Jesus’ acceptance of the Roman centurion and his pais has some troublesome contemporary implications. These troubling implications were highlighted in a comment from Charles Kinnaird over at Not Dark Yet.
Kinnaird was not taking issue with the substance of either my post or the particular point I was making regarding Jesus’ acceptance of the centurion and the pais. His concerns were three-fold: first, the very real problem of present-day child sexual abuse, second, the sense that Jesus was okay with pederasty and the related issue of sexual exploitation of slaves, and third, the alienation of people by this second point.
It’s interesting. In writing that post, I knew the word pederasty was problematical. I felt that. I knew the word pederasty had exclusively negative meanings for most people today. And I knew that I was not representing the centurion’s situation adequately. Charles, thank you for giving me the opportunity to think aloud about the centurion’s relationship and about how we can address the phenomena related to age disparity in sexual relationships.
Charles Kinnaird’s Concerns about Discussing the Centurion and Pederasty
Here are a few excerpts that summarize his concerns.
- My problem is in reading that passage with modern sensibilities.
- Red flags just go up when one says that Jesus was okay with the sexual practices of his day if pederasty was involved.
- My concern is that one of the objections to accepting the gay lifestyle is that they are often (mistakenly) characterized by many as child molesters. I must also add my own objection to those who advocate for man/boy relationships. Consenting adults is one thing, but involving minors is another.
- I am just raising a concern that any indication that Jesus was okay with pederasty will cause some to discredit everything else that has been said. Again, I realize this is reading our own times and culture into writings from another time, but there has been a lot of hurt inside as well as outside the church from child molestation.
- Lives have been shattered. Although I think that we must accept gays and lesbians into our circle of faith and into the community and that they should be allowed the same legal benefits of marriage as given to heterosexual people, it is just disconcerting to have pederasty and slave abuse thrown into the mix.
Elements of “Ethical Pederasty” in the Centurion’s Relationship
Briefly, the centurion illustrates the following elements of what could be called an “ethical pederasty.”
- His servant-partner was an age-appropriate “aide-de-camp,” able to carry the centurion’s sword and shield into battle, help with tent set up, etc. He was not a boy of twelve, but, depending on his build, had to have been between 16 and 30 or older;
- The centurion had a long-term commitment to his partner;
- He provided for the material needs of his aide-de-camp;
- He displays no evidence that one partner was as good as another;
- He had deep affection for his partner;
- His partner was extremely valuable to him;
- He was more concerned about the survival of his partner than about his personal reputation;
- He was more concerned about the survival of his partner than about the dignity and dominance of the Roman occupation army, if that was at issue;
- He was aware of and took into account prevailing standards of morality.
Considering the aide-de-camp’s likely age, the word pederasty may not even be appropriate for the relationship between the two men. This underscores the need for definitions, as well as careful exegesis. This illustrates the value of discussing age differences in sexual relationships.
A Number of Audiences to this Discussion
The first thing I’d like to note is that in this discussion of pederasty we have several possible audiences in view. The people for whom we are concerned include
- those personally damaged by child sexual abuse, including the individual victims, their families, and subsequent partners,
- those with a primarily theological or academic interest in the topic,
- LGBT believers working to understand their place in the church, and their relationship with Christ,
- people whose main concern is polemical and hostile to equality and inclusivity, and
- finally, older gay males who are attracted to adolescent males, and who want to do the right thing in their relationship(s).
(I hope my tone and approach don’t feel too antiseptic or uber-logical. It’s just that I take this problem seriously, and I find that this sort of bullet-point presentation is best for clarity and understanding.)
The group for which I must have the least concern is number 4. Comprised mainly of fundamentalists and other orthodox individuals, they are locked into their belief systems by temperament, rigidity, genuine phobias (coitophobia, sociophobia, coprophobia, haptophobia, etc.), and by their need to remain in good standing with their co-religionists. They will not be persuaded by mere words.
An Overlap of Audiences One and Four
Charles, I completely understand your “concern that any indication that Jesus was okay with pederasty will cause some to discredit everything else that has been said.” This is a valid concern, and different people will come to different conclusions regarding the problem of discrediting and rejection. We need to distinguish between the walking wounded, people who are victims of child sexual abuse, and church people who are dogmatic and delight in excluding people.
I would like to partially address your concern about discrediting people who support gay and lesbian believers and their full inclusion in church and society. I know you are already aware of the issues.
If my fundamentalist friends are the weaker brethren, why should I have to refrain from offending them? How long should I be expected to coddle these spiritual babes instead of challenging them to a more authentic faith?
(Charles Kinnaird, Pot Luck Sunday at Weaker Brethren Community Church)
There is a difference in how to approach people. Jesus welcomed the weary and burdened, and he castigated Pharisees to their faces. We must not rule out a confrontational approach when dealing with dogmatic folks, the intolerant, anal, insecure, and controlling.
- “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!” (Matthew 10:25)
- “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)
But quoting such hard-nosed, confrontational verses is far too simplistic a reply to your comments. Your concern for the wounded and damaged is equally important.
- “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
- Our God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3)
Your central concern is with the little ones, the wounded and the brokenhearted, which is appropriate. “Lives have been shattered. . . . there has been a lot of hurt inside as well as outside the church from child molestation.”
Our concerns and approaches are not mutually exclusive, but are complementary. Paul endorses a diversity of gifts and ministries. I’ve discussed this very diversity in my post, Diversity and Conflict, Spiritual Gifts, and Homosexuality.
In the past I have been too much concerned about offending the sensibilities of so-called weaker brothers. In general, they will not be persuaded by mere words, and can object to virtually anything. I must begin to disregard their sensitivities and objections because there are important concerns that progressive Christians need to consider and discuss without being “afraid of what people will think.”
Certainly the most controversial of the five audiences is number 5. For many people, even suggesting the possibility of a responsible, caring “pederast” is wicked. It is the delusion of NAMBLA. It is an unimaginable concept, or, at least, a topic so controversial and dangerous as to defy calm, rational discussion.
If, however, we believe that Jesus accepted the relationship between the Roman centurion and his pais, then this is a subject that needs to be explored. I don’t have all the answers, of course, and I know that we will never reach a consensus on the subject. But the impossibility of reaching consensus should not be a barrier to discussing what Jesus’ acceptance of the gay centurion means to us today.
Nothing in Jesus’ Life & Ministry Justifies the Sexual Abuse of Children
Jesus said, “Whatever you have done unto the least of these by brethren, you have done unto me.” If you abuse, coerce, rape, or otherwise victimize children, Jesus takes it completely personally.
Unlike his more “serious-minded” followers, Jesus said, “Allow the children to come to me.” Jesus didn’t take the playful, rambunctious, non-intellectual antics as a bothersome interruption of his “serious” teaching task. If more of adults were engaged with children, it is possible children would be less lonely, less prey to exploitation. His delight in children, however, was public, and subject to the scrutiny of concerned parents. As they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I would add to this, “It takes a village to protect a child, too.”
Scripture Urges us to Defend the Rights of the Defenseless
In the Bible, God is described as having great concern for the fatherless, that is, young people who have no one to care, protect, and provide. Without meaning to understate the equal importance of mothers myself, the patriarchal society of the past considered the protection of children the father’s responsibility. If we do not take care to protect our children, then they are, in effect, fatherless.
- The scripture says that God “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18).
- God is “defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror” (Psalm 10:18).
- In legal and institutional settings, we are commanded to advocate for children. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3).
- Blameworthy officials and citizens are severely criticized for not actively advocating for helpless children. “Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23). They “have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor” (Jeremiah 5:28).
Jesus Accepted People Ostracized by Respectable Society
Jesus’ acceptance of the ostracized and marginalized is where a lot of our difficulties arise. I need not document, chapter and verse, the social cast-offs whom Jesus accepted: lepers, prostitutes, gentiles, mixed-race co-religionists (Samaritans), collaborating traitors (tax collectors), Jews who made no attempt to live according to the Law of Moses—designated sinners, and same-sex couples.
Pariah Status: Cultural, Social, Legal, and Personal
The practice of same-sex relationships was debated in ancient civilizations just as it is today. For example, some ancient Greeks highlighted the value of male same-sex relations, others denounced them. Some ancient Romans accepted male same-sex relationships, and some argued against them. There never was an absolute consensus of opinion among the Greeks or Romans, no matter what others say.
Government policy and the legal system are important in determining the pariah status of individuals. Until recently, sodomy was a crime punishable by imprisonment in many states. President Dwight Eisenhower, in 1953, forbade the employment of homosexuals in any branch of the federal government in Executive Order 10450. Gays and lesbians were thus forced into the closet for fear of losing their government careers and livelihood.
Personal factors also figure in to whether or not a person or a group has the status of pariah, of socially ostracized, of demonized. These factors, mentioned earlier, include temperament, rigidity, genuine phobias (coitophobia, sociophobia, coprophobia, haptophobia, etc.), the need to remain in good standing with their co-religionists, as well as personal experience. Victims of childhood sexual molestation understandably find it difficult to distinguish between actual pedophiles, and gays and lesbians with no interest in children. The subject is not a matter of logic and fairness for them.
Personal factors also include personal feelings about age disparity. Such disparities are listed in the Wikipedia article, Age Disparity in Sexual Relationships. I admit that despite my attempts to refrain from judging couples with a large age disparity, I nevertheless feel discomfort where a great age difference exists. My solution is simply to tell me that they are not accountable to my sense of comfort, nor to my inability to deeply empathize. My acceptance is an intellectual thing, not, as some people would prefer, a matter of celebration.
An “Ethical Pederasty” Project?
If we accept the fact that the objectionable features of pederasty are culturally, socially, legally, and personally determined, then it should be possible to discuss an “ethical pederasty.” A discussion of “ethical pederasty” would need to address issues like
- age difference
- social limitations
- social sanctions
- emotion well-being
- the meaning of metanoia–repentance–for older Christian gay men
In a much quoted passage, the discussion of abuse focuses on anal penetration.
Though paederasty was once accepted in many cultures, some modern observers have retrospectively labeled it abusive. Enid Bloch argues that many Greek boys who were involved in paederastic relationships may have been harmed by the experience, if the relationship included anal intercourse. Bloch writes that the boy may have been traumatized by knowing that he was violating social customs. According to her, the “most shameful thing that could happen to any Greek male was penetration by another male.” In this respect Bloch is in accord with Greek sexual morality, which also recognized a difference between ethical pederasty which excluded anal intercourse and “hubristic” pederasty which was believed to debase the boy as well as the man who penetrated him. (emphasis added)
(Dumézil, Georges, preface in Homosexuality in Greek Myth by Bernard Sergent, Boston, 1984)
One of the first steps in discussing pederasty is to address the definitions of pederasty, and the definition of “ethical pederasty” in particular. Definitions include:
- Pederasty: sexual activity involving a man and a boy.
- Pederasty: sexual relations between two males, especially when one of them is a minor.
- Pederast: A man who has sexual relations, especially anal intercourse, with a boy.
Differences among these definitions: “sexual activity” could range from hugging to mutual masturbation, oral sex, and anal intercourse; “minor” status is legally determined, where “minor” status differs between states and countries; while “anal intercourse” is quite specific.
For purposes of discussion, we need to avoid the isolated word “boy.” It is imprecise and biased. There is a difference, after all, between a six-year-old and a sixteen-year-old. While the concept of adolescence is culturally determined, I nevertheless believe that “adolescent male” is a more objective label for the younger member of a “pederastic” relationship.
The definition of “ethical pederasty” seems to hinge on the absence of anal intercourse. This definition seems far too limited. An adequate “ethics of pederasty” would need to take into account far more than this, as I suggested above.
The concept of ethical pederasty is nothing new. Numerous discussions of ethical pederasty are found in the many books and articles on Plato’s Phaedrus. I am a complete novice in this field, and people interested in ethical pederasty have vast resources at their disposal.
Age of Consent in History
The legal and cultural element intersect with this matter of minors. What people consider an appropriate age of consent or legal marriage has varied remarkably, which simply indicates that there is nothing absolute about our ideas of propriety. In 1275, the legal age of marriage in England was 12 years of age. In medieval Europe, while the general age of legitimate marriage was between 12 and 14, records exist of marriages before 7, and purely legal marriages as early as 2 or 3. These were, obviously, arranged marriages.
It may be desirable to prepare a book for publication titled, “The Ethics of Christian Pederasty.” I am not, however, the person to write such a book. But if we can write books about “The Christian Concept of Just War,” “Christian Business Ethics,” “Religion and the Death Penalty,” “Christian Legal Ethics,” or “Toxic Christianity,” then discussing the Christian ethics of pederasty is certainly appropriate.
To discuss an ethics of Christian pederasty, we would need to keep in mind the purposes of developing such an ethic. It seems to me that the primary reasons for developing an ethic of responsible pederasty are
- to protect younger partners from exploitation and abuse,
- to encourage self-understanding for older partners,
- to remove the stigma from the ambiguous and poorly-defined word pederasty, and
- to relieve unvoiced tensions within the inclusive and affirming religious community regarding same-sex age-differentials.
I think I am right in my perception that for many, this is a taboo subject. It may be taboo for good reason, but it doesn’t have to be taboo for all of us.
Developing such an ethic would not be to persuade anti-gay crusaders to give up their campaign to beat gays and lesbians back into submission. Admittedly, the discussion, as Kinnaird warns, could provide them with ammunition for their bigoted, un-Christian attacks. It might, however, temper the nightmarish imaginings of gays and lesbians among less vitriolic conservatives.
Ethical Pederasty–Rationalizing Sin?
If ethical pederasty sounds like “rationalizing sin,” it is not. Consider how much ink was spilled among conservatives as they struggled to accept the ordination of women, allowing the consumption of alcohol, giving up head-coverings for women, etc. When traditional practices become untenable, Christians put their brains to work to de-absolutize subjective cultural elements embedded in the Bible. Every major and necessary shift in a well-developed ideology requires sufficient discourse to remove internal tensions and conflicts. Sometimes guilt feelings are appropriate, sometimes they are irrational.
Dealing with Same-Sex Age Differentials
There are three different but complementary ways of approaching the issues involved. One way focuses on the fact of cultural factors. Another deals with differences in personal comfort zones. What is probably the most important way to deal with same-sex age differentials is to examine how Jesus dealt with concrete people, not abstract ideas.
As I considered this post, my first thoughts were to the limitations of language. As far as I know, there are no popularly used equivalents for pederast or pederasty. At least in common currency among straights (that’s me). My background in this is admittedly quite limited. The only synonym with which I am familiar is “sugar daddy.” A less loaded version in an ethics of pederasty deals with responsibility and provision for one’s family. I prefer discussing this under the rubric of “ethical pederasty” or “responsible pederasty.”
I believe that a substantive discussion of ethical Christian pederasty could easily begin with the centurion and his pais found in Matthew 8:5-13, and Luke 7:1-10. While related to these verses, John 4:46-54 does not address the specific topic at hand. In John the centurion is transformed into an “official,” and the servant into a “son.” It seems that the Johannine community found the obvious reference to a homoerotic relationship too uncomfortable to leave standing, or had other theological reasons for their redaction.
I don’t know how practical or generally needed such a project is. Certainly the subject of ethical, fair, responsible, and lasting gay relationships where a marked difference in age exists has been discussed. I just know that changing conditions, primarily the legal and social acceptance of same-sex relationships and marriage, create the need for logical “next steps.” I don’t presume to know what the logical next steps are for the LGBT community. I have simply noted the complications that, in a Christian context, can arise in the particular discussion of the gay centurion and his aid-de-camp.
In my own “defense” regarding my previous discussion. My brief discussion of the centurion and his pais was part of a summary of the Q gospel’s same-sex theme, not a detailed discussion of each of the thematic elements. The centurion discussion highlighted pederasty and the disposition of slaves in order to explain to readers the social context and plausibility of the sexual relationship between the centurion and his servant, lest they see the thesis as arbitrary and incomprehensible. I discussed the centurion’s anguish over his servant’s life-threatening illness to emphasize the strong emotional bond between the centurion and his servant.
As a footnote, I published a satirical post a while back titled Slavery: Scripture’s Consistent Testimony. It’s a parody of an anti-gay tirade that John R. MacArthur published some years ago, in which I used reasoning and rhetoric identical to MacArthur’s. The post is a testimony to the fact that most Christians find it impossible to live strictly by the Bible.