Friday, June 24, 2011

Sick Religion (Genesis 22:9-13)

                When they arrived at the place God had pointed out, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged wood on it. Then he tied up his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill the child.
                But the angel of God called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!”
                “Here I am!” he replied.
                “Do not raise your hand against the boy!” the angel said. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how deeply you revere God, since you did not refuse me your son, your only child.”
                Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. He went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his child.                                                   
Genesis 22:9-13

Abraham and Sarah wrote the book on sexual ruse. Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister to escape a ruler's covetousness of her beauty not once, but twice (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-28). With God's help, the couple lived to tell the tale both times. Later Sarah hatched a plan to ensure an heir. With her blessings and insistence, Abraham had sex with Hagar, Sarah's house slave. Nine months later Abraham had a bouncing baby boy on his knee. Even through as old as dirt, Abraham and Sarah still enjoyed sex play and Sarah also birthed a bouncing baby boy named Isaac. Hagar, no an embarrassment, found herself and her son left in the desert to die. With God's help, Hagar and her son Ishmael live to tell the tale.

Besides dabbling in sexual subterfuge, Abraham also dabbled in the Sacred. Along the way, he got the idea that an appropriate laudable sacrifice to God would be Isaac, his son by Sarah. It comes as no surprise, after all, he had already sought to sacrifice both Hagar and Ishmael.

It is a sick religion to sacrifice your children to God, yet that is the experience of many a queer person. Our families of origin often sacrifice us in the name of the twin idols of heterosexism and homophobia. Like Hagar and Ishmael, we are left to die of exposure. Worse, like Isaac, we are led by lies and half-truths to the altar of our own deaths.

Once again God stops the silliness of blind devotion and calms the soul of misdirected passions. Those involved live to tell the tale. Isaac was saved. But I am not sure he and Abraham were ever restored as father and son. How can you trust a parent who is crazy enough to appease the Sacred with your blood?

Queer persons know intimately the distinction between being tolerated and being celebrated within our families. We know the humiliation of leaving portions of our lives outside family gatherings so as not to upset others. We know rupture. We know the difficulty of sleep as we lie awake at night wondering why atonement is made with our blood.

It is a shame that the Holy could rescue Isaac, but was unable to touch the mind and heart of Abraham. Indeed, Isaac would have inherited something far more meaningful than hers and flocks, if the Sacred was more fully loved rather than feared by Abraham and Sarah.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Queer Prodigal (Luke 15:11-13)

(Jesus) added, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to their father, ‘Give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’ So the father divided up the property between them. Some days later, the younger son gathered up his belongings and went off to a distant land…
Luke 15:11-13

Thus begins the beloved parable of the prodigal son. This parable unfolds family relationships in the midst of loss, pain, forgiveness, and restoration. We flinch at the damage of arrogance, cry at the humble moment the prodigal "comes to his senses," take joy in the reconciliation experienced and ponder the older brother's jealousy. This parable is a favorite because we identify with its sadness and rejoice in its hope.

Phyllis Tribble coined the term "texts of terror" to identify those scriptures used as a warrant to treat women as objects of lesser value than men. Queers also deal with well-known texts of terror: Sodom and Gomorrah, the Holiness Code of Leviticus, Paul's reasoning in the opening of the Letter to the Romans. This beloved parable of the prodigal, with all its beauty and sensitivity, is for me a text of terror.

When I came out, my family dutifully placed me in the role of the prodigal. Unfortunately, I accepted the roll equating my homosexuality with the foreign land of the parable. A land unknown and feared by my parents, my brother, my sisters. I also assumed that the issue of distance and familial strain lay within me, as the parable illustrates for the prodigal.

The worse damage of this text was the false hope it gave my family. As good conforming christians they patiently waited, and fervently prayed, for the day I would "come to my senses." The irony is that it was coming to my senses which caused them to cast me as the prodigal, to begin with.

To be sure the mapping of the parable upon my life was only partial at best. Owning my homosexuality did not put me among foreigners as a second class alien. Instead, I began to find my home, and figure out I was not alien after all. Far from longing for the land of heterosexual conformity, I became grateful for a wholeness that had eluded me. Still, with great piety, my family assumed the role of the wounded father who loved the sinner but hated the sin. This sacred text caused me great pain until I realized it had been wrongly applied.

Queer persons are not and cannot be the prodigal. We have not left home instead we have found home. If we are to appropriately map this parable, we must understand that our role is that of the parent. We are the ones who patiently wait, scanning the road from time to time for a hint that our families have come to themselves and are returning from the foreign land of intolerance. This text models for us the forgiveness we can give: forgiveness given not in the paternal "if you had listened to me" way, but forgiveness given out of the sheer joy that comes with authentic reconciliation.

A Drag Queen In Revelation (Revelation 22:17)

Revelation speaks poignantly to the queer experience.

The Spirit and the Betrothed say, "Come!"
Let the one who hears it answer, "Come!"
Let the thirsty come forward. Let all who desire it accept the gift of life-giving water.
Revelation 22:17

At first glance the writer of Revelation appears well known to us, he is John of Patmos. He should not be confused with the anonymous writer of the fourth gospel. He may or may not be the John of Jesus inner-circle, and he may or may not be a John known to christian or jewish history. Tongue-in-check, I think John of Patmos is the best candidate for a drag queen author of a book of the bible.

The images and language of Revelation, raw even in translation, speak to me of my drag-queen sisters' imagination: multi-headed beasts, whores, wrath and plagues, a savior in white, and at the end, hope for reconciliation and renewal. All of it sounds like a queen rant to me. I wonder if our failure to understand this book is born out our failure to appreciate the author's social location.

All punning and stereotyping aside, Revelation speaks poignantly to the queer experience. It speaks from the low point of view, the underbelly of life. John does not write from a position of privilege or power. The book of Revelation is dark and brooding because John's world is foreboding and dangerous. It seems to be that this is often the queer experience. And like John we often find dominant religious and cultural voices allied against us.

Our straight brothers and sisters in the faith often miss this struggle. For they have not been engaged in the daily exertion for dignity. John of Patmos has, and his experience of fear, uncertainty, and worry – of closet dynamics – mirrors the queer experience on multiple levels. His community has been decimated, his society is uncaring. His world is filled with monsters and armies coming for him. Terrifying shadows drift across his soulscape.

Only great conflict can resolve the weighty oppression John is caught in. The moon will need to be ex-sponged and the sun to burn blood-red before John is rescued from a closed–off life. Nothing in all the earth is scarier than an unhinged queen – we fight like cats and spit like vipers.

More so the beauty of the closing chapters where John, freed of his fears and demons, describes the world set right by a gracious and welcoming God. The closing includes a vision of a new heavenly Jerusalem. From her center flows the river of life carrying in her waters the hope of sustenance and abundance for a weary land. Following this description is the great invitation "Come all who are thirsty and drink."

Thank you my sister John, for I am thirsty, my throat is dry and cracked. I need the sacred water of the Divine to revive a life worth celebrating.

Textual Harassment (1 Timothy 6:1-2a)

I cannot fathom the One who hung on the cross endorsing the sentiment that is shared in this passage. 

Those who are under the yoke of domination (slaves) should consider their superiors as worthy of full respect, so that the Name of God and our teachings may not be brought into disrepute. If their overseers are believers, those who are in subjection should show their overseers (slave owners) even greater respect, for they are members of the same family. Indeed they should be even more diligent in their work, because those who benefit from the work are believers, and they are beloved.  
1 Timothy 6:1-2a                                                                                                                                                  

Sometimes the scriptures get it wrong. Take for example the issue of slavery. Instead of mirroring the freedom and equality which the Sacred extends the scriptures have a long and tortuous affirmation of slavery.

Here in the writings associated with Paul (his authorship is debated) is a somewhat glaring error to encourage slaves to work harder for the master who profits from their sweat. One commentator, in an awkward defense of scriptures odd affirmation, argues that the Bible does "not emphasize individual rights, but individual responsibilities." The same commentator goes as far as to state that the chief concern for scripture is the glory of God and not "manumission of the slaves." Funny, it strikes me that freeing those laden with oppression adds to the glory of God. I think we can safely assume that this commentator is male, white, and heterosexual – a person insulated from any real threat of subjugation.

Another less stringent commentator tried to rescue the passage by defining it as a spiritual care issue. Slaves must have taken great comfort in being afforded admittance to a faith community that treated them as equals. Nevertheless, slaves needed to pay appropriate respect for the "legally designated master." Again I think we can safely assume that this commentator is removed from the threat of any genuine tyranny.

Interestingly, I agree with both commentators, who in one way or another protect the integrity of the text. We cannot make it say "Rebel!" For clearly it says, "Serve harder!"

The resolution of our dilemma as to the harassment of this text can never be resolved in the passage itself. It reflects attitudes and thinking which horrify us. To address the terror of this text and others like it, we must look at scripture from a larger lens, moving from a couple of verses to the entire flow of the sacred stories.

As a christian, the teachings, actions, and resurrection of Jesus forms the lens through which I read and critic any sacred text. How does his love for humanity inform how I receive these instructions? Jesus tells me that the attitude of this particular text is naïve of human deprivation, void of authentic compassion, and ignorant of the damage to personhood done by slavery.

I cannot fathom the One who hung on the cross endorsing the sentiment that is shared in this passage. Therefore, I know the text to be ugly, brutish, and ungodly. I just refuse to take part in the exploitation of others, even if I can justify it from scripture.

Forbidden Eroticism (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

              Thank you my black and beautiful sister for singing and raising your voice among the scriptures.             

                Me? Do you think me dark, oh daughters of Jerusalem?
                   Oh, I am; but I’m lovely, yes?
                Dark as the night inside a tent in Kedar;
                  dark as the secrets inside of Solomon’s tents.
                You wonder why I’m so dark? I’ll tell you:
                   it was my brothers – they thought I was loose
                and wild – they put me to work in the vineyards,
                   hoping I would neglect my own vineyard.
                The sun turned me brown like a grape;
                   but, oh, the fire that burns inside me now!
                                                         Song of Songs 1:5-6

It is the voice of an audacious female which is raised in this song. She is “dark” or “black” as other translations render, and she is beautiful. She celebrates and rejoices in the beauty and sensuousness of her body. The female lover of this song is black because her brothers sequestered her as a domestic servant in their fields where the sun bled into her skin.

Society will not support her desire for a beloved who deserves more than a working class girl. She is a peasant and should be satisfied with a peasant’s lot. Boldly she faces down society’s disapproval. Courageously she asserts that being black is not ugly but a mark of beauty. Her work in the fields does not detract from her sensuousness but rather augments and accentuates her sexuality. This extraordinary black and beautiful woman stands strong in the face of cultural norms and dares to transgress societal boundaries of eroticism.

During a milieu steeped in arranged marriages this female celebrates her heart’s desire. It is her determination to share intimacy with the lover of her choice. We can safely assume he is not the affianced of her family’s choosing.

Our proud sister also resists the proscription of sexual etiquette. Her brothers have set her to work in their vineyards to guard her virginity and consequently, the family honor. Yet, she unequivocally proclaims she has not kept her own vineyard – her own virginity, or the family honor.

The Song celebrates the consummation of forbidden love. While queer love knows well the proscriptions and dynamics faced by our audacious sister in these verses, we must not miss what is most brazen here. The voice of the female lover has, through sacred writing, become the voice of God to us. The bible, in celebrating forbidden eroticism, leads us to rejoice in that which resists culture’s prohibitions.

Thank you my black and beautiful sister for singing and raising your voice among the scriptures. You are a part of our spiritual ancestry. May your daring spirit of pride live on through us.

Adam, Eve, & Steve (Genesis 2:18-25)

Then Adonai said, “it is not good for the earth creature to be alone. I will make a fitting companion for it.” So from the soil Adonai formed all the various wild beasts and all the birds of the air, and brought them to the earth creature to be named. Whatever the earth creature called each one, that became its name. The earth creature gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals.
                But none of them proved to be a fitting companion, so Adonai made the earth creature fall into a deep sleep, and while it slept, God divided the earth creature in two, then closed up the flesh from its side. Adonai then fashioned the two halves into male and female, and presented them to one another.
                When the male realized what had happened, he exclaimed,
                                “This time, this is the one!
                                Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!
                                Now, she will be Woman, and I will be Man,
                                because we are of one flesh!”
                This is why people leave their parents and become bonded to one another, and the two become one flesh.
Implied in this text of scripture, though often overlooked, is the assumption by God that the Sacred alone is not sufficient for human fulfillment. It is this concern of God to complete Adam that proves the impetus for the creation of the animals. Building suspense, each animal is brought to Adam, and each animal fails in the hope of bringing wholeness, here understood as companionship, to Adam. Poor Adam, the world is his alone, God is his alone, yet Adam is all alone.

What is the Creator to do with the prized creature? God has provided a garden, animals of the sea, land, and air. All this attention and Adam is still solitary. This is the point at which literal interpreters tend to run afoul of the passage. Either they make the binary gender model of boy-girl God’s only plan for coupling, or they turn the pre-Eve Adam into an androgynous, omnigender being, as the above citation demonstrates.

I have nothing against an understanding of Adam as the original hermaphrodite. However, it is the metaphors of relational dynamics with which the passage is concerned. Humans are not complete without other humans. We know how our fragile hearts yearn for intimate connections. How the heart aches when such connections are denied.

There is something in our deepest mystery which searches for others. God, we find, is helping us with this quest for completion. It is fitting that what completes and fulfills Adam comes out of his very being. Eve is not an afterthought, but rather Gods’ tender solution to Adam’s dilemma. Adam is made whole with Eve. It is implied that Eve is made complete with Adam.

The wisdom of the Sacred is touching – it is a terrible thing to be lonely. This passage does not celebrate Adam and Eve as an exclusive model of binary gender pairing, or even Adam and Steve as an exclusive paring pattern. Rather it celebrates God’s recognition that humans need companionship in a world which can often be a lonely place.