists (and religion’s critics) don’t know: Historically, great religions have changed with changing times.

The Rev. Thomas Leclerc, a biblical scholar at Emmanuel College, preached in my church recently about how Jesus’s early followers — at the time, still seen by themselves and others as Jews — waived the circumcision requirement for Gentiles converting to their movement. In so doing, he noted, they abandoned what was, according to Scripture, an ancient requirement, handed down directly from God to Abraham. They also exposed themselves to persecution by the Roman Empire, which tolerated Judaism; Once you cast aside circumcision, the physical mark of Jewishness, you no longer fit under that umbrella of tolerance.

Those early Christians broke with Scripture and risked their lives to reform their faith. All that’s asked of modern Christians and Muslims is that, when there’s no morally valid reason to discriminate against gay people, we follow our ancestors’ wisdom in updating our theology. Seems downright conservative to me.

Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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