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daniel helminiak

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A Roman Catholic priest for twenty-eight years, and now a writer, counselor, and educator, Daniel Helminiak waded through the sometimes dense thicket of scholarship on the bible and homosexuality in order to order to write a book for general readers, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Helminiak gathers scholarly evidence to argue against biblical literalism and all those who wield the scriptures to condemn homosexuality.
What made you write What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality?

I was living in Texas, in the Bible Belt. The same line is being preached on street corners, on the radio, on the television. It is so uninformed, so ignorant, and so unaware, and yet it's what's heard. . . .

What's so ignorant?

That the sin of Sodom is about homosexuality, for example. . . .The sin of Sodom was hard-heartedness, having abundance and not sharing with the poor. . . . There certainly was male-male sex intended there. Let's say "male rape," because that's what was at stake. . . . And there's no doubt that that's part of the story. But why is it in the story? The story is about people who were so hard-hearted, they wouldn't welcome anyone in. They wouldn't share. And they were so bad that they were actually going to rape these people. The rape is just in there to heighten the atrocity of hard-heartedness. . . .The sin is the hard-heartedness. . . .I get absolutely frustrated because it's so obvious that this is not about sex, even though sex is part of it. And yet people continue to read it in those terms. Jesus sends out his disciples.

What's the reaction when you tell people this?

I guess it depends on who they are. Some people are enlightened and say, "Oh, this makes sense." And other people say, "Well, you know, you're just saying that. I don't know." . . .

What about the apostle Paul? I think the Christian right, in particular, holds on to Paul and Romans I, where he says it is unnatural.

When you read Paul the way it's translated, it seems pretty clear. "Unnatural" is a mistranslation, pure and simple. It should read "atypical". The Greek words are "para physin"--beyond the natural.

So you're saying the King James version is basically mistranslated?

We are at a point in history where it should be considered outrageous for an educated person to quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality All of them are mistranslated. And this is only recent scholarship, like in the past ten years. The word "para physin" comes out of early Stoic philosophy, from the early centuries when Christianity was forming. If it was being used in the Stoic sense, then it would mean "unnatural." The fact is that Paul, who was using it, didn't know Stoic philosophy. He used it in his own sense, which squares with the popular usage of the day. ... When they were talking about men and women, if you did things that weren't the standard way of behaving, it was called "unnatural." What it meant was "unconventional." . . . They can say that Paul is condemning. But if you read him very, very closely, you see what he's really saying. Take out the prejudices that we have, and he's portraying two things that happen to the Gentiles. They're into dirty behaviors, uncleanness (and that's the sexual stuff), and they're into really evil and wicked things as well. And later on he goes to say, "But nothing is unclean in Christ." And his lesson is, "Let's stop splitting up the church over stuff that doesn't matter." I'm saying that today, as well as Paul saying it then. We shouldn't be bickering over sexual practices. What we should be concerned about is love and charity and concern. . . .

Why don't we know this, if bible scholars and historians have shown all of this?

One of the other things that probably plays into it is our separation of church and state. I think we have an extreme tolerance for foolishness and stupidity when it comes in the name of religion. We'll say, "You have a right to your beliefs." And it can be absolutely absurd. . . . We have such tolerance for religion, because we've basically taken religion and shoved it to the side. We've split religion apart from our secular society, and so let it do what it wants. It's like a circus on the sidelines, and the rest of life goes its own way, run by the bottom line. The money thing is what matters, and the religion is on the side, so let anybody believe what they want. . . .

We are at a point in history where it should be considered outrageous for an educated person to quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality. But then, we've got school boards and states voting against teaching evolution in the schools. I don't know anyone who's still insisting the earth is flat, although that's the way the Bible puts it up. It should be outrageous for an educated person to quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality. It should just be intolerable. If it's not that the Bible is allowing it, at the very least, the evidence is so uncertain that an honest person would not appeal to that evidence to try to make a point. And if people don't know the uncertainty and claim to be educated . . . it's just outrageous.

What moves you to keep doing what you're doing?

Somebody has to let people know there's another way of reading the Bible. What is fascinating is that probably the Bible is the foundation from which people oppose homosexuality. They'll come down to that in the end--even politicians who don't want to be religious. You get them talking off the cuff and they'll appeal to the Bible. . . It's so important for people to realize that the Bible does not condemn, if you read it in its own context. It's only when you take it out of context, and read your own mind into it, that it's condemning. If we could get that territory cleaned up, then we could start talking about what is good and what isn't, what's wholesome and what produces . . . good living, and what doesn't. That would be a much more profitable discussion than shouting Bible texts back and forth to each other, and accusing people of going to hell. The evidence is out there. People who know anything about the Bible know that the evidence is there. . . . .

The most vocal groups among the Christian right cling to the Bible literally. What are your thoughts on that?

I think they believe that they're really speaking for God. ...

And they're obeying God, then.

Yes. The illusion, of course, is that the Bible is literally the word of God, and it says what God wants. It's real clear that it is a matter of interpretation. If it really were God's word, then it should be obeyed. The big question is: Is this really God, or is this my interpretation, or somebody else's, telling me that this is what God wants? They've decided on principle that if it's in this book, this is it, and won't ask any questions about it, even though some of the conclusions . . . are highly untenable. Take slavery -- I've heard that some, in their hearts, still believe that slavery is legitimate, but that we can't practice it in this society. But most say that you have to reinterpret it. They allow reinterpretation on that topic, but they won't allow reinterpretation on the sexual stuff.

Why won't they allow reinterpretation on the sexual parts?

Well, because I think they still have society on their side, for the most part. They can find enough support that it doesn't seem so untenable. ... The same stuff went on with the slavery question, and they held on to that as long as they could. ... I find it very interesting that no fundamentalist will insist on the cosmology that's in the Bible, regarding the structure of the world and the universe. If you read the Bible carefully, the first book of Genesis . . . talks about the earth as a flat disk of land floating on water, with a dome above it and stars hanging down, and water above it. . . . It's a flat earth theory. That's what's in the Bible. I don't know any of them that will maintain that.

Many people in fundamentalist religious groups say that they feel the gay rights movement has really eroded their power base.

Yes. They're right. It becomes harder and harder for them to maintain their position when others are so publicly opposed to it. I heard of one guy who was visiting a fundamentalist religious group of youth, and he brought up the issue of gay and lesbians. A lot of them were just real casual about it. And he said, "Well, why is this? You know what your parents would say." They said, "Yes, but we watch MTV." They're getting other information and other sensitivities from the culture, so they're not going to be as rigid as their parents. Eventually, the parents' way of life won't be upheld. So the fact of the matter is, the culture is moving. . . . Is it moving in the right direction, or not? That's a legitimate question. They say that gay-lesbian relationships are evil. I would like somebody to show me what's evil about them. If you have a couple who find each other, and as a result their lives are better all around--they're happier, more fulfilled, and contributing more--if their whole life is better, what is evil about it? ...

Why do so many people seem so unwilling to question the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuals?

Why people are so afraid of doing it? That's scary, because it really comes down to self-protection in the end . . .

How did you personally come to understand the Bible the way you do?

I was the most pious of all the pious when I was in seminary. I believed everything. I was so scrupulous about doing everything that was required. And there were one or two incidents along the way where somewhere I learned to think for myself. . . . I was going through puberty, and I started having sexual feelings. It was a mortal sin to indulge in any kind of sexual feeling. How do you know if you indulged in it or not? How long does it have to go on? When you're a teenager, it could go on for hours. Did I indulge, or didn't I? If you're in sin, you're not allowed to go to communion. I used to walk around to keep myself distracted, so I wouldn't have any kind of thoughts, and all of a sudden having this sexual feeling. I said to myself, "This is stupid. If God is going to send me to hell for this, I want another God. That is not my God." Where I got that from, I don't know. But it was like a turning point. . . .

How did you get from Daniel Helminiak, Catholic priest, to the Daniel Helminiak who you are now?

There were a lot of these step-by-step things. Part of it was dealing with my sexuality and realizing that this can't be right--I'm supposed to repress all this? I didn't even know what all this was about. Part of it was looking at what was going women's roles in the Catholic Church. One of the big things was the whole AIDS controversy. You're not allowed to teach kids about condoms, and they're out there getting HIV because condoms are . . . contraceptives. I couldn't believe that we're going to let kids die because we don't want them to have an orgasm. Things like that just built up.

It got to a point where I was not able to represent what I was supposed to be. I wasn't living what I was supposed to be living. It doesn't matter to me that lots of the other priests weren't either. . . . I was attempting to be an authentic person. I only preached about what I could believe in. I began to realize that my mind was much more of an academician and a teacher than a pastor, and . . . I should be on a campus somewhere, where you're free to express ideas and push the edge. I wasn't doing much pastoral ministry. The little bit I was doing was highly successful, I think, because I was so far on the edge. The further out I went, the more relevant I became.

What were those first steps away from the priesthood like?

I can remember the first time I deliberately went and had sex with someone. It was somebody I had known, who had approached me . . . and I was being sympathetic because he's telling me he's gay. I remember going to the telephone, picking it up, and saying, "If ever there was a deliberate act of the will with full knowledge," (and that's what constitutes mortal sin), "this is doing it." I dialed the phone number. I said to myself, "I've talked about it and prayed about it and read about it and studied about it. How am I ever going to figure this out if I don't do something with it?"

There came the point where the moral thing to do was to find out in a responsible way what sex is about. . . . I did not think that was wrong. In fact, I thought God was happy that finally I got off my duff and did something. God said, "Yay! Finally you're growing up! You're starting to live." Then I start to deal with being gay and coming out, getting to know what the gay scene is, and rethinking. People find that hard to believe. . . . I'm ordained, and a priest, and all of a sudden I'm finding out who I am. Well, it happens.


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