By Miguel De La Torre
As a man of color, I always read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 with an emphasis on Africa.
When we think of the gospel message moving beyond the Jews, we usually see the trajectory going toward the center of the dominant empire at the time of the early church — Rome. Many see the good news as a Eurocentric project that found its fulfillment within the empire.
The first non-Jewish convert to the gospel message was not a European, however, but an African. Ethiopia is an African nation, and it is to the Africans that Christ’s message first goes in the biblical account. After Africa, it makes its way to Europe.
This reading through Hispanic eyes unmasks insights about the text that most of my Eurocentric colleagues miss. Nevertheless, I can easily fall into a similar myopia if I solely read the text with heterosexual eyes.
While whites may gain insight from me when I read the text from my particular social location, I myself am in danger of missing all the gems to be mined from a passage if I refuse to learn how to read the text from other marginalized social locations.
That is why people of faith need the GLBT (shorthand for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community. It wasn’t until my GLBT colleagues shared with me how they read the text from their social location that the Word came alive for me. They challenged me to place as much emphasis on the fact that he was a eunuch as I have been placing on the fact that he was an Ethiopian.
Eunuchs were men who were castrated, usually so that they could be considered safe enough to work for royalty in places of great trust. Because they were unable to be fruitful and multiply, eunuchs were deemed sexual outcasts, unable to enter the assembly of Yahweh according to Deuteronomy 23.
The question we should ask ourselves as we approach Acts 8 are: Who today are the sexual outcasts? Who today, because of their sexual identity, face obstacles in entering or serving in God’s house? Who today, in the words of Deuteronomy, are cut off?
For many GLBT scholars, the eunuchs who were the sexual outcasts of yesteryear are the GLBT community who are the sexual outcasts of today. These eunuchs of old are considered to be the predecessors of today’s gays and lesbians.
How, then, do we make sense of the exclusive reading of Deuteronomy that prevents the eunuch from entering into God’s house?
Whenever we read the biblical text, we read it from our particular social location. What is usually accepted as biblical truth is nothing more than the subjective reading of those in power, who make their interpretations normative and legitimate for the rest of the faith community.
Unfortunately, if we are unaware of readings of the text that come from marginalized perspectives, we ignore how our interpretations justify lifestyles that are at times contradictory to the very essence of the gospel message.
With this in mind, we can return to the Ethiopian eunuch and discover an interpretation ignored by those who wish to keep the GLBT community marginalized.
Here, then, is the good news for all who are sexual outcasts, whether they be the eunuch of old or the homosexual of today.
In spite of Deuteronomy’s exclusion, there exists a special place reserved for them in God’s house. In the messianic dream in Isaiah 56, the prophet proclaims: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dried-up tree,’ for thus says Yahweh to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, and chooses things with which I am pleased, and take hold of my covenant.
“I will even give them in my house and in my walls a hand and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off.” (No doubt the puns were intentional.)
Here, then, is the significance of the story in Acts 8. The first non-Jew to be converted to the faith was a sexual outcast. So-called normative heterosexuals follow the sexual outcast to Jesus.