Friday, April 25, 2014

Faggot Redemption (Judges 16:26-30)

     Samson said to the young man who was leading him by the hand, "Lead me where I feel the pillars supporting the temple, so I can lean against them." The (Philistine) temple was full of men and women; all the leaders of the Philistines were there, and about 3,000 man and women were on the roof watching Samson entertain them. He called out to the Lord, "Lord God, please remember me. Strengthen me, God just once more. With one act of vengeance, let me pay back the Philistines for my two eyes." Samson took hold of the two middle pillars supporting the temple and leaned against them, one on his right hand and the other on his left. Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines." He pushed with all his might and the temple fell on the leaders and all the people in it. And the dead he killed at his death were more than those he killed in his life."
Judges 16:26-30 HCSB


With Samson we encounter an oversexed buffoon and bully. The story starts out quite remarkable though. An angel visiting a woman to promise a child to deliver Israel. Sounds familiar to those aware of Luke's rendering of the conception of Jesus. Smason is endowed with super human strength symbolized in the Nazarite vow which among other things forbad cutting the hair. Ultimately, Samson fulfills the role of a Hercules of the bible, today he would closely match the stereotype of a "dumb jock."

Samson's first foray into adulthood is to leave his tribe and go to the cities of the Philistines. It is assumed that such cities are filled with the decadence a young strapping and horny male from the hill country would be looking for. Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman. On his way to ask for her hand in marriage he is attacked by a lion which he kills bare-handed. Later, while on  his way to the wedding, he passes by the corpse of the lion and discovers bees have set up a nest in the carcass. At the wedding feast Samson offers a riddle to the thirty Philistine groomsman and offers thirty pieces of linen and garments if they solve it: "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong something sweet." The groomsmen threaten to burn the bride and her father in their house if she does not get the answer of the riddle from Samson. She does, Samson becomes infuriated and goes out and kills thirty Philistines in order to pay the debt. In the meantime the bride to be is given to another man and Samson is offered her younger sister as a consolation prize. Pissed and angry Samson captures three hundred foxes, attaches torches to their tails and sets them free to run in the Philistine village. The Philistines, in revenge, burn Samson's former bride and her father to death in their home. In yet another fit of one-upmanship  Samson slays Philistines left and right.

After this episode, Samson hides in a cave back in the safe environs of the tribe of Judah. The Philistines - never ones to let a travesty pass - send an army of three thousand men to capture and subdue Samson. The Philistines demand that the leaders of Judah turn Samson over or face their wrath. With Samson's permission they bring him forward tied with ropes. He breaks the ropes and using the jaw bone of a donkey kills one thousand Philistines. 

Later - still oversexed and in need of relief - Samson visits a prostitute in Gaza where the Philistines lie in wait for him at the city gates. Samson rips the gates out and brings them to Hebron. In this one incident Samson accomplishes the essential military victory - he literally posses the gates of the city! 

Being thick of head (apparently both above the neck and below the waist), Samson returns to the Philistine cities to dally with yet one more Philistine woman.  We now approach the better known part of his story with Delilah. As we saw with his first attempt at mating, the Philistine men are also involved and get Delilah to find out what the source of Samson's strength is. Not once but twice he gives false information and traps or sprung but he escapes. So it does seem rather strange that the third time he is asked by Delilah he tells her the truth about his Nazarite vow and his hair. Attendants are brought in to shear Mr. Stupid Head and Samson is finally subdued by the Philistines. In short order they blind him and put him to work grinding grain. 

Eventually Samson is brought to a Philistine temple to be laughed at and mocked as cheap entertainment. In an act of vengeance-as-repentance he brings the temple down, thereby accomplishing in his own death more destruction upon the Philistines than in his life.

There is a certain sense of machoism that plays out in Samson's story: physical strength, overdeveloped sex drive, bullying behavior, and righteous anger. The play of the riddle and the death of the bride at the beginning of the story is a play on emasculating and feminizing. Failure to answer the riddle leaves the Philistine men smaller and less potent. Killing Samson's bride is a sign of his failure to protect his weaker counterpart. Of course this tit-for-tat emasculating builds throughout the story. Samson's greatest feat is to posses the gates of Gaza - the feminizing of an entire populace. Samson's greatest defeat is being sheared at the hands of a woman. Is this akin to a female rape of the jock? 

It is from this context of emasculating behavior that Samson's death stands out. Samson is a judge of Israel, one apparently destined from birth to liberate his people from the Philistines. Instead, he spends his life seeking to screw their women while trying to avoid being screwed by their men. In the end they screw him royally - shorn, blind, enslaved. 

At this moment the narrative turns to the redemption of his emasculated and feminized character. But how do we redeem one who has been made a faggot? (The origin of the slur "faggot" is from the old French meaning something like "old hag" or "worn out woman.") Interestingly the narrative does so by turning to masochistic atonement: idealized suffering, willful self-sacrifice, glorified humiliation, and romanticized slavery. Samson, having failed to be a macho male, redeems himself through pain and suffering so he may become worthy in the eyes of his people and his God. Note the praise at the end of his story - And the dead he killed at his death were more than those he killed in his life.

Samson's road to redemption gives me insight into the religious fear of queer sexuality and why some people of faith are determined to run us out of the church, or mosque, or temple. How can they live out their macho masculinity - jocks as strong and active and cheerleaders as submissive and passive - if in their midst are the queers who bend, stretch, warp, and ignore the macho male as normative for human society? They can't, and in their failure to "straighten" us out, there is the need of a masochistic redemption where pain and suffering must be delivered and endured in order to prove their macho masculinity to God. Not that this is turned inward, but rather outward in the phenomenon of gay bashing. We suffer the masochistic pain and are made to suffer for failing to uphold macho masculinity (or passive femininity for the lesbians) as the norm.

Personally I think Samson's redemption is a tragic failure. If you accomplish more in your death than in your life, you have not accomplished anything at all. What do you think?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Queering Death (Mark 16:1-8)

     When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome brought spices, so they could go and anoint (Jesus). Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb at sunrise. They were saying to one another, "Who will role away the stone from the entrance to the tomb for us?" Looking up they observed that the stone - which was very large - had been rolled away. When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; they were amazed and alarmed.
     "Don't be alarmed," he told them. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been resurrected! He is not here! See the place where they put Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see Him there just as He told you.'"
     So they went out and started running from the tomb, because trembling and astonishment overwhelmed them. And they said nothing to anyone, since they were afraid.
Mark 16:1-8 HCSB


"Queering" means to resist the social constraints which seek to "norm" our attitudes. Saying that through the resurrection of Jesus the Sacred queers death is naming that God resists the attitudes which norm the crucifixion. The metaphor of resurrection points to an active protest of God - defying, opposing, refusing, withstanding - social constraints that divide the world into "us" and "other."

I am taken by the comment of the late queer theorist and theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid that Jesus' death was a suicidal crisis for publicly owning what was different in him. As sexual and gender diverse people of faith we see in the rejection of Jesus the same hatred which is directed toward us for owning our difference (Jesus Died a Queer's Death). By recognizing the dynamic of rejection we acknowledge that the norming of social constraints is so powerful that we have "adopted death-dealing violence as a solution to social problems" to quote my friend Sean Weston (Holy Week, Violence, and Resurrection at Ashes and Resurrection). 

It is this death - dealt out by constraints and the violence aimed at us who own our differences - that the Holy resists in the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is not simply a reversal of fate. Rather it is a reconfiguration of reality toward an expanded life which now embraces those punished for being "other." No wonder the Gospel according to Mark originally ended on the word "afraid." (The extended ending is not found in the earliest copies of the gospel.) God not only reconfigures, but also celebrates those whom social constraints norm as worthy of death. 

The good news is not the somebody was raised from the dead - that is nothing more than a zombie uprising. The news is good for God usurped the attitudes which marked Jesus for death as Jesus owned what made him different. As a queering act, the resurrection opposes our inclination to define what makes us different as something less than beautiful and whole. This queering is wonderfully noted in Blanchard's painting where doors are burst open, chains are broken, and even the picture frame is cracked while Jesus is clasping hands with those crushed by the constraints of being normed as other.

The author of Mark indicates that this power of resistance leaves us alarmed, trembling, overwhelmed, and afraid because it usurps the social constraints that teach us who to love and who to hate, who to befriend and who to fear. From the christian perspective the defining act of God in the world is the resurrection of Jesus. It is a defining act because as the Sacred queers death all of creation is usurped from what is in order to welcome what can be. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Fucked Up (Judges 11:30-32,34-37, 39-40)

      Jephthah made this vow to the Lord: "If You will hand over the Ammonites to me, whatever come out of the doors of my house to greet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites will belong to the Lord, and I will offer it as a burnt offering."
     Jephthah crossed to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord handed them over to him…
     When Jephthah went to his home in Mizpah there was his daughter coming out to meet him with tambourines and dancing! She was his only child… When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "No! Not my daughter! You have devastated me! You have brought great misery on me. I have given my word to the Lord can cannot take it back.
     Then she said to him, "My father, you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me as you have said for the Lord brought vengeance on your enemies, the Ammonites… Let me do this one thing: Let me wander two months through the mountains with my friends and mourn my virginity…"
     At the end of the two months she returned to her father and he kept the vow he had made about her. And she had never been intimate with a man. Now it became a custom in Israel that four days each year the young women of Israel would commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Judges 11:30-32, 34-37, 39-40 HCSB


With Jephthah we encounter one of the more enigmatic narratives of the bible. Jephthah is the son of a prostitute. We are told his father is "Gilead" which may relate to a biological kinship or be a metaphor for "the men of Gilead" who used his mother. Jephthah is shunned from society and becomes a desert bandit. Then the Gileadites come and recruit him as their "judge" or warlord in order to rid themselves of the marauding Ammonites. In the midst of this aggrandizement of power through brute strength Jephthah makes a pledge of holocaust - of burnt offering - to God if victory is given to Jephthah. The holocaust sacrifice is to be the first thing that comes out of the door to greet him when he returns home. That "thing" is his only child, his daughter. 

The passage now moves from being strange to being a tale of horror. Jephthah does not seek to rescind his oath, God does not intervene as with Abraham and Isaac (Sick Religion), nor does the daughter's friends make plans for an escape during the two month reprieve. Everyone seems to be in agreement that an oath is an oath and the only thing really worth grieving here is an unused womb. 

Let us not deceive ourselves for in the end this is a "fucked up" story, to use the vernacular. The narrative which gives credence about keeping oaths to a male divinity cannot and does not excuse reducing an unnamed daughter to a willing victim, stripping her self-determination. 

Looking into the passage for clues as to why this story now stands as "scripture" we can gain some sense from its telling.  Imagine setting around a campfire at night with bawdy tales on the tongue of those gathered. In the light of the notion of "ribald" we gain an understanding of irony: the man born of a prostitute buries his virginal daughter, the outcast bandit becomes the praised warlord, the man who makes a vow to God enacts a sacrifice that, as far as other parts of the bible are concerned, is in direct contradiction to God's vision for humanity. Setting around the fire we might understand the story as a gleaning of wisdom: "Don't make silly oaths to God." "Beware of leaders who win battles but see you as expendable" (see the full ending of Jephthah's narrative). "Those of low birth might be used for great things." "This is why your sisters and our daughters spend four days a year…"

These learnings though, do not excuse an underlying assumption of the passage which is formed around the notion of "successful masculinity." David Clines coined the phrase "play the man" as a way to understand the masculine imperative of the Hebrew scriptures. According to Clines the notion of "play" indicates that masculinity is a role, while the notion of "imperative" indicates "the force of the social constraints upon biological males to exhibit prescribed male behavior." In the story of Jephthah the constraint to play the man subjugates all relationships so that the daughter and her friends are also playing the man. This story reinforces the notion of successful masculinity by having all involved act out the prescribed male role. Even God becomes the man by accepting the brutish vow and expecting payment, regardless the victim.

When I encounter Jephthah and the assumption that playing the man is the vision of God for humanity, I wonder if there isn't a correlative biblical assumption for "playing the straight" that might give us some insights into the handful of sexual narratives in the bible. Using Clines' notion we begin to understand that to "play" means that heterosexuality is a role which is played out through the social constraints upon people to exhibit prescribed straight behavior. We might also ask, given the emergence of "queer" as a social signifier, if there is not a dynamic already at work to "play the queer" in which role assignment is taking place within constraints to exhibit prescribed (stereotypical) queer behavior.

While Jephthah's story is fucked up, it turns out it is a narrative we cannot escape. We are all playing a prescribed role to one degree or another. Even our concepts of God are subjected to such roles. The continuing horror of Jephthah is the ugly truth to which his virginal daughter's sacrifice points - as long as we remain unaware of the roles society hands us we remain vulnerable to the hideous consequences of the constraints of these roles. How much do I live as my own person? How much do I live as others demand? The answers may indeed cause us to mourn.