Jennings Book Event – Righteousness of the Flesh or Paul?

A non-homophobic Christianity. Let’s note, first of all, what this is not. It is not Christian homphilia. I understand that Jennings has elsewhere demonstrated the basis for a Christian homophilia—and if that work is anything like the work found in Plato or Paul?, it is no doubt successful. That said, I want to stick to the frame of this excellent book, which is to stick to the question of speaking about Christianity as not homophobic. It is not, Jennings powerfully argues. But homophobia is here, and its carrier has no doubt been Christianity … and so blame must be apportioned for the rise and development of homophobia that Christianity—even if it has not originally produced—has aided and abetted. Who’s to blame? Plato (and some others). I want to ask, then, what it means to apportion blame to the others of Christianity.

Let’s say, as Jennings says, the following: “Christianity is not homophobic.” Who is the subject of this statement? Is it a Christian subject? Does it matter whether it’s a Christian subject? And supposing that it is a Christian subject, then what must Christianity be if it is able to form such a subject?

Somewhat suspiciously—perhaps overly so—I get a sense of the inevitability, or the unquestionability, of guilt in the formation of this subject. Of course, the aim of this statement is to remove guilt from the gay or lesbian Christian. So obviously the aim is not to “engender” guilt, it is to dissolve it. But to dissolve guilt, in this text, is to show that the guilt is not constructed by Christianity. Yet, given that such guilt has in fact been constructed, then a new problem emerges: if the gay or lesbian Christian is not guilty, and if s/he is not guilty because Christianity does not support such guilt, then someone—so the book seems to suppose—must be guilty for “starting” homophobia. But the Christian is not. Christianity comes out clean. Indeed, Christianity—properly understood of course—is what removes guilt. Christianity removes the debt. But where did we get the idea that we had a debt, that questions of desire were also questions of guilt?

I have mentioned my suspicion, so let me say something more explicit about it:

(1) I’m suspicious when Christianity, faced with a manifest empirical involvement in condemning certain kinds of “flesh,” finds a way of explaining how the condemnation comes from others, not from itself. This logic is rather familiar—yes, the Christian says, I did it, but I didn’t mean to do it, come to think of it, look what you (others) made me do. And certainly “true” Christianity would never license such doing. Christianity always takes place twice: once empirically, another time transcendently.

(2) Once empirically, another time transcendently. I just said that, of course, but I say it again because this time I want us to think of it as coming from Paul’s (non-homophobic) pen. Once empirically, another time transcendently. Once by flesh, another time by Spirit. Christ sets free, Christ is universally inclusive, provided of course that when we talk about Christ we do not talk about the flesh. Once according to the flesh, another time according to the Spirit. A non-homophobic Christianity, a Christianity of the Spirit. I’m suspicious, in other words, of the idea that Paul is not guilty for feelings of guilt about fleshly discourses.

(3) I’m suspicious—to extend this last point—about conversion. Christian conversion, it has a long history, so much so that we might see Christianity itself as the effect of Christian conversion. Christianity, according to the logic I’m here imagining, would be predated by the idea of Christian conversion. Is this text not a call for us to convert from Christianity to Christianity, i.e. from homophobic Christianity to non-homophobic Christianity? If so, then how might this conversion be one that is not a conversion from flesh to sprit, or from bearing guilt to locating it in others?

The polemical tone I’ve adopted has not, I hope, lost me the right to say that I appreciate Jennings’ argument, and that I find myself sympathetic to its aims. I want a Christianity without homophobia, and I believe Jennings does much to make this possible. My question, though, is: What would Christianity have to be if it is not to be homophobic? I don’t think a non-homophobic Christianity will come from attempting to show that Christianity is not at fault for homophobia.

A graft requires receptivity, and so it’s important not just to claim that homophobia was grafted onto Christianity but to ask why it could be received. And I’m suspicious that the claim that it’s a matter of grafting serves to disavow that it’s also—even initially—a matter of receptivity on the part of Christianity. To say it again: look at what you made me do. Justin Martyr, when he attempted to distinguish “Christianity” from “Judaism,” claimed that he was doing so because Jews were already condemning Christians in their synagogues. So, he implies, if we claim to be different it’s cause you made us claim to be different. You started it. The Jewish-Christian partition, Justin might say, was “grafted” onto Christianity. But, a reader of psychoanalysis might say, Christianity wanted it. Recall Žižek’s claim about the husband who says his wife is committing adultery: it’s not a question of whether the other did what you claimed it did (of whether the other is “guilty”), it’s a question of your desire to say that the other did what you claim. What is the desire motivating the claim that Paul didn’t “do” homophobia, but Plato, and Philo, did?

A righteousness of the flesh, in its difference. A righteousness of all flesh, especially the flesh that is different. Paul had some things to say about the flesh that insisted on its difference, to the effect that what made that flesh righteous wasn’t its fleshly difference. Paul, in fact, was pretty upset about those who insisted on fleshly difference. Once again: perhaps Christianity isn’t guilty of constructing homophobia, but it is guilty of receiving it. My question: why was it able to receive it? An answer emerges, I think, when we recall Paul’s lack of receptivity, once upon a time, to flesh that insisted on its difference.

3 thoughts on “Jennings Book Event – Righteousness of the Flesh or Paul?

  1. As I think about the issue of “receiving,” I think that you may even be understating it — Christianity didn’t just passively “receive” these ideas, Christianity is what made their enforcement possible. It’s one thing for Plato’s Laws to talk about the need to minimize homoerotic activity — it’s quite another for Justinian’s actual laws to do so.

    I think someone needs to call J. Carter about your last sentence.

  2. “I don’t think a non-homophobic Christianity will come from attempting to show that Christianity is not at fault for homophobia.

    A graft requires receptivity, and so it’s important not just to claim that homophobia was grafted onto Christianity but to ask why it could be received.”

    This is really good stuff. Thanks for this. Good post.

  3. I’ve been trying, here and there, to make normative claims about Christianity: that it is, in its most Christian essence, not homophobic, indeed not generally concerned with defining or enforcing norms of bodily purity of any kind; that “clean living” is not a Christian norm. Taking this position gives me a lot of explaining to do, and does indeed feel like an exercise in exculpation, an apologetics on behalf of “real” Christianity against a “fallen” Christianity that has let itself be captured by an idolatry of the flesh. I think this post makes it very clear what’s wrong with this approach. The only thing I’d add is that “the Jews” are as much inculpated by this form of exculpation as “the Greeks”, and that such blame-shifting can have some ugly consequences (as when, for example, the abomination of homosexuality is placed alongside the abomination of eating shellfish, as an example of just that sort of Jewish legalistic fastidiousness that Christianity is supposed to have superseded).

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