Once, when I was teaching music at a Christian college, I was trying to explain some arcane bit of theory when one of the students blurted out, “That’s gay.”
“Please,” I replied, “let’s not use the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative in this class.”
“Fine,” the student said. “That’s homosexual, then.”
Some lessons go better than others.
It’s tempting to say that the recent flap over Chic-Fil-A put issues surrounding homosexuality and Christianity back on the front burner, but I’m not sure they ever left. It’s a complicated and emotionally charged topic, and judging by the prevailing discourse it would seem that our options are limited to silence or shouting.
Even the language is troubling. I want to say that I’m “affirming” or “inclusive” but these are vague, squishy words that say nothing about what it is that I want to include or affirm or, perhaps more importantly, what I’m not willing to include or affirm. It implies that those who disagree with me about same-sex couples are not affirming; in some cases, such as those voices that capitulate to the the idolatry of nationalism or the lust of capitalistic excess, I think they affirm too much.
The word “homosexuality” is itself problematic, as John Howard Yoder points out in an unpublished 1982 conference presentation. “There is no such entity as homosexuality,” he suggests, meaning that the term is too broad to be useful in moral discernment. He mentions several things it might refer to:
- what strong men in prisons or military camps do to weaker men;
- what mature men like Plato did with beautiful boys;
- what two persons of the same sex and values want to do by living in one household voluntarily;
- what the men of Sodom in Genesis 19 wanted to do with Lot’s angelic visitors.
He goes on to say that these are not particular instances of the same generalizable category called “homosexuality,” but rather things we have unhelpfully lumped together because they involve some common element. I think this line of inquiry is helpful, because one hand it helps people like me articulate exactly what it is we want to affirm, which certainly isn’t the whole list of things above. On the other hand it allows us to question whether or not the arguments on the other side are univocally applicable to that entire list. I submit they are not.
What I’m suggesting is that we give theological consideration to same-sex marriage — not to every imaginable form of homoerotic practice (just as the Christian tradition does not give sanction to every imaginable form of heterosexual practice) — and that we open up a space for conversation where we can reason together what that might look like. Of course this raises questions, some of them difficult, but the process of working out these questions might bear fruit.
I don’t think we can straightforwardly assume that the biblical texts – and especially Paul – are referencing lifelong same-sex relationships or a persistent same-sex orientation, neither of which seem to be on the radar of the biblical writers. This is not to say these didn’t exist at all, or that the ancient world knew nothing of homoerotic acts between consenting adults, but that the particular instantiation I want us to consider — a lifelong, monogamous, same-sex partnership of the sort that “marriage” seems adequate to describe — does not neatly fall under these particular condemnations unless we’re presuming the kind of univocity Yoder is arguing against.
The biblical condemnations refer to isolated practices that take place outside of (admittedly heteronormative) marital bounds. In Paul’s day this might refer to pederasty, in which older (and otherwise straight) upper class males would exploit their younger (also straight) proteges for sexual services. It was, in a way, an extension of patriarchy rather than a deviation from it.
The salient concern here would be the exploitation, not some universal, absolute condemnation of homoerotic practice in every imaginable context. At any rate, I am proposing that what some of us want to “affirm” is something for which the ancient world had no language, and thus our attempts to apply ancient ethical precepts take place, at best, at a kind of cultural remove.
To the extent that Paul, were we to transplant him to the 21st century, would be affronted by the idea of same-sex marriage (and intellectual honesty demands that we concede this as not just possible but likely) I don’t see why we can’t read this in light of such cultural limitations, especially once we interrogate the idea of “nature.”
Yoder puts the burden of proof on those who would argue that a homosexual orientation “is one’s ‘nature,’ given by God and therefore normative to be lived out.” He is skeptical that this burden can be met, and I agree. But I think it’s the wrong argument, and the wrong burden.
This sexual essentialism — which I would call “naturalism” if that didn’t already mean something else in the philosophical lexicon — is evident in the Biblical texts and in many readings of those texts. It is not, however, something vital to the overall narrative, any more than similar presumptions underlying patriarchy or slavery might be.
This does explain, for instance, why we might pay attention to the purported “anti-homosexuality” texts but ignore prohibitions on mixed fabrics or tattoos. We’re so far removed from the context in which those latter prohibitions make sense that they are virtually unintelligible to us, and to the extent that they can be made so we translate them.
We’re far more likely to still share the essentialistic assumptions behind the former, however, and this gives them a force and a weight we don’t ascribe to other texts. Simply lambasting more conservative voices for selective enforcement of Biblical prohibitions fails to take this into account.
But the ground is less solid here than we might think. Jesus assumed that there would be no marriage in the resurrection, which should (or at least can) destabilize essentialist notions of gender, sex, or orientation. Arguments against same-sex marriage on the basis of “nature” run up against a teleological problematic.
The biblical presumption seems to be that marriage and sex are not part of the ultimate eschatological fulfillment, which means that gendered sex itself is in some way a concession the saeculum. (The other interpretive option, I suppose, is that sex in the resurrection is something of a free-for-all, which poses interesting ramifications for an ecclesiology that seeks to be a foretaste of the coming Kingdom; I’m actually taking the more conservative route here.)
All sexuality is a construction: there is no “natural” (there are evolutionary benefits of certain constructions, of course, but the species is not in any particular danger of failing to reproduce). Sex is a part of the order of creation, but not of the new creation, which means that we can celebrate it as good (because creation is good) but we need not essentialize it – and this, I think, opens us up to celebrate sex beyond heteronormative bounds as also created (but likewise not ultimate).
We might also question our obsession with marriage as an unmitigated good, and one that is universally normative. I’m rather fond of my own marriage, but in Biblical terms marriage is also a concession, not an essential facet of human life in the Kingdom.
Paul’s advice to married couples consistently has to do with navigating the exigencies of married life in Roman society while being part of a radical cell – he is not helping middle class couples have “healthy” or “successful” marriages. The marriage bond is important, but it is also a distraction as far as Paul is concerned. Jesus is portrayed as unmarried, and as proclaiming that at least some would renounce marriage for the sake of the Kingdom (Matt. 19:12).
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7 that he would rather everyone were unmarried, as he was. Later in the same chapter he indicates that those who are married should consider themselves as if they were not (we might even see hints that Paul regarded married couples as subjected to the Powers, much as those in slavery are, which is not a particularly romantic reading of marriage). What we end up saying, then, if we deny same-sex marriage, is that heterosexual couples should get a concession to their human-ness that others do not.
Finally, we can see this situation in light of the church’s role as ministers of reconciliation and custodians of grace, with a bit of a twist: perhaps God is giving us the opportunity to extend grace in a new situation, that new voices are being raised up that challenge our easy assumptions about who gets to be in the Kingdom.
We see preserved in scripture a dynamic in which a people presumed to be out of the Kingdom – the Gentiles – are recognized as a potential part of that Kingdom precisely as Gentiles. But this did not take place without some disagreement, deliberation, and thought. Peter was opposed to the inclusion of the Gentiles, but various signs were interpreted by the community and the decision was made to welcome them. The difficulties of working that out were generative of many of the texts we recognize as the New Testament.
If we take seriously the church’s role in bearing the keys to the Kingdom, and in binding and loosing, perhaps we can discern in our time a call from the Spirit to extend the Kingdom, and recognize that it is in our purview (and is thus our responsibility) to do so. It would be too cute by half to say something like “Gay is the new Gentile,” but that’s not too far off the mark.
I should point out that I appreciate the more conservative voices because they adjure us to patience. They remind us to not rush in. They remind us that we are fallible. They force those of us who think they discern this call to be careful with language and to do the patient work of theology. If any of these arguments have merit they are not the end of the conversation but the beginning. There’s a tension insofar as this is, if I’m right, a justice issue, and thus we cannot be silent. But neither do we need to shout.
[UPDATE: It's been brought to my attention that I am oversimplifying the sexual anthropology of the ancient world, and that there is evidence that lifelong same-sex relationships and/or persistent same-sex orientation were not as alien as I'm suggesting. I've softened my rhetoric a bit. If there was language to describe these things -- and would stand by the basic intuition that there is nevertheless a certain novelty to our context -- it does not seem to be the language used in scripture.]