Let Us Remember, March 19th: St Joseph

Saint Joseph is frequently presented as a model of fatherhood. For LGBT Catholics and other Christians however, he is also a powerful symbol of just how little the Holy Family resembled the model  of “traditional” marriage and family to easily touted by those seeking to twist the clear evidence of scripture to force it into their own heteronormative model of family.

 Rather, Christ’s family was distinctly queer, as I have written previously for the Feast of the Holy Family:

This week, (that is, the week after Christmas) the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family – so often an occasion of trial for those Catholics who are not living in officially approved families of Mom, Pop, kids, pets and picket fence. Subjected year after year to the same -old, same-old shallow sermons on the joys of family life, single people, the divorced, childless couples and queer Catholics can easily find that this Sunday is a very pointed reminder of how easily and thoughtlessly we can be excluded from the Church community. Most of the standard preaching on the Holy Family though is entirely misguided – the true nature of the Holy Family is very far from a celebration of the modern, but inappropriately named,  “traditional family” .

Not a “Traditional Family” (Raphael)

Two items that came to me this week reminded me of this. My colleague Martin Pendergast sent me a link to the Holy Family reflection by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, with the observation

We had a good Pastoral Letter from +Vincent Nichols for The Feast of the Holy Family – no ‘family-values’ ranting, thank God!

Martin is right. Although there are the usual references to children, there is no prescriptive definition of “family”. It is perfectly possibly for those who need it, to read this statement as inclusive of families of all kinds. There is is also an important expansion of the concept of family, one that has important implications for the community of the church, and for those of us who for one reason or another feel on the margins of the church family:

The family of the Church, too, has a deep, human wisdom to share. It is intertwined with the stories of our families. St Paul describes so much of it in that second reading we have heard. Today we think about how to share and build our family wisdom. By doing this we strengthen the very foundations of our society. We need time together. We need to listen to each other’s experience. We then come to appreciate the wisdom that is part of our family tradition, something to be passed on in love.

All the members of a family also need to practice respect for each other. Yes, we respect each other in our differences. We may rejoice in those differences. At the same time we strive to keep up a shared standard of behaviour.

Christ’s Queer Family

 

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Jesus: Not "Gay", but Genderqueer.

It appears from an article by Michael Ruse at the Guardian, that there is new evidence that Jesus was openly and unambiguously a gay man. Appearances are deceptive: this is a speculative piece, describing the texts he would like to see, when these newly discovered codicils have been translated.
So what?
The interesting thing about this story is that while it is a piece of fiction, it actually makes very little difference to the core statements in the report: all (except for the unspecified parable, and the hypothetical quarrel with Joseph about manliness) are already known to us from the existing Gospels.
The Sexuality of Jesus
The absence of any direct reference in the Gospels to Jesus’ love life,  sexual or emotional, has led to the unfortunate modern assumption that he did not have one, that he was in effect asexual. This is a bad mistake. We know that he was fully human, and do will also have had the full range of human bodily and emotional drives. We also know very little about his eating habits, hygiene practices or bowel movements – but this does not imply that he did not have any.  We may not know how Jesus responded to his sexual feelings, but we can be certain that he had them – just as we do.
The repeated references to a “beloved disciple” (whoever he is) are clear evidence of a special, even intimate,relationship. This evidence comes from the words used, but also from the privileged position given to him, physically and symbolically, at key points in the Gospel narrative (for example, at the last supper and at the crucifixion). It is widely assumed that the term applies to John the Evangelist, but this may not be so. Another candidate is Lazarus. Some scholars draw attention to a supposed Second Gospel of Mark, which supposedly tells that after raising a young man (Lazarus?) from the dead, Jesus spent the night in bed with him. There is also a peculiar story in Mark’s Gospel of a night-time encounter in the garden with a young man covered only in a linen cloth, who then ran away naked.  We do not know who this mysterious young mas was, or what they were doing in the garden, but it too could have been Lazarus – and what do you think they were doing, in the dark and with one at least almost naked?
Personally, I reject the idea that Jesus was gay in any modern sense – the word is totally anachronistic, and there is in any case comparable evidence of a relationship with Mary Magdalene, which would make him at least “bi-” (in modern terminology. Intriguing as the evidence is that he may have had same-sex attractions or involvements, this evidence is at best supportive, but not conclusive proof.
Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Rubens)

What can we say for certain?

Jesus Rejected Modern “Family” Values

Well, we know very clearly what he was not. At a time when there were enormous social pressures on all Jews to marry and raise a family, he did not. He also encouraged his followers to leave their own families, lived with a same-sex band of single men, and selected his closest friends from single people.  Other than the men of “the twelve”, his closest friends were the two women Mary and Martha, two unmarried women living together (again in clear defiance of social expectations), and their unmarried brother, Lazarus. Much as the religious conservatives try to paint the Gospels as supporting their (modern) conception of supposedly “traditional” family values, the values found in the texts themselves and not the fundie imagination, are decidedly queer: This was not a devoted, heterosexual, family man.
We also know for certain that he rejected nobody. Inclusion for all was a hallmark of his ministry, to the extent of simply ignoring standard social taboos of all kinds. He freely engaged in religious discussions with women, he did not hesitate to go to the home of a Roman centurion to heal his servant and (probably) lover, he met with and healed lepers, and did not shrink from the menstruating woman. The example of the woman caught in adultery (and others) shows clearly that he was not particularly interested in peoples’ sexual acts – but only in the quality of their relationships (with others, and with God). This is also demonstrated by what he had to say on sex and sexuality : nothing at all.
Biological Sex and Gender Expression.
I was delighted by the timing of Michael Ruse’s Guardian report, which came just at the start of Trans in Faith week. The more I reflect on it, the more convinced I become that however one views Christ’s sexual orientation or practice, the most reliable descriptor that I can find is that he was/is very clearly, emphatically, genderqueer.
Consider first, the circumstances of his birth, and the implications if we are to accept the orthodox Catholic doctrine of Mary’s virginity. Then, without no human father, we must read his parentage as one human mother, with the Holy Spirit – often thought of as a feminine aspect of the Trinity. Two moms, then.
An observation by Susannah Cornwall in Trans/formations gives an even more radical view of the virgin birth. With no biological male parentage, he can have had no Y chromosomes, but only the female XX pattern. This will have made him externally male, but internally female – in other words, intersex.
Other writers in  Trans/formations draw attention to his gender bending behaviour: not only mixing socially with people from all backgrounds, reflecting sexual and gender diversity as well a ignoring class and ethnic divisions, but also reflected in his flouting of gender roles, freely engaging in many actions that were reserved to women in a highly gendered society.
Finally, as God and one person of the Trinity, he is clearly gender free, but also shares in theological descriptions which demonstrate extraordinary gender fluidity.

Welcome to God’s Queer Family

Michael Ruse concluded his post for the Guardian with the important words:
Finally, the most important news is that nothing in the newly discovered codices challenges in any way the essential message of Christianity. Jesus was the messiah; he died on the cross for our sins; and through his death and resurrection made possible our eternal salvation. Our overriding obligation is to love God and we do this by loving our neighbours as ourselves. Christianity will never be the same again. Christianity will go on completely unchanged.
That is, his sexuality and gender expression really do not matter. An response from a reader asked, if that is so, why bother to write about it at all?
But that is precisely the point. Biological sex, sexual orientation and gender expression clearly were of no concern to him, in his words and ministry. They really not be of any greater concern to us. As Bart put it his response here,
“Welcome to God’s queer family. All are invited”.



Books:



Althaus- Reid, Marcella & Isherwood, Lisa: Trans/formations (Scm Controversies in Contextual Theology Series)
Jennings, Theodore W: The Man Jesus Loved
Fiction:
Cherry, Kittredge: Jesus in Love

Related Posts at QTC

Related articles, elsewhere

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The Gospels’ Queer Values.

Jesus & Family

The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.”   This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged.  Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to d with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as “queer”, if not quite as specifically gay.  In reaching this conclusion, I have been reading and reflecting on the social context of the ‘family’ as experienced in Jewish society and the broader social environment, at Jesus’ own ‘family’ in childhood and maturity,  at His actions, and at His words.

The Jewish Family.

It is important to recognise that traditional Jewish society did indeed place enormous importance on the idea of family, both in the narrow sense of the immediate biological family, and in the broader sense of the ethnic Jewish community.
This was so important that on the one hand, everyone was expected to marry and produce l, and on the other, that those outside the narrow ethnic group were regarded as inferior, even unclean.  The  detailed dietary and other regulations well -known from the Old Testament were part of an elaborate legal structure to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Jewish nation. The Jewish family, however, was very different from our modern conception, deeply patriarchal, and with uneven treatment of men and women. Women were were expected to show rigorous sexual fidelity totheir husbands, and thought of as the ‘property’ of their men.

In the broader social environment, the Jewish state in Jesus’ day was under Roman military occupation.  Like the Greek society of the time, the Romans too had a deeply patriarchal society, and one in which there was not the modern distinction between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ activities.  Distinctions were drawn rather, on the social class of one’s sexual partners, and male citizens would routinely have sex not only with their wives, but also with other lovers, prostitutes and slaves of either gender.

Jesus’ Families.

My reflections on this theme were initially prompted by a posting on “Nihil Obstat” for the feast of the Holy Family, in which she pointed out how very atypical for the time was the Lord’s own childhood family, so often quoted as a model for all Catholic families.

But our childhood families are not the only ones we live with.  More important as we grow older are those adult families we make for ourselves, usually by forming couples in marriage or out of it, and with or without children.  As LGBT people we are also very conscious of how often we may remain single, but still form looser groups of friendship, who may in a real sense become our ‘families’ of a different sort.

So what were the adult ‘families’ that Jesus made for himself?

First, and famously, He did not marry.  This alone is remarkable, given the expectation in Jewish society of marriage and procreation.  So, what were His other relationships – what informal ‘families’ did He form?  We get the answer to this easily enough by looking at the Last Supper.  The Jewish Sabbath meal, and most especially that of Passover, are the occasions above all when Jewish people get together as families.  It si significant then that the Lord spent his own Passover meal – which we know as the ‘Last Supper’, with the 12 apostles:  these were the people we must take to represent His closest family.  Who were these men?  If they ever had wives and families of their own, they had been set aside to spend the rest of their lives with Jesus.

Think about it:  on the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, when it was customary for all Jewish people to share a ritual meal with their closest family, Jesus and the apostles spent the evening as a group of single men.  Does this not sound remarkably like a modern group of urban gay men spending our equivalent family festivals sharing meals together, away from biological families?

Single people know, of course, that the concept of “family” can be fluid. In addition to our closest, most intimate circle, there are often others who might be very close, almost family, but not quite in our innermost circle. Who represented this ‘almost family’ circle to Jesus Christ?  The most obvious candidates to me are the household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom He had an obviously close and special relationship.  What was the nature of this household?  Once again, very far from the expected “traditional” family.  The two women are described as ‘sisters’ and come across to me as the stronger, more vividly drawn characters:  Lazarus is famed more for his death and rescue from it, than for anything in his life.  Even at face value, this is an unusual household:  Jewish women would typically have been married off at an early age, not still living as adults with their brother.  Where such households did exist, it would normally be the brother, as the only male, who would be expected to dominate the household and be the focus of attention.  For a clearer understanding of the household, it is worth remembering that the word ‘sister’s may have been used euphemistically: it is at least possible that Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple, living with a gay friend as lodger.

So: in His families of choice, the Lord spent His time either with a band of single men, or with a household of two single women  (possibly a lesbian couple), and yet another unmarried man. Even in the broader social circle, I am not aware of any instance where He is reported as spending time with a a conventional married couple with children.  Thus far, in examining the Lord in His own family context, we have found not an endorsement, but a repudiation, of the traditional family.

I still need to show that this repudiation of the traditional family is continued in His words and actions.  That I will do later in a  follow-up post.