Opinion
3 min

The origins of Christian homophobia

Guilt, sex laws and the self-loathing writings of a douchebag named Saint Paul

Maybe the questions have crossed your mind in one form or another: When and why did Christians become such assholes about homosexuality? Although other, mainly Western, religions have played a role, Christianity is one of the biggest influences of homophobic attitudes and laws worldwide — the sheer number of countries still grappling with anti-gay laws imported by Christian colonists and missionaries throughout the past half a millennium is proof enough.

Homophobia is just one facet of Christianity’s war against sex — and it’s a war that wasn’t even its own to begin with.

(Illustration: Yigi Chang/Daily Xtra)

In the second and third centuries, the Roman Empire was wildly destabilized with rampant corruption, disease, constant military revolts and barbarian invasions. The Empire’s populace was faced with a bleak, chaotic existence, and many turned to imported religious cults, mysticism or philosophy for guidance.

Stoicism, a school of philosophy founded around the third century BC, was just one of those guiding lights people turned to — stoics were mainly preoccupied with how someone should live in order to be happy. They looked to nature for guidance on sex, and saw (mistakenly) that animals only had sex for procreation. Therefore, they believed that excess sex — homosexual, heterosexual or otherwise — was (again, mistakenly) a man-made problem and would not contribute to leading a happy life. One stoic, Seneca the Younger, claimed recreational sex was “unnatural,” similar to other human decadences like heated pools or potted plants. These philosophers didn’t intend this to be moral law — it was more like part of a theory to becoming a better person. Despite the philosophy’s focus on sexual asceticism, a number of prominent stoics like Zeno  and Cicero took part in the extraordinarily commonplace pastime of sleeping with men.

Around the same time, a firebrand, apocalyptic Jewish sect was growing out of the eastern Mediterranean. Early writers borrowed heavily from the works of Judaism, mystic sects of Gnosticism and Iranian dualistic religions, and centred their stories around a Galilean, Jewish rabbi who was sent to Earth by a monotheistic god — and he was, in fact, that same god? And a holy ghost? He ended up getting crucified by Romans and a number of people had a lot to say about it.

In the first century, Saul of Tarsus — originally an antagonist to disciples of this supposed son of God, turned preacher for Jesus Christ — is widely attributed as the writer of more than half of the New Testament. Saul, turned Paul the Apostle, borrowed heavily from ascetic philosophies like the earlier works of stoicism. He preached ascetic sexuality and, like stoicism, claimed procreative sex was better than non-procreative sex — and that no sex was better than any sex at all.

While Jesus didn’t have anything to say about homosexuality, Saint Paul sure as hell did. In “1 Corinthians,” he claimed that neither “fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves” would get past the pearly gates. In “Romans,” he claimed that an all-powerful, all-knowing deity with “eternal power and divine nature” gave his creations a sinful nature, and would punish sinners accordingly. Therefore, the infamous passage: “the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

This opened up a whole new world of spiritual self-loathing, shared by Paul himself.  “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me,” Paul wrote in “Romans.” “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”

This traditional Christian practice of setting ourselves up for sinful behaviour led some scholars to believe that Paul likely had his own share of homosexual tendencies. Like Christ, Paul was born in the midst of the Roman Empire, where homosexuality was still as commonplace as breathing. He despised women and (like Christ) never married, which was unusual for a Jewish man at the time — it’s easy to argue that Paul took the well-known Christian practice of preaching against the sins of which you’re most guilty. He isn’t the sole culprit of intense anti-sexual neuroses. But in the end, we all ended up totally fucked over by Saint Paul.

(History Boys appears on Daily Xtra on the first and third Tuesday of every month. You can also follow them on Facebook.)