As more and more information emerges about the life and intentions of the Orlando mass murderer, it becomes harder to dismiss the possibility that Omar Mateen was a closet homosexual, conflicted and ambivalent about his homosexuality, who was driven to a state of self-loathing by his Islamic faith and who attempted to express his rejection of his perceived “moral depravity” symbolically by “exterminating” himself and the gay community to which he was attracted. If this is correct it would provide a stark example of the perdurance in our world of ancient categories of “holiness” that are destructive of human life. The fact that these categories functioned to produce a crime of heinous proportions is a compelling argument for rekindling a religious activism — aka “reform” — that will unapologetically attempt to neutralize what is clearly false, dysfunctional and intolerable in religious doctrine.
It tends to confirm my thesis: doctrine matters.
One of the most perplexing paradoxes is the clear connection between the “Holy” God of the Book and a genocidal violence perpetrated by “his” followers on fellow human beings in the name of that “holiness.” In our Judaeo Christian tradition this appeared in the earliest scriptural records of Israel’s “contract” with their god Yahweh. Wandering Jewish tribes newly liberated from servitude in Egypt claimed that Yahweh also gave them the lands of Palestine that once belonged to Canaanites. Yahweh’s munificence was unlimited; there was only one condition: “he” demanded that they kill every non-Jewish man woman and child living in those lands.
But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God. (Deut 20: 16-18 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version)
It is indisputable that the Bible called for the extermination of people whose only crime was that they practiced a religion that was “abominable” because it acknowledged gods other than Yahweh. It was the clearest statement possible of the connection between a “holiness” linked to “God” and genocide. If we accept historians’ consensus that the date of the redaction of the book of Deuteronomy is 600 bce, this call for a genocidal holy war (Hebrew: herem) on unbelievers anticipated the Koran’s jihad by 1200 years, and may very well have been its inspiration.
There are some inconsistencies between the two versions of holy war, Jewish and Islamic, that might be interesting to examine: for example, the Koran expresses great respect for the Bible and the Jews and jihad was conceived as a defensive response to outside attack, while the biblical herem requirement was clearly xenophobic and an instrument of territorial expansion. But the most obvious incongruity is the fact that it was the “holiness” of “God” that was adduced as the reason for the mass slaughter of other human beings. What could “holiness” possibly mean if one of its obligations entailed the extermination of whole populations carried out not only with impunity but as an act of obedience and worship? Another way of putting it is to ask, what kind of “God” not only permits but actually requires the wholesale slaughter of “his” creatures?
I have been arguing for years that there is no sense talking about the reform of religion without addressing the issue of the “doctrine of God.” Nothing proves my point better than this biblical harnessing of Yahweh to the national ambitions of the Hebrew people. It redefined Yahweh as a local political operative. But that took some doing because Yahweh was not easily yoked to local politics. Genesis claimed that Yahweh created all things. That would automatically make him everyone’s god. If Yahweh was to enter local politics on the side of the Hebrews alone that original universalism had to be inverted. Yahweh first had to be identified with the Hebrew people bound by a contract that made “him” exclusively their god and they exclusively his people. “He” thereby became a god whose power was only on display in the military victories and international ascendency of his people. His “divinity” thus became dependent on the well-being of the Hebrew nation, for otherwise no one would know that “he” was really “god.”
It was this exclusivity that drove the development of the notion of “holiness.” For what was “holy” in Hebrew was kodesh, “set-apart,” “separated,” a “sacred” that was distinguished from a “profane” that paralleled the separateness of Yahweh from the other gods and therefore the separateness of the Hebrew people bound exclusively to Yahweh by contract.
The “contract” was a simple affair: the people were to obey certain laws, abstain from certain foods and practices, perform certain rituals and above all avoid “contamination” with gods other than Yahweh, and Yahweh would give them power and prosperity. The uniqueness and the “separateness” that characterized the relationship between Yahweh and his people was thus objectified in the terms of the contract detailing what “holy” human practices corresponded to the “holiness” of Yahweh. The entire phenomenon was generated as the objectification of the “special” and unique relationship between Yahweh and the twelve tribes.
“Moral behavior” in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition was made part of this constellation of practices. The “ten commandments” and the rest of the Jewish law was part of the contract. This is important to emphasize. From the earliest times in our tradition, morality was conceived, not as our groping discovery of what works for the harmony and well-being of human beings in society, but rather as a “special practice” that identified its practitioner as a member of Yahweh’s contractual household. Thus Yahweh was thought to be invested in human moral behavior as an expression of respect and surrender to “him” and not as the autonomous discernment of what is good for people. Both the motivation and the ultimate validation of the moral code was displaced from human responsibility to divine command.
As time went along and the “God of the Book” came to displace all other religious imagery in the Western World, even Greek rationalized morality, logically deduced from the “purposes” the philosophers claimed were embedded and self-evident in everything created, was subsumed under the category of the “contract.” Relationship to “God” was upgraded to a “new contract” by the Roman Empire to include the imperial version of Christianity and the entire “known world” (which happened to coincide with the Roman State). Thus the Roman authorities, wearing the mantle of the “teaching authority” of the Christian bishops, knew exactly what “God” wanted from every individual and in this context the human sexual apparatus, obviously designed for reproduction of the species, when used for purposes foreign to its design, was to be condemned as evil. Such behavior was “unholy” and broke the contract. It was contrary to the will of “God,” it corrupted the human individual and any society that allowed it would call down the wrath of “God” for having broken the contract. The authorities entrusted with the safety of society had no choice but to expunge any individuals who refused to desist from such “unnatural” behavior. The very survival of the community was at stake.
In Islam, the sixth century Koran repeated the injunctions against homosexuality found in the Jewish Bible connected with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later in the Middle Ages, when Islamic philosophers began to interpret the Koran in the light of Aristotle and other Greek moralists, they applied the same rationalist arguments for maintaining the traditional condemnations. Punishments for homosexual activity in Sharía law are particularly harsh:
A 2014 fatwa from the mainstream OnIslam.net proclaimed that homosexuality is “abnormal” and abhorrent” and confirmed that gays should be killed: “The punishment for men or women who are unwilling to give up homosexuality and therefore are rejecting the guidance of Allah Most High is in fact death according to Islam.” An imam invited to speak at a Florida mosque in 2016 said that killing gays was an “act of compassion”. (https://www.thereligionofpeace.com/pages/quran/homosexuality.aspx)
But aside from the harshness, as far as religions are concerned, there is virtually no difference in the moral take on homosexuality between mainstream Christianity and Islam. Some fundamentalist Christian preachers in the aftermath of Orlando have been heard agreeing that homosexuals should be executed. And that should not surprise us because they are both, Christians and Muslims, operating from exactly the same premises: a “doctrine of God” that imagines an anthropomorphic, rational, personal deity who micro-manages human life providentially and who judges all human behavior against the bar of the particular “contract:” a “holy” code of conduct that supposedly mirrors the “holiness” of “God.” No amount of spontaneous compassion for the victims of the massacre or revulsion at the actions of the perpetrator will change this underlying mindset, because the premises which justify mass murder remain intact.
I claim there is no such “God.”
Until we begin to understand that our spontaneous reactions imply a different concept of “God” from the one that supports mainstream religion, we will never be able to avoid the implications of the premises: that there is a “God” whose “holiness” is not defined by love but by a “code of separation” based on special behavior designed to establish the superiority of one people over another. This sectarian “God” is very different from the universal Source and Sustenance of Life in our cosmos. For the “God” “in whom all things live and move and have their being” stands firmly against any attempt to advance the interests of one community over another. “He” is the “God” of all things. It is the premise from which all validity in religion is derived.