Saturday, November 10, 2018

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.

Monday, October 22, 2018

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.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Sick Religion (Genesis 22:9-13)

"It is a sick religion to sacrifice your children to God ."    

               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 Isaac

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, now 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 herds and flocks, if the Sacred was more fully loved rather than feared by Abraham and Sarah.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Queer Prodigal (Luke 15:11-13)

This beloved parable of the prodigal, with all its beauty and sensitivity, is for me a text of terror.

(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.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

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.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

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.