A Way Back Behind Christian Homophobia

I just discovered that Ted Jennings’ book Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia is available for preorder on Amazon. I have been deeply involved with this project of Ted’s since my first semester at CTS, and I am convinced that it represents a radical assault on the notion that homophobia is somehow inherent to Christian identity. Instead, Ted argues, the scapegoating of same-sex eroticism is rooted in the Plato’s Laws, which retrospectively reads as a chillingly accurate summary of the rhetorical strategies of homophobia.

This book completes a kind of trilogy on homophobia, consisting also of The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives in the New Testament and Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel. The strategy here is clear, aggressive, and absolutely necessary: he absolutely abandons the defensive stance of “explaining away” the supposedly “obvious” homophobic elements in the Bible that “everyone knows” about and instead presents us with a scriptural account that is deeply homophilic, even to the point of presenting us with a possible male lover for Christ himself. Once this ground is cleared, the question then becomes how a Scriptural tradition that is so overwhelmingly affirming of same-sex eroticism came to be read as the legitimation of homophobia. This final book is an attempt to answer that question.

I have said that I am thoroughly convinced by his overall argument, but I’m not naive — I know that even many religious people who are opposed to the scapegoating of same-sex eroticism will find Ted’s project absurd on its face. The homophobic framework through which even homosexuals and their allies often read Scripture (not just the proof text passages, but the whole thing, assuming that it’s simply impossible that the Bible could ever affirm same-sex eroticism) is extremely tenacious and difficult to displace. That will be even more the case for conservatives who are not in the least uncomfortable with affirming a homophobic agenda.

Who is the audience, then? Certainly it is first of all religious homosexuals themselves, whose struggles — leading in many cases even to suicide — inspired Ted to write in the first place. If they can be convinced that the religious tradition with which they wish to remain identified is not foundationally opposed to their erotic practices, that in itself will significantly relieve suffering. But the aim seems to me to be wider: Ted wishes to supply advocates for full inclusion of practicioners of non-normative sexualities in religious life with the means to “go on the offensive,” with a way of saying that, more than simply violating a vague and easily dismissed principle of “love,” the homophobic agenda has deeply warped the reading of the very Bible it claims to champion.

In short, it provides the materials for a kind of “Gay Reformation,” a return to the sources of Christianity that undermines the interpretative, moral, and liturgical tradition, not out of a desire to “water down” Christianity or make it more palatable to “worldly” values, but out of fidelity to Christianity. The stakes here are high, arguably even higher than the simple inclusion of certain excluded individuals: what is more fundamentally at stake is the development of a new Christianity that would no longer be afraid of the erotic. The success of such an attempt is far from guaranteed, but Ted’s work here has cleared out a space where we can say with real integrity and seriousness: this is what we want Christianity to be, and we are right to want it.

46 thoughts on “A Way Back Behind Christian Homophobia

  1. I’d be really interested in some kind of summary or further reflection on this material. I’m definitely curious and you seem to be an ideal source for such a thing. I don’t know if I’d have time to read any, much less all three, of these books any time soon. I suppose I fall in to the category of “religious people opposed to the scapegoating of same-sex eroticism” but have a hard time imagining a reading of the Bible (or more importantly, the story of Israel/the Church) that normalizes same sex-eroticism. I find myself drawn to a deeper engagement with the relationship of homosexuals and the Church, but I am also deeply sympathetic with (and submissive toward) the Magisterium on this subject: i.e. certain kinds of sex are simply not licit, regardless of context or disposition. Of course, this says far less about the relationship between homosexuals and the Church than many assume.

  2. Okay, yes, “certain kinds of sex are simply not licit, regardless of context or disposition.” Having sex with children, for example. Rape. I’m on board with that. What puzzles me is that anyone could seriously include consensual homoerotic acts in that series — in fact, lumping in homosexuality with truly illicit sex acts strikes me as a profound failure of moral judgment. Not to be a jerk to you personally! I know you’re far from the only person or the most powerful person to hold that view. But it’s a huge leap from “we need to have room for some kind of moral judgment in the area of sex” to “we need to condemn these apparently harmless acts.”

  3. As for the further summary, etc., this is such a controversial case that I think the only way to get at it in any serious way is to read at least the third book. I know the internet well enough to know that if I started doing summaries, people would start picking apart and dismissing the summaries thinking that thereby they were also disproving Ted’s argument.

  4. The price is definitely right on the third book, although I’ll probably try to find it somewhere other than amazon. I understand the case you are making. I think for myself, I just have a far more skeptical view of my own capacity for moral judgment, given the ways in which it is given to me from without. If I have any faith in my own ability to make actual moral judgments, I would think it is the result of my formation as a catholic Christian, in which case, humility and reserve dictate that I submit to tradition and ecclesial authority on the issue (which, to be fair, suggest a more nuanced position on the matter than many are willing to grant). Nonetheless, it seems as if certain sex acts, in spite of their status as “victimless crimes” are nonetheless proscribed in essentially the entire Judeo-Christian narrative, sometimes in a quite explicit and unequivocal sense. I should also add that the assessment of anything relating to sex as “apparently harmless” and therefore possibly ok is really a radical departure from the modes of moral reasoning one finds both in Judeo-Christianity as well as anything prior to the modern period. I’ve found the most compelling starting point for thinking about sexual ethics is in the literature of the radical ascetics, and while that is often incredibly erotic, indeed homo-erotic at times, I don’t think we can move easily from entertaining the possibility of a licit homo-eroticism to the licit expression of that homo-eroticism in a sexual way. Even trying to think forward about how we might make this move raises all sorts of questions I can’t even begin to answer without dismantling the entirety of the Christian vision of erotic love and marriage, even basic questions about the appropriate connection between eros and sexuality/sex.

    That’s all just to qualify where I’m coming from and my vantage on trying to think about the homo-erotic in the context of Christianity, something I am interested in doing.

  5. What is wrong with ‘dismantling the entirety of the Christian vision of erotic love and marriage’ if the contemporary story of that vision is greatly skewed and unfaithful to the perspective of the early church? Even if we don’t privilege the position of the early church, we’re still in the position of seeing a history that could have happened some other way–one many just might find worth clinging all the more to Jesus.

    I don’t think what Adam wrote says the claims made by Jennings are that ‘anything related to sex [is] “apparently harmless.”‘ It’s more that once we see homophobia is not anything entailed by a core of Christianity, the church more than accommodates love that is “apparently healthy.” Afterall, if Jesus practiced this love, are we his disciples not called to emulate such an attitude in our own lives?

  6. My point in my ramblings is just to suggest that none of this is in any sense clear, including, but not limited to: the status quo, the fidelity of the status quo to “perspective of the early church,” what the “perspective of the early church” is, what “clinging to Jesus” or “apparently healthy” mean. I find so many of these conversation to consist of the form: my (in some sense) arbitrary reading of this or that conceptual cipher is preferable to your equally arbitrary reading of the same cipher.

    The other thing that tends to be a conversation stopper is that a sexual ethics which prohibits certain kinds of sexual intercourse (again regardless of context or disposition) does not necessarily entail homophobia. Put otherwise, it is a logical confusion to suggest that the prohibition of homosexual sex necessarily constitutes homophobia, but this is precisely the assumption that motivates a lot of the rhetoric ones finds on the subject. I say all of this just because I really have no interest in discussing these sorts of things in anything but the most intellectually honest way, even if that means incredibly slow progress.

  7. Ted is very clear that he’s using homophobia to refer only to the social structures that deprecate or prohibit same-sex eroticism, with no reference to the supposed motivations of its perpetrators (such as secretly being closet cases, etc. — we all know the kinds of things people throw around in this regard). That is, he’s not using it in a name-calling way, but rather using it to refer to a social structure that’s bigger than any individual.

    It’s really hard to discuss this without people simply positing the necessity of homophobia (in Ted’s sense) for Christianity. That’s a big part of the argument, indeed the whole argument, against Christian acceptance of homosexual practice — namely that it’s absolutely obvious and constant in the Judeo-Christian tradition that such practice is unacceptable. Ted’s work is attempting to demonstrate, at the very least, that it’s not obvious. So it’s going to be difficult to discuss this in any responsible way with you if you’re going to keep coming back to the idea that it’s obvious. You started off differently — i.e., it’s not obvious to you what to do, so you trust the magisterium’s judgment. Then we suddenly learn that we’re importing modern modes of moral judgment unknown to the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.

  8. Also, I’m not willing to take a “jury’s still out” position on this issue, precisely because I’ve been studying the question over the course of six years and am now convinced that it actually is and should be clear that homophobia is not a necessary part of Christianity and indeed must be discarded. I cannot imagine a future situation arising in which I would begin to think that maybe homosexual practice needs to be prohibited, for the good of the land or something. I also find it very difficult to understand how anyone in the modern world would think homosexual practice needs to be prohibited on the basis of anything but a sheer argument from authority — and it’s not at all clear to me why I should trust the moral judgment of an authority that seems to be so obviously wrong on nearly every question relating to sexual practice.

  9. I really appreciate your point of view on this, but by what standard is it obviously wrong on nearly every question relating to sexual practice? It certainly has been relatively consistent. This really gets to the heart of the issue for me. There is always going to be an arbitrary (not in the bad sense necessarily) privileging of the authority of some body or some mode of decision making or some disposition by which we judge these things. It’s probably not helpful to confine this the question of homophobia (which, etymologically is a really unhelpful word to use for Jennings purposes, but I understand the difficulty) because the question is really much larger. I mean honestly what’s so bad about coveting or taking the Lord’s name in vain? I’m really not that fixated on the homosexual question here… it has just become a potent catalyst for thinking about these questions in a way that is relevant and understandable to most people.

    I’m totally willing to entertain the fact that it’s not obvious. So in a minimal sense we can say that the Bible does not obviously prohibit homoerotic practice. I’m not sure where this has gotten us, though, since the same could be said about any number of things. There’s still a big leap for me from “the Bible is not obviously homophobic (according to Jennings definition)” to “the wholesale prohibition of homosexual sex is incompatible with Christianity” which seems to be the claim that needs to be established. Even though it may be the case that the Bible is not obviously homophobic, it seems to have at least been understood as compatible with the prohibition of homosexual sex in the vast majority of contexts in which it was received. The argument that “homosexual sex could have been taking place and just not mentioned in context X and therefore we don’t know about it” doesn’t get me very far.

    I’m truly sorry if I’m coming off as dense here, but these things remain unresolved for me. Hopefully my good faith is in some sense apparent.

  10. Put otherwise, it is a logical confusion to suggest that the prohibition of homosexual sex necessarily constitutes homophobia . . .

    Really? I suppose only if the will-to-prohibition appealed to some objective authority, which would basically mean, “Sorry, that’s the what it is.” One could assure oneself that it’s not homophobia, but to the homosexual, or to one fully supportive of homosexuality, it would function in more or less the same way. You may not have beer bottles slammed over a gay man’s head, but you have the letter of the law (religious or otherwise) doing effectively the same thing.

  11. First, it’s not effectively the same thing. It should be obvious that there are important distinctions between “beer bottles slammed over a gay man’s head” and moral prohibition of homosexual sex. This is exactly one of the problems I’m getting at.

    Towards your criticism itself, is it not true that certain aspects of Judaism and Christianity take precisely this form? The founding myth of Judaism (and in some sense Christianity by extension) is precisely God telling humans that they shouldn’t do this thing that is by no means obviously bad (whatever that might mean), and in fact bears striking resemblance to things they do every day. It is nonetheless prohibited, and it is an overbearing sense of their own abilities of “moral discernment” and the desire for a fully rationalized ability to determine right and wrong that leads to their sin and the fall of humankind.

    This is of course not convincing at all to a non-Christian. My point is that this sort of scenario is not just found in Christianity and Judaism, but that it is possibly even more significant than that.

    I want to reiterate that the question of homoeroticism is by no means a special case for this question. It just happens to raise it with heightened relevance and interest for us. It is much more general and relates to questions of authority, obedience, moral reasoning, etc.

  12. But God instructing his people to do or not do things a certain way separates them out as a people, a community. This, I think, is somewhat Brad’s point: making a prohibition on some activity excludes the practitioners of that activity from being within the group. And if that person finds they are cannot not do that activity, they will always be isolated and excluded. And since this instruction comes down from God himself–so it is argued–what hope in anything does such a person have, if the universe itself is against her?

    I say, just turn things around and look at them. Why is it some evangelicals are so very quick to rally themselves at the slightest sign of a government action forbidding, say, open prayer in public places? I received recently a chain email from some people in my church asking Christians to take a stand for their faith. The chain email said “They finally are trying to take this off…soon there will be no trae of the
    Christian Heritage…including the right to pray in Jesus’ name.” The link where the Christians were to take their stand was an MSNBC poll asking if people thought ‘In God We Trust’ should stay on the currency. They interpreted a pointless internet poll with no influence on legislation or jurisprudence as the end of all things Christian in the United States.

    Why is that? My thought is that it’s because of what Brad is suggesting: they intuitively and immediately understand being accepted by your culture, your peers, your fellows, your nation, your authority is what keeps you alive as meaningful and noticed–as well as influential and catered. But if you are not–well, then, that’s that and you’re out.

    In a situation where a guy slams you over the head with a bottle, you can petition the state for a redress of grievances, call the sheriff and have the guy put in jail, or convince the social conscience to shame the guy. But what sort of mediation or justice is there if you are completely excluded from society, culture, and government altogether, and where it is acceptable, even encouraged, to ignore your pleas for help?

  13. I understand the point you are making Charles, but I would want to clarify my position by saying that the complete exclusion “from society, culture and government altogether” of homosexuals simply in light of their erotic predispositions is indefensible, as you suggest. That, however, can still be maintained that along with the claim that God, in his (to some degree inscrutable) providence and wisdom, has a particular bodily norm for human sexuality and has mandated it through his ministers as binding on the faithful. This is what I take the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition to be saying on the matter. I do want to make sure it’s clear that I definitely believe in a real and problematic phenomenon called homophobia, however, and where it creates a displaced, down-trodden or ostracized people, they constitute our brethren whom in serving we serve Christ. However, because Christ came to the tax-collectors does not imply that he necessarily came to save tax-collecting. Don’t take too much from that analogy.

  14. “And if that person finds they are cannot not do that activity, they will always be isolated and excluded.”

    It would be a strange sort of activity that one could not but do, but which could intelligibly be condemned. Ought implies can, or if it doesn’t then I don’t see what’s unreasonable about some people being utterly beyond hope.

  15. Hill, I think you’re downplaying the significance of homophobia as a social structure and being naive about the degree to which you can cordon off the church’s moral prohibition from the rest of the stuff that goes on under the heading of homophobia. I mean, let’s take a look at Cardinal Ratzinger’s document On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:

    10. It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

    But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

    This seems like a pretty clear case of “blaming the victim.” Homosexuals are to blame for the violence against them — or at least we shouldn’t be surprised when such violence occurs — precisely because they insist on fighting for their rights. This is the moral authority we’re supposed to be submissive toward in cases of uncertainty?

  16. I admit that your reading isn’t insane or anything, but you’ve already presumed that “the right to consensual homosexual sex” is in fact a right, which puts your premises (which can’t really be established through neutral means either way) at odds with one another. I think he’s making a more abstract point about what happens when human law is bent into opposition to divine law: social chaos ensues. One might reject that entire framework, which is fine, but I don’t think it requires reading as an unequivocal and objectionable instance of victim blaming. His commitment to the inherent dignity of all people stated in the previous paragraph at least resists this.

    It may be a bit tone deaf, but it’s hardly egregious. If this is the worst of it, I remain at peace with my deference to the Holy Father on this issue.

    As to the more general point of cordoning off, etc. I fully admit that this cordoning off may be difficult and that pastorally, the Church has failed in many respects, but it still does not bear conceptually on the question of whether or not the specific act of homosexual sex (or any number of things) might be illicit for reasons that appear to be contingent, in some sense. I think in this entire discussion the only thing I could hope to establish (and all I am really interested in establishing) is that this is at least a possibility with which we have to struggle. Maybe put in a different way, I think it is important to maintain a substantial humility regarding our ability to determine the morality of certain actions by feel or by appeal to a “common moral sensibility.”

  17. “When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right,” — okay, yes, I’m starting from a different premise, but….

    “neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground,” — I assume this means incest, bestiality, people having sex with cars, etc. — the old “slippery slope” argument.

    “and irrational and violent reactions increase.” — reactions to what? To gay activism, right? And at whom will those reactions consequently be directed? Straight people? How can I read this other than as saying that gays bring violence on themselves by publicly asserting the acceptability of their behavior?

  18. What if it were in fact true that gays brought (unwarranted, indefensible) violence on themselves by their activism. Is this not true in an empirical sense? The issue is not whether or not there is an empirical relationship between gay activism and violence against gays, because this seems to be obviously the case and thus cannot be constitutive of the pejorative dimension of the charge of “victim-blaming.” What is bad about victim-blaming is the assertion that the empirical relationship not only holds, but is a necessary one, which is precisely what the first paragraph denies. The only thing he’s assuming is that there are bad people in the world subject to hatred and irrational violence, which seems uncontroversial. Again I’m not claiming you are a lunatic or anything for reading it the way you are or at least sniffing something funny, but I’m pretty comfortable with this statement if it’s as bad as it gets from BXVI.

  19. Hill,

    Your claim is not obviously true in an empirical sense. It’s much safer to be gay now than it was forty years ago, mostly because gay activism has worked. People are more accepting of gays and thus less likely to want to beat the shit out of LGBT folks.

    Indeed, I’d love to see the empirical evidence that gays experience more violence post-Stonewall than before. Stonewall wasn’t a unique event because it was some isolated instance of police violence and harassment. It was unique because the LGBT victims of police violence actually fought back. With greater activism and more LGBT people being out an open about our their sexual orientations at work and to their friends and families, we’ve seen tolerance of LGBT folks shoot up immensely over than past 40 years. An obvious byproduct of this increased tolerance is greater personal security of LGBT people from anti-gay violence.

    The number of areas where I can walk down the street holding my partner’s hand and not fear getting the shit kicked out of me has increased appreciably over time.

    So, at least on an empirical level, I would indeed suggest that the Vatican is engaged in some strange sort of victim blaming, a form that is not even empirically plausible at that.

  20. The man has a point. I intended the word empirical in the sense that there likely exist bad people who are motivated to violence with something like gay activism as a proximate cause, but you seem to be correct that the activism of the past 50 years has in fact reduced violence against gays. I would just want to point out that, potential victim blaming aside, the Vatican participates in that activism via the first paragraph quoted. Thanks all for the discussion. This has been a fruitful engagement for me.

  21. I have been puzzling for years over why Christians have rallied to the scapegoating of gay people and why it was so threatening to marriage that gay people wanted to marry. After all, it seemed clear to me that marriage is undermined by a general unwillingness to commit to long-term relationship with all the bearing-with that entails. And here are people fighting for the right to put up with each other. and it suddenly occurred to me a few weeks ago the underlying trigger might be gender identity. That is, if traditional roles being reinforced is the subtext of the impulse to “protect marriage,” then gay people are unlikely to be helpful in that regard. The real issue for the protectors of “Christian marriage” is to protect marriage as a relationship between a traditional dominant man and a traditional submissive woman.

  22. Wow. That was remarkable. Does what counts for ‘fruitful engagement’ normally involve glossing over a gloss on a book then ‘engaging’ with these arguments even when the author of this gloss informs you this is not possible, then claiming people somehow deserve the violence meetered out to them is remarkable.

    As for the question itself, Jennings is not the only homophilic approach. Gareth Moore, writing from a Catholic perspective rooted in the traditions, natural law as well as scripture in A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality concluded that Ratzinger’s above statement is simply false. Ditto James Alison.

  23. I’m unfamiliar with Jennings’ work as a whole, and want to thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’d also recommend the excellent text edited by Loughlin on queer theology, and Rogers’ “Sexuality and the Christian Body”, which, while somewhat mediocre in my opinion, offers another entry point to this discussion.

    The first work I read which I found most profitable in the early stages of my queer Christianity (now more of a queer Agnosticism with Christian inflections) was Dale Martin’s “Sex and the Single Savior”. Dale takes a somewhat different approach to the task at hands than it sounds like Jennings does from this post, but I found it to be really, really helpful in my process of going from a nearly suicidal closet case to someone out, proud, and generally well-adjusted queer.

    I’d like to pick up on the part of your post where you addressed the question of audience, which I think was lost in the above discussion (and yes, shame on you, Hill, whoever you are). I think the obvious answer is, as you noted, Adam, that works like this bring a ray of hope to Christians in some really dark places. Even though I disagreed with a lot of it then (and still disagree with some of it now), reading Martin’s book was unbelievably transformative and liberating for me. I desperately needed scholarship like that in my life. I think it’s also important for there to be a wealth of texts like this, of various theological stripes, as resources not only for Christian queers dealing with their “issues” but also for those around them. You get tired of having the same, tired conversation over and over again with other members of the Church (see the conversation above). At some point, it’s really helpful to have a text to punt to so you don’t get completely exhausted. Depending on who you’re talking to, and where they’re coming from, you’ll want to punt to a different voice.

  24. I think Hill made a clear point that nobody has refuted–the Church has moral authority, or it doesn’t. If it does, it, not common sense or feeling, pronounces certain things immoral. This is not to say that those who do them are excluded, any more than any other sinner. We don’t have to assume that there is such a thing as a “homosexual” who can’t help but engage in such acts. This used to be called “essentialism.”

    I don’t see the warrant for the snide comments about Hill like “I really think you’re smarter than this Hill. Shame on you.” Hill’s arguments may be wrong, but they’re not stupid. It really seems to come down to disagreement on certain premises, not faulty reasoning from premises on anyone’s part. I didn’t see Hill’s questions about the main premise (the moral authority of the church) answered satisfactorily by anyone.

  25. I’m not claiming it is. That’s the premise in question (and which I have no real opinion about). I was just a little surprised at the snide reaction to Hill, who didn’t seem to display stupidity or faulty reasoning, just a different premise.

  26. Frank,

    My “snide comment” towards Hill, who I like as a kind of loyal opposition player here at AUFS, was directed more towards his blind defense of Ratzinger’s statement. I’m not sure how one can read that in good faith in the manner Hill did. You are correct that the arguments he was making, if you accept his presuppositions, were done so with sound reasoning, but I’m not an “at-least-its-an-ethos” nihilist.

  27. I don’t think I’m “Big Lebowski” nihilist either, nor am I a christian. He was not making a “sheer argument from authority,” he was making a reasoned argument FOR “sheer argument[s] from authority.” The question here is religion, not philosophy. I may be naive for thinking that there is a difference, but it still rubs the wrong way that a religious dude who wants to argue that there is gets dissed.

    Let me be very clear–I am not anti-christian, nor do I think Adam’s vision of christianity is less accurate than Hill’s–I don’t really have a stake here. I just see the force of what Hill is saying (even if, like you, I dislike it) and I don’t think the reaction to it was warranted based on the way it was presented.

  28. Frank, Not to be rude, but can we keep the “meta” complaints to a minimum? You think our reaction was overdone: duly noted. And maybe you’re right! These things happen. There’s only so much good that can be done by continuing to talk about it, though.

  29. Adam,

    So I just finished The Man Jesus Loved, and I was quite impressed. I can’t believe how much of my uprbringing’s heteronormative reading masked so much of the homoerotic aspects of the Gospels. I’m planning on reading Jacob’s Wound sometime next week. I’m assuming Jennings has received loads of criticism for these works. I was curious if he’s responded in depths to any critiques? If so, do you know where I could read any critiques and/or rebuttals especially for the Man Jesus Loved?

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