Martha and Mary, Queer Saints

The household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus is well known to us from the Gospels, where they are described as “sisters” and their brother Lazarus. They are also known to us as Jesus’ friends, and their home as a place he visited for some rest and hospitality.  The problem is, that the story is perhaps too familiar: we are so used to hearing of them and their home since childhood, that we automatically accept the words and visualize the family in modern terms, just as we did as children.  To really understand the significance of this family, we need to consider the social context.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, BEUCKELAER, Joachim (1565)”

In the modern West, we are accustomed to a wide range of family and household types. Although the socially approved ideal remains the nuclear family, with one husband, one wife, children and pets, we recognize many others as well: single person households; communal living, especially for young adults; same sex couples; and siblings (or other family members) sharing a home.  In the Biblical world, economic and social conditions dictated that just one model was nearly universal. A patriarchal male established a household, and controlled within it wives, concubines, sons, daughters and slaves. Sons remained within their father’s household and its economic basis until they had the resources to set up on their own. Daughters remained with their families until they were married off by their fathers, to submit to their new husbands. Their entire existence was dependent on the men who controlled them – fathers, brothers, or husbands. A single woman living independently of men was remarkable. Two women living together would have been exceptional. They are described as “sisters”, but that may not be in the literal sense – the term was commonly used to describe what we would describe as a lesbian relationship. This may or may not have included sexual intimacy, but it was most certainly a household in open defiance of the standard gender expectations for women, and so I have no hesitation in describing them as “queer”.

We should also pause a moment, and consider briefly their brother Lazarus. He is best known to us in the story of his rising from the dead, but in the context of the household, he appears to be a minor figure. Although Hebrew families were dominated by the males, with sons taking control of the women after a father’s death, in a household of siblings, we would normally expect that with one brother and two sisters, the man should be the master of the household: but that is emphatically not the picture of Lazarus that comes across from the Gospel. He too can be described as “queer” on that basis alone, although there is a lot more that could be said about Lazarus as a possible lover of Jesus.

This week though, the Church celebrated the feast of Martha and Mary (July 29th), and so it is on the sisters that I want to concentrate. (Luke 10, 38-42)

When I reflect on the story of Martha and Mary as I have grown up with it since childhood, the image that sits with me indelibly is of the hospitality that they offered. Hospitality should be a core Christian value. In the traditional Hebrew desert community, hospitality to travellers was a primary virtue: without it, they could easily die, and at one time or another, anyone could find himself a traveller in the desert, dependent himself on the hospitality of strangers. The family itself, with its total interdependence, can be seen as a model of mutual, reciprocal hospitality. Through the institution of marriage, creating linkages between households and family networks binding the entire society, hospitality between households was the social glue binding the entire society.

As we know to the present day, the most powerful element and symbol of hospitality is the shared meal. It is not for nothing that the Mass is constructed around the commemoration of a meal. Hospitality and community go to the heart of the Christian ideal: this certainly is how I understand the concept of God’s Kingdom on earth. Where we have full, mutual hospitality and community, love inevitably grows, and there can be no possibility of injustice.

The challenge must be to make  certain that the hospitality really does extend to all. We as gay men an women know to our cost that very often it does not apply to us, and we must continue to work to secure that hospitality for ourselves: but we must likewise ensure that we too, offer hospitality, both within our community and beyond it. Let us never forget that the clearest symbol of hospitality in the Gospels is seen in a queer household.  Let us strive in our modern queer community to model and embody the spirit of hospitality to the wider world.

(See also :
Jesus in Love Blog, Martha and Mary: Sisters, or Lesbian Couple?, in Kittredge Cherry’s excellent, continuing  series on LGBT saints)
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Queering the Song of Songs

Gay men and women could be excused for feeling more than a little ambivalent about the Song of Songs as recommended reading.  On the one hand, it is very emphatically and clearly a frankly erotic love song between two unmarried lovers. It is a celebration of physical love, and an important counter to the common religious view that sexual expression must be confined to procreation. The Song is the strongest possible proof that Scripture does not support that view (there are others, too.)

On the other, it is equally clearly an expression of heterosexual love -at least as known and commonly published today.( There is an out of print book which argues that the earliest texts described two men, and that one set of pronouns was altered by later editors. For an account of this, see the Wild Reed on “The Bible’s Gay Love Poem“. However, I have not seen authoritative support for this view elsewhere, and for today I shall stick with the better known version. )

So how is a lesbian or gay male reader to respond to this text? 

One simple remedy is simply to use it as a starting point, and ignore the details of gender, as I have done myself in the past – but this is not entirely satisfactory.

Christopher King, writing in “Take Back the Word”, has another approach, which strikes me as instructive and useful. (“A Love as Fierce as Death: Reclaiming the Song of Songs for Queer Lovers”). The starting point for his reading, which sets it apart from others and makes it come alive for me, is that he recognises in the Song much more than just  the expression of love, but its fuller story.

He reminds us that the text stresses that the woman, whom he calls the Shulamite, is both Black and an outsider. As such, this is not just about love, but about forbidden love – love survives and conquers resistance.

“I am black and  beautiful,
O daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5)

The Shulamite recognizes that because of her relationship to the Beloved, she has become the subject of a discourse that intensifies her experience of marginality. Having become merely an outsider, she has become a taboo person.

King also describes how the “official” church interpretation of the Song has changed dramatically over the centuries: in the Classical period, for instance, her blackness was taken to represent sin.  That view has changed.

Not only is the Shulamite an “outsider”, she has suffered for it. She is hounded by the law, as represented by “the sentinels”, an beaten up for it.

“Making their rounds in the city,
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle
those sentinels of the walls
(5:7)

The very men who ought to protect the Shulamite have savagely attacked her. Not only have they thrashed , bruised and perhaps raped her, they have also stolen her outer garment, exposing her body to the physical elements, and more seriously, unveiling her shame to the elemental forces of public scorn.

It really doesn’t take a great deal of imagination here to make the obvious parallel with the violence and persecution that sexual outsiders  have suffered, just like the Shulamite foreigner, and often similarly at the hands of those who should be protecting the weak – the church and the police.

But – she’s a survivor, and love conquers.

A further important point, worth carefully stressing, is not just the joy of their love, but also it’s absolute equality and reciprocity.

My beloved is mine and I am his
he pastures his flock among he lilies (2:16)

I am my beloved’s and he is mine
he pastures his flock among he lilies. (6.3) 

This mutuality and equality within a relationship is commonplace in queer relationships, but less so (probably rare, to this degree), in conventional marriage.

And so, although the relationship that is celebrated in the Song of Songs is not a same-sex one, it is indeed a queer one. The biological sexes are different, but at this level of equality, gender and gender roles fade into insignificance. “Queer” is more than a descriptor of same-sex attraction, but also includes all manner of sexual outsiders. An outsider the Shulamite most certainly is, and like us, has suffered for it.

But still, she can celebrate her love for her beloved, as he celebrates his for her.   Most important of all for me, is that this has been quite literally celebrated in the most public way possible – written down in a book of Scripture, read by those who followed over the following thousands of years.

No secret closet for their love, then.

Source:

King, Christopher:  “A Love as Fierce as Death”, in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, edited Robert Goss.

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Gospel for Gays, on Prayer (Luke 11, 1-13)

Writing about the Gospel for July 25th (Luke 11, 1-13), Jeremiah at Gospel for Gays asks “Does god answer prayer?”

After first quoting the text and running through some expert commentary, Jeremiah gets to a personal perspective – one which I fully endorse, on the strength of personal experience. Here are some extracts:

This is a wonderful passage, and it’s not merely the story of the importunate friend in the night that is unique to Luke.  It’s Luke who links what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” to other sayings, thus providing a deep answer to the disciples’ demand:  “Lord, teach us to pray.”

For me, the most striking thing about the passage is the brevity of the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus spent hours – days – in prayer.  Indeed, I think his whole life was prayer – irrespective of what he was doing.

Yet when his disciples ask him how to pray, he doesn’t start where we would begin today – talking about how you should sit or stand or kneel (or lie down, a possibility accepted by Ignatius of Loyola – with the warning that you may fall asleep!).

Rather, he gives this deceptively simple set of 38 words (in English).

And then brilliant, literary Luke gathers up other sayings of Jesus about prayer and lays them out here.

And interestingly, there are two themes in those sayings:  generosity on the part of a loving Dad; and perseverance on our part, in asking for what we need.

Does God answer prayer?

That’s a legitimate question; some would say it’s the only question.

In my experience, the answer is “yes” – with abundance.

There’s an obvious “but” however, and Luke ends this passage with an important surprise when he has Jesus say, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The Holy Spirit?

Where did that come from?

Right to the end, the examples are concrete – daily needs, particularly bread in a society of scarcity.  Is this a trick, after all?  We ask for bread, or a paying job, or acceptance of our gay identity by a defensive hierarchy, or a partner, or a cure for cancer – and we get the Holy Spirit in response?

It’s a surprise, but it’s not a trick.

Jesus is telling us that our relationship with God is so intimate that even as we praise him, even as we rest in his silent and intimate presence, we must ask for the things we need, for the things our children, our friends, our neighbors, our beloved needs; for what the world needs – peace, for example.

And he answers, with the generosity of a loving parent.

(Read the full post at Gospel for Gays.)

Water into Wine: Jesus’s Gay Wedding at Cana.

Yesterday I dipped into two books, and found ideas that amplified  each other with powerful effect, especially in the current context of advances for marriage equality and the bishops’ opposition. “Take Back the Word” (ed Robert Goss) is a compilation of writings on Scripture designed to take us as queer Christians beyond battles with the “texts of terror”, to an approach more in keeping with what it should be, a source of inspiration and value in our lives.  “Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body ” (ed Gerard Loughlin) is a broader and more ambitious compilation, of writing on a range of dimensions of faith from a queer perspective.

Who was getting married?

In the introduction to his book, Loughlin reflects on the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana, (John 2: 1 – 11) which we usually think of in terms of the transformation of water into wine. Immediately I thought of this as a wonderful alternative image for Goss’s “Take Back the Word”. It is one thing for us to move beyond a fear of Scripture to a point where it is the “water” of life: but how can we go beyond even that, to the “wine” of celebration?  This, I thought, is what Elizabeth Stuart does in a short piece “Camping Around the Canon”, which (as it happens) she ends with some thoughts on weddings. Stuart’s point is that we need to be able to approach Scripture with laughter, which is too often absent from religious practice. After a concise exposition of the historical and theological justification for the approach, she offers just one illustration of what she means,  discussing Ephesians, 5:21-33 (“Wives, submit to your husbands”), which is so often used at weddings, and which for women can so easily become a text of terror. Hearing it read at weddings, she says, left her “churning with anger”. But an analysis by Gerard Loughlin changed her reaction from tragic to comic, as the “heteropatriarchal” readings are

undermined and washed away in the deeper waters of the Christian symbolic, for insofar as as women are members of the body, they too are called to be Christ to others; so that they too must also act as “groom” and “husband”; to the “bride” and “wife” of the other, whether it is to a man or woman.  For it cannot be said that within the community only men are called to love as Christ does.”

-Gerard Loughlin, “Baptismal Fluid“, unpublished paper quoted by Stuar

Stuart comments:

Loughlin’s reading of the text had transformed it into a queer text. The very incongruity of this reading with the “original” reading is enough to stimulate laughter. I find it funny that this passage should be read so often and do solemnly at weddings, the great ceremony of heteropatriarchy.

-Stuart, Camping Around the Canon, in Goss “Take Back the Word

I remember a comparable insight and laughter from my own experience. Once on retreat, I found myself reflecting on the familiar image of the Church as the bride of Christ, and realized that as a gay man, I was spared the oddity (for straight men) of imagining myself as “bride”, and instead was able to picture myself in my meditation as “groom” of Christ – a meditation that became extremely powerful. Looking  back on it later, I found satisfaction and humour in the realisation that my orientation had given me a unique advantage in my prayer.

This left me with a predisposed receptivity to Loughlin’s main ideas concerning the wedding at Cana.  Instead of considering the miracle of transformation, he asks instead, “Who is it that was married?”. He answers the question in stages.

First, he points out that the story should be read as a parable, with distinct anticipation of the Last Supper,  Passion and Resurrection. The wedding takes place on “the third day” (anticipating the resurrection) after He has talked with Nathanel (John 1:43 -51), and the transformation of water into wine anticipates the transformation of wine into His blood. In a liturgical setting, the Mass recalls these three days. So, it is a standard idea that symbolically, in the church’s recollection of the story, we are all guests at the wedding, where Christ is marrying his Church.   At one level closer to the literal, it is Christ marrying his disciples. Loughlin then goes on to discuss a fascinating more literal idea from the early and medieval church – that it was indeed Christ who was married – to John, the beloved disciple. This idea was articulated in the apocryphal Acts of John, in which it is said that John broke off his betrothals to a woman to “bind himself” to Jesus. This was apparently a common strand in some German medieval thinking, right up until the Reformation, and is visually illustrated in some surviving art.  In a  “Libellus for John the Evangelist”, a painting of the wedding feast is said to feature a bearded Christ seated next to a beardless, androgynous John – whom, says Loughlin, he appears about to kiss.  In the “Admont Codex” illustrated manuscript of  St Anselm’s “Prayers and Meditations”, an illustration in two parts shows John’s story. In one, John is seen leaving his female betrothed. In the companion piece, he is lying on the ground with this head on Jesus’s breast, while Jesus himself is tenderly caressing his chin.

Is this tradition “true”? We cannot know. Like so much much else in Scripture, it is impossible to get through the mists produced by unfamiliar language, a different literary tradition, and remote historical /cultural context to get close to the literal “truth” behind the text.   No matter. Even without accepting  this idea literally, it is enough for me to know that it was once widely accepted in the mystical tradition, and to incorporate it into my reader response.

It is when Loughlin moves beyond the “meaning” of the text to its multiple ironies that the fun starts. This where, in sympathy with Elizabeth Stuart, I found myself quite literally laughing with Scripture.  For if it is true that the consecration of Eucharistic wine into Christ’s bloods is prefigured in the Cana transformation of water into wine, then we can see that in every Mass we are commemorating  Christ’s own wedding with His (male) disciples. Every Mass can be seen as a mystical gay wedding.  That Mass is celebrated by a priest who has committed himself to celibacy, and so forswears procreation himself, but is expected to preach against gay marriage or others – because homosexual intercourse, being unable to procreate, is “intrinsically disordered“. The priesthood in turn, is run by a a similarly celibate coterie in the Vatican which reproduces itself by recruitment not biological reproduction – and castigates the homosexual community for its own social, not biological reproduction.

The threat posed by gays and lesbians to family and society is often proclaimed by men – named “fathers”- who have vowed never to to beget children. The pope lives in a household of such men – a veritable palace of “eunuchs”for Christ  – that reproduces itself by persuading others not to procreate. Why us the refusal of fecundity – the celibate lifestyle – not also a threat to family and society?

-Loughlin, introduction to “Queer Theology”

Goss, Robert (ed): Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Loughlin, Gerard (ed): Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body (BBPG)

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The "Abominations" of the King James Bible

Scripture has been so commonly quoted in support of arguments against same sex relationships, that we too easily overlook the simple facts that the texts being quoted were written in  a foreign language, in a remote cultural setting, in contexts very different to that in which pseudo-religious bigots abuse these texts today. To extend correct understanding of these texts, every useful explanation deserves wide exposure.

At Religion Dispatches today, Jay Michaelson  has an explanation of one particularly treacherous and widely abused and misunderstood word, “abomination”.   Critics of the clobber texts routinely point out that the same word is used to proscribe certain foods, shaving, as well as “men lying with men”, and the inconsistency exposed in its modern use to attack  selectively one but not the others. Outside the scholarly journals however, not enough attention has been placed on the word itself, which emphatically does not have the connotations and strength of meaning in the original Hebrew text that it does in the modern English usage of its translation. (Renato Lings, meanwhile, has offered a useful analysis of the Levitical texts from another perspective, the words for “men lying with men”, and also finds that they simply do not mean what modern abusers of the texts think it means).

The Hebrew word is “toevah” (plural “toevot“), and it is to the King James version that we owe the appallingly inappropriate translation as “abomination”. In an extensive analysis of all 103 Biblical uses of the word, some key themes emerge. First, almost all have the connotation of non-Israelite cultic practices.

In particular, foreign forms of worship (“avodah zara“) he describes as the “primary” toevah, from which most other forms of toevot flow. Some of these are clearly serious, and would also be recognised as such in the modern West – such as  idolatry, child sacrifice, and witchcraft (Deut. 12:31, 13:14, 17:4, 27:15, and 32:16 ) – but unlike the Hebrews, we would not see this as sufficient justification for “the genocide of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanaites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” . But in addition to idolatry, Ezekiel lists some further “toevot” that we would recognize as wrong, but would be surprised to see described as “abominations” –   usury (Ez. 18:13), haughtiness and pride (Ez. 16:47-50), heterosexual adultery (Ez. 22:11, 33:26), and violence (Ez. 33:26). (I hope that someone can point out to those promoting homophobic violence in the name of religion, that they are as much guilty of “abomination” as those they oppose.)

A further use from Ezekiel brings home an important feature of this notion of “toevah” as a general term for foreign acts (Ez. 16:51) – that it is foreign practice that is the problem, usually cultic, but sometimes not. As Michaelson makes clear, the point of toevah is that it is culurally specific. Just as some foreign practices are toevah to Israelites, so some Israelite practices are equally toevah to others:

Genesis 43:32 states that eating with Israelites is toevah for Egyptians. Gen. 43:34 states that shepherds are toevah to Egyptians—the sons of Israel are themselves shepherds. In Exodus 8:22, Moses describes Israelite sacrifices as being toevat mitzrayim—toevah of Egypt—although obviously Israelite ritual is not an objective “abomination.” If toevah means abomination, then eating with shepherds, eating with Israelites, and Israelite sacrifices themselves must be abominable! Since this clearly is not the case, toevah cannot mean “abomination” in any ontological sense—it must be a relative quality.

Toevot also include what Michaelson calls “ethical failings”, including pride (Prov. 6:16, 16:5), lying (Prov. 12:22, 26:25), scoffing (Prov. 24:9) and evil speech (Prov. 8:7) – some more in there that are worth drawing to the attention of those crying “abomination” against gay men and lesbians. I also like this:

Interestingly, Proverbs 13:19 says that “to turn from evil is toevah to fools,” again suggesting that toevah is something relative in nature. Similarly, Prov. 29:27 says poetically: “An unjust man is toevah to the righteous, and the straightforward man is toevah to the wicked.”

However, the KJV and many other biblical translations do not simply apply the inappropriate word “abominations” to the Hebrew “toevah”, but also to other Hebrew words usually associated with idolatry:   sheketz,  which refers usually to idolatry and occasionally to other taboos such as forbidden animals (Lev. 11:10-13). Likewise,  as pigul, which is how Leviticus 7:18 describes leftover sacrificial meat.

Here’s the crunch:

Progressive religionists must stop using the word “abomination” to refer to toevah. The word plays into the hands of fundamentalists on the one hand, and anti-religious zealots on the other, both of whom want to depict the Bible as virulently and centrally concerned with the “unnatural” acts of gays and lesbians. In fact, toevah is mostly about idolatry, and male homosexual behavior is only as abominable as remarriage or not keeping kosher. Whenever we use the word “abomination” we are perpetuating the misunderstanding of Biblical text and the religious persecution of LGBT people.

What word are we to use instead?

Personally, I like “taboo” as a replacement. It conveys the culturally relative nature of toevah, has some connotation of foreignness, and rightly aligns the taboo against homosexuality with taboos against, for example, eating unkosher food. It also has a vaguely archaic feel, which it should. Admittedly, “taboo” began as tabu, and specifically refers to a particular concept in Pacific indigenous religion; it is a bit inexact to import it to Judaism and Christianity. Yet the word has, by now, entered the common parlance, and in that general sense, it matches toevah fairly well. (Alternatively, we could stick with the Hebrew term, the foreignness of which heightens the foreignness of the Biblical concerns about homosexuality.) One thing remains clear, though: what’s really abominable here is the word “abomination” itself.

I like this. Taboo exactly captures that sense of something which is forbidden, in a cultural context. See how the impact of the Levitical text changes if we make that small adustment, from “abomination”, to a more precise, culturally appropriate  translation:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination

becomes

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is taboo for Israelis.

See?