Queering The Christian Table Part 7: Vulnerability and the Good News of Gay Desire

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

I am convinced that the Christian life is about formation–formation that is never meant to end.

It is a continual unfolding and expansion of our capacity and embodiment of love for God and Neighbor. It’s just this simple/complex: giving and receiving love.

Some might describe this as worship, the “chief end of man [sic!],” or our human telos. I call it the point of our human journey–not a point to be reached, but a point on the horizon that keeps moving out ahead of us even as we grow and expand ever towards it. It is why we remember our baptism, our initiation into the life of Jesus. It is why we celebrate a meal of grace together, to re-member the love we have received and the love we give.

And in the center of all this unfolding and becoming more loving, we have desire. Desire for connection, for belonging, for recognition, for meaning, for attachment, for pleasure. For now, I’ll describe desire as the longing that grows out of our deep needs and drives us past their fulfillment and into the realm of joy. I’m sure this is incomplete, but it’s what I am intuiting right now. It’s beyond hunger or want–it is rooted in our deeply human createdness (or givenness) for com-munion, com-panionship, com-passion–it’s the movement toward being with rather than being alone.

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Desire has the tendency to be treated with disdain (as in certain types of asceticism) or deification (as in certain types of hedonism). I think of it more as a technology–a technique which can be used for leading us to flourish or to self-destruct. Thus, the importance of shaping desire in order to use its power for increasing life rather than diminishing it.

Sexual desire in particular is very powerful. It is rooted in our need for human connection and intimacy. Physiologically, it is connected with survival of our species and yet, it is so much more than that. Sexual desire can function to lead us into vulnerable intimacy that leads to fuller expressions of love and compassion in the world. Sexual desire, when misshapen, can also lead to objectification of self and others, to relational manipulation, to social oppression, and to patterns of addiction and abuse.

Sexual desire is deeply connected to both pleasure and attachment.

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So, how does the framework of Christian formation help us think about shaping sexual desire?

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Christian formation suggests the discipleship of desire–that is to say, for those who follow the way of Jesus, we are invited into ways of life that employ our desires to increase our love for both God and neighbor. The measure, then, of whether or not a desire is leading us toward flourishing (holiness) or diminishment (sin), is whether we are becoming more or less loving of God and our neighbors.

Or, as Jesus tells it, “you will know them by their fruit” and “they will know that you are my disciples because you love one another.”

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So lets talk about how sexual desire functions.

Sexuality is peculiar. It’s particular. What turns a person on–the particular path of firing neurons that signal pleasure is as unique as each individual’s physiology. This is true.

And.

Sexuality is socialized. Our minds and bodies are impressionable and cultural norms as well as particular social interactions throughout our lives shape us.

And.

There’s probably not a theological need to sort those two dimensions out.

I know, that’s a big claim, but let me make my point. If the measure of Christian discipleship is loving God and neighbor, and a particular sexual expression, whether individually peculiar or culturally pervasive, can be weighed for its ability to lead toward or away from love of God and Neighbor, then, it seems like that’s the place where we should be putting our energy.

The question of nature or nurture about any dimension of sexual desire becomes quite irrelevant in the face of the question: How do I steward my desire to increase my love of God and neighbor?

Within the heart of orthodox Christian theology is the doctrine of the Trinity–the notion that God exists, internal to Godself, in community and also, that God creates the world for community with God.

Indeed, the kind of community that God seeks with the world is such that God is constantly becoming vulnerable to humans through relationship and commitment in order to bring them near to God (See the biblical origin story of Noah and the flood, where afterwards, God’s covenant with the people is to place a weapon, God’s own bow, in the sky, pointed back at God, making God vulnerable to consequence should he ever do such violence to humanity [I know there’s lots to take issue with there, but it’s the theological claim of the story that I want to hold on to], also see the incarnation of Jesus, God becoming an infant human being in order to live among humanity for the sake of restoring community with us).

These are stories about God’s moving towards us for community by becoming vulnerable. And that’s really what love is about, coming close enough to someone else to embrace them; to lower our guard and let them within touching distance of our bodies and our hearts. I argue that sexual desire is about shaping our need for community into the action of love, with our bodies and our emotions, to draw us into vulnerable space where we truly see and are seen by another.

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Commitment to a partner offers a level of security that can serve to increase our vulnerability. This is part of why marriage is so hard–the increase in vulnerability does not guarantee connection and feelings of love–what it does guarantee is a deeper experience of the longing and underlying need for those things. Where love is present, desire is both met and increased, so that when we are vulnerable and loved, we are both satisfied and made more hungry. Thus the point–or telos–of desire, keeps moving out ahead of us, forcing us to make the choice of becoming more vulnerable in community or more isolated in our attempt to hold on to something more comfortable.

By mutually honing desire in a relationship with a partner, both people increase their capacity for vulnerability, developing compassion, empathy, and finding some sense of home while also feeding desire which drives them to search for more (and in the Christian framework, that more is the trinitarian God, reaching out to us in mutual vulnerability).

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Theologian Eugene F. Rogers Jr. speaks of God’s desire for otherness in community. He suggests that it is this otherness that draws our vulnerability and relationship and is at the center of committed sexual relationships. For heterosexual persons, this vulnerability to another is drawn out through their sexual desire for those of other gender and physical sex chariteristics than their own. Thus, their desire leads heterosexual people into heterosexual relationships and the vulnerability that leads them into loving relationships that shape them for greater love of God and neighbor.

According to Rogers (You can read his whole argument here), The point of sexual partnership is to expose our vulnerability in order to draw us out of ourselves and into relationship where the harm of sin may be exposed and worked on. He works with the classic definition of sin as isolation and separation from God and others and thus sees committed sexual relationships as a ground for sanctification (restoring relationship with God and others) to occur.

Rogers then asks how such vulnerability can occur in the lives of people who sexually and emotionally desire people of the same gender:

“For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?” (From this article; same as link above)

Essentially, what Rogers is getting at is this: the movement of vulnerability that draws a person into a relationship in which holiness (and I’ll define that as love of God and neighbor) is increased, is born out of the shape of their own desires. Given that such a relationship requires consent and con-sensuality, there are obviously certain relationships that do not fit the bill–the red-herring examples of bestiality and pedophilia and perhaps the less obvious, relationships where the desire (or orientation) of the partners do not match.

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Now here, I speak candidly about my own experience. I am not dispensing advice or judgement on anyone who may find themselves in any similar situation.

I was married for 4.5 years to a woman. The details of how and why belong to both of us, and I’m more than willing to speak of my own experience in a face-to-face conversation. My former spouse would have her own story to tell.

What is clear to me is that the relationship taught us both a great deal about ourselves, each other, community, home, vulnerability, and desire. What is also clear to me is that we came to a point where we recognized that because our sexual desires lacked a necessary element of mutual reciprocity, we were unable to call each other into the kind of deep vulnerability that would allow us to continue to move into greater wholeness.

There was too great a gap between desire and fulfillment and we found the honest and loving thing to do was to let each other go, in order to give us both the chance to find someone with whom our desires could be met with enough mutuality to not only open us to vulnerability, but to also lead us into fulfillment that could increase vulnerability throughout our lives.

In a paragraph, that looks somewhat tidy. Over the course of several years it has felt like death, hell, and resurrection–often with all three simultaneously braided into one strand, pulling me forward into acceptance and celebration of the life that I have been given as a gay man.

While our marriage was enough to awaken my desire and draw me into enough vulnerability to heal and accept grace to the point that I could love myself and accept my being gay, it was not the relationship that could feed that awakened desire. This was perhaps the most painful realization of my life–until I realized that there was a mirror truth; not only was I not being fully called out by my partner, but I was unable to fully call her out in her own desires.

Looking back, I see many reasons why I got married. In addition to loving my spouse, I had been told by my culture and my faith that the one way to express my sexuality was in heterosexual partnership.

What had been rightly identified as the need for another in committed relationship, had been narrowly defined in terms of the normative experience of the majority. For people with heterosexual desires who find themselves in a relationship, heterosexual partnership is exactly the kind of relationship in which vulnerability, and thus holiness, can be fostered.

But I am a cis-gendered male, attracted to bodies of the XY persuasion. And a relationship that could not fully honor this important aspect of my humanity was unable to offer the kind of vulnerability that I and my partner each needed and deserved.

It doesn’t really matter why I find myself drawn out in relationship with other men, I simply do. And so the question I face is how to follow that desire in a way that leads me to greater vulnerability and increased love for God and neighbor.

Should it be any surprise that that would look like a committed partnership with someone who can reflect desire back to me with mutuality so that we are both called into vulnerability and wholeness? If my gay desire, when formed in this kind of relationship can lead me to love God and neighbor more fully, isn’t that good news (gospel)?

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I believe it would be absurd to suggest a gay relationship is a path to holiness for a straight person. I also believe that it is just as absurd to suggest that a straight relationship is a path to holiness for a gay person. Vulnerability with a partner requires some measure of unquenched desire intermingled with fulfillment of that desire. This is what keeps drawing us deeper into relationship–with a partner, with God, and with others in community. I will be so bold as to claim that Christian communities that push heterosexual relationships on homosexual people are guilty of perpetuating harmful cultural pressures and, more, are hindering the work of God in these people’s lives. It’s as harmful as pressuring straight people to be in gay relationships.

For those who would suggest monasticism as the only option for Christian homosexuals, I would refer you to the Apostle Paul’s advice on monasticism to everyone in the Christian community: He’d rather everybody be monastic, but he doesn’t want anybody to be overcome by their desire, so he recommends for those who want an intimate partner, a commitment of partnership designed to shape that desire towards wholeness and service of God and neighbor (1 Corinthians 7).

Again, what we begin to realize is that the measure of holiness of a relationship has little-to-nothing to do with which appendages are going into what orifices–instead, it’s about how the heart of the person is being led out through desire into greater openness to relationship with another person. This is why it’s about sexual desire as well as attachment–why this still applies to relationships where one or both partners cannot be sexually active due to any number of factors.

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And thus, my gay desire is deeply good news.

Because the messages of society and my faith were shaped in a way that reinforced the norms of the majority, I believed, while growing up, that my inability to connect with a woman in the way I was “supposed to” was a deep flaw in my humanity. I remember being a teenager and looking at gay pornography and thinking about the Bible verse that says “no temptation has seized you, except what is common to man [sic].” And I remember thinking, I’m not sure that this is all that common. In fact, I’m pretty sure my guy friends aren’t getting turned on by Ryan Gosling or Josh Harnett [don’t judge my taste, I was in high school].

When I finally began to appreciate that my desires are simply my own, I began to realize that, I too contain the capacity for deep vulnerability and connection–it’s simply directed toward men rather than women. I also began to realize that my desires weren’t the work of evil. If anything, the work of evil was the way that my church, my family, and my society had tried to convince me I was incapable of real love and connection, and to shame me away from the kind of relationship that could lead me into such goodness and the kind of flourishing that would awaken my soul and expand my capacity for God and neighbor.

That my desire has been so resilient, despite a culture and church and internalized oppression that were laid against it, is evidence of God’s deep goodness in calling us into community through desire–and specifically through our sexual desire for mutual love with someone with whom we can spend our lives pleasurably calling each other into vulnerability and wholeness.

Note to readers: Thanks for your patience between posts. I’ve needed to step back from blogging in the last week or two in order to ground myself in the midst of some difficult situations. Ultimately, I think this makes for more thoughtful writing when I do post. I’m grateful to see so many people reading the posts and I’m grateful for the emails and messages. My hope is for this series to help open space for conversations and I’m grateful for any level of engagement you’re able to offer along the way.

Read part 8 here.

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Queering the Christian Table Part 6: This Sin’s Not Sexy

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

A note to readers:

In this post I present my own literary and theological reading of some stories from the Bible. For these readings, I am deeply indebted to the work of many other biblical scholars and theologians, some of whom I can name and some of whom I am certain are influencing my readings of these texts below the surface of my thought. For a succinct and accessible look at what the Bible texts actually say about Queer sexuality, I highly recommend the chapter “Doesn’t the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” in Bishop Gene Robinson’s book God Believes in Love.

While my reading is a way to read these texts, there are certainly other ways. I speak with conviction about how I read the text, however, I hope that it is clear that I do not mean to press my reading on others. I hope, instead, that if my way of reading causes you  to wonder about your own way of reading, that you’ll follow that curiosity wherever it leads.

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So, when we start talking about human sexuality and the Bible, it seems inevitable that we start talking about sin.

Now sin gets defined in all sorts of ways. It gets employed rhetorically in even more ways. Is sin a disease of the soul? Is sin a series of actions? Is sin a way of describing relationships that are out of healthy alignment? We can talk about theologies of sin another time. Suffice it to say,

Sin gets around.

To add to the confusion, the Bible is not all that clear about what actions might constitute sin and what doesn’t. For instance, in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christian Bibles call the Old Testament), there’s a boatload of stories and laws (both legal and holiness codes) that can roughly be summed up as saying, “God doesn’t want you to act like the people from other ethnic groups and religions that live around you. Your morality should be distinctive.” Often (though certainly not always), these stories and laws are paired with texts where God is seen as ordering God’s folks to wholesale slaughter entire towns, villages, and nations–men, women, children, animals, etc. in efforts to eradicate the bad influence of these malcontents.

I sure am glad we have the option of just “unfriending” someone on facebook nowadays.

The other side of the coin is that there are all these other stories and even some laws that are mixed in, where God is supposedly telling God’s people that God is sick and tired of their laws and sacrificial systems, tired of their religious piety, and that what God really wants is for them to stop beating up on foreigners and strangers, and to take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans. This portrait makes God seem like the type who wouldn’t be all, “murder children” and all that.

So what do we do with the tension of both of these being present in the biblical texts?

A last note about sin before we move on: With these two approaches around what constitutes sin and what constitutes holiness (or human flourishing), it’s also apparent that there’s a struggle to understand how sin impacts the human relationship with God. Some read the Bible and say sin separates us from God. There’s a little support for that reading (and I’d guess, a lot of mommy and daddy issues influencing our reading). Some read the Bible and say that sin harms us in our relationships, but has no bearing of God’s relationship with us. In this reading, sin doesn’t have the power to separate us from God. Textually, there’s a lot more support for this reading. If God supposedly can’t stand to be around sin, then there’s no accounting for all the stories where God moves toward people rather than away from them–especially people who are experiencing shame, isolation, and harm where sin/evil is present (both in their own actions and/or working against them).

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A literalistic reading of the Bible that attempts to lay a chronological, modern historicity over the narratives misses the literary value of the text. These are stories that are complex, textured, and are meant to work like any good story, on multiple levels. They are literary stories that make claims about God.

The collection of writings that make up the Bible span thousands of years, various cultures, and are a sort of extended dialogue of ambiguity. We are handed these texts in collected form and it is ours to wonder, “Who do we believe God is?” and “How should we live in response to these beliefs?”

The stories exist in tension, because, the realities of the people in these stories are much like our contemporary realities–there are tensions in how we understand what it means to be a part of a group with a distinct experience and understanding of the world, and what it means to affirm common personhood of all humans across all groups without reading our own experience of being human as normative for everyone else.

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***Trigger Warning: the following section deals with one of the most violently graphic texts in the Bible. It is the story of a gang-rape that occurs within a system of severe misogyny and xenophobia.

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And then there are stories in the Bible that blur all the lines. One such text is the story of the town of Gibeah. Gibeah is kind of like the less popular sibling city to Sodom and Gommorah. If you aren’t familiar with the parallel stories of Sodom and Gibeah, I recommend reading this helpful study of the text done by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (disclaimer: I have not looked extensively at the ELCIC’s position within the conversation around human sexuality, I just found their treatment of this text to be a good introduction to the textual issues at play).

What becomes clear in reading these texts, especially when we read them in connection with the texts throughout the rest of the Bible that reference them, is this:

The sins of Sodom and Gibeah aren’t at all sexy. 

Indeed, the issue seems quite clear that their sins are hostility and violence against outsiders that manifest in a particularly misogynistic (oppressive to women) ways. That a component of this is same-sex, sexual violence speaks much more to the role of violence, shame, and misogyny in ancient cultures than it comes close to speaking about any sort of homosexual behavior, and it says nothing whatsoever about homosexual desire or consensual homosexual relationships. In fact, the only sexual behavior that even occurs in either of these passages is the violent gang-rape and murder of the woman in the Gibeah story. The context of the story reveals deep systemic cultural sin that starts with treating women as property, and concludes with ethnocentric (values own racial or ethnic group over others) violence against strangers.

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So then, it seems the link between homosexual sexuality and Sodom is more a function of a long history of prejudicial readings of the text that go so far as to have shaped our vocabulary; so that the word “sodomy” reinforces a damaging misreading of these passages each time it is used.

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What’s even more textually interesting to me, is that the Gibeah story is also closely linked to another story about Abraham’s family. While most of the details of the story mirror the story of Lot and his guests in Sodom, there are particular details that mirror the first encounter that Hagar has in the desert with the angel of God.

In Genesis 11, Hagar, a foreigner and slave is treated as a piece of property who is sexually violated by her owners, Abram and Sarai. She runs away into the desert where an Angel finds her sitting by a spring and asks, “where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar goes through this encounter and becomes the first person to name God–saying “You are the God who sees me.”

In this story, God sees the plight of the one who is violated, enslaved, abused and ostracized by those (Abram and Sarai) who are considered, according to the dominating narratives of the text (and often still, by Jewish and Christian religions) to be the righteous ones.

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In the story of Gibeah, in Judges 19, the narrative begins with a story quite similar to Hagar’s. A woman who is enslaved as a concubine runs away from the man who is violating her (he also happens to be a levite, a member of the priestly clan). The woman runs back to her family and the man who owned her follows her, where he is welcomed and treated with exorbitant hospitality by the woman’s father (talk about evil and twisted family dynamics).

Finally, the man sets out with his recaptured wife/concubine (the text goes back and forth on this one, which emphasizes the complete misogyny and treatment of women as property in ancient cultures. Whether wife or concubine, she is given no say in this story.) and they go to the town of Gibeah, which is an Israelite town, but of a different tribe (so same religion but different family/ethnic clan). Here they sit in the town square, just as the two visitors do in Sodom, and an old man who is a resident alien (like Lot) comes up to them.

But here, the stories twist again and the old man in Gibeah echoes the angel in the desert’s question to Hagar, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?”

Quickly the text goes back to being an almost identical parallel to the Sodom text, right down to the old man supplying a daughter alongside the woman in the story so that there are two women being offered to the violent crowd who want to rape the male strangers who have come into their town (side note: the Levite man in the Gibeah story also had a male slave with him, so if this were really about homosexual behavior and he’s willing to throw his wife/concubine out to the crowd, why wouldn’t he have just tossed the male slave out to them instead?–Oh that’s right, it’s about misogyny and violence).

After this, the text diverges again. Instead of divine intervention stopping the rape, the man who owns the woman, throws her out into the violent crowd and allows her to be raped to death. He then gets angry when he finds her dead the next morning and further violates her body, cutting it to pieces and sending it all over the kingdom in order to declare war on Gibeah.

Like Hagar, this woman is violated sexually by the man who owns her. Like Hagar, no one from the dominant ethnic and religious group, or even her family, ever speaks to her directly. She is dehumanized and treated as a sexual object to be owned and used.

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Why does the Gibeah story invoke the Hagar story? What theological claim is it trying to make by echoing this text so clearly?

I will venture to guess that it is to make us, as readers, pay attention to the evil done against this woman by a society that treats women as property and uses male normativity in such a way that violently raping a man–treating him “like a woman”–could become the most intense form of shaming possible in a culture (sound familiar?).

This reveals much about the inhospitality that God condemns. The story functions to warn ancient Israel that they are on the verge of becoming as evil as Sodom, which God destroyed. By invoking the story of Hagar, I believe the author wants us to recall Hagar’s words, “You are the God who sees me.” If God sees the plight of the most victimized and oppressed and stands on their side, then Israel should take heed, because they boarder being on the wrong side of God, who sees and sides with those whom the culture and religion reject (a notion that is played out in the New Testament by Jesus, who consistently angers the religious by siding with the oppressed; particularly those from other ethnicities and women).

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So, how does this help us think about the Sodom and Gibeah passages and how they have been used to condemn people in homosexual relationships in our culture?

Can’t we clearly say that these texts are mainly about condemning cultural oppression of ethnic/racial/religious strangers through inhospitality and violence? Can’t we also say that these texts offer a way of pulling back the curtain on the evil of sexual violence, oppressing women, and treating women as objects?

I am thoroughly convinced that homophobia is intrinsically connected to the oppression of women and viewing maleness as normative for humanity (this is, of course, linked in these passages with racism/ethnocentrism and viewing the dominant culture as normative as well–in our context this exists as white privilege/supremacy).

The levitical laws that condemn homosexuality do so on the basis of a “man lying with a man as with a woman.” It’s clear these laws don’t value women as full humans, since they also stipulate scenarios in which proper application of the same legal codes means that if a man rapes a woman, he’s to marry her and they can never divorce–the implications are that she’s damaged property and he’s obligated to provide for her, never mind that she’s essentially being handed over to her rapist for the rest of her life. The implication in a society that views men as human and women as less-human property, is that for a man to lie with a man, one of them is being treated “as a woman” and that’s seen as a problem because it’s debasing to maleness.

There’s no notion within this system of a man lying with a man as with a man (which, by the way, is pretty much how being gay works).

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What’s clear to me is that the texts of Sodom, Gibeah, and Hagar in the desert, all condemn these oppressive and sinful dynamics of societies and religions by exposing them to the reader.

It’s also clear to me that oppression of women and oppression of homosexual people are linked.

I will go so far as to say, until the Christian church confronts the oppression of women and stops using the Bible to justify misogyny, there will be no resolution of the debate about homosexuality in the church. Homophobia is simply another face of the sin of oppressing the stranger, the one who is other, the one who does not fit the dominant group’s definition of what is “normal.”

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That’s precisely why the argument of what is “natural” gets employed. “Natural” is a code word for “my own experience.” That’s why homophobes and homosexuals both employ a born “this way” or “that way” argument. This is also evident in the way that Paul writes in the New Testament about what is “natural.” It seems clear that both then and now, the word “natural” gets employed in this debate as an argument about normativity.

What’s really at stake is the need for people in the dominant group to listen to and believe the oppressed group’s claim to their own experience in their bodies and the legitimacy of their humanity.

Along with male normativity, these ancient cultures have no apparent framework for considering people who are actually inclined relationally and sexually toward people of the same gender. Thus, for them a “man lying with a man” is a violation of their very notion of what it means to be a man (which for them is also mostly what it means to be human).

Thus, nestled inside male normativity, we find heteronormativity, and if we press it far enough, we find norms that define being human in terms of the gender, sex, religion, race, language, class, abilities of the people who are in power and privileged within a given society (speaking of no room, it’s also evident that these systems are typically set up as binaries: Male or not male. In the relgious group or out of it. Native speaker of the dominant language or second language learner. Able or disabled. Adult or child. It’s no wonder that this kind of system also has no room for bisexuality, transgendered people, intersex people, two-spirited people, gender queer people, etc.).

Just as two women getting married will not magically make a heterosexual marriage fall apart, homosexual love and sex does not make the beauty and goodness of heterosexual love and sex any less valuable. There’s not an inherent need for one to be on top of the other (see what I did there?), just like there’s no need for men to dominate and oppress women (or anyone) in order to claim the normalcy or validity of their experience.

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The problem underlying the debate about gay sex and the Bible is the same problem that runs through the Bible–there’s the defensive vein that says we need to kill and oppress in order to live the holy life we are called to lead (thus squeezing into boxes typically defined by those with socially normative privilege), and then there’s that other vein that is just as present in the text that says that what we really need to do is stop trying to follow rules for holiness and just stop oppressing people and start treating strangers like guests.  

It’s up to us to choose who we think God is in all this and how we ought to live our lives.

Before we decide, I invite us to sit in the tension of the text for a bit, and then to resolve the tension by intensifying it; by stepping into it the way Jesus did–the way that holds together loving God with loving neighbors (and defines neighbors as those who are outside our norms) in a way that leads to unraveling the oppressive dominant culture (for Jesus, this led to the point that they called for his death).

If we do this, I feel convinced that the questions about who is sleeping with whom will soon be put into proper perspective.

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Like the stories of Sodom and Gibeah, this work isn’t sexy. The way I read it, the sin in these stories is about the harmful normativities that oppress people. It’s evident that a key theological claim in these stories (especially Gibeah and Hagar in the Desert) is that while God doesn’t always divinely remove our systems of oppression, God sees and is present on the side of the oppressed–on the side of those that the religious systems and legal codes are working against. And, in these stories, holiness is about dismantling systems of abusive power in a way that allows for all persons to be treated with hospitality, dignity, respect, and compassion. 

Read part 7 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 5: A Queer Story of Curse–or was it Blessing?

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

Sometimes you get told something so often you believe that it’s true.

There are stories so ubiquitous that we take them as inerrant fact and as truth (see what I did there?).

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Bubble gum does not take seven years to digest. The repetition of this story does not make it true. It is true, however, that the gum doesn’t digest, it just travels on through, our bodies saying, nope, that’s not food, just as my body did when I swallowed steel balls from a “crossfire” game when I was 5.

I speak from experience when I say, it’s gone in about a week.

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The tower of Babel has gotten a bad rap.

It turns out a whole lot of people think of this story as that time when God got angry at people who thought they could build a tower to heaven and so, God messed up their plans and struck them all with different languages to confuse them.

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Teach those little suckers to try and mess with me. heh, heh, heh.

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But it turns out, that’s not even in the Bible. Go figure.

The story is from Genesis 11. It sits there, squashed in by genealogies that move from the mythic flood to the ancestor of the big-three monotheisms, Abram (he doesn’t get the name change to Abraham til later). Here’s what it says:

11: 1 Now the whole earth [a]used the same language and [b]the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and [c]settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have [d]the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be [e]impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their [f]language, so that they will not understand one another’s [g]speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called [h]Babel, because there the Lord confused the [i]language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

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Now, what is clear in the story is that they have one language (all those footnotes are telling us that this word literally means “one lip”). They are building a tower, and it is a big one. This makes an impression on God. God says, (paraphrase) Check it out, these people are amazing! Here the text says “now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” Here the footnote tells us that an alternate rendering of the Hebrew is that “nothing which they purpose to do will be withheld from them.”

Even without that juicy alternate translation, there’s no clear language here that this is any kind of retributive judgement from God.

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I have this distinct memory of being rather small and swimming in a large pool. I remember jumping in and swimming to my dad. Before jumping I demanded, “you stay there, don’t back up!” My dad, of course said, “Okay, I’ll stay right here.”

My dad, of course, backed up. When I came up for air and grabbed hold of his arms, 1/3 of the way across the pool, he said, “Look how far you swam!”

I wailed in protest, “You backed up!”

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If we assume that God is angry at idolatrous people, or that God is fearful about losing power to these ambitious little creatures with their talking and tower building, then yeah, Babel looks like God sure showed them.

But if we read the text believing that the God who just went on and on, waxing poetic about making a covenant with every last living thing on the planet right after the flood, we might begin to believe that this God is more like a proud and cunning mama who wants to see her child ride the bike down the street without training wheels, and who, to the child’s great consternation, lets go of the back of the bike, just to see how far the kid can go on their own.

In this version of the story, we read it that God says, wow, these people are doing awesome here, at this rate, they can’t be stopped, I wonder how much more they could do if they were challenged. Now, how can I make that happen?

Here, God is a bit more of a trickster, conniving a way to get them to go outward and explore, blessing them with different languages so that they’ll go and become a whole bunch of wonderful people in really different ways all over the world.

Somehow, this seems to fit with Abram’s narrative that comes right after–you know the one about how God wants to bless every nation.

This gets reiterated by the author of Luke-Acts in the narrative about Pentecost, echoing the Babel story, when it says the people heard the disciples speaking and each one heard the gospel in their own language. The miracle is not about bringing them back together to hear the same language. The blessing is that the good news comes to them in all their particularity.

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Now I know my reading doesn’t have all the textual support in the world to make it the only way to read this passage. Thank God for that.

That’s also just damn good writing–way to go, ancient authors.

We’ve been handed a story that seems like it could be saying two totally contradictory things. As readers, we’re being asked to wrestle with the ambiguous narrative and wonder about the character of God–to question what kind of relationship we believe God has with humanity. Now that’s good storytelling.

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As we move into looking at how we, as Christians, understand human difference, it’s important that we listen carefully to what others tell us about their lives. It’s also important that we listen carefully to what’s actually going on in the Biblical texts as well. To honor the ambiguities, and more importantly to respond to the inherent wondering that resides in every Biblical story–wondering about who God is in relationship with humanity.

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I remember praying the same prayer every night of my life from the age of around 8 or 9 until I was around 20. “Dear Jesus, please forgive me for my sins, take this [attraction to other boys] away from me, and don’t send me to hell.” I heard these words and the ideas that shaped them so frequently, I took them inside me and believed they were inherent truth.

I was thoroughly convinced that my own sexuality–my experience of the world, and my particular expression of desire for affection, attachment, and relationship with other people–was a curse.

Sometime in my early twenties I began to be opened up to the ambiguity of what was really there. I began to question deeply and wonder who God is in relationship with humanity–in relationship with me; just as I am in my own body.

A few years ago, I finally recognized that when I read the text of my life and my experience in my body, the story is gorgeously ambiguous and because it is a damn good story, I have to make a choice about who I believe God to be.

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I think God is a lot like my dad in that pool.

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I think my being gay is part of God’s way of being delighted with who I am in the world and inviting me to live out the fullness of who I am in all my particularity. I believe this, because I  believe it is in keeping with how God has been showing up in the world for a long, long time. I think God likes a good story, and thus, refuses to give us a clear cut picture of benevolence. I also think God honors our sorrow by not definitively righting every wrong. It’s a way of inviting us to participate, of calling us out of one unified narrative and challenging us to live fully in all the ambiguity of being diverse people in the world.

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Sadly, that other reading of my life’s story doesn’t go away. Like oppressive historical readings of the biblical text, it lives within me and is still at play. Part of the work of wondering who God is in the world; participating in relationship with God, is to allow the narrative of God’s loving-kindness to hover over and within us, contradicting the voices of shame, violence, oppression, and curse.

Read part 6 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 4: And God Plays Fierce

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

I have realized that I am surrounded by incredible people. There are so many people in my life who are deeply thoughtful, compassionate, imaginative, soulful people. I’m not idealizing. Some of these people I can’t stand to be around. Others I can’t stand when I am away from them. Either way, it seems that I do a lot of falling over and these are people who meet me on those grounds.

Something these folks seem to hold in common is some capacity for play.

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What do I mean by play?

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In play, especially in games, we collectively agree to the process of playing together. Some of my young friends have been known to pull me into imaginative play, usually involving dinosaurs, crocodiles, or some other predatory critter. They or I will be charged with eating or being eaten. I recently walked into a friend’s home and promptly had my heart eaten by a fourfive-year-old dinosaur. The only appropriate response to such an action was to collapse onto the floor.

But it never ends there. I have to get back up and be eaten again. That’s how the play works. There are agreed upon rules that I will die but then I get to come back to life and we go on from there.

The game can’t work if we’re both the most powerful dinosaur. It’s also no fun if we’re both just herbivores. We need a little friction and some opposition to keep it going until we dissolve into giggles or gasps or time out to recover. And then we can come back for more.

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I must confess that I don’t always know how to play. Sometimes in play, I just want to quit–to die and fall on the floor and not get back up.

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This is a dangerous place to be.

Namely because that’s when a five-year-old dinosaur will pile drive you in the chest.

Play is all about the timing, checking in, seeing if everyone is good to play or if somebody needs a break. Play can intersect with competition, but it’s different in that the goal is the game; the goal is enjoying yourself and the other players.

In play, I have to let go enough to lose my inhibitions and I have to be attuned enough to speak up about my needs and pay attention to how others are feeling.

And this is why children’s work is play. And this is why, when we forget how to play with others we have forgotten what it means to live.

This is perhaps, also, why some of my friends who are parents have suggested that most of parenting is parenting yourself.

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When I die, I want a grave marker that reads, “Doesn’t play well with others.”

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When I am playing with my young friend, I can stay dead for about two full seconds, and that’s my window. Beyond that, I’m in for any means of wild resuscitation he can design. And when I am done and need to take a breather, I say so. And after a little protesting (that lets me know I am being enjoyed by my friend) he lets me go–but not for too long, because he knows that playing is what’s important.

This friend’s older brother is seven. He and I play UNO and he knows that though he can win quickly, he doesn’t enjoy it when the game is over fast. He’d rather start with more cards, not play all his draw-twos and wilds at once, go the least expedited route, because he’d rather keep playing together–enjoying himself and me–than win.

I cannot help but believe that when it comes to understanding and living a thriving/abundant life, these lessons of play have everything to do with it.

I believe that God delights in us–that God engages us for the purpose of enjoying us. That is to say, God plays with us.

Play is not just about fun–play includes breathlessness and scraped knees and delirious laughter and collapsing and needing to take breaks and checking in with the other person and protests and winding up a sweaty mess piled across each other on the grass.

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And God plays fierce.

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God plays the long game; in it, not to win, but to keep in the game with us for as long as we are able. Squee [gender neutral pronoun] is self-regulated and capacious enough to take our most vicious dinosaur blows and let us kill God–if that’s where we are at and what we bring to the game. Squee will stay with us in the death, hearing our lament, and will also, inexplicably to us, draw us back up into resurrection–because it’s about being with us, being able to take all of the us that we bring; in all our joy and sorrow. And it’s about persisting to play with us.

This is what Sabbath is for. It’s a reminder that God delights in us and wants us to thrive and enjoy ourselves and each other–to live the life we have been handed.

Our conversations about sexuality and sexual desire aren’t a battle. They can be play, too. If we enter, not to win, but to enjoy one another, then the game is changed. The point isn’t to convince or persuade in any way that would (re)solve the conversation. The point is to keep the conversation going; to increase and prolong pleasure; to draw out our enjoyment of ourselves and one another in whatever state we are in. It’s a play-full conversation that can actually make us more whole, more alive, more human.

This is terrifying–namely because this is what sex and intimacy is all about–it’s about increasing desire and enjoyment of self and the other. Sexual desire and sex are specifically focused locales of human sexuality, but sexuality is at play any time we are in relationship, sexuality is engaged with play.

That’s why it’s easier to have a battle about sexuality; to try to win the argument; to try to declare ourselves the supreme winner who is forever unchallenged and can never be questioned. Because that feels safer. Because if the conversation is about play, then it means we need other people who are genuinely different in order to keep the conversation going. We become dependent on others to engage our hearts and imaginations.

When we are exposed to those who are different, we are vulnerable and open to questioning and intensifying our own desire and we risk falling and scraping our knees and we risk intimacy. We risk enjoying ourselves and others immensely.

This kind of play is not safe. It pulls us into the matrix of death and resurrection. It demands that we allow others to call us to the edge of ourselves so that we can find life in places where we have been promised death.

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Conversations of sexuality in the church have often been loaded with shame and death. Countless people have been sexually abused by church leaders, by family members, by spouses, by friends. Other people are shamed and condemned by their own churches and families for their sexual desire for people of the same gender.

In these situations, desire is shut down, frequently by twisting play into coercive abuses of power. Tapping into peoples’ deep human pleasure and sabotaging their enjoyment of their own bodies. This is the work of evil.

Given the reality of this landscape, when we attempt to have conversations about sexuality in the church, if we start from the position of competition–of moving toward a decisive end–we have already sided with death. If God seeks to play with us; to keep us in the game, then we must engage this conversation as a part of the game. We must be in it for mutual flourishing of all persons and that means we need enough difference (and differentiation) to keep the play going, and we need to surrender to what the play might ask of us–namely what it will ask us to face of our own sexuality in order to increase our own enjoyment of ourselves and each other.

Finally, if we are to play with God in the conversation of sexuality, then we must play with the aforementioned dynamics of death. We must courageously wail and lament the abuse and injustice. We must repent of our participation in our own diminishment and the abuse of others. We must take breaks and fall apart. We must heal and be moved with compassion at the pain in ourselves and others. We must repair and return to the game, sometimes pulled into it by those around us, before we even know we are able.

Mostly, we must honor our own “yes” and “no” and honor the “yes” and “no” of others. Play calls us into the game for enjoyment–it is not competitive coercion that seeks to find an answer. It is not about dragging in an opponent just to knock them down and declare myself a winner. It’s about staying in the game with them long enough that the tension of their difference calls me to the edge of my own desire and leads me into greater enjoyment of the life I have been given.

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Play enters sorrow as the invisible thread of God’s Spirit, persisting in death, until we are ready for the resurrection that is already secretly at work within our own capacity for desire.

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Mary Oliver says,

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

This too is play. It is the slow play of bearing wit(h)ness to the ache that is delight destroyed. It is essential to repair and the starting place of any hope for joining God in resurrecting delight in our sexuality.

We need to listen to the places others have been shut down, because it helps us access the places we have been shut down. Our liberation is intertwined with one another and the thing that we fear; being vulnerable about our own pain and shame around our sexuality–especially with people whose own desires and ways of understanding sexuality are different from our own–that’s the thing that, if engaged as play, can lead us into a fuller story of resurrection.

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Finally, we need to play. UNO. Dinosaurs. Whatever.

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Re-creation is a primary means by which we participate in the repair of the world.

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In thoroughgoing play–I’m talking the silly stuff–we practice how to be with others and enjoy ourselves and each other, thoroughly in our bodies in a way that gets around the messages of shame and competition. Play pulls us down to the ground of our being and puts us in our bodies–the location where we hold shame, self-contempt, fear, and sorrow. By getting us into our bodies, play pulls us into the walking graveyard where we have buried our desire and reminds us that these bones can live.

If you’ve forgotten how to play, I’d recommend five-year-olds, garden sprinklers, and heart-eating dinosaurs as a place to start practicing.

Read part 5 here.