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Would Jesus Discriminate?

In Indiana, an ad campaign suggesting that Jesus was gay positive and that the Bible has some passages that are sympathetic to queer people has sparked controversy and ruffled some fundamentalist feathers. Some good Christian decided to vandalize the billboards, spraying "Lie Lie Lie" across it.

The billboards were put up by Faith in America and Jesus Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Indianapolis. The pastor of Jesus MCC is Jeff Miner, who also co-authored the book, The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships. He was interviewed extensively by the Indianapolis Star about the billboards. The article also quoted Rev. Andy Hunt of Body of Christ Community church for "balance." Hunt and Miner debated the meanings of these biblical passages, but I would like to respond to some of the interpretations suggested by the two ministers, which have been quoted from the Indianapolis Star.

What the billboard says: “David loved Jonathan more than women. II Samuel 1:26”

How the verse reads: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” (New International Version)

Miner’s [pro-queer] view: “As the story is told it becomes one of the greatest love stories in the Bible and it is clear that these two men had a deep romantic connection.” He adds: “When is the last time you heard a man say I love you more than anyone else in the world?”

Hunt’s [anti-queer] view: “Biblically, love is always defined in three classes — brotherly love, erotic love and the highest of loves, agape love, or Godly love. What he said here is that his love for Jonathan is godly love, which surpasses erotic love — a love of loyalty and selfless devotion.”

My response: 2 Samuel was written before the Greek (philia, agape, eros) differentiations between loves that Hunt is reading into the Hebrew Bible. The language in 2 Samuel 1:26 is covenantal and rooted in ancient Near-Eastern covenant rhetoric, and it is to that we should turn for comparisons.

The issue here is why David would make a comparison with women in the first place. The "love of women" obviously has sexual connotations (2 Sam. 13:1,4,14; 1 Kgs 11:1; Prov. 5:19, etc.) So wouldn't it be sufficient to interpret David as saying his love with Jonathan was a higher love or different love than sexual love?

Not necessarily. Usually, in covenant language, when you make a comparison, you make a comparison between two relationships of the same type. So in Jer 2:2 the love of Israel for Yhwh was like the love of a bride for a husband (two covenant relationships). One Canaanite passage suggests that the love of allies should be like the love of a person for his patron god (EA 24:121-23). Again, two covenant relationships.

But there is something jarring about 2 Sam 1:26. It shares the structure of these comparison formulations, but it differs by comparing not the love of a treaty partner to one of the same class. It does not compare Jonathan's love to the "covenant love" of another covenant relationship. Instead it compares Jonathan's love to the love of women (as a class--NOT as a "wife")--which is especially jarring in a covenant of equals.

The author sets up the language of covenant in the 2 Sam. 1 (the use of "brother," for instance) and when we get to verse 26, we expect a typical ancient near eastern formulation for love comparisons. Instead, we get a comparison of Jonathan's love to that of women. If the comparison between Jonathan's love and the love of women is not covenant fidelity, something else must drive the comparison because as we have seen, in covenant formulation, for this to make sense, Jonathan's love for David must then be analogous to "the love of women" (i.e. sexual love). The best option seems to be that Jonathan's "erotic love" for David was wonderful, surpassing the "erotic love" of women (Special thanks to Saul Olyan of Brown University's Judaic Studies program for pointing this out to me).

What the billboard says: “The early church welcomed a gay man. Acts 8: 26-40”

What the passage says: To paraphrase, a disciple of Christ named Philip shares the gospel with a eunuch, a castrated man who served in the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch comes to believe that Jesus is the son of God. Philip baptizes him.

Miner’s [pro-queer] view: “Introducing yourself as a eunuch in the ancient world is kind of like today introducing yourself as a hairdresser from San Francisco. It is not that every hairdresser in San Francisco is gay but so many are that the two have become associated.” His point: The eunuch’s orientation wasn’t important to Philip, who welcomed him into the church.

Hunt’s [anti-queer] view: Eunuchs were castrated to keep them from having relationships with women in royal courts, as in cases where they were employed to protect or serve a king’s wives. There is no Biblical or extra-Biblical evidence to show eunuchs were considered homosexuals.

My response: Hunt is technically right. There is no extrabiblical evidence that eunuchs were "homosexuals" because the category "homosexual" did not exist in antiquity. Those we would consider "gay" today were incorporated into other categories and labels.

However, there is plenty of evidence to show that eunuchs were not considered chaste and were a symbol of sexual transgression and disruption in the Greco-Roman world. I will not cite the evidence here, but will refer the reader to J. David Hester's "Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19.12 and Transgressive Sexualities" in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.1 (2005). There is also evidence that eunuchs were associated with "passive" men (men who acted non-penetratively during sex)--see Historia Augusta Commodus 1.7 (Hester p.23 n.37). As Hester put it, "the eunuch was seen as the embodiment of and even the means of facilitating sexual transgression" (p. 24).

Note to the billboard makers: While this passage in Acts works, I think that Matthew 19.12, is a much better passage for your purposes. I also think saying that eunuch equals gay is extremely problematic from a historical perspective. Queer Christians can and should identify symbolically with classical eunuchs because they represent transgressive sexuality in much Greco-Roman literature, but they cannot be equated to our modern categories of "gay, lesbian and bisexual."

That said, I cannot be too hard on the pro-queer interpreters. After all, they're just giving the anti-gay theologians a taste of their own exegetical medicine. When queers today want to identify with eunuchs, theologians are quick to scream that there is no evidence that the word has anything to do with "homosexuals."

But some of these same interpreters are more than happy to associate modern homosexuals with obscure Greek terms despite the fact that there is no "extrabiblical evidence" to suggest an association (i.e. arsenokoites in 1 Cor. 6:9-10). Many modern theologians also have no problems associating "homosexuals" with ancient Israelite cultic taboos that prohibit a specific, defiling act, not a phenomenon of "homosexuality" or all "homosexual acts" (i.e. Lev. 18:22; 20:13). So the sanctimonious lectures about cultural context and what Greek and Hebrew words meant what when are really disingenuous. Anti-gay theologians don't really care about that at all.

What the billboard says: “Jesus affirmed a gay couple. Matthew 8:5-13”What the passage says: To paraphrase, Jesus offers to come and heal the paralyzed servant of a Roman centurion. But the centurion said a visit is not necessary and asks Jesus only to speak words of healing. Jesus praises the centurion’s faith and heals the servant.

Miner’s view: The Greek word used here for “servant” was used in the ancient world to refer to one’s same-sex partner. Jesus encountered this gay centurion, healed his partner, praised him for his faith and assured him of a place in heaven.

Hunt’s view: The Greek word in question refers only to a servant or slave, without any gay connotation. “The only place where this word is interpreted as gay servant is on homosexual Web sites. It doesn’t come from any Greek scholar. It doesn’t have any basis at all.”

My response: The use of Matthew 8:5-13 bothers me as well, but for different reasons than Hunt. According to the "pro-queer" reading, this passage is a reference to a "boy-lover" in a possibly exploitative relationship (master-slave). All kinds of ugly power issues are raised here--which Miner and the billboard try to avoid by saying it is simply a "gay couple". No, it is not simply a gay couple; they are in a relationship of domination and submission. I would strongly counsel against using this passage in any queer theology.


Mexjewel said...

Jesus defines sex as lack of love. What is sinful about a loving homosexual relationship?

Sandouri Dean Bey said...

I agree that the centurion passages (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10) raise some interesting questions, though I am less troubled by the ramifications than you.

It is indeed possible to conclude that the Jesus of these texts (who isn’t necessarily the same as the historical Jesus) endorsed a pederastic relationship. I don’t think it’s all that significant that Matthew uses παίς (boy) while Luke uses both παίς and δούλος (servant/slave). By itself παίς implies an imbalance of power, but so does the heterosexual marriage being celebrated in Cana (John 2:1-11), which Jesus attended and appears to have blessed. We shouldn’t just throw out these passages as theologically useless to us because the sexual or social ethic at work doesn’t match ours. I think that’s bad practice.

To me, it would be very significant if Jesus held up a man considered a sexual deviant by first-century CE Jews as a model of faith worthy of emulation. I think this is entirely consistent with the more radical and iconoclastic elements of Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels. That there are, if one looks deeper, potentially troubling elements to the pederastic relationship in question, is not really the point. We could wish that Jesus held up a more egalitarian same-sex relationship, but such were rare. Perhaps they existed in Rome or other urban centers, but not in first-century Galilee. It’s not really the focus of the story.

Neither is a discussion of the exploitative nature of prostitution the point of Matthew 21:32 in which Jesus says to the chief priests and temple elders: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” And yet there is great value in his statement, in spite of the fact that prostitution was then, as now, an exploitative social arrangement.

I think it’s fine for us to be ambivalent about many of the things Jesus said, whether or not they affirm GLBT people. There may be valuable lessons in passages and words and episodes from the Gospels that raise questions, just as they teach important lessons. What are we to make of the cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21:12; Mark 11:15; John 2:14-16), for example? For me, that episode contains all kinds of valuable lessons about speaking truth to power, standing up against oppression and economic injustice, and yet I’m troubling by the violent nature of Jesus’ protest. That ambivalence is a reminder that we need to be critical when it comes to the Gospels. Moreover, it’s rare for a passage to be either all good or all bad. Sometimes the same passage can be both. Perhaps the problem is that we expect too much from the Gospels (and Jesus for that matter). We shouldn’t expect perfect clarity or perfection.