The Queer Christ: Same Sex Desire and Biblical Exegesis (Keith Sharpe)

Jesus Queer Family: the household of Martha and Mary
Jesus Queer Family: the household of Martha and Mary

This paper explores the idea of queer theory generally and queer theology specifically as a set of techniques for the radical deconstruction of all normative sexual identities and social categorisations. It is argued that these techniques resonate with the praxis of Jesus who was essentially crucified by the Jewish religious and Roman political authorities for his queerness in this sense, because in his life and teaching he subverted all the main institutional structures and taken-for-granted realities of his time in order to reveal the transcendent truth which ‘sets us free’.  Since the Bible is witness to Christ as the Word it follows that it can and should thus be read as a queer-friendly text through the lens of the queer Saviour.  Biblical exegesis should take account therefore not only of the multiple contexts of textual narratives but also the inescapable queerness of the worldview which their authors took for granted.

  1. The meanings of ‘queer’

The word ‘gay’ was adopted by activist homosexual men (cf The Gay Liberation Front) in the post-war period as a positive self-descriptor to replace the derogatory term ‘queer’.  The negative connotations of ‘queer’ as applied to homosexuals approximated to the equivalent abusive words for black people and disabled people which were current and socially acceptable in the early and mid-twentieth century.

But just as there was in the late twentieth century a move by some black groups and individuals to reclaim their historic term of abuse in order to neutralise its perniciousness so some homosexual activists began from the 1980s onward to deploy ‘queer’ in the same way for the same purpose.  Whilst it is the case that some LGBT individuals and groups specifically do now self-identify as queer the word is still arguably seen as tainted when applied to people with same-sex orientation.

At the same time, somewhat ironically, the word ‘gay’ has become more negative, apparently especially amongst the young.  Children and young people say ‘that’s so gay’ of things they dislike or disapprove of.  It may therefore be that in the future there will be more pressure on homosexuals to adopt ‘queer’ as a label, and certainly the number of activist groups adding a Q to their LGBT branding is growing.

And increasingly there are areas of both academic study and activism proclaiming themselves to be ‘queer’, even if the way in which the word is actually used, and what it is taken to signify, differ greatly from case to case.

In broad terms it can therefore be argued that there are four analytically separate and historically sequential meanings of ‘queer’:

  1.   ‘queer’ as odd
  2.  ’queer’ as pejorative and exclusionary

iii. ‘queer’ as reclaimed liberation

  1. ‘queer’ as radically transgressive

1 i. Queer as odd

Queer entered the English language in the 16th century to signify something odd, peculiar or strange.       It was possibly related to the German word ‘quer’ meaning ‘oblique, perverse or odd’.

1 ii Queer as pejorative and exclusionary

As the concept of the homosexual emerged during the 19th century same-sex desire as a statistical sexual abnormality came in the 19th century to be seen not just as queerly peculiar, but as sick, perverted and disgusting.  Gradually the label ‘queer’ became a pejorative declaration of exclusion for those perceived to be sexually deviant.  

Being queer became in the twentieth century what sociologists call a master-status, that is an identity which so completely defines a person that it overrides all other identities which they may embody. A man may be a loyal friend, a loving son, a conscientious patriot, but if he is revealed to be a queer none of this matters: all of these positive character attributes are totally overshadowed by his queerness. Well known cases of the social and physical death of brilliant men unmasked as queers are legion: think only of Oscar Wilde or Alan Turing.  In England the death penalty for buggery was still applied in the 1830s and engaging in consensual homosexual sex of any kind remained a criminal offence until 1967.  

For those thousands of men pilloried and humiliated in the courts and the newspapers, and for the millions more who lived in constant fear of it, being denounced and stigmatised as a queer was an ever present terror.  This was a frightening word which could wreak terrible destruction on human lives, even if there was no formal prosecution.  Through the use of this word in whispers, rumour and gossip careers could be ruined, reputations destroyed, social relationships wrecked, leaving individuals bereft and ostracised without hope.  It was and is a form of hate-speech.

1 iii. Queer as reclaimed liberation

Activist groups in the late 20th century began to challenge the whole concept of  being ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT’ as far too anodyne.  They argued that these terms failed to do justice to the real depth of suffering queers experienced.  By adopting the word ‘queer’ themselves as a self-descriptor, they hoped to turn it around.  

One way in which this worked was by forcing society to see the homosexual person behind the queer, rather than allowing queer to stand for a demonised group of depersonalised anonymous outsiders, ‘them’.   Queer is me, queer is us.  This was an in-your-face tactic.  ‘We’re here and we’re queer, get over it, learn to live with it and move on’.  A more forceful representation of this idea was the tee-shirt worn by some campaigners on the front of which was written: ‘not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you!’

1 iv. Queer as radically transgressive

Now the term is often used in a more avowedly socio-political context with much wider cultural implications.  Queer transgression implies the denial of all gender and sexual identities, because these are not in fact ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ but rather are ongoingly socially constructed in situated contexts.   Queer theory highlights an inescapable profound ambiguity in which there are no natural rigid given boundaries between categories of sexuality or gender, and which brings with it therefore even the possibility of queer heterosexuality.  

Thus the word queer deployed in this way to mean ‘intentionally transgressive’ signifies full inclusivity because there are no substantive criteria against which anybody could be excluded.  It is the recognition that whatever we think social reality to consist in and take unquestioningly as a map of human experience has continuously to be reconceptualised.  

Queer theory effectively turns reality on its head.  Instead of accepting current definitions of what is normal and regarding those individuals apparently standing outside of this as ‘queer’ and monstrously ambiguous, it relativises all definitions of normality and declares that what is actually real and normal is the ambiguous and what appears to be ‘obviously’  fixed and normal is simply an illusion constructed in and through social  processes.  Were these definitions of identity and reality not regularly sustained through what Butler (1990) calls ‘performances’ they would rapidly lose plausibility and disappear.  Thus what is really and actually queer is the absurd unexamined presumption inherent in the banality of ordinary mundane life which is mindlessly taken-for-granted in everyday experience.

  1. The Queerness of Jesus Christ

Using these four meanings as the background against which queer theory generally has been constituted the specifically theological question about Christ’s queerness can now be more clearly posed. In the text below arguments will be marshalled to suggest that the answer to the question ‘was Jesus Christ queer?’ is clearly yes.  He was odd, he did not have ‘normal’ sexual relationships by the normative standards of his culture, he identified himself as subversive, and he was radically transgressive in thought and action.

In what follows specific features of Christ’s life and teaching are examined in the light of the literature on queer theology, in particular the work of Cheng (2011, 2012), Jennings (2003, 2009), and Sharpe (2011).

2 i . Jesus’ queer genealogy

There is a genealogy for Jesus given in Matthew 1:1-16 which itemises  several odd and peculiar ‘transgressive’ women ancestors. For example there is Tamar who disguised herself as a prostitute and tricked her father into having sex with her. There is Rahab who was a prostitute and a foreigner (Canaanite), there is Bathsheba who committed adultery with King David while still married to Uriah the Hittite, and then there is the famous Ruth who declaimed that great hymn of love to another woman, Naomi, who was also a foreigner (Moabite).  There is little normal or natural according to the demands of conventional heteronormativity amongst these females in Jesus’ family tree.  As for the males, there is direct descent from King David himself, who amongst many indiscretions famously also had a love affair with King Saul’s son, Jonathan, enjoying with him ‘a love which surpassed the love of women’.

2 ii. The queer circumstances of Christ’s birth

Christ’s birth takes place in extreme and abnormal circumstances in a strange and disordered land occupied by a brutal foreign power.  It is accompanied by many strange events, including the appearance of non-gendered flying beings (angels), and odd cosmic occurrences in the night sky.  He and his mother are literal outsiders.  ‘No room at the inn’ is for them both a reality and a metaphor of their existence. After the birth they become migrant asylum seekers in Egypt escaping the persecution of King Herod.

Jesus is born outside of wedlock and not into anything resembling the ‘family values’ nuclear unit now apparently so central to both protestant and catholic Christian morality.  He is literally what for centuries of the Christian era would be known as a bastard, for he was born to Mary who was unmarried.  

Yet more queerly his mother had not had sex with a man. So as Mollenkott (2001) has pointed out, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was therefore an intersex baby, because if Mary truly was a virgin this must have been a case of parthenogenesis with no male input of Y chromosomes.  This would necessarily make Jesus an intersex person because he was a male body with only XX chromosomes.

A further queer twist to Jesus’ human form is the odd position of Mary in the narrative.  In the biblical account just as Eve is made from the already existing single body of Adam, Christ is made from the already existing single body of Mary.  But since Christ is also God and exists eternally outside time Mary is in some sense also giving birth to her creator, which is certainly very queer indeed.

2 iii. Jesus’ queer hybrid body

Not only is Jesus without Y chromosomes there is also a sense in which his is a hybrid body in so far as it is simultaneously both human and divine. Jesus’ body collapses the distinction in this binary divide.  Arguably Jesus’ body also dissolves the binary distinctions of jew/gentile and alive/dead.  His earthly body and his subsequent continuation resurrection body bear witness to the truth that ‘in life we are in the midst of death’ as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer burial service has it.  

There are two senses in which we experience this queer reality.  

Firstly there is the ever present possibility of death as an unavoidable contingency.   Secondly, and more more literally, there is the fact that none of the physical cells in any human body survive for more than a few years.  The body of the child that you were is long dead.

Challenging binary distinctions is one of the key projects of queer theorists.  They reject the dualism of male/female or heterosexual/homosexual because these are seen to be purely human constructs.  One of the fundamental assertions of queer theory is that nobody is unambiguously one or the other in relation to any binary divide, and therefore all people are actually hybrids with regard to these sorts of categories.   In practice this kind of hybridity is quite ubiquitous.  Think, for example, of the banal distinction between upstairs and downstairs.  Where are you when you are on the stairs?  Are you upstairs or downstairs?

Homosexual queers are necessarily aware of their hybridity, living simultaneously in both straight and queer worlds and having to learn to manage the transitions in between.

The dissolution of all binary categories is a pre-requisite for full inclusion. This is a point which will be developed later in the paper.

2 iv. Coming out as different

Like many gay men who are physically male but different from the masculine cultural norm (because in their case the object of their sexual desire is not the female which it is supposed to be), it takes Jesus a long time to ‘come out’ as divine.  It is a struggle.  Self-revelation was dangerous for him, just as self-revelation has been very dangerous, costly and damaging for generations of homosexual people.  Even after he has begun his mission Jesus still tells others not to reveal who he is.

According to the gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus says to the man he has just cured of leprosy:

‘See that you say nothing to anyone’  (Mark1:44).  After the raising of Jairus’ daughter the evangelist reports that:  ‘He strictly ordered them that no one should know this’ (Mark 5: 43).

It took Jesus thirty years to even get started on his divine mission. This is often about the time it takes gay people to come out. In both cases there appears to be a well grounded fear of the consequences.

2v. Rejecting his biological family in favour of a chosen family of like-minded people

Jesus was no family man. He was a culturally odd single preacher. He never married. He had no children.  He preached vociferously against the ties which bind people to their biological families.  He urged his followers to abandon their families and join him in a grouping of like-minded people.  This adopted family of choice is where real fellowship, love and mutual support are to be found.  

Consider for example these statements:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, that one cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear the cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.  (Luke 14:26-27)

Who are my mother and my brothers?  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:31-55)

Truly I say to you,there is no one who left house or mother or father or brothers or sisters or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who does not receive, now in this time, a hundredfold houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands…..  (Mark 10:28-30)

Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!’  But he said, ‘blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it’.  (Luke 11:27-28)

Jesus only ever addresses his mother as ‘woman’, using exactly the same language as when addressing female strangers (e.g the woman taken in adultery, the Samaritan woman).  When told by his mother that the wine has run out during the marriage feast in Cana Jesus says:

Woman, what concern is that to you and me?  (John 2:3-4).  When he is dying on the cross he indicates the Beloved Disciple and says to his mother: Woman, behold thy son ( John 19:26).

It has been argued by many e.g. Jennings (2003) that Jesus’ anti-family stance is particularly infused with an antipathy to patriarchy.   It is significant that in the family of choice he calls people to there is no mention of fathers.  And he specifically teaches against calling anybody father, even a biological parent: Call no man your father upon the earth, for one is your Father, which is in heaven (Matthew 23:9).

It is cruelly ironic that the so-called ‘Christian family values’ which have so often been used to condemn homosexuals are themselves condemned by Jesus, whose own teaching and lifestyle resemble much more the pattern of relationships chosen by or forced upon homosexual people.  It could be said that if queers are a threat to ‘the family’ it is to exactly the same extent that Jesus and his followers threaten it also.

2 vi. His erotic promiscuity of touch

Jesus ignored all the highly restrictive purity codes of his time which determined who was allowed to embrace and touch whom.  In a culturally scandalous manner he used touch as a way to cure people of disease and disabilities, and to bring them back to life.  In the raising of Jairus’ daughter he violated the taboo on touching dead bodies which it was believed would render the toucher unclean.  This is of course why the jewish rabbis in the story of the Good Samaritan walked by on the other side.  They needed to steer clear in case the victim was dead so as to avoid any contact which would make them unclean.

Jesus is touched by the bleeding menstrual woman who hoped that his power could heal her (Mark 5:28 – 34).  He is bathed in expensive ointment by the woman Mary (Martha’s ‘sister’) at Bethany (Mark 14:3- 6).  After the resurrection he allows Thomas to insert his finger into the mark of the nails and into the pierced side (John 20:24 – 29).  He allows Judas to kiss him in the Garden of Gesthemane, a gesture which must presumably have been routine for the story to make any sense (Matthew 26:49).  At the Last Supper the Beloved Disciple lies with his head resting on Jesus’ bosom.

For a first century Palestinian man Jesus is astonishingly touchy-feely and untroubled by bodily closeness.  In this respect he is arguably more like contemporary gay men than the continuing Western cultural heterosexual masculine norm which is fearful of intimacy with others, and especially with other males.  It might be argued that since Jesus Christ is the Word made Flesh this erotic promiscuity of touch represents the bodily expression of God’s deepest desires for us, and that therefore what is really queer is the uptight distortion of masculinity implicit in taken-for-granted heteronormativity.

2 vii. His radically queer teaching on liberation

It is important to recognise just how radical Jesus’ teaching about liberation actually is. When he says  ‘ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32) he is setting himself up in direct opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy.   His truth is not the truth of the ruling religious and political establishment, but rather stands in contrast to it.   In Luke 4:18-19 at the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1- 2 saying:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath annointed me to bring good news to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised……...also translated as ….’to proclaim release to the captives’ and to ‘let the oppressed go free’.  

In the context of queer theory the ‘captives’ and the ‘oppressed’ are those whose minds and bodies are held in thrall to the prevailing cultural norms enforced by institutional structures.  

In modern times it is clear that heterosexism and homophobia are institutionalised prejudices which oppress gay people.  In Matthew 25:31 – 46 Jesus establishes as the supreme ethical demand of Christians to care for those who are hungry, thirsty, marginalised, naked, sick or imprisoned.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats he makes clear that this is the basis on which people are to be judged, and not on the issue of compliance with heterosexist ideology which so obsesses the Christian churches.

As Jeffrey John (2001) has pointed out the real meaning in many of the miracles reported in the New Testament is in practice the undoing of exclusions.  It is as if Jesus systematically goes round and reverses all the exclusions of marginalised groups who had been defined by the rabbis as ritually unclean, and who therefore had been banned from corporate worship and exiled from society: the lepers; the menstruating woman; the adulterous woman; Gentiles; Samaritans; the paralysed; crippled; maimed; deaf; dumb; blind; the mentally ill; children, and arguably homosexuals too (see 2 xii a) below).  It would be difficult to overstate just how big a threat to established authorities these actions represent, and how significant they are for the liberation of the affected groups.

Of particular significance is the liberation of women.  This was a patriarchal society in which the inferiority of women was deeply ingrained.  Women were essentially mere possessions of men, first of their father and subsequently of their husband.  In that time it was believed that there was only one sex and that females were actually deficient males. They were perceived as defective and weak men. The prominent Greek physician Galen had theorised that women’s genitalia were inferior forms of male reproductive apparatuses (the vagina was an inverted penis, the ovaries were rather poor testicles, the womb a substandard scrotum etc.)   It was also thought that women could produce sperm and got pregnant when this was mixed with male sperm.  Such thinking is recorded in the New Testament e.g.  through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed (Hebrews 11:11).  Thus the men who exerted power and domination in Jewish society found it obvious that only men are truly pleasing to God because of the perfection of their bodies.  Jesus’ refusal to treat women as inferior in this way constituted a real challenge to patriarchal structures of domination.

2 viii. His queer revolt against institutions imposing legalism and normativity (subversion)

The Gospels show Jesus frequently attacking the Jewish religious authorities for the heavy burdens they impose on the people and directly confronts the way in which their rules and regulations stifle human flourishing.

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers  (Matthew 23:4)

He publicly denies that they do this in the name of God.  The whole of Matthew chapter 23 is a scathing denunciation of the religious authorities of his time with the phrase ‘woe to you Scribes and Pharisees!’ repeated many times.

Jesus breaks the rules.  He heals on the Sabbath, he touches bleeding women, he exorcises people with demons, he cures lepers and others viewed as being unclean, untouchable and contaminated.  He outrages people by telling them that they must not only eat his flesh, but also drink his blood in order to have life (John 6 52-54).   

This shockingly subverts the repeated prohibition on eating any flesh in its own blood (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 3:17, Deuteronomy 12:23). He overturns the tables of the money changers and sellers of animals for sacrifice in the Temple.  Mark 11:15 – 17  and John 2:14-16.   Ultimately it is this revolt against religious institutions which gets him convicted and executed for blasphemy when the Sanhedrin hand him over to the Romans.

2 ix.  Jesus as a transgressive pervert( perversion)

In the end Jesus Christ is crucified for refusing to accept, and actually perverting, norms of behaviour and action (including gender expectations) enforced in his society by political, religious and military authorities.   In Luke 23:2 he is specifically described as a pervert:  We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar.  And when he is brought back  before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate after Herod dismisses him he is again accused of perverting the people.  Pilate says: Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people (Luke 23:14).

He is constantly transgressing rules and boundaries. He touches the unclean without any hesitation.  He parties with outcasts such as tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes.  In his parables he holds up for public admiration people who are beyond the pale such as Samaritans.  He is rejected by his own hometown.  He performs traditionally female roles such as washing feet.  He includes women amongst his followers, an outrage at the time. All of this justifies the charge of perversion.

2 x. His queer pride as a model for LGBT people

Because of the societal reaction to them many gay people learn to internalise homophobia, to hate themselves and feel a deep sense of shame for who they are.  This can be paralysing and deadening to the soul, leading to poor self-esteem, self-loathing, despair and in all too many cases mental illness and suicide.  The only possible antidote ultimately is learning to love oneself and to be proud of who one is.  

Jesus’ life had many shameful aspects: his mother got pregnant before she was married, Joseph was not his real father, his adoptive father and he were both carpenters, a lowly occupation, he was rejected by his own town, he was a rabbi who remained unmarried in his thirties (a scandal at the time), the religious authorities treated him as a heretic, his message was not accepted by his own people, and he socialised with women and disreputable outcasts.  For all these reasons he experienced stigma.  Even on the cross we read ‘he endured the cross, disregarding its shame’  Hebrews 12:2   

And yet he was able to face all this with courage, determination and resilience.  His pride and self-confidence did not come from social approval, possessions or power but from the knowledge that he was being true to his nature and to his calling.  Those homosexuals who make it through to self-acceptance and wellbeing in the face of prejudice, discrimination and exclusion have to follow a similar path.  In this sense, even irrespective of the question of his own sexuality, Jesus’ pride in himself is queer in character and provides a model of queer pride for LGBT and other excluded groups.

2 xi. His queer humility

Because of his  inner strength, self-love and resourcefulness the Son of God does not present himself to others as a king, a lord or a master.  Rather he refers humbly to his disciples as ‘friends’.  

Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends for all the things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.  John 15:15.  

It is once again ironic that Jesus went out of his way to gather followers by acts of love and friendship only for the Christian church then to develop certain kinds of theology which treat him as a sort of master dominator demanding total obedience and craven self-abasement.  

For gay people who have made it out of the closet into self-fulfilment and open lives of healthy self-reliance this kind of humility in the making of friends is of great importance.  True friendship and true discipleship cannot be forced.  They require a voluntary submissiveness in the encounter with the other, a candid and humble openness that enables what Buber (1937) famously called an I-Thou relationship to emerge.

2 xii. His queer teaching on marriage and relationships

There are several events recounted in the New Testament which portray Jesus acting queerly with regard to marriage and relationships.

2 xii a) The Gay Centurion

For some time now some Biblical scholars have argued that the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion described in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 is tantamount to the blessing of a same-sex relationship.

The centurion approaches Jesus and begs him to heal his boy servant who is lying back home terribly ill. For a powerful Roman to plead with an itinerant Jewish preacher in this way is a remarkably strange phenomenon.  Jesus cures the boy and commends the centurion for having more faith than any Jewish person he has met.  

The intriguing question is why the centurion should care so desperately about a male slave.  Slaves were utterly disposable and easily replaceable.  They died all the time.  If this one died another could be instantly found. Slaves were commonly used by Romans for sexual purposes.  Some scholars have suggested that this centurion may have had what would now be called a homosexual orientation and not just used this boy sexually but actually fallen in love with him, and this is what explains his desperation to save him.

The next question which then arises is whether Jesus knew this. It is surely difficult to argue that the Son of God would be stupid or naive.  The conclusion some have reached is that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and that this is a clear indication that for him faith is more important than sexuality, and the quality of the loving relationship is all that matters.  The genders of the partners are irrelevant.

2 xii b) Queer teaching on eunuchs and celibacy:

In the course of answering the Pharisees’ questions about marriage Jesus says Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts but actually divorce (except for immorality) and remarriage amounts to adultery.  But he then goes on to say:

Not all men can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  He who is able to accept this let him accept it.   Matthew 19:3-12

The key question here is who he is referring to in talking of ‘eunuchs born that way from their mother’s womb’.  Once again some believe he is specifically addressing the case of people who do not have a heterosexual orientation.  This would seem to imply recognition of the existence of queer people, and their specific exemption from these requirements looks like a blessing of non-normative  queer lives and relationships.

2 xii c) Queer teaching on the temporary nature and ultimate insignificance of marriage:

Here once more the Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus by asking what happens when a brother marries his dead brother’s wife, which was a common cultural practice at the time.  Which brother will be the husband in the afterlife?  Jesus tells them there will be no marriage in the afterlife; marriage is a temporary arrangement in this life only.

For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.  Matthew 22:30

This suggests that being single and celibate is a superior form of life, because that is how it will be in heaven.   Such promotion of celibacy devalues marriage and procreation and is particularly subversive.  It suggests that heterosexual marriage is not the be-all and end-all, and in this way undermines the patriarchal household through which structures of power and domination have been traditionally maintained in both Jewish and Christian civilisations.

2 xii d) Normal couples

In the context of the argument being developed here it is worthy of note that according to the Gospels Jesus never once spends any time with a ‘normal’ married couple with children.

2 xiii His queer friendships

Jesus’ friends are decidedly queer. He goes out of his way to choose as disciples men who are in some way on the margins of society, those living hand to mouth, the outcasts, the disreputable, the reviled.  Some are married but then they apparently just abandon their wives and children in order to live with this homeless man.  This abandonment is graphically depicted in the iconic scene of the Last Supper.  One look at Da Vinci’s painting is enough to raise the obvious question: where are the wives?  This was the Jewish passover meal, the big family occasion, and yet here are all these men unrelated to each other enjoying themselves together.  A photo of a dozen urban gay men together at a Christmas party would look like a modern equivalent.

And then what might be called Jesus’ family of choice was the very queer Bethany household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  The theologian Nancy Wilson (1995) has argued that Martha and Mary were secret lovers masquerading as sisters, and that Jesus and Lazarus were lovers.  This household defied convention. At the time there was near universality of the patriarchal male household where one man controlled wives, concubines, slaves, sons and daughters and any other extended family members under his roof.  A daughter was the property of her  father until he paid a dowry for her to become the property of a husband.  Females were completely subject to the authority of males: fathers, sons, brothers, husbands. In the Bethany set-up Lazarus should have been in charge but apparently was not.  The dominant force seems to be Martha.

In Luke 10: 38-42  Jesus visits the house.  Martha is excessively busy but Jesus deliberately praises Mary for her ‘better part’ of quiet contemplation.  In John 11: 1- 44 we read of the death of Lazarus and how upset Jesus is by the loss of his friend.   On seeing the tomb he bursts into tears: verses 35-36 report that Jesus Wept.  Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!  Jesus is moved then to use his power to bring Lazarus back to life.

Later in John 12: 1-8  Jesus comes to dinner with all three.  Mary anoints his feet with expensive oil and is again praised for her action despite the cost.  This is the context in which Jesus affirms that ‘the poor will always be with you’.  

It could be said that the life of this first century household in Bethany is not entirely unreminiscent of the colourful twentieth San Francisco lodging house run by the androgynous Mrs Madrigal in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

2 xiv. His queer erotic interests

It is an important part of Christian doctrine that Jesus was fully human. This means he was a sexualised being.  He experienced sexual attraction, he had erections and wet dreams, he probably  masturbated.  What was the object of his sexual desire?  Over the two thousand years of Christian history many have suggested that his orientation was homosexual.  

The twelfth century saint, Aelred whose feast day is celebrated every 12th January, advocated love between men and justified this by reference to Jesus’ relationship with the Beloved Disciple.  

King James 1st was well known to be homosexual.  He told his court that he loved the Duke of Buckingham and said ‘Jesus Christ did the same and therefore I cannot be blamed.  Christ had his John, and I have my George.’   

In 1967 the Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore pointed out at a public meeting that since according to the Gospels women were Jesus’ friends but it is men whom he is said to love, and that he remained oddly unmarried, the chances are that he was homosexual.

Much recent scholarly attention has been focussed on analysing his relationship with the disciple only ever referred to as the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved.’  At the last supper we find the pair lying together in close bodily intimacy with the Beloved Disciple’s head resting on Jesus’ bosom. Jesus announces that one of the disciples will betray him.  Peter wants to know who it is and asks the Beloved Disciple.  Why would he do that, unless he perceived in the relationship the kind of intensity that for example means one can ask a wife what her husband thinks?

At the crucifixion only the Beloved Disciple is present, alongside Mary.  All the rest have run away.  Why did he alone stay?  As Jesus is dying, he says to his mother: ‘Woman behold thy son‘.  To the Beloved Disciple he says ‘behold thy mother‘.  What is going on here?  Jesus seems to be telling the two most significant people in his life to look after each other, in the way a dying husband might do with his wife and his mother.   Interestingly Jesus says nothing at all to Mary Magdalene who is also there at the foot of the cross.

Then later when Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb she fetches Peter and also the Beloved Disciple but he cannot bring himself to go inside.  Could this be because he does not relish seeing the mangled and disfigured body of his lover so recently tortured to death?  

Subsequently when the disciples are fishing but getting no catches they encounter a stranger on the shore who instructs them where to put the nets.  It is the Beloved Disciple who recognises that the stranger is the resurrected Christ.  It is not Peter, the leader.  Is this because only he could perceive his lover’s presence in the kinds of intangible intimate familiarities which characterise relationships based on close emotional attachment?

They catch lots of fish which they cook and eat.  Afterwards Jesus commissions Peter to be the universal pastor with the instruction repeated three times: ‘feed my sheep’.  Bizarrely Peter then asks if this includes the Beloved Disciple.  Why would he do this?  He has just been told he is responsible for all of Christ’s sheep.  Why would he think that this does not include the Beloved Disciple?  The only answer can be that this man is not just one of the flock, he is much more to Jesus than just a disciple.  And astonishingly Jesus confirms the truth of this saying, ‘if I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?‘  It sounds as though this is the one and only man who is not to come under Petrine care and who is going to be looked after directly by Jesus.  This is a very special person indeed.  The Gospel of John goes on to tell us that the disciples all assumed that this meant the Beloved Disciple would never die.  This assumption speaks volumes about how the special relationship must have appeared to them.  Jesus’ love for this man appeared so self-evident that they were completely unsurprised by the idea that he would save him from death.

There are other Biblical texts which raise questions about Jesus’ sexuality.  When the rich young man asks him what he must do to gain eternal life, we read:  Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘you lack one thing, go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’. When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions (Mark 10:17-22).  Why does Jesus love him?  He has never seen this man before.  The Greek word used to describe Jesus’ looking is emblepein which means to look very intently.  We might say in today’s language ‘eyeing him up’, i.e. finding delight in appreciating his physical beauty, with the possibility of desire being aroused.

In the Garden of Gethsemane at the point of Jesus’ arrest there is a naked youth whose presence is unexplained and peculiar.  And they all forsook him and fled.  And a youth accompanied him, clothed in a linen cloth over his nudity.  And they seized him.  And he, leaving the linen cloth fled nude (Mark 14:50-52).  St Mark obviously thinks this significant enough to include in the Gospel but as it stands it remains very curious. The 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham believed this to be a homoerotic incident.  More details of this youth and his part in the life of Jesus are found in a document now known as ‘Secret Mark’ which was only discovered in 1958.  This is actually a letter written by Clement of Alexander around 200AD which refers to an earlier version of Mark’s gospel that  suggests that this youth had known Jesus for some time.  The authenticity of this text has been disputed but if there was a relationship it would explain the steadfast loyalty of the boy in staying with Jesus in the face of danger even after the disciples have fled in panic.

2 xv Jesus’ queer resurrection body

The risen body of Christ is very queer indeed. It seems to adjust itself to the needs of its encounters.  It is as Buechell (2015) has argued truly a body-for-others.  

Mary Magdalene cannot recognise him until he says her name.  She replies ‘Rabboni’ because until she can perceive him as a teacher she cannot recognise him.  Thomas only knows him when told to put his fingers in the holes in this hands and wound in his side.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus only know him in the breaking of bread, linked to the most important miracle (the only one recorded in all four gospels) the Multiplication of the Loaves, and to the Last Supper.  And of course there is also the Beloved Disciple who alone recognises him at a distance on the beach as the man who loved him.

Each of these four do not recognise each other’s signs, only the signs which matter to them. Yet how could Mary not have noticed the wounded feet and hands and not realised that his was no ordinary gardener?  Perhaps the absence in the written text signifies an absence in reality because Mary did not need them to be present.  They were simply not the way in which she ‘knows’ Jesus.  Similarly for the doubter Thomas what matters is proof, some kind of objective evidence that this really is Jesus.  

Thus Christ’s resurrected body is not like his earthly body in the sense that it is not constituted of the ‘usual’ signifiers of bodies deployed in everyday life in this world.  Christ’s resurrected body  is what it needs to be in each case so that the intimacy characterising each particular relationship can be appropriately restored or created anew.

3) The significance of Christ’s queerness

It is a common misconception that the Bible is the Word of God.  The Bible does not claim to be the Word of God.  It is not the Koran.  The Word of God is the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who was the Word made flesh. The Bible points to the Word of God, witnesses to the Word of God but is not itself the Word of God.  To claim that it is amounts to idolatry, and as Thatcher (2008) has pointed out it is particularly ironic that it is the heirs to the people who during the Reformation fervently smashed idols – icons, paintings, statues and stained-glass windows, who have now created the biggest idol of all.  Their so-called ‘inerrant’ Bible is no such thing.  It is Christ, not the Bible, who reveals the transcendent truth ‘which will set you free‘.

Thus it matters greatly if the Christ is queer.  For one thing it raises questions about God as his own Father in heaven.  The queerness of God in the sense of his unknowable ‘otherness’ has long been the subject of theological analysis.  But the argument developed here goes further in proposing a more specifically transgressive character in the queer divine which renders all human cultures as anthropologically strange.  

In this perspective the incarnation described in the New Testament becomes a historical act in which God comes out of the (heavenly) closet in the person of his son Jesus Christ to reveal the Truth with a capital T to all humanity.  And the capital T Truth brought by Christ is not the truth being peddled by the religious institutions of the culture into which he is born.  This act can therefore be interpreted as God in the person of Jesus distancing himself from the oppressive (Jewish) religion of the time, whose accredited priests and leaders had hitherto taken it as axiomatic that they knew all about God, believing that he clearly supported and gave divine sanction to all their teachings and dogma.  The position of these religious leaders then equates somewhat to the situation of a parent assuming they know their son ‘obviously’ to be a ‘normal’ boy with heterosexual desire suddenly having to face the reality that they do not really know him at all and that the real truth about him is quite other.

The incarnation seen as God’s ‘coming out’ also entails the collapsing of three key radical binary distinctions, those between heaven and earth, the divine and the human, and the temporal and the eternal.  Christ as God’s ‘true’ human persona clearly also entails a divine self-identification with those rejected by the upholders of established social conventions and normativities.  In so doing it further stresses the provisionality and transience of all normativities because if they were not ultimately illusory then those who fall foul of them would instead be recognised as having been justly excluded.   

  1. General principles of Biblical exegesis

Much has been written about how Scriptural texts should be interpreted.  In the perspective discussed here five principles seem of particular significance:   

  1. Whole narrative: The Bible has to be read as a whole narrative.  The key message of this narrative is that God is love and that his creation is good.  In Genesis everything is declared to be good or very good except for one thing: Adam being alone and needing a suitable helper as a companion.  In the Gospels we read of God’s infinite love for the world. This is the overall fundamental background for understanding all Biblical texts.
  2. Reading in context: Individual verses of the Bible have to be read in context.  There are four main aspects of context:
  1. a) linguistic – the way in which words and phrases are used e.g. the significance of the Greek word ’emblepein’ in 2xiv above.  
  2. b) cultural/historical/social assumptions – these need to be known in order to make sense of textual content e.g. Jesus’ treatment of women is only astonishing set against the cultural assumptions of first century Palestine.     
  3. c) semantic – analysing the meaning of texts e.g. the way in which references to feet in the Old Testament are sometimes metaphorical euphemisms for sexual activity.   
  4. d) textual – the need to understand what kind of text the author intended to create e.g. poetry, history, narrative account, enunciation of laws etc.
  1. Inconsistency: The Bible was written, rewritten, and edited, by (male) human beings over many centuries seeking to understand the ultimately unfathomable mind of God.  It is to be expected that it will be  full of inconsistencies, contradictions and gaps.  There are two versions of the Creation story in Genesis for example.  It is pointless and misleading to attempt to remedy the Bible’s inherent inconsistencies.
  2. The lens of Jesus Christ:  Every claim about the nature of God has to be assessed against the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.  Interestingly Christ himself warned against an overreliance on Scriptural text in place of  faith in him: You are in error because you know neither the scripture nor the power of God  (Mark 12:24).  You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.  (John 5:39)
  3. Inclusion: The overall direction of travel from Genesis to Revelation is from exclusion to inclusion, from only able bodied healthy adult male Jews being acceptable to God to the promise in the gospel of John that ‘whoseover believeth in me will never die’.  Whosoever includes everybody without exception.

These five principles focus the reader’s attention on what is essential in making sense of Scripture. The overriding emphasis is on God’s desire, evidenced in the life and teaching of Christ, that all human beings should flourish and enjoy life in abundance.

  1. The Queer Christ and Biblical Exegesis

Against the analysis proposed here wholeness, flourishing and the enjoyment of abundant life means embracing the Queer Christ and refusing to submit meekly to damaging humanly constructed soul-destroying normativities.

All theology is contextual and to some degree therefore partial. There are any number of Christs and christologies which to a greater or lesser extent implicitly exclude.  Orthodox Christian theology, in both its protestant and Catholic varieties, is arguably partial and exclusive because it portrays a patriarchal and heterosexist Christ merely reflecting the dominant hegemony of Western society.  But there is also a black Christ, a feminist Christa, a disabled Christ (Eiesland (1994) has written movingly of the disabled resurrected Christ with impaired hands, feet, and side).

A gay Christ would be similarly partial.  But the Queer Christ is arguably universally inclusive because the concept has no specific substantive socio-cultural criteria against which people can be judged to be in or out. It is this quality of unconditional acceptance which is its essence.  This then becomes the Christic lens through which Biblical exegesis should proceed.

In imitation of the Queer Christ such exegesis observes in the Scriptural texts virtues such as mutuality, integrity, life-giving pride, and the celebration of diversity.  It finds sin there less in individual weakness, rule-breaking or sexual desire and more in mindless conformity with oppressive cultural practices, avoidable closetry, apathy and a refusal to challenge exploitation.

Such exegesis is highly critical of readings of the Bible which seek only to justify existing prejudices.  There is a long and sobering list of those whose exclusions and cruel treatment have been justified by such readings: black people, slaves, children, women, ‘witches’, Jews, colonised peoples, the mentally ill, disabled people, and of course homosexuals.

By way of example consider the work of Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.  When he was prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he issued in 1986 a ‘Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’.  In it he wrote that the earlier declaration by the Vatican in 1975 that homosexual acts were ‘intrinsically disordered’ but the homosexual orientation itself was ‘neutral’ represented ‘an overly benign interpretation of the homosexual condition’.  Rather he argued, the orientation itself is a ‘more or less strong tendency ordered towards a moral evil’ and so it is ‘an objective disorder’.  He asserted that this view is justified by ‘clear consistency within the Scriptures’ and ‘the solid foundation of a constant biblical testimony’.  His text included statements like ‘there is no doubt about the condemnation in Sodom’ and ‘Leviticus excludes homosexuals from the People of God’.  

As the Dominican monk Gareth Moore (2003) has shown, these are quite indefensible claims.  There is no clear consistency within the Scriptures.  There is no foundation of constant biblical testimony. There is every reason to doubt any condemnation in Sodom.  The story only began to be used to persecute homosexuals in the twelfth century.  Using the principles outlined above it is perfectly clear that the narrative is about hospitality and not sexuality, a position subscribed to by the overwhelming majority of contemporary Biblical scholars.   Similarly Leviticus does not exclude homosexuals. It defends patriarchy and male domination.  Proper reading of the text reveals that the shame it deplores is not sexual but the betrayal of masculine supremacy by ‘lying the lyings of a woman’.  The abomination consists not in a carnal act but in the disgrace of a male’s acting as an inferior female.  Ratzinger misunderstands this, possibly deliberately, and seems untroubled by the fact that although 50% of homosexuals are women this supposedly anti-homosexual text makes no reference to them.  He should be, if he really thinks on this basis that all homosexuals are excluded from the People of God.

In their exegesis of the ‘terror texts’ employed to declare homosexuality a sin the Evangelical Alliance (1999) claim that it is clearly viewed by the biblical authors as ‘a threat to marriage and the family’.  This is palpable nonsense.  Neither Sodom, nor Leviticus nor the oft quoted verses in St Paul  say anything at all about marriage and the family.  Indeed, as has been shown above the Gospels make clear that Jesus was absolutely not an advocate of the family values so beloved of modern day evangelicals.

Likewise the House of Bishops of the Church of England claim that the supposed  Biblical condemnations ‘appear to have as their intention the safeguarding and preservation of the marital context in which sexual acts are to occur’ (p125).  This is risible.  It is little more than ideological wishful thinking.  This is what they want the text to say from their perspective of the twentieth century.  They claim for example that Paul’s letter to the Romans unequivocally condemns all same-sex acts.  It does no such thing. They are wrong about this for two very good reasons.  Firstly in this letter homosexuality is not the crime, it is the punishment.  Paul says God ‘hands them over to degrading passions’ because they have engaged in idolatry.  Secondly he does not say that homosexuality is a sin, he says it is shameful, and this is what makes it a punishment.  The word Paul uses for shameful in this context (atimia) is the same word he uses to describe other kinds of disgrace such as a man having long hair, which is hardly a deadly sin.  The fact that Paul’s whole idea that being gay is the divinely judged consequence of being idolatrous is ludicrous – most gay people would have no idea what idolatry even is – is something the Anglican Bishops choose to ignore.  

What Ratzinger, The Evangelical Alliance, the Anglican House of Bishops and innumerable other such commentators are always attempting to do is the same as what the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ time sought to do.  They all want to use God to put a holy gloss on their own pet cultural assumptions and prejudices. It is what Berger (1967) calls erecting ‘The Sacred Canopy’, as if God’s blessing acts as a sort of divine tarpaulin to sustain and protect the cultural edifice they are all sheltering within.   They call on the divine person to sanctify their own favoured beliefs and attitudes so that these can be imposed and reinforced on everybody else the more strongly.

Queer theology reveals however that God is not in the business of propping up human cultural attitudes, values and beliefs. That is exactly what the Queer Christ did NOT do.  Instead, like modern day queer theorists he questioned the validity of all normative categories and focussed rather on the ways in which authentic love of God and love of neighbour as oneself can be achieved.

It is prima facie puzzling that modern day Pharisees seem perfectly capable of understanding this fundamental principle of queer theory when it comes to historic exegetical usages which are no longer acceptable, but not seem blind to it in the here and now.  

The curse of Ham recounted in Genesis 9:21-25 has as its key phrases ‘and he said, cursed be Canaan (Ham’s son); a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’.  For centuries these words were used to justify slavery and the barbaric treatment of black people.  They continued to be used into the twentieth century in both the Southern United States and South Africa.  In the latter case the Dutch Reformed Church cited this text to legitimise Apartheid.  In the twenty-first century nobody now would give credence to any such Biblical exegesis of this text.  Why?  Because  it is crystal clear to everybody now that slavery and segregation are gravely offensive to the God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and totally incompatible with the commandment to love the neighbour as self. Why is it so clear now and yet was not clear two hundred years ago?

One fundamental objective of  queer theory is to render all Biblical exegeses problematic and strange so as to be able to deconstruct them and lay bare the strategies being deployed by their authors.  At the end of his authoritative and detailed analysis, which is worthy also of the adjective ‘queer’ as here defined, of the Vatican’s exegesis of the ‘terror’ texts quoted above, Moore (2003) writes:

....it is irrational for serious, reflective Christians…to accept church teaching on homosexuality.  This is not a matter of dissent or materialism; it is simply that the church at the moment produces no good arguments to assent to.  Regrettably, in this area, the church teaches badly’  (p.282).

No doubt Ratzinger would dispute this.  And yet both Ratzinger and Moore would doubtless together challenge the older exegesis of Genesis 9 which justified slavery.  The difference appears to be that the Roman Catholic Church, along with others, has an axe to grind in the contemporary world regarding homosexuality.  Moore uncovers this with analytic precision.  The Roman Catholic Church no longer has an axe to grind regarding slavery.   But an industrially developing society and an established church which depend on slavery for their economic security do have axes to grind and this is almost certainly a major reason why such a cruel and unchristian exegesis held sway for so long.  Having axes to grind makes dispassionate exegesis extremely difficult.  Queer theory is a tool in the search for such axes, and in this pursuit it is more generally a tool in the search for truth.

And in this open quest for truth by following the Queer Christ, queer theology is unsurprised by the revealing of queer realities.  Gerard Loughlin (2007) for example demonstrates how queer is the Biblical account of the wedding at Cana reported in John 2.1-11.  Loughlin is perplexed by the question of who the bridegroom is which we are never told.  But there is also the friend of the bridegroom who ‘rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice’. This is John the Baptist, ‘whose joy has been fulfilled’, and who is effectively bride to Jesus the bridegroom.  The miraculous turning of the water into wine prefigures the transformation of wine into Christ’s blood and causes the disciples to believe in him, also thereby becoming brides of Christ, just as do all who believe and come to share in the new wine of the resurrection.  This is seen as a fulfilment of the ancient idea that God is to Israel as husband is to wife, bridegroom to bride, and now the bridegroom has arrived in person.  This is why we are never told who the bridegroom is.  As Loughlin observes: ‘it is, as we cannot help but notice, a queer kind of marriage, the bonding of men in matrimony’ (p2).

In 1927 the geneticist and evolutionary biologist JBS Haldene declared that ‘the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose’.  The subsequent development of science, and in particular quantum mechanics, has only increased humankind’s sense that the world is intrinsically very queer indeed.  It should not then on the face of things be surprising if the Trinity underpinning this queer Creation is itself queer in the senses outlined above.

And yet we do not live our lives constantly aware of how weird everything is.  On the contrary, we imagine we have everything in hand, under control, ‘sorted’ in the modern jargon. In contradistinction to Richard Dawkins we might therefore say that it is not so much God who is the delusion, rather it is our happy illusion that our mundane everyday world is real, when actually we make it up ourselves, then forget what we have done and experience it as a hard objective reality to which we have to conform ourselves. Aligning ourselves instead with the life and teaching of the Queer Christ is a healthy and valuable corrective.

Keith Sharpe

August 2015

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