I woke up early this morning. It appears I’ve reached that age where it doesn’t really matter how late I went to bed or how much more sleep I could really use. My automatic alarm sounds when daylight creeps through the bedroom window.
Last night I attended Easter Vigil. It was an eclectic mix of ancient and contemporary in a packed sanctuary, dark but expectant of the imminent return of the Light. Only one brief moment of excitement in my row when an older lady a few seats down began flapping furiously – she hadn’t noticed that her vigil candle was burning down to the cardboard drip protector… which had caught fire and was proceeding to burn in her hand… (Anti-climax: she got it put out as the liturgy continued unabated.)
As part of the service, several folks were recognized. Two confirmed their infant baptisms in their own voices. The apostolic succession of the Roman Catholic Communion was affirmed in the reception of a young couple. And two women previously joined to the ranks of the Episcopal Church made public renewals of their faith.
As is customary, the entire gathered assembly of baptized Christians reaffirmed our baptismal vows, a mix of lines both ancient and modern: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will… with God’s help.
So it may come as no shock to some of you that having spent the evening in church last night I am taking today for Sabbath time.
The interesting juxtaposition comes at the point of waking this morning and beginning to read from The Problem with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. It is rare these days that I have a moment to read something that isn’t directly related to coursework, but tomorrow is the French exam and I’m trying my best not to overdo it today – sometimes the brain needs to rest. Or at least make interesting new connections…
In Normal, Michael Warner makes use of the work of Erving Goffman, who coined the terms stigmaphile and stigmaphobe to describe the two ends of a polarity he saw at work in the discourses around gay and lesbian liberation:
“The stigmaphile space is where we find a commonality with those who suffer from stigma, and in this alternative realm learn to value the very things the rest of the world despises—not just because the world despises them, but because the world’s pseudo-morality is a phobic and inauthentic way of life. The stigmaphobe world is the dominant culture, where conformity is ensured through fear of stigma” (43).
Maybe it’s just a hazard of my business as a theologian, but it’s hard for me not to hear echoes of the Kin-dom of God in this passage. Substitute “Church” for “stigmaphile space” and it should pop right out… (And note the use of “realm” that many these days substitute for “kingdom.”)
Warner writes about the founding of the Mattachine Society and the subsequent struggle in which its founders were ousted, replaced by less radical individuals who chose the path of divorcing sex from public identity in an attempt to look more respectable in the eyes of the dominant culture. His next line made me stop to think:
“At each moment, the question boils down to this: dignity on whose terms? Increasingly, the answer is that to have dignity gay people must be seen as normal” (52).
He further describes the rise of “norms” as rules for acceptable and deviant behaviors based on statistical observation. It’s all too easy to take the norms and apply them as “good,” while characterizing what falls outside the norm as “bad.” An example would be stigmas attached to left-handedness – a statistical minority that one might assume to be “bad” if statistics told the whole story.
We’ve made a lot of progress since the days when when lefties were a sinister lot, but even in my own lifetime I’ve known folks who were forced to write in a right-handed fashion to conform to the norm. Many of us have come to view left-handedness as a minority but healthy variation in human physical expression. But issues around sexuality are not quite so easy…
The interesting point I’d like to make with norms is in how they are established (the statistical averages of a particular population) and how they are viewed. In the early 19th century a Belgian statistician named Quételet equated statistical norms with the emergence of evidence of divine laws. Others thought that statistical norms indicated natural laws, but the effects were the same. Warner writes:
“…normal came to mean right, proper, healthy. What most people are, the new wisdom went, is what people should be” (57).
Now some of you are onboard with this, and so the next step is probably easy enough to take as well. In the 19th century, statistical norms were extended to the realm of sexuality:
“What most people do or desire is, according to the new science, what people should do and desire” (57).
And it is this sort of thinking that is at the root of a lot of rhetoric around unnatural sex and the sinfulness of folks whose sexual expressions fall outside the mainstream. But as I was reading this I couldn’t help but think:
Anyone who knows Paul should be very leery of defining norms based on majority thought in the world…
That whole idea of being called out, not being conformed to the ways of this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) – how might this bear on conversations around LGBTQ folk?
Regardless of what siege mentality tells some of my fellow Christians, the idea of healthy sexual variation among queer folk is hardly the dominant discourse in the world. And what’s more, even among those of us who don’t fit the statistical norm, there’s a great deal of internalized heterosexism and other shaming that pressures us to divorce sex from orientation, to adopt the discourse of clinical psychology and genetics, to claim we are born this way…
And yet I would point back to Paul’s admonitions about being conformed to the world – of internalizing the world’s ways and its mechanisms of control over us…
I’m not saying that every situation is the same. Clearly there are paths either injurious or harmful to oneself as well as to others. To deny this would be foolish. But I am trying to flag a trend that I have found increasingly disturbing, as certain traditions within the Church are more and more co-opted by the language and rhetoric of social or political ideologies while seemingly blind to the fact that they are less in touch with the radical teachings of Jesus Christ. It is all too easy to align with the “norm” over and against the transformation of our minds.
I find myself thinking about those baptismal vows again… to respect the dignity of every human being… to repent and return to the Lord when I fall into sin… And I must confess something.
In my candidate statement for doctoral studies I made a blanket statement about the immature nature of queer theology that has transgressed traditional boundaries “for the adolescent hell of it.” But over the past several months, culminating in a sort of epiphany moment in the last few weeks/days, I’ve come to understand my own complicity in tidying up my sisters and brothers so that we can be more respectable to the masses. So let me say…
I repent of sitting in my ivory tower and proclaiming the need for a more “mature” queer theology and dismissing queer activism as just a stage…
I repent of not respecting the dignity of a certain set of human beings… choosing them as a foil to set myself over and against in order to be better accepted by the dominant culture.
And, with God’s help, may I inhabit with grace this alternative realm and learn to value the very things that the world despises. With God’s help, may I root out in myself phobic pseudo-morality and inauthenticity in my own interactions.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The same Christ who was crucified: scandal to some, folly to others. The same Christ who associated with sinners and women of questionable status, lepers and menstruators, the disabled and the possessed, tax collectors and foreigners, military occupiers and even men who carried water jars…
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!