Pagan America – Part 2
How does a follower of Jesus, in the United States of America, process the cultural acceptance of homosexuality and the redefining of marriage to include same-sex couples? This is the question of the day and it affects every believer and church in our nation.
The beginning point is perspective. As Americans, we tend to be shortsighted when it comes to perspective. We think that a 150-year-old home dating back to the Civil War is old. Europeans laugh because many of them live in homes just as old or older. “Old” is measured in the thousands of years across most of the world while it is measured in just over 200 years here.
This is to point out that we are not the only nation to have struggled over the issues surrounding same-sex relationships. The fact is that homosexual activity can be traced back to the time of Genesis which is about as far back as one can go. Genesis 19 gives the account of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These names have come to be synonymous with sexual deviancy. Our word, sodomy, is derived directly from this biblical account. Genesis 19 tells of angels sent by God that were held-up in the home of Lot. The men of the city, we are told, laid siege to the home demanding that Lot turn out the angelic guests so that they could engage in sex with them. Clearly the moral code of Sodom was bankrupt and thoroughly pagan.
When one considers the great pagan societies of ancient history, those of the Greek and Roman Empires stand out. While the Greeks did not embrace the idea of sexual orientation as we do today, they instead focused more on the roles played regarding sexual intercourse – one being active while another being passive. Gender was not a consideration as pederasty was a social norm (sexual relations between men and pubescent boys). While such a thing is seen as abusive today, in the Greek culture, pederasty did not have its roots in sexual relations but in the coming of age of boys to men. An older man would take a young man under his wing to train and educate him, to prepare him for military service. Teaching the young man about sex was part of becoming a man. And so sexual contact was the norm. It has even been suggested by some scholars that Alexander the Great shared sexual relations with his boyhood friend Hephaestion.
In addition, the erotic poetry of Sappho, who was born on the island of Lesbos, highlights her sexualized love toward women. Sappho was also a leader over female communities called thiasoi designed to educate young girls. In these communities homosexual relations were common.
The Greek Empire gave way to the Roman Empire. The Roman attitude toward same-sex relations continued to evolve. While marriage between a man and a woman was the norm, there was no social stigma attached to a man having sex with anyone, regardless of gender, as long as he played the dominant role. Sex outside of marriage was not a taboo and was nearly always expected of men. While little interest is given to same-sex relations between women in the written Roman record, it is clear the practice existed. Further, homosexual depictions in Roman art are numerous indicating a celebration of these acts.
Gay marriage, specifically, is seen in the record of the Imperial Period with traditional marriage rites being celebrated among men. It is interesting to note that even though such practices occurred, just like today, it was not accepted by all, as reports exist where the practice was mocked. It is also interesting to note that the Romans did not officially recognize gay marriage in their laws but there was a clear concern that celebrating gay marriage publically could lead to an eventual accommodation of it in the law.
The Roman leadership, at times, pushed the bounds further out. Roman Emperor Nero was known to have been married to two men as part of official ceremonies. In one wedding he played the groom and in the other the bride. The third century record shows that Emperor Elagabalus played the role of bride in a marriage to his male partner. Additionally, it is known that other men within the imperial court also took husbands.
So why the history lesson?
Christians today bemoan the loss of America as a Christian nation. Christians also have a tendency to think that “its never been this bad before.” Well perspective informs us that what is happening in America is no different than what happened in the clearly recognized pagan civilizations of Greece and Rome and many others. As is often said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
So yes, America is not a Christian nation. What America is, what it has become, is a pluralistic nation. Pluralistic religiously and pluralistic morally. America has become a pagan nation. Yes, that is an ugly word for some but it is also accurate. Meriam-Webster defines pagan as, 1) a follower of polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome), 2) one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods: an irreligious or hedonistic person.
Yes, the United States of America fits the bill. We are a pagan nation. Our laws and Constitution have been rebranded to champion religious pluralism. Our president champions all gods and a hedonistic lifestyle.
So what are we, as followers of Jesus, to do with that? Well, I think we have much to do! In fact, I think we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ who lived in the Roman period, of which the New Testament was a part. Rome was pagan and Christianity grew and thrived. There came a point in the book of Acts where Christianity even invaded the court of Caesar himself.
Tomorrow, I will give some thoughts on how to live (and not to live) as a Christian in a pagan civilization.