Who's wrong, whose rights? Beliefs: It's a defining moment for many religions, as some call gays sinners and others welcome them while pointing to the same ancient writings.

August 14, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Wednesday's dueling news conferences by clerics who oppose homosexuality and clerics who support it were stark testimony to the increasingly acrimonious rifts within religions about gay and lesbians.

Each side invoked God's opinion.

"Homosexuality is a sin," said the Rev. Jerome McFarland, a Baptist from Washington, at a news conference called to urge the nation's clergy to actively oppose gayness.

"God loves and accepts love from all people, regardless of sexual orientation," said Rabbi Marc Israel, director of congregational relations for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, at the news conference called to denounce the first news conference.

One wonders: How can there be such diametrically opposed interpretations of "the word of God," written in the sacred Scriptures of each religion?

Such conflicts arise as the faithful attempt to apply teachings from Scriptures written as long as thousands of years ago to the moral dilemmas of an ever-changing world. There was no way, for example, to conceive of the ethical questions raised by genetic engineering.

More moderate or liberal believers feel it is necessary to change interpretation of the Scriptures to account for social, cultural or technological changes -- such as the end of slavery or new roles for women.

Conservatives insist that Scripture should be interpreted literally; changes, they argue, dilute moral precepts.

Here's an example of how a scripture can be dually interpreted. There appears to be a clear teaching prohibiting homosexuality in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in Christian Scriptures: "Know you not that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Evangelical and other conservative Christians interpret that passage literally: Homosexuality is sinful.

More liberal Scripture scholars look at the same passage and believe that the Greek word Paul used, arsenokoitai, is more accurately translated "male prostitute" than "homosexual."

Among the world's major religions, one can find a similar range of opinion:

Islam

Islamic teaching broadly condemns homosexuality. "Islam basically says that the family unit in Islam is a man with a wife or wives and siblings," says George W. Braswell Jr., author of "Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power" and professor of world religions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. Braswell taught for six years on the faculty of Islamic Theology at the University of Tehran. "Homosexuality is considered a deviation from this norm, therefore it is not condoned by Islam. Homosexuality is something they would preach against, teach against and not approve at all."

There are just a couple of specific references in the Koran, the Islamic holy Scriptures, to homosexuality. They come in the context of a narrative about Lot, the same protagonist from the story of the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible's book of Genesis. In the Koran, Lot says: "Do you commit lewdness such as no people in creation ever committed before you? For you practice your lusts on men in preference to women: you are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds."

Buddhism

Buddhism "goes from pretty conservative to pretty liberal," says Bill Aiken, a spokesman for Soka Gakkai International's Washington-area office in Mount Rainier.

Soka Gakkai practices a more liberal branch of Buddhism within the Mahayana tradition. "In our stream of Buddhism, there is absolutely no comment on the issue of homosexuality and therefore we consider it to be a non-issue," Aiken said.

In general, Buddhist teaching regarding any sexuality is that it should not harm others.

One of the five precepts of Right Conduct says: "I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct," and that has been defined in some traditions to include homosexuality, Aiken says, notably among groups in the more conservative Theravada tradition.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, wrote in a 1996 book that oral and anal sex were forbidden for men and women. Explaining his writings at a June 1997 news conference before a meeting in San Francisco with some very unhappy gay Buddhist leaders, the Dalai Lama said: "We have to make a distinction between believers and unbelievers. From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct."

Hinduism

In most interpretations of Hinduism, there is no prohibition against homosexuality.

"Hinduism, being such a vast, unorganized and non-hierarchical world faith, has a lot of complexity to it," says Acharya Palaniswami, editor of Hinduism Today magazine, a publication of the Hawaii-based Himalayan Academy, which is associated with the Saiva tradition, a southern Indian branch of Hinduism.

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