Friday, July 29, 2011

Harassment and Resistance (Hebrews 12:11-13)

At the time it is administered, any discipline seems a cause for grief, not joy, but later it bears fruit in peace and justice for those formed by it. So hold up your drooping hands and steady your trembling knees. Make straight the path you tread, that your halting limbs will not be dislocated, but healed.
Hebrews 12:11-13

At various points the scriptures wrestle with the issue of pain and suffering, most notably in the book of Job. Here in the course of Hebrews the pain and suffering referred to is that caused by solicitous lies, derogatory stereotyping, and sneering hatred pointedly aimed at the faithful.

The harassed community is encouraged to understand their experience from an internal core which is stronger than external vagaries. They cannot control the attitudes of the larger society, but the community can control how they handle the negative energy aimed at them. The community’s struggle with cruelty is reframed as the notion of “discipline.”

The passage does not deny the barbed and cutting aspect of oppression. It describes “drooping hands,” “trembling knees,” and “halting limbs” as a result of being beaten down by discrimination and bigotry. Taking this reality seriously the scriptures invite us to reflect in a new way on the experience of intolerance.

These experiences, while painful, can also become the training ground in our struggle for peace and justice – for understanding and equality. Instead of being the cause of weariness, uncertainty, and disarticulation these same experiences can just as well be the cause of discipline, education, and mentoring.  Such resources prove invaluable in the struggle of queer equality.

When our hands are droopy and our legs trembling, and we find ourselves stumbling because of negative experiences the scriptures invite us to reframe our internal response. There is a catch. The work of reframing is among the hardest we will encounter – just read the rest of the letter to the Hebrews. The scriptures, grounded in the Sacred, understand that reframing happens as a result of being rooted in the great Heart of the universe.

If we can withstand and transform the attitudes of heterosexual privilege it is because we have been disciplined by the continuing efforts to usher in this transformation. If we who are queer and faithful have a gift to share with our sisters and brothers in the struggle it is the simple insight that we do not have to take what society hands us. Rooted in the Sacred we can reframe what was intended to hurt as the occasion for learning so that peace and justice will be the outcome of our labors.

Friday, July 22, 2011

BDSM in the Jerusalem Palace (1 Kings 12:6-11)

                Then Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served Solomon during his lifetime. “What advice would you give me to say to these people?” he asked.
                The elders replied, “If today you are willing to serve these people, show yourself to be their servant now by speaking with kindness and granting their petition, and they will always follow you.”
                But Rehoboam rejected the advice of the elders and turned to a group of young friends with whom he had grown up. “What is your advice?” he asked them. “How should I reply to these people who are telling me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”
                His friends replied, “Tell these people – who said, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’ – tell them, ‘You think my father was well endowed? Why, my little finger is thicker! You think my father laid a heavy yoke on you? I’ll make it even heavier! Solomon scourged you with whips? I’ll scourge you with scorpions!’”
                1 Kings 12:6-11

It appears we stumbled across a size queen. Imaginatively entering the passage I am dying to ask all the inappropriate questions: How do you know how big daddy was? Why is it important for you to be bigger? Oh the possibilities are limitless!

Arresting as the “father’s endowment/my little finger” image is, the impact of the ill fated advice is strengthened with the parallel image of whips and scorpions. First a size queen, now a practitioner of sadomasochism. It makes you wonder if Rehoboam and his young advisers were leather cubs in training.

While my imagination wants to play with these images they are not the import of the passage. This text is given as an explanation of the split between the Northern and Southern kingdoms of ancient Israel. It is noteworthy that the rupture of a unified Israel is portrayed in images of sexual aggression and dominance and the rebuffing of such violence.

To push the metaphor is to discern that underlying this passage is the issue of who owns our bodies - the issue of colonization. I understand this is an abiding concern for same gender loving folk of African-American heritage. Ugly and nasty was the use of slaves for breeding and the sexual relief of white masters.

A similar dynamic, although in a very different milieu, exists between certain aspects of religious institutions and queer people. The emphasis on the model of male-female coupling as normative is an attempt at sexual authority over the lives and bodies of queer folk. The attitude that natural feelings of affection and attraction are “unnatural” and “immoral choices” fosters the notion that the straight community can and should exercise authority over queer persons.

I used to view the split between the tribes of ancient Israel as a misfortune of history. No more! Rehoboam was a fool. He listened to the advice he wanted to hear, naïve and novice as it was. The ten tribes which rebelled did the right thing. They reclaimed their lives and bodies in the face of the political tyranny of a boyish, oversexed king.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Boundary Crossers (Numbers 35:1-5)

On the plains of Moab by the Jordan, across from Jericho, Our God said to Moses,”Command the Israelites to give the Levites towns to live in from the inheritance the Israelites will posses, and provide them pastureland around their towns. Then they will have towns to live in and pastureland for their cattle, their flocks and other livestock. The pastureland you will provide to the Levites will extend outward 1500 feet from the town wall. Outside the town measure 3000 feet on the east side, 3000 feet on the south side, 3000 feet on the west side and 3000 feet on the north side, with the town in the middle. This land will be the pastureland for the towns.
Numbers 35:1-5

It appears the Levites are the queer tribe of ancient Israel. The tribe of Levi does not fit the norms held for the other Israelite clans. Levites perform ministerial duties but are not full clergy as the priests are. The Levites are not one of the twelve tribes and therefore, possessing no tribal land, live in these designated cities. 

As envisioned in the book of Numbers the odd tribe exists to provide a buffer zone between God at the center of Israelite life and the people of Israel. As such the Levites became adept at living liminal lives as professional boundary crossers.

In some ways this is where we queer people, dispersed among humanity, find ourselves. We do not neatly fit cultural categories. There are those who do not see us as fully human. Most importantly we are boundary crossers, liminal people who move easily between the energies of sexuality at the center of life and the people of the broader community.

It is little wonder that we are feared. In a time when there is still much anxiety and uneasiness around sexual matters, we who appear to toy with these energies are perceived as trouble makers.  How wonderful it is then to discover that like the Levites of old, God also recognizes our place in the community. Far from being the devil’s agents we are really God’s agents helping the broader society to understand the nuances of sexual expressions and celebrating the energies of sexuality in the midst of our communities.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Strange Flesh (Jude vv. 6-8)

               "This is God's good gift of sex. Let us enjoy."   

      Let me also remind you of the angels who held positions of supreme authority, which they gave up, abandoning their assigned domain; God now keeps them chained in darkness awaiting the judgement of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring towns serve as a warning to us - they received the punishment of eternal fire because of the sexual promiscuity and their pursuit of fleshly vice (literally: going after strange flesh).
         In the same way, these deluded people defile their bodies, reject authority and malign the glorious angles.
Jude 6-8

Jude has not been a friend to sexual and gender diverse people. A cursory reading of the twenty-five verses of this ancient letter leaves one with the feeling that flesh is be feared: sexual perversion being a certainty for arousing God's anger. Unfortunately, the cursory reading became the accepted understanding of the Letter of Jude.

However, the biblical scholar, L. William Countryman, has noted that the original hearers of this letter may have understood a very different warning. Countryman indicates that the Greek term "going after strange flesh" is not the typical designation for same-gender eroticism which is found in other Greek Scriptures and writings of the time. He takes this unique phrase as a key to understanding the text is referring to sex with angels.

While sexual relations between angels and mortals seem strange for contemporary ears, it is not a rare concern to the bible itself. Genesis 6:1-4 speaks of the "sons of God" taking the "daughters of men" for wives; referred to as the angles who abandoned their domains in verse 6 of our text. The other episode of such dallying is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where the men of the city attempted to rape the angelic visitors; noted in verse 7 of our passage (see the  blog page Hosting a Rave in Sodom).

In the New Testament, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews states, "some have entertained angels unawares." More directly related to the issue here in Jude is 2 Peter's use of this same material: "This pertains especially to those who succumb to the desires of the flesh, and to those who rebel agains all authority. Those bold and willful people are not afraid to revile the glorious angels..." states Countryman. Not to mention the widespread understanding of the Greek gods having sexual liaisons with humans. What is there to learn from this ancient prohibition against sex with angels?

In the bible there is a consistent concern that sexual relations and sexual fulfillment be accomplished appropriately. Sex with angels is prohibited because it was understood as a way of controlling angels and, therefore, divine power. Sex with animals is not permitted because the animal cannot consent to the relationship. Forced sex and rape are outlawed because it proves life-denying.

In short, the bible sets parameters around the improper and proper use of sex. The inappropriate use of sex is for control or the discharge of sexual frustration. The appropriate use of sex is for strengthening a relationship through pleasure, through shared intimacy, through playful sensuality. This is God's good gift of sex. Let us enjoy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Queer Shine to the Face of God (Exodus 34:29-35)

As Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets of the Covenant, he was not aware that the skin on his face was radiant from speaking with God. When Aaron and the other Israelites saw Moses, they were afraid to approach him because of the radiance of the skin of his face. Only when Moses called to them did Aaron and the leaders of the community come near, and then Moses spoke to them.
                Later, all the Israelites gathered around, and Moses gave them the instructions he had received from Our God on Mount Sinai. When he finished speaking to them, Moses put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of Our God, he would remove the veil until he came out again, and when he would come out and tell the Israelites what had been commanded, they would see that the skin on his face was radiant. Then he would put the veil over his face again until he went in to speak with God.                                                                                          
Exodus 34:29-35

Moses represents butch patriarchy that leaves no place for me – a man who would lie with another man as with a woman. Yet, Moses experience on Sinai is thoroughly queer in his knowledge of God and of public repudiation.

This is Moses second trot to the summit. On his first trek up great spiritual things happened. The lightning and thunder of revelation and inspiration shook the ground and dazzled the sky with brilliance. Filled with the ways of God, Moses returned to the people of Israel. But his own experience of God, like that of queer folks, was dismissed even before he had a chance to speak it.

The public had already chosen the idol or frozen metaphors of God. In this culture, there was no place for Moses and his new spiritual understandings.

Queer persons or at least religious queer folk – arguably the queerest, as in "odd," of the queer - face the same silencing. We are rebuffed by those who worship frozen texts and cold idols of the god of compulsory heterosexuality.

The lack of queer images of the Sacred in most religious dialogue is disquieting. But more painful is the silence and non-existent voice to speak of queer religious experience and queer spiritual insights. Like Moses, the experience of our Sinai is refused before it can be expressed, and we dash our experience to smithereens, rejecting our own relationship and our own received revelations of God. Yet, like Moses, God calls us back to Sinai – to our transgender-bisexual-gay-lesbian mountain tops.

From Moses, we learn that as sexual and gender diverse people we cannot, we must not wait on others to legitimate our own experience of the Sacred. Those invested in their idols will not give space or thought to the God who is in the business of continual revelation. As Moses did, we need to quarry our own tablets for writing. We must claim our own venture with the Sacred in the face of an obstinate religious tradition.

Like Moses, when we continue to enter into the Sacred, our faces shine! Since it is our faces, the shine has a fabulous queer tinge, reflecting nothing other than the queer shine of the face of God.