Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Was Jesus Gay? Mark, and the "Naked Young Man".

Discussion of the question "Was Jesus gay?" usually revolves around the references in the Gospel of John, to "The disciple Jesus loved." These are well known, and have been widely discussed, here at QTC and elsewhere.  My reservations about these references are that they all come from the author of John's Gospel, talking about himself as writer. I would be more easily convinced by the argument if there were corroborating evidence from the other Gospels:  if Matthew, or Luke, or Mark, also made the same references to one specific disciple who was "loved" in a way the others were not, andsimlarly noted how he rested his head on Jesus' breast, or in his lap, and appeared to have inside information on Jesus thoughts and intentions - as John does.

Theodore Jennings, in "The Man Jesus Loved", might just have some such corroborating evidence, from the Gospel of Mark, and from infuriatingly fragmentary evidence from what just might be a lost,  more extended version of that Gospel: something known as the "Secret Gospel" of Mark. In the first part of the book, Jennings offer an extensive examination of the evidence from John's Gospel, and concludes that yes, the evidence is clear: there was indeed an unusually intimate relationship between Jesus and the author of that Gospel (whom he does not believe was in fact John). But then he continues, to look for further evidence from the other Gospels.
In Mark, he first draws our attention to a well-known passage which is seldom remarked on for homoerotic associations - the story of the "rich young man", drawing attention to the words of the text,:
Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said....
Alone, this these words are not particularly remarkable, except that elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus is not said to "love" specific individuals outside of the "beloved disciple" of John's Gospel. It becomes more interesting though, when read together with some other lines from Mark .  Jennings first discusses the curious matter of the "neaniskos", or "naked young man", in Jesus company in the Garden of Gethsemane:
And they all forsook him and fled.
And a youth ("neaniskos") accompanied him, clothed in a linen cloth ("sindona") over his nudity ("gumnos").  And they seized him.  And he, leaving his linen cloth, fled nude ("gymnos").
(Mark 14: 50 -52)
Who is this youth? What is he doing there? Why has he stayed behind, "accompanying" Jesus, after all the others have fled (at least until he is seized, and then flees, naked). Why is he so lightly clothed, that his garment can fall away so easily (the "sindoma" was not properly an item of clothing at all, but just a loose linen sheet)? And why use a word, "gymnos"  for nudity, which is strongly  associated with the homoeroticism of the Greek gymnasium - where young men exercised naked, and older men came to admire them?

But the most intriguing passage of all is found not in the standard Gospel of Mark, but in the so-called "Secret Mark", supposedly found by Morton Smith in an eighteenth century copy of a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria, found in 1958.  The authenticity is disputed,  but some scholars accept that it authentic, and is taken from an earlier, longer version of Mark's Gospel than the one we use today.  I'm not going to get into the details of the origin or significance of this fragment  - see Jennings for that - but here is the bit that intrigues:
And they came into Bethany, and a certain woman, whose brother had died, was there.  and, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, "Son of David, have mercy upon me."..But the disciples rebuked her.  And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightaway a great cry was heard from the tomb.  And going near Jesus rolled away a stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand nad raised him, seizing his hand.  But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him.  And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, and he was rich.  And and after six days Jesus told him what he wast to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body.  And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And then, arising, he returned to the other side of Jordan.
This passage has two literary connection to the two earlier passages from canonical Mark: the verb used here for he youth "looking at "Jesus is the same ("emblepein") as that  that used to describe Jesus when he "looked at" (and "loved") the rich young man;  and here again, he is described as wearing just a linen cloth over his naked body.  (This is not on being raised from the dead, when such a cloth would have been expected, abut when he came to Jesus six days later.

Now, be honest:  if a young man came to you, "in the evening", wearing "nothing but a linen cloth over his naked body", what do you suppose he was after?  And if he came not to you, but to another man, and then stayed the night, what do you suppose your conclusion would be in the morning?

The fragment known as Secret Mark may not be authentic - but then, it may.  If so, the implications and connections to the other two passages, and to John are at least intriguing.  Is this the same rich young man who turned down the invitation to sell all and follow the Lord?  is he the same young man in a linen cloth who stayed with him after all others had fled? Is he, indeed, the "beloved disciple?"

The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality

Spiritual direction is one of the best -kept secrets of the Catholic Church. This is unfortunate- the process needs to better known and used. This is how Jesuit theologian James L'Empereur describes it:
the process in which a Christian accompanies others for an extended period of time for the process of clarifying the psychological and religious issues in the directee so that they may move toward deeper union with God and contribute to ministry within the Christian community.
I have unexpectedly been able to borrow L'Empereur's "Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person", which I would now like to prescribe to all my readers as required reading, with a 3 hour examination at the end of the course. I began reading last evening, and have been devouring it with enthusiasm. I am now about half way through, and not yet ready to offer a full and balanced assessment. (That will come later). Still, every page has important insights that I want to share or explore further. As an appetizer before the main course to follow, I offer some snippets today:
Here are the opening sentences:
Homosexuality is on of God's most significant gifts to humanity. To be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. to be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. All humans receive their own special graces from their creator, but god has chosen some to be gay and lesbian as a way of revealing something about Godself that heterosexuals do not.
This is a startling, unexpected beginning, but of course he goes on to explain and fully substantiate it, in a chapter that had me engrossed, and anxious to explore also all his references and sources (a task, I fear, which may be well beyond me.) Elsewhere, he makes another startling claim: he calls the gay state a "charism", exactly comparable to the charism of celibacy embraced by Catholic clergy. Both are charisms granted to just a few, from which the wider church can learn. Here I was reminded of an observation in one of our Soho Mass homilies, that if "homosexuality" is an environmental threat because it cannot lead to procreation, so is celibacy.) The key manner in which we who are gay or lesbian can teach the wider Church is in the manner of our sexuality, which is not exclusively about genital contact (in complete contradiction to the popular stereotypes), nor is it based in patriarchal patterns of domination and submission.

I should stress here that L'Empereur very carefully does not either endorse or condemn any specific form of sexual expression, whether in committed, faithful relationships, in recreational sex, or in voluntary celibacy: those decisions are to be reached by the person being directed, through the process, and not decided a priori. However, he does argue strongly that for all people, gay or otherwise, the historic dichotomy between sex and spirituality has been destructive. Instead of thinking of spirituality OR sexuality, we should be looking for spirituality THROUGH sexuality , possibly (but not necessarily) including genital sexuality. Gay people, he says, may find this easier than heterosexuals, who are often startled during counselling before , when he asks whether they expect to use their sexual union as a form of prayer.

In this book L'Empereur presents with great clarity and authority a number of the themes I have been grasping at on these pages. Another is the view that authentic Catholic teaching fully supports, not condemns, the homosexual and his/her struggle. Surprised? You shouldn't be. We know from painful experience of course, that approached from the perspective of sexual ethics, standard Catholic teaching is deeply hostile. L'Empereur reminds us that Catholic teaching is far broader than just sexual ethics. Approached from social justice, which is at least as important to the totality of teaching, a completely different picture emerges, one which demands compassion and support for the marginalised and oppressed, and requires that we work towards justice. This latter perspective has been profoundly influential in my own faith as it was formed under South African apartheid, and why I found Cardinal O'Connors instruction to the Soho Masses to present Catholic teaching on sexuality "in full, and without ambiguity". This is impossible: "in full" implies from a range of approaches, which are self-contradictory. When we think of the structure of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, far too often we see only the dominating monolith of the official Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, and especially the scaled down, reduced travesty that we find in the catechism. Reading this book, I am reminded that the teaching "in full" more closely resembles a crowded, diverse city, with many strands coming from the Vatican centre - and also important subsidiary nodes, such as those presented by theologians like L'Empereur. Historically, cities grew around single, strong centres. During the twentieth century, the development of private transport led to dramatic changes in city morphology, with the major growth occurring on the suburban or exurban fringes and in suburban business nodes. In some cities, it has been suggested, the traditional centre has virtually disappeared.

We may be seeing the same thing in theology. Comparable to private transport, the emergence of lay theologians and secular schools of theology have privatised the construction of new ideas. Instead of the ancient central monolith dominating the skyline, steadfastly preserving and protecting its traditional inheritance, suburban nodes are bubbling away, creating new forms and structures: liberation theology, feminist theology, gay and lesbian theology, queer theology; theology by discerned experience, theology of spirituality through sexuality - and so many more I have not yet encountered. With so much vitality at the suburban fringes, the "margins" lose conceptual significance. Will Vatican City in time become irrelevant, as some physical central cities have done?

Jayden Cameron thinks so, at the Gay Mystic. Read "Life Finds a Way".

(I will have more on this important book later - probably repeatedly.)

See also:
Previous QTC Posts:

John McNeill: Homophobic Abuse and Distortion of Scripture

Guestpost: Gay theologian, psychotherapist and former Jesuit, Dr Fr John McNeill has sent me this commentary on Renato Ling's interpretation of Leviticus 18:22:
 The recent effort of evangelical pastor Martin Ssempa under the tutelage of American Evangelicals to pass a "kill the gays" bill in the Uganda parliament and the extensive persecution of GLBT people  throughout eastern Africa is based primarily on a questionable interpretation of a passage in Leviticus 18: 22.
The words of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Vatican Council II deal with the interpretation of Sacred Scripture:
"Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in a human fashion, the interpreter of sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words"
This cautious investigation of the intention of the human author is especially called for in  dealing with the biblical passages which traditionally been accepted as dealing with homosexual activity. We are keenly aware that back in the days of slavery, slave owners regularly quoted passages from scripture to justify keeping slaves as God's will.  There is a real possibility that the homophobia of the translators and their culture has led  to a distortion of the meaning of scripture.
The best way to arrive at an understanding of what the author means by this verse is to read it within the overall context of Leviticus. "Just as the overall aim of Leviticus is to ban incestuous heterosexual practices.  Lev. 18.22 may well be there to ensure that homosexual incest is added to the list of proscriptions
This understanding of Leviticus frees us from making the assertion that God wills the death or imprisonment of all those humans that God created gay.
John McNeill's Books:

John McNeill's Books:
The Church and the Homosexual 
Freedom, Glorious Freedom;
Both Feet Firmly Planted in mid-Air 
Taking a Chance on God 
Sex as God Intended 

John McNeill's Websites:

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Abomination of Heterosexuality: The Sin of Gibeah, Judges 19

We are all familiar with the story of Sodom, and how it is frequently used (without any justification) as an argument to justify opposition to homosexuality. I will come back later to the story of Sodom, but first, to show just how ludicrous the argument is, I will apply exactly the same reasoning to a remarkably similar story, that of Gibeah in Judges 19. (See, even the chapter number is the same.) If the argument from Sodom were sound, then the same argument applied to Gibeah should lead us to conclude that heterosexual intercourse is sinful. Of course, that conclusion is patently false. An investigation of the story of Gibeah is useful because it helps to show the inadequacy of the historical interpretation of Sodom (now rejected by most reputable modern scholars), but it also shows clearly how inappropriate it is to base modern sexual ethics on Old Testament Biblical standards – which also underpin the entire patriarchal structure of the Church as we have it.

The Story of Gibeah

Unlike Sodom, the story of Gibeah is not well known, although it should be. I present it now in the words of the Finnish Biblical scholar, Marti Nissinen.
“In those days when no king ruled in Israel” – so begins the story of Judges 19 – it happened that a certain Levite, who lived in the hill country of Ephraim, stopped at the Benjamite town of Gibeah. He was accompanied by his (anonymous) wife of second rank, whom he had recaptured from her refuge in Bethlehem at her father’s house. The Gibeahites were unfriendly toward travellers; only by late evening did an old man accommodate them. The man,also from the hill country of Ephraim, invited them to his house and showed them great hospitality. But then suddenly something horrible happened:
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the worst scoundrels in the town surrounded the house, hurling themselves against the door and shouting to the old man who owned the house: “Bring out the man who has gone into our house, for us to have intercourse with him” (19:22, NEB)
The old man wanted to protect his guest and offered his own daughter and his guest’s wife instead. When this did not appease the scoundrels, the Levite gave his wife up to the men, who then fell on her sexually and abused her all night till the morning”(19:25). The woman died of her injuries, and the incident led to a war between the Benjaminites and the other tribes of Israel.
Correlation with Sodom

The similarities with the Sodom story are remarkable. In both tales:
  • There are travellers in a strange town, who settle down in a public place.
  • A townsman, himself new to the town, offers hospitality to the travellers and takes them into his home.
  • A crowd of angry townspeople surround the house, demanding to “know”, or “have intercourse” with the visiting men. (The same Hebrew verb, yāda, is used in both stories, and also for the sexual assault in Gibeah).
  • The host pleads with the angry crowd, and offers them female victims instead, including his own daughters (in both stories) and his wife (in Gibeah).
This is where the stores diverge. In Gibeah, the mob accepts the host’s wife, gang rape her, and she ends up murdered. In Sodom, where the guests are in fact angels, they take control, the mob is blinded, and the story ends with the destruction of the town.

Now note please that in Sodom, the assault is threatened, but not executed. The only crime is one of intent. In Gibeah, the assault is real. There is a gang rape lasting all night, ending in murder. Oh, and this assault is against a woman. In Sodom, the threatened assault is against men – or angles that the mob believed to be men.

If the lesson of Sodom is about the threatened rape of the guests, then surely the real rape and murder in Gibeah is far more scandalous. If the assault in Sodom was the excuse for its destruction, and the condemnation of homosexual intercourse, then surely the sin of Gibeah should lead to equally strong condemnation of heterosexual intercourse?

Yet it does not. Whereas Sodom is frequently condemned elsewhere in Scripture for its “sinfulness”, Gibeah disappears, after its appearance in Judges 19, without trace. Why?

The Sin of Sodom.

The first part of the answer, of course, is that the threatened attack on the guests was not the reason for the destruction of Sodom. That had already been decided. The angels had been sent to the town in a last ditch effort to find good men to prevent the punishment for the sin – the assault simply cut off hope of reprieve. It was not the cause of God’s anger. What was?

The answer to that is not given in Genesis, but is given elsewhere in Scripture. The explanation in Ezekiel (16:49) is best known:
This was the iniquity (or pride) of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched (NEB).
In the Wisdom of Solomon, Sodom is acused of
“abandoning wisdom and of “leading their lives as a monument to folly”. (Wisdom 10:6-8).
Later, it is also compared with the Egyptians in their hostile treatment of strangers:
There had been others [Sodomites] who refused welcome to strangers…(Wisdom 19:13 – 15).
Nowhere in Scripture is it said that the sin of Sodom had anything to do with homosexuality – except indirectly, as homosexual rape, and that after the destruction had already been determined. The sins of Sodom were quite clearly pride, indulgence in luxury – and xenophobia, a hatred of foreigners. Remember that in Biblical times, when travelling was always arduous and hazardous, there was a strong obligation to offer hospitality to travellers, an obligation that both Sodom and Gibeah flouted most directly, by threatening rape instead of protection.

The Sin of Gibeah.

From a modern perspective, the gang rape and murder of the Levite’s wife seem horrific. The very idea of a man “giving” his wife to a mob to be raped is almost beyond belief, but this gets hardly a passing glance, and is not remarked on elsewhere.

This is a direct result of the appalling status of women in Jewish society, and other societies at the time. Recall the opening of the story: The Levite was accompanied by his wife “of second rank” (or “concubine”)
“whom he had recaptured from her refuge in Bethlehem at her father’s house.”
This highlights two features of importance: the obsession with rank; and the idea that wife or concubine was treated as property, and could be reclaimed by her husband from refuge with her father. Later, this idea of women as at the disposal of their husbands or fathers is illustrated in both stories by the idea that they could indeed be “given” to the mob by the men who controlled them. The idea that the women involved might have an objection, or right to protection themselves, simply did not come into it.

Male and Female Rape Compared.

This all begs the question: why should the women have been offered instead of the male guests? Why did the mob in Sodom reject the offer? Again, this comes back t the position of women in society. Women were seen as naturally inferior to men and subservient to them. It was part of the natural order that they should be the passive partners in sex, which was not primarily an expression of love between partners, but a means of procreation, or of relieving men’s physical urges. This natural order dictated that men should dominate, women should yield; men should take the active part, women should be passive; men should penetrate, while women were there to accept penetration. Indeed, then and after, it was routine in many Near Eastern and other cultures that in time of war, the victors would rape any male surviving losers, just to assert the new relationship between them, of victor and vanquished. Sex was about establishing and demonstrating a pattern of dominance.

This is why it was seen as so appalling to threaten the rape of male guests – for a man to be raped was an appalling injury to his dignity, to his status as a man. It was turning him into that worthless creature – a woman.  

The maintenance of gender roles was of crucial importance. The actual gang rape and murder of a woman was of minor importance.

The Modern Significance

The true sin of Sodom is not homosexuality, but xenophobia – fear or hatred of foreigners, leading to a refusal to give them welcome and hospitality. It remains true today that correctly viewed, the sin of Sodom is an appalling one, crying out, as they say for vengeance. But the Sodomites are not those who engage in loving same sex relationships, but the homophobes, who in their hatred attack them and refuse to offer welcome.
The much neglected sin of Gibeah also remains with us: the pervasive sin of treating women as second class citizens, fit only to be treated as inferior to men, subservient to them in all important decision. Fortunately, secular society in much of the world has moved well beyond that attitude. Yet the Church continues to build its system of sexual ethics on what is surely an inappropriate Biblical pattern – even as the Pontifical Biblical Commission advises that the interpretation of Scripture should be sensitive both to the context of the historical conditions in which it was written, and to the conditions in which we live today.

It is also the same outmoded insistence on male domination that is responsible for the shameful and destructive patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church, a structure that, in the name of justice, simply must be undone.

Two sins intertwined, both crying to heaven for vengeance: the homophobia that is the modern sin of Sodom, and the misogyny ingrained in the church, that is the legacy of the sin of Gibeah.

A New Reading of Leviticus

As I continue to investigate the issues around faith and sexuality, I am constantly in search of reliable information and analyses to set against the misinformation, selective quotations and misinterpretations that masquerade as the conventional wisdom on the subject.  Recently, I was delighted when three different readers brought my attention to two useful sources, which between them contain some important, thoughtful material that deserves to be taken seriously.

The first of these that I want to introduce to you is an article by Renato Lings called “The Lyings of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22”, in the peer review journal “Theology and Sexuality”.  This journal, edited by the renowned theologians Gerald Loughlin and Elizabeth Stuart, carries an impressive range of scholarly articles, many in the fields of gay and lesbian theology, and of queer theology.  (A second article in the same issue is on “Queer Worship”, which I have scheduled for publication tomorrow).

[caption id="attachment_5068" align="aligncenter" width="341" caption="Dr Renato Lings"][/caption]

It was the well known and highly respected theologian James Alison, (who writes “from a perspective Catholic and gay) who referred me to “The Lyings of a Woman.”  He wrote to me that he considered it an important article, and suggested that I get a suitable person to write a full review of it, for publishing here at QTC.  I agreed fully with his assessment, and plan to publish a couple of such reviews shortly - one by John McNeill, and one by an Old Testament specialist from the Pacific Centre for Religion.  I will publish these commentaries as soon as I receive them) .  

Was Jesus Gay?

According to Sir Elton John, the answer is clearly yes.

Sir Elton John is facing a backlash from conservative Christian groups after stating in an interview that Jesus was a gay man.

The 62-year-old musician also opened up to US magazine Parade about the "life-threatening downside" of fame and his relationship with partner David Furnish.

But it's the Rocket Man's views on Jesus's sexuality which have sparked headlines across the world.

In the interview, to be published in America on Saturday, Sir Elton said: "I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems.
"On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus wanted us to be loving and forgiving. I don't know what makes people so cruel. Try being a gay woman in the Middle East - you're as good as dead."
I don't suppose Sir Elton has notable thological credentials for making this claim, but his fame alone will ensure that his remarks command wide attention. This is welcome, because the subjeect deserves more consideration than the easy assumptions that usually underlie thinking and speking about Jesus the man. Simply by raising the issue, Sir Elton has ensured that there will be amny voices raised in opposition and in support. Let us hope that some of these voices will offer some plain sense.

My own position here is simple.  I do not for a minute believe that Jesus was "gay", certainly not in any sense of the word that is recognisable in the moedern world.  But I do believe he was undoubtedly "queer", in that he emphatically did not conform to any usual expectations of sexual or gender conformity.

Let us begin with the obvious basics.  We know and accept as basic to theology, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.  The divinity does not concern us here, but the "human2 part surely does.  As fully human, and specifically male, we know that he had a fullly male physical body, and all that that entails. We must also accept that he had human emotions, human feelings - and those would certainly have included sexual feelings.

What he did about those, we do not know.  Did he act on them? Did he sublimate them? Some argue on scanty evidence for a sexual relationship with John the Evangelist, or with Mary Magdalene, or with Lazarus. All this is speculation.  We have no way of knowing for sure, although in thee absence of hard evidence, any of these are possible - as is complete celibacy.

So instead of complete celibacy, let us look at some basic facts, as we know them from Scripture and from history, starting with the latter.  The Pontifical Bible Commission recommends that the interpretation of Scripture includes some consideration of the historical context.  In first century Hebrew society, that would have included an overwhelming social expectation that all should marry and raise families, in a strictly hierarchical social structure. That society assumed an inferior position for women, who were not expected to join in regious discussion or leadership, assumed the place of slavery in human conduct, with extensive rights of slave owners over their "property", and followed a compleex set of purity regulations and taboos.

In his life and in his teaching, Jesus ignored all of these, and actively taught against some.  He never married (as far as we know), and exhorted his disciples to leave their own families to follow him. His closest friends outside the twelve were the houselhold of Mary, Martha and Lazarus - also all unmarried, living in a household that would surely have shocked many Jewish social conformists. On several occasions, he actively engaged with women in religious discussions.  And in his dealings with social outcasts of all kinds, including prostitutes, lepers, slaves or menstruating women, he ignored the purity taboos.  Doing so undoubtedly contributed to his getting up the noses of the religious leaders of the day, just as gay men, lesbians and transsexuals today continue to upset self-righteous and self-appointed religious leaders.
Jesus Christ - possibly not "gay" - but undoubtedly queer.

Excluded From God's People?

Question: Look carefully at this picture of assembled Catholic cardinals, and decide (carefully, now): Which of these, in terms of Pope Benedict's own reasoning, are "excluded from God's People"?

Answer: If you are to follow the line of reasoning of Pope Benedict himself, in his earlier incarnation as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the answer should be plain to see: all of them.
How so?
In the first Church document dedicated to the matter of homoerotic relationships, "Homosexualitatis Problema", the "Problem (sic) of Homosexuality", Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) quotes two verses from Leviticus which appear to condemn homosexual relationships, and then leaps to the completely unsubstantiated assertion that, because these verses describe such actions as an "abomination", the people so described are "excluded from the Kingdom of God."
If we are to accept the reasoning as sound, we should be able to apply it equally to the other behaviours which are similarly described as "abominations", and so discover who else are "excluded from the Kingdom of God."
These verses include in their condemnation those well-known disreputable sinners as the eaters of shellfish and rabbits, those wearing clothing of mixed fibres, and (it pains me to say this), those who have shaved their beards. Now, the picture shown does not show a great deal of detail, but I fail to see a single beard among the assembled throng. To be consistent, on the basis of this argument we have only two options: either we must accept that the illustrious cardinals shown (and the overwhelming majority of all clergy) are likewise "excluded from God's people ", or we must accept that the reasoning is flawed. Which is it?
"Homosexualitatis Problema" concludes with two wonderful verses from Scripture: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (Jn 8:32), and "Speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15), both stirring verses that I would endorse fully. What enrages me, is the deceitfulness, the utter dishonesty, of a document which purports to be about "Truth", but instead bolsters its claims (for that is what they are: claims, not reasoned arguments) with a long series of palpable falsehoods.
I could accept in good faith a document that submitted ts claims and supported them with clear reasoning. This document does not. Instead, it provides us with an excellent example of what Dr Mark Jordan has described as the typical rhetorical style of the Church: to present statements as unquestionably true, without justification, and then to bludgeon us into submission by sheer force of repetition. These are examples of the statements made in exactly this way, without demonstration, that are demonstrably untrue:

In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, in the course of describing the conditions necessary for belonging to the Chosen People, the author excludes from the People of God who behave in a homosexual fashion.
These verses from Leviticus are well known, and it is inexcusable that they should be so badly misrepresented. They do not condemn those "who behave in a homosexual fashion", but a much narrower set of behaviors - men who lie with men "as with a woman". It does not condemn women's relationships, nor does it condemn other kinds of "homosexual behavior" - such as caressing, or home-making, or cooking, or mutual love and support, or dancing,or...... Just what is behavior "in a homosexual fashion"?
"There can be no doubt of the moral judgement made there (in Genesis 19, of the story of Sodom) against homosexual relations".
Note that this is not just a claim that the story is a condemnation of "homosexual relations". It is much stronger, and says that "there can be no doubt". In fact the opposite is true - there is indeed a great deal of doubt. Not only is there "doubt", but even outright denial. Many reputable Biblical scholars now point out that there is in fact no condemnation of homosexual relations anywhere in Genesis 19. The story as told in Genesis does not in any way identify the infamous "sin of Sodom" - but it is identified elsewhere, and it is not "homosexuality". (See "Countering the Clobber Texts" for more on the real sin of Sodom.)
The document goes on to claim that there is a "clear consistency within the Scriptures themselves on the moral issue of homosexual behavior. This is nonsense. Among over 30 000 verses in Scripture, there are only half a dozen which appear to criticize some homosexual behaviors and even these verses are debatable. (Over 300 verses carry admonitions against heterosexual behavior). there are also very many texts which support loving same gender relationships (see The Gospel's Queer Values) - but these the CDF simply ignores.

The Church's teaching today is "in organic continuity with the Scriptural perspective and her own constant tradition."
The Vatican likes to repeat this phrase about a "constant tradition" (or "unchanging" tradition) on "homosexual relations" at regular intervals. In fact, there is no "constant" tradition, when you take a long view over history. There is indeed "organic continuity", but it has changed substantially over the two millenia of history, just as teaching has changed on many other issues: on slavery, on usury, on women's proper & expected subjection to the will of there husbands, on the sacramental nature of marriage, and the need for its solemnization in church (which was once required only for priests), on compulsory celibacy for priests, on the evils of democracy...........
On homosexuality, historians such as James Boswell, Mark Jordan and Alan Bray have shown just how much the teaching has evolved and changed over the centuries. I have listed some of this at Queering the Church, in my post "The Church's Changing Tradition".

The church's perspective "finds support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences"
It does not. The natural sciences, like the human and social sciences, clearly show the opposite view. Zoologists have shown that homosexual behaviour occurs throughout the animal world. (See "God is Slightly Gay"). Physiologists have found some differences between the brains of people with homosexual and heterosexual orientations. The professional associations of the medical and psychiatric professions agree that homosexuality is not pathological or in any way "abnormal". (Anthropology and social history show the same, but let us stick with natural sciences for now, as the Vatican does.) None of these natural sciences "support the Church's perspective", as the document fraudulently claims. But note the slippery rhetorical style: it does not claim that all science supports it - just that the "secure" findings of natural science do. In other words, those findings that do support Church teaching are "secure", those that don't can simply be dismissed as "insecure", no matter what are the views of the scientific community as a whole.

"Homosexual activity prevents one's own fulfilment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God."
This outrageous assertion is one that the CDF would no doubt like to believe, but there is no basis at all for accepting it - nor is any justification provided. On the other hand, there are two clear reasons for rejecting it, at least as applied to persons with a natural homoerotic orientation. First, if this is the way we have been made by the creator, how can its expression be "contrary to the creative wisdom of God"? God does not make mistakes. Does the CDF really believe we are called to somehow repair God's mistakes? The truth here, as so often in this document, is precisely the opposite of the claim presented. The lessons from psychotherapy are clear: what is dangerous to mental health, and prevents human fulfilment and happiness, is the denial of one's identity and personal truth, including one's sexual identity. As John McNeill, the notable theologian and psychotherapist, endlessly reminds us in his books, bad psychology is bad theology.
These are the most obvious, clear falsehoods in the statement. There are others which are less extreme, but are also misleading.

St Paul, in 1 Cor 6:9 "proposes the same doctrine and lists those who behave in a homosexual fashion among those who shall not enter the Kingdom of God";
This text does not list those "who behave in a homosexual fashion". It lists rather, "malakoi" and "arsenekotoi". Do you know what those are? No? Nor does anybody else. Accurate translation of these terms has puzzled Biblical scholars, because their meaning is unclear, but could be associated with idolatry, or the practice sometimes described (inaccurately) as "temple prostitution". It most certainly does not refer to people who behave in a "homosexual fashion", whatever that might mean.

1 Tim 10 "explicitly names as sinners those who engage in homosexual acts."
Again, it does not. It "explicitly" names only "malakoi", for which - see above.
There are numerous other nasty rhetorical tricks employed by Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict in this document, from the choice of language and false contrasts he sets up, for example, by contrasting "homosexual acts" with "conjugal relationships". For balance, he should compare "conjugal acts", with all their associations with a loving marriage, with loving homoerotic relationships. Of course he does not - he totally ignores all consideration of such loving same sex relationships, writing instead only of "homosexual" (historically, a medical term) acts and behaviour, of the "homosexual condition" , and of "disorder".
The very title of the document is deceitful: it is headed "Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons", but in fact the formal title of the work is "Homosexualitatis Problema", again simply resenting "homosexuality" as a "problem". it is not. The only problem here is the Vatican's total failure to understand , or even to attempt to understand, the problem.
Even the choice of Scriptural verses is telling: "Speak the Truth", the document concludes. But what about listening? For all the claims of the modern church to be a "listening church", there is not a shred of evidence in this document, or anywhere else, that the writers have made any attempt to listen to the people who know most about it - those who have learned from personal experience what it is to have a homoerotic orientation. Those churches which have in sincerity engaged in proper listening exercises have found that they have modified their previous views, and have recognized that their traditional views of Scripture on the subject were inadequate. There is a reason, though, why the Catholic Church refuses to do the same kind of listening, and it is one that affects us all- straight or gay.
Now, I would really prefer NOT to be dealing with issues of the church and sexual orientation here, at the Open Tabernacle. For that, I have my own site, "Queering the Church", where I have been writing for the past year on this and related topics. However, it is clear from some of the observations in the comments threads to other posts, that this is a topic that cannot be simply ignored here. It is also important to note that the issue is of far wider significance and application than just to matters of sexual morality, still less exclusively homoerotic sexual morality. The real motive hiding behind the letter, which should be of concern to us all, has nothing to do with "pastoral care", nor with "speaking the truth". Rather, as the text of the letter itself makes clear, the real object is simply one of control. This is reflected in the document's consistent denial of the validity of any conclusions that differ from its own: if science does not support it, it is not "secure"; if  scriptural exegesis is in conflict with the Magisterium, the Scripture scholars are in error. Nothing, it seems, is to be accepted unless it conforms with the writer's own view of the Church "truth". Dissent, debate, discussion are all simply ruled out. (Recall that the origin of the CDF was as the infamous Inquisition - which had thousands of alleged homosexuals executed, usually by burning, between the centuries after the high middle ages and the early Reformation. Unlike other atrocities in church history, this is one for which there has still been no official apology)
The lies, half truths and nasty rhetorical sleight of hand which the CDF has used in an attempt to stigmatize and condemn loving same sex relationships, under the pretence of pastoral care and speaking the truth, should be seen as much more than just a hostile act against a small minority. It is, rather,  just the most obvious symptom of a much wider malaise within the power establishment of the church, which threatens us all. This is of the utmost importance: the ecclesiastical obsession with control and power, and its frequent abuse at all levels, have been clearly shown to be one of the primary root causes behind the ongoing scandals of clerical sexual abuse - in Ireland, in the US, in Australia, and right around the world.

The Queer Bible: Beyond Family Values

Under the heading,  "A Way Back Behind Christian Homophobia", Adam Kotsko writes at the blog "An und fur sich" about a trilogy of books by Ted Jennings: Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives in the New Testament, and the third in the set, Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia:
"The strategy here is clear, aggressive, and absolutely necessary: he absolutely abandons the defensive stance -of “explaining away” the supposedly “obvious” homophobic elements in the Bible that “everyone knows” about and instead presents us with a scriptural account that is deeply homophilic, even to the point of presenting us with a possible male lover for Christ himself."
Setting aside the weapons of hate

Even discounting the possibility that Jesus had a male lover (there are at least two candidates:  John, the "apostle Jesus loved", and Lazarus), this is an approach I love.  Given the way in which queers have for centuries experienced Scripture as a weapon of hate, it is understandable that after one has overcome a natural antipathy to dealing with Scripture at all, the first enquiry from lesbigay people is to  find ways to respond to the infamous clobber texts, to learn to set aside the weapons of hate.  This is technically relatively easy - the actual texts are few, out of 30 000 verse in a Bible written against a cultural background where homoeroticism was commonplace, and many scholars have shown how they have either been misinterpreted, or are of limited relevance to modern gay relationships.

More difficult is dealing with the residual emotional baggage: this is where books pointing to positive interpretations of Scripture are so valuable. Again, this should be easy - the fundamental message of the Gospels has nothing to do with hatred against anybody, but stresses love and inclusion for everybody - most especially social outsiders and the otherwise afflicted and oppressed.  Still, for people with a homophile orientation, we can go well beyond the simple message of generic inclusion. Writers on Scripture have pointed to specifically queer values in Scripture, while historians have shown that the roots of popular hostility did not lie in Scripture at all:  the Church followed popular prejudice, not the other way around.

I do not yet have personal knowledge of Jennings' books (but will explore further). There are other writers though who have covered much the same ground, with whose work I am more familiar.

Setting aside family values

Chris Glaser, in his excellent book, "Coming Out as Sacrament", has a chapter on "Coming out in the Bible", in which he reads several well known Scripture stories, from Adam & Eve in Genesis to Pentecost in Acts,  as coming out tales.  Among these, he presents the story of Jesus Himself as "Coming out of Family Values".  The evidence he produces in support of this argument is that:
  • "his mother Mary was told that Jesus' own coming out would mean "that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed - and a sword shall pass through your own soul too (Luke 2:35)";
  • At twelve years of age,  Jesus ignored his family's departure from Jerusalem to sit  in the temple, his "Father's house" (Luke 2:49);
  • He left His family and as far as we know, never married and never "begat" children;
  • He called his disciples away from their families (9:59:62), told them he had no home (9:57) ,, and claimed that His gospelk would "set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother." (Mathew 10:35-36);
  • When His family came to see  Him, He declared, "Whoever does the will of god is my brother and sister and mother"(Mark 3:35);
  • Members of the new faith community addressed each other as brother and sister;
  • Jesus' own family of choice were three unmarried people - Martha, Mary and Lazarus;
  • In the New Testament, the biological, polygamous, prolifically procreative family of the Old Testament was superseded by the more vital, eternal and extended family of faith, a family to be expanded by evangelism and inclusivity rather than mere procreation;
  • Jesus had a special word of defence for the eunuch, who was an outcast in Israel because his body was mutilated, but more importantly because he could not procreate. "
I don't know about you, but to me, but none of this, neither Old Testament nor New, sounds particularly like the "traditional family values" that the fundies claim to be protecting because they believe them to be at the heart of Christianity.

Urban gay men as role models

Going beyond queer values in the Gospels to queer lives today, the American theologian Kathy Rudy argues that this Scriptural denial of modern "family values" implies that modern urban gay culture is more in tune with the Gospel message than the biological family which Christ's teaching rejected
"The church needs the model of gay sexual sexual communities because Christians have forgaotten how to think about social and sexual life outside the family".
Writing about Rudy's work, Elisabeth Stuart notes that
"The church has forgotten how to be a community, how to be the body of Christ and perhaps gay men have the grave task of teaching it to be a community wider than a family."

How far have we come?  Instead of simply sitting back and accepting the knee jerk, unfounded  accusations of "Sodomy", we find that there are serious, credible Scripture scholars and theologians who have first, shown that the traditional use of the clobber texts to atack us is at best inappropriate, or possibly totally unfounded; that there are positive role models in Scripture, in both the Old Testmament and the New;  that far from encouraging traditional family values, the Gospel message opposes themwith what are quite frankly queer values, and that far from the fundies being in a position to lecture us on how to behave, we should be teaching them a thing or two about the Gospels and how to move beyond an unChristian "Focus on the Family" to a wider "Focus on Community"!

Beyond gender.

Rudy continues, says Stuart, to "construct a sexual ethic which is communal in nature and queer in its politics."  Because in recent centuries there has been so much emphasis on first reproduction and then on complementarity as the sole purposes of sex, the result is that "celibacy, singleness and communal life, which have been valued for so long in Christian history, no longer have a place in Christian life."

In a neat inversion of the story of Sodom, "for Rudy the story of Sodom teaches us that what is ultimately pleasing to God about sexuality is the quality of its hospitality.  This is not to say that every stranger must be offered sex, but that sex must cultivate an openness  and warmth to strangers, it must open our hearts, break down our boundaries, and push us beyond ourselves.  Hospitality is procreative, it expands and widens the community.  When we open our homes to outsiders, the private space of the home becomes the public space of the Church, and so not only is gender collapsed but so is the dualism between private and public. The cult of domesticity is destroyed and replaced by an ethic which subverts worldy concepts of gender and understands sex in the context of building up the body of Christ."

How far from James Dobson is that?

See also:
Queering the Church:
Althaus-Reid, Marcella: Indecent Theology
Horner, James: Johnathan Loved David

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey:  Omnigender
Rudy, Kathy: Sex and the Church
Stuart, Elisabeth: Gay & Lesbian Theologies

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Sin That Cries to Heaven For Vengeance

For a long time, I've been thoroughly irritated by those sanctimonious Catholics (and others) who tray to remind us (for our own good, they would claim) that homosexuality is "the" sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance.  However, as I had never myself come across any such reference, I did not know the origin of the claim, and could not respond.  Finally, I got my act together and investigated. What I found was useful, and worth sharing.

First, as one might expect, there is not such thing as "the" sin that cries out, but several: depending on your source, there are four or five of them.  The claims for grouping these together come from old sources, and are based on a shared interpretation of Biblical verses.  Apart from the allegation that "homosexuality" is one of them, the others are:

Murder (not surprising):
And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Gn 4:10)
Oppression of Widows and Orphans
“You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” (Ex 21-23)
Now, I would have thought that a failure to provide health care to widows and orphans counts as "oppression".
Cheating Laborers of Their Due

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be a sin in you.” (Dt 24:14-15)
So, paying unfair low wages is  also a sin crying out to the Lord.

Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me.” (Gn 18:20-21) The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of homosexual activity. So far gone were they in this vice that the men of the town would not even accept heterosexual license with Lot’s daughters, both virgins, as a means of sating their lust (see 19:8-9).
Ah, there it is - the old canard that homosexuality is the sin of Sodom. It is not - as any actual reading of the Bible, and not the endless commentary that abuses it, makes clear. I will return to this below.

The four cases listed above are the four given at the  "Catholic Doors" website, which also warns us (ironically to interpret these carefully, free from cultural conditioning.  Yet their interpretation of the Sodom story is entirely based on cultural conditioning.  It is not Scripture, but popular prejudice that has associated the sin of Sodom with homoeroticism. History shows that religious opposition to same sex relationships has followed  popular bigotry, not led it.

Another source , the blogger Douglas Lawrence, adds to the above list a fifth, the "oppression" in Egypt:.
Q. 1. How many sins cry out to Heaven for vengeance?

A. There are five sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance.

Q. 2. What are they?

A. Based on # 1867 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are:

(1) Wilful murder - the blood of Abel, [Gen. 4:10]

(2) The sin of the Sodomites, [Gen. 18:20; 19:13]

(3) The cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, [Ex. 3:7-10]

(4) The cry of the foreigner, the widow and the orphan, [Ex. 20:20-22] and

(5) Injustice to the wage earner. [Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4]

So, what is this "sin of Sodom"?  Canon Bailey, writing half a century and more ago, did extensive research in Scripture, in the Apocrypha, and in the Pseudepigrapha, and came up with some clear answers.
Genesis 19, which tells the story of Sodom's destruction, is remarkable vague on the subject of the precise sin that had brought down this dramatic penalty. I had read previously (in Boswell, and elsewhere) some of the texts from other books of the Hebrew scriptures that tell us more, but Bailey has an impressively long list. Gay men in particular,who have for so long been beaten over their heads for their supposed "sin of Sodom", would do well to absorb these, and understand just what the true sin is.
Jer 23:14
In the prophets of Jerusalem also I have seen a horrible thing; they commit adultery, and walk in lies, and they strengthen the hands of evil-doers, that none doth return from his wickedness: they are all of them become unto me as Sodom , and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah.
Ez 16: 49-50
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom; pride, fulness of bread, and prosperous ease.....; And they were haughty, and committed abomination (to ‘ēbhāh) before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good.
Wisd 19: 8
Whereas the men of Sodom received not the strangers when they came among them; the Egyptians made slaves of the guests who were their benefactors.
Ecclus 16: 8
God spared not those with whom Lot sojourned, whom he abhorred for their pride
3 Maccabees 2:5
"Thou didst burn up with fire and brimstone the men of Sodom, workers of arrogance, who had become known for all their crimes
Jubilees 13: 17
The Men of Sodom were sinners exceedingly
Jubilees 16: 5-6
The Lord executed his judgement on Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Zeboim, and all the regions of the Jordan ad he burned them with fire and brimstone, and destroyed them until this day, even as I have declared unto thee all their works, that they are wicked and sinners exceedingly, and that they defile themselves and commit fornication in their flesh...
Jubilees 13: 17
And Abraham told of the judgement of the giants and the judgement of the Sodomites, how they had been judged on account of their wickedness, and had died on account of their fornication,  and uncleanness.....
Josephus, Antiquities
About this time, the men of Sodom grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust toward me, and impious toward God...... they hated strangers
Josephus, Antiquities
Now when the Sodomites saw the young men [the angels] to be of beautiful countenance, and this to an extraordinary degree, they resolved themselves to enjoy these beautiful boys by force and violence.
Bailey has more, but I leave it there.  It is clear that only the last of the list refers to sex with men - and the emphasis there is not on gender, but on force and violence.  Otherwise, apart from some generic statements about "wickedness", or "fornication",  the sins specified are about pride, injustice, indolence, and hostility or lack of hospitality to strangers.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of the sin of Sodom, we can now return to the "sins crying to heaven".  In addition to murder, all the sins crying to heaven are about injustice and oppression.  Not one has anything at all to do with voluntary sexual relationships between men.

We as gay men are not the perpetrators of sins crying to heaven - we are their victims.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Clobber Texts: A New Reading of Leviticus

As I continue to investigate the issues around faith and sexuality, I am constantly in search of reliable information and analyses to set against the misinformation, selective quotations and misinterpretations that masquerade as the conventional wisdom on the subject. Recently, I was delighted when three different readers brought my attention to two useful sources, which between them contain some important, thoughtful material that deserves to be taken seriously.
The first of these that I want to introduce to you is an article by Renato Lings called “The Lyings of a Woman: Male-Male Incest in Leviticus 18:22”, in the peer review journal “Theology and Sexuality”. This journal, edited by the renowned theologians Gerald Loughlin and Elizabeth Stuart, carries an impressive range of scholarly articles, many in the fields of gay and lesbian theology, and of queer theology. (A second article in the same issue is on “Queer Worship”, which I have scheduled for publication tomorrow).
It was the well known and highly respected theologian James Alison, (who writes “from a perspective Catholic and gay) who referred me to “The Lyings of a Woman.” He wrote to me that he considered it an important article, and suggested that I get a suitable person to write a full review of it, for publishing here at QTC. I agreed fully with his assessment, and plan to publish a couple of such reviews shortly - one by John McNeill, and one by an Old Testament specialist from the Pacific Centre for Religion. I will publish these commentaries as soon as I receive them) .