In a recent piece Alan Jacobs claims that “no Christian group is moving from greater to less tolerance of same-sex relationships”. I’m not quite sure I’d agree. The reason being, that in the past, certain Christian groups didn’t need to have a stand on homosexuality – they simply weren’t confronted by it, and they were basically able to leave it as an issue surrounded in silence. With the increasing prominence of gays in public, and even within the church, these groups have been forced into taking up a position – and often, in the so-called Culture Wars have chosen to take up an extremely antagonist one towards the gay community at large. To me, this move from silence to antagonism is surely to be understood as a move towards less tolerance, is it not?
He also claims that the key issue involved in a Christian organisation’s “journey” is that at some point in its history the only possible narrative to tell is that it has let its views be shaped by what is socially acceptable.
The problem – as I see – is that for many people, when thinking about the acceptance of gay relationships within the church, they see it as moving away from the historic views of the church – what most conservative Christians would call the orthodox, or traditional Christian sexual ethic (i.e. celibacy, or monogamous marriage between a man and a woman), – in order to accommodate its views with the culture at large.
The possibility, however, that these so-called ‘historic views’ were themselves an accommodation to the societies in which they developed never seems to come up as a possibility. And hence a range of relationships are elided, such as, polygamous marriages for example – social bonds that were very much accommodated within the ‘orthodox’ Judeo-Christian worldview at certain periods. In fact, we see this even, to a lesser degree admittedly, in the prized roles of the traditional view themselves. Historically, monogamous heterosexual marriage and celibacy haven’t been on the same footing; at different times and places and in different societies each one has been more or less dominant.
Basically, what I’m trying to get at could be put more simply as follows: what if the consistent faithful Gospel view (the authentically Christian view about sexuality – the view held in light of the Gospel, if you will), is the view that gay relationships are acceptable to God as much as straight relationships or celibacy are, and that instead, it was Christianity’s and the church’s succumbing to public pressure – to what was acceptable in cultural circles – that caused it to forgo this sexual ethic?
The reason I raise this, is the nagging suspicion that I have about the nature of homophobia itself. It is a deeply pervasive evil in our – in any – society. And yes, many sociologists, or psychologists will tell you that it is socialised and learnt etc. But historically the impulse towards fear – and lack of tolerance – towards people who sexually desire members of their own sex is linked (and this has been demonstrated) towards another form of discrimination, sexism. And this, as any astute reader of history will tell you, is a universal historical problem. In some ways, yes, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia are all socialised. But a part of me wonders whether there is something intrinsic about these ‘dispositions’ within our sinful human natures. Maybe we aren’t taught to hate gays; maybe that disgust that some Christian leaders have recently spoken about in relation to gay people is a part of human sinful nature itself – and therefore, maybe, also, it has biased us in our readings and interpretations of the Gospel message; and now, just maybe, the Holy Spirit is finally opening our eyes towards our own sinful twisting of Scripture in order to justify our non-acceptance of gays based on our own evil desires – our desires to despise what is different from us.
At any rate, it sure is interesting that in recent years many more Scriptural arguments are being made for the inclusion of gay relationships within the church. And it is interesting to see just how ambiguous and limited those lines of Scripture are that historically have been used to prohibit gay relationships. It has also been very interesting to watch conservative Christians change their arguments. In previous decades appeals to Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus and Corinthians, as well as a few so-called ‘scientific’ and psychological studies were enough to stop the acceptance of gay love within the church. These days, given the fact that those pseudo-scientific studies have largely been demonstrated to be bogus – not in the least by faithful, responsible, and loving gay relationships themselves – and the fact that, if we’re honest, we’re less certain about the meaning of certain Greek words, and our knowledge of what exactly happened in such and such a period, and what is actually meant by the terms and ideas surrounding ‘gender’, or ‘sexual difference’, other tactics to stave off the acceptance of gay marriage within the church have begun to appear, such as the claims to ‘Christian tradition’ and the overreaching of some Scriptural hermeneutics. We’ve moved away from the details, because they no longer say quite what we’d like them to say, and instead moved on towards generalities.
Maybe, just maybe, through faithful, historically-sensitive exegesis, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the confrontation of our own prejudices and sins, the church is being reformed into a more Christ-like, and biblical community.
"To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are."
James K.A. Smith
The always interesting Steve Holmes has a new post up entitled ‘Church as (non-nuclear) family’. In it he questions what is actually in view when the writers of the Bible’s use the metaphor of family to describe the church. He concludes that what is in view – unsurprisingly, I’m sure, to anyone who has even a vague idea of the kinds of familial bonds practiced elsewhere (and at other times) outside of the modern West – is not the nuclear family. And more importantly (and rightly, in my opinion), that when the Bible in fact speaks about the church as family, it does so to intimate the obligations that its members had towards one another and not necessarily the levels of intimacy one should expect within those social bonds.
If we accept this (which I think I do), where, then, exactly are we expected to find intimacy? The verse that immediately popped into my head as I was reading Steve’s piece was Psalm 68:6: ‘God sets the lonely in families’. How does this verse sit with what has been stated above? At first glance it seems to contradict it. But perhaps here ‘lonely’ implies merely the designation of ‘being alone’, or solo. In that way, God does – in full agreement with everything sketched above – set single people into a family that is bound to each other through a variety of obligations and social bonds. But if the ‘lonely’ is to be understood in a more qualitative rather than quantitative sense, it surely does imply some kind of lack of intimacy?
I’m afraid at this point – with little access to any decent exegetical commentaries and unable to read Hebrew – I can’t quite commit to either interpretation. But if we step back and think a bit more about the world that the writers of the Bible inhabited, a solution might be found. Where, for example, would a Jew in Jerusalem in say the 8th century B.C. or a Gentile in Rome in the 1st century A.D. expect to find intimacy?
The unavoidable answer would, I think, have to be in friendship, first and foremost. While you do occasionally find examples of deep emotional intimacy between husbands and wives (I think particularly of the inscriptions on certain tombstones in Rome set up by husbands for their deceased wives which display clear examples of deep intimacy), you find it much more abundantly celebrated in literary works, across genres and periods, in friendship. It is worth saying, given the idea of the nuclear family that his piece is based around, that the same holds true, in general, for parent-child relationships in antiquity.
This brings me to a further point. What kind of intimacy are we actually speaking about? If we are speaking about emotional and intellectual intimacy, then certainly what I’ve just written holds true. If, however, we are speaking of physical intimacy, the next question to ask then, is what exactly constitutes physical intimacy?
Perhaps it would be better to speak of ‘sexual expression’, and conclude that it certainly occurred within marriages – sometimes coupled with intimacy (of the emotion/intellectual variety) and sometimes not. If we take physical intimacy, however, to mean a physical expression of deep felt emotional connections, then that too would have occurred in a variety of ways: kissing, hugging, the holding of hands, sex etc. And, presumably, some of these actions were socially acceptable in certain contexts across a range of relationships that were not only limited to marriage, while others were not.
Anyway, all this to say, that it is interesting that in the modern West, we often (not always, I’ll concede – but certainly much more than at other times) place the burden of intimacy – both emotional and physical – squarely on the shoulders of our romantic partners.
Applying for jobs. Lets face it, if you pick “prefer not to say,” you may as well have stamped your application with a rainbow flag. It’s a shame that one of the options in the drop-down box isn’t: “As Foucault successfully argued, our preoccupation with our own sexuality is a trap that the discursive regime we inhabit has laid for us. Although the knowledge gained from philosophizing about sexuality can be strategically deployed for emancipatory and deconstructive purposes, it is a two-edged sword, since such knowledge also provides a site by which we can be monitored, controlled, and disciplined by others, generating and producing a body of knowledge by which power can keep us under surveillance, and, more subtly, keep us keeping ourselves under surveillance. Knowledge is power, but it not only power *for* you but *over* you.”
[Posted from a friend’s Facebook timeline, with his expressed permission].
I briefly dipped into Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013) this afternoon. I have not read it thoroughly, and so until I do so, I’m not going to comment on it fully, but it did leave me a bit frustrated by the way that he would amass all the right material, but seemingly come to the “wrong” conclusions (read: not mine; and certainly not the conclusions of many other scholars of ancient sexuality either). That spurred me on to jot down the few thoughts below.
It seems to me, having spent much of the last decade or more reading about sexuality and faith, that those who wish to argue that a passage such as the one found in the opening verses of Paul’s epistle to the Romans is an absolute and trans-historical condemnation of all gay relationships (and I use the term “gay” advisedly) must argue that Paul could have envisioned what is now being argued for in some (but by no means all) quarters of the LGBTQ community, that is, responsible, faithful, stable, monogamous partnering between members of the same-sex, as opposed to same-sex sexual acts of any kind, including, but not only limited to, pederasty or prostitution, both religious and economic. Because, until it is plausible that Paul had even a vague conception of what a gay Christian marriage could look like, we must accept that his opprobrium towards people who take part in any form of homosexual expression is culture-bound and time-specific – and is made in relation to “ways of being” that are simply not possible in the modern Western world given our different schema of sexual categories (which Kyle Harper apparently appears to agree with).
As an aside, it is worth pointing out that what Paul – and other parts of the Old and New Testaments – says in regard to these so-called same-sex sex acts is nothing less than outright condemnation; take e.g. Romans 1:32, Paul specifically states that those who participate in sexual acts with members of their own sex, deserve to be put to death. If we were to understand Paul to be saying this here, and extrapolate this idea further and apply it across the board, and in relation to the rest of his teaching, we would then need to develop a very different pastoral approach to a number of people within the church. Take, for example, the malakia mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:9, if we take this to refer to men who engage in same-sex sexual acts, and take into account its wider lexical meanings associated with effeminacy and passivity, where would we, pastorally, draw the line? Ok, so don’t have sex with another man, and also don’t wear dresses? I know a number of my straight, exceedingly masculine friends, who, at some event like their bachelor’s party, wore drag. Are they to be put to death? And wait, didn’t Jesus wear outfits that by our definitions today would be considered “womanly”? Or what about, perhaps, something like: don’t wear perfume? Does aftershave count? What makes something masculine or feminine? Going back to that same word’s semantic range, in various Greek moralising texts, it is worth noting that it includes men who perform oral sex on women, and men who’ve had too much sex with women.
This leaves Christians who want to be pastorally sensitive to their gay brothers and sisters but also adhere to orthodox Christian tradition in a sticky situation. I take it we don’t plan just yet to put our gay friends to death, but then we are happy to speak of them as celibate gay Christians, and talk about the “positive” aspects that a gay sexual orientation can bring to the church – as long as it is rightly ordered, and remains free from genital expression. The seriousness of Paul’s language, however, if he is indeed speaking about all same-sex sexual acts everywhere and for all time, should at least make us feel uncomfortable about the possibility of this.
The problem, though, as I see it, is this: Paul, nowhere gives us even a hint that he does have the kind of relationship that I sketched above in view. If we take the other instances where same-sex sexual acts are alluded to in the Pauline corpus (1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy) we see that even there those passages speak about people who are “men-bedders” (arsenokoites), which the best traditional guesses believe to be the active partners in a same-sex sexual act or a specifically coined term to speak of men deviating from their “natural” sexual desires for women, and the best revisionist guess interprets (rightly, in my opinion) to be a sort of prostitution (or, at least, some sort of sexual act with an economic component) [the most honest and responsible scholarly answer, however, would be that we just don’t really know for certain what that terms means], and “effeminates” (malakia), which, again, most traditional interpreters take to mean passive men in a same-sex sexual relationship, and which, as I pointed out above, has a range of different association (and in fact not all negative) depending on the context of its use within Greek literature. The question could be asked, if Paul wanted to condemn all same-sex sexual acts everywhere and for all time, why did he need to uses two different terms to do it? In either cases, though, it appears that Paul is condemning men who don’t act like Jewish men (perhaps specifically even Hellenistic Jewish men, think of Philo’s writings on the topic), and that what he really has in view is gender deviance (which Kyle Harper agrees with. He then just somehow gets to universal condemnation of all same-sex sexual acts as well). Therefore Paul is condemning active males doing the “wrong” activity, and passive males, and active females etc. The action is wrong in relation to his or her gender role, and the expectations surrounding it, and not intrinsically linked to the person’s sex or sexuality. Needless to say, divine inspiration or not, Paul seems to be a product of his time in some of his thoughts about gender (and yes, I did put the “some” in there before you all point me to articles arguing for his progressive views of women; trust me, I’m aware of them).
This returns me to the passage in the epistle to the Romans, because according to traditional interpretations it also refers to female homosexuality (although, this too is a much-debated matter) – and as such, it is one of the rare instances of this in the entire corpus of Greco-Roman literature. What is telling, if this is indeed referring to female same-sex sexual acts, is that in almost every other instance of these acts being referred to in other texts in the ancient world, they are usually described in order to illustrate women transgressing gender boundaries. So if anything, it strengthens the case that what is really in view here is a patriarchal condemnation of gender deviance, both of members of one’s own biological sex and also of others (and I expressly use the plural here, for I have no doubt that intersex people would be included in this also, as they certainly were in other literary sources from the period).
To sum up, what, or who, Paul appears to be condemning, are:
1. Active men in a same-sex sexual act.
2. Passive men in the same-sex sexual act.
3. All women who have sex outside of a submissive role to their husbands.
Now those of you who are good at basic logic will say, hey, wait a moment, that is everyone outside of monogamous heterosexual sex! But to do so means you would have missed the point, because what I’m arguing (which is nothing new at all) is that, for Paul, there is no such thing as heterosexual sex, and by implication, there can be no such thing as homosexual sex. And therefore, he can’t condemn it.
One thing I’ve been thinking a bit about recently – all empirical scientists everywhere close your eyes, or look away now – is this: with everything I know about God, about his character etc. – from what I’ve learnt from his word, my own experience, and the experience of other’s around me, in the world, I just can’t imagine that He would think that a loving, monogamous, responsible relationship between two people of the same biological sex would be morally wrong, or sinful. Can you? This is a sincere question.
A final word: I’d like to put down on record that my belief that gay marriage is neutral in the eyes of God in the same way that heterosexual marriage is, based upon a thorough reading of scripture and from much prayer and thought, and made in consultation with other believers. So please, Christian-who-holds-to-traditional-Christian-sexual-ethics, please don’t say that all who argue for a revisionist view do so without basing their views on the Bible (and instead base them on contemporary experience) – I for one, certainly do base my beliefs on what the Bible has to say, I just appear to have come to a different interpretation of it than you.
Picture 1: Photo taken in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford, of the brass on the joint-burial tomb of John Bloxham and John Whytton.
Picture 2: Taken from James Ingram, Memorials of Oxford, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1837).
According to Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, N.C., 1999), p. 248 n. 52, John Bloxham, warden of Merton, was accused by two fellows of “de crimine pessimo, non nominando" [i.e. sodomy] but because nothing could be proven, no judicial action was taken.
On the pair, see further, Alan Bray, The Friend (Chicago, 2003) [along with James Davidson’s review of it, ‘Mr and Mr and Mrs and Mrs’ in the LRB].
I live in fear of screwing up. If I mess up it’s not “Laura did something wrong”, it’s “that lesbian Christian woman did something wrong,” most likely followed by an “I told you so.” …
It is an unjust burden that LGBTQ Christians have to be on their best behavior; that we are not allowed to be human because we must be more than. On a personal level, feeling such responsibility has at times made me bitter or feel like I’m putting on a show. In trying to show the world that not all gay people are heavy drinkers and drug users, for example, I should be allowed to have a glass of wine. In trying to show the world that not all gay people are promiscuous, I should be allowed to have relationships that fail. In trying to show the world that not all gay people are atheists I should be allowed to ask questions and express my doubts."
"What is it with the Evangelicals going: ‘Homosexuality is a sickness’? And why is it always the same Reverend who’ll be caught buying crack from a gay prostitute, saying ‘we were just playing tummy-swords’?
And then he’ll deny everything: ‘I did NOT perform a homosexual act!’
No, you didn’t. Elton John performs a homosexual act. You just blew a guy.
But that’s OK.”
- Robin Williams (via @sturdyalex).
a prayer candle featuring Sufjan Stevens
where can i purchase this