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Homosynthesis: what I learned in TH 293

Though the material for this project was introduced primarily through Summer Academy and assigned readings, we must return to GLBT Week 2006 as the beginning place of a shift that has taken place in my thought. I am not sure that I had ever heard the term "heterosexism" before Mary Hunt introduced it in her lecture entitled "Feminist Theo-ethics: queering imagination and action." But as I made preparations for the new LTS Allies website and digitized the available lectures given at previous GLBT Week celebrations, I found "heterosexism" to be a term that had also emerged in the language of Christine Smith and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott in preceding years. Patricia Beattie Jung and Ralph F. Smith define heterosexism as "a reasoned system of bias regarding sexual orientation which denotes prejudice in favor (privilege) of heterosexual people and prejudice against bisexual and particularly homosexual people" in matters of law, economics, politics, custom, ethics, religious life and commerce (13, 14). These authors are very careful to distinguish between homophobia – an unreasoned and irrational fear/hatred of homosexuals – and heterosexism, which implies no fear at all, but instead the privilege afforded to perceived heterosexuals over their queer neighbors. Within the discourse of the LTS community we have made a point of strongly urging people to speak of heterosexism rather than homophobia. [Instructor Comment:  I hope many hear this message!]

This is the first of many times that I have been challenged during this independent study to reframe discussions, thereby opening new avenues of exploration and the possibility of receiving different answers in response to new questions. Focusing on the concept of heterosexism provides an entry point into the broader discussion of mutually reinforcing hierarchical dualisms at play in our culture. Closely related to this idea is the term "kyriarchy," coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza as a term to describe these interlocking forms of oppressive lordship that provide the contours for the power dynamics of our culture. By reframing the discussion of oppression against LGBT folks in terms of heterosexism and the larger kyriarchy, it is possible to begin to see how Jung and Smith have named a heretofore largely invisible web of controls within our society. By shifting the focus, we are able to see that even within ourselves as LGBT folk and our friends and allies often lie certain unquestioned assumptions about the superiority of straight life and society. Left unexamined this system leads to stereotypical assumptions about man-hating lesbians and feminine gay men.

However, more subtle than these caricatures is a phenomenon found both in the larger community and within the seminary among my peers who blithely assert that in their churches homosexuality is not an issue because everyone is welcome. On closer examination what this often means is that issues of sexuality are simply swept under the carpet and not addressed at all, allowing everyone to live comfortably in the assumption that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folks are "just like us," viz. straight. A lack of honesty in acknowledging differences in sexuality is one weapon in the matrix of heterosexism [Instructor Comment:  and sameness], annihilating those outside the majority and reinforcing heterosexual hegemony. By questioning our assumptions we create a space in which these mechanisms can be talked about and explored. This practice of reframing becomes key to further insights gained during the semester.

Over the past two years I’ve devoted considerable time and energy to the study of René Girard’s mimetic theory. Though often viewed with some skepticism by scholars in various disciplines, I have come to see that much of the ground I’ve covered during this semester can also be explained by this system. In my first paper for this study I created a diagram that looked something like this:

"Hierarchical Dualism"

 

God Human Male White USA Rich Heterosexual
World Animal Female Black Developing
Countries
Poor Homosexual

Each column is a binary pair of opposites constructed within the agreed upon framework of our society (and, in many cases, the world as a whole). Far from neutral, each pair places the privileged attribute in the dominant (top) position. While the approach that we used with Mary Hunt put these hierarchical dualisms in terms of kyriarchy, what many of them also implicitly create are the basic categories that divide people over and against one another. Though the original diagram was America-centered with its category of "USA vs. Developing Countries," this is merely a modification of a much older category that separates kinfolk from strangers or local from foreigner. Though I had not made the connection previously, these are the same boundaries whose transgressions are guarded by prohibition and social taboo in Girardian mimetic theory. Mary’s presentation emphasizes vertical pairings as presented above, but I have always mentally envisioned the categories within Girardian thought using the standard phrase "over and against an other," which has a more horizontal relational feel. To provide a graphical representation, place the diagram on the next page on a flat surface and look down on it from above. The categories of kyriarchy become the categories of us vs. them that provide the basis for human cultures in the mimetic theory:

Chart: "Over and Against an Other"
 
* Not a part of the original chart, but certainly representative of many who feel that no single theory can possibly encapsulate all of the various disciplines wtihin the academy, especially not their own.

As I discussed in my reflections on The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, the same mechanisms which create an other in opposition to which a sanctioned (privileged) identity is formed are used in demonizing the "sodomite." Accusations of boundary transgression such as mixed marriages, incest, bestiality, and cannibalism (Jordan 35, 49, 149-150), as well as characterizing the "sodomitic vice" as a contagion (a key word in Girardian thought) carried by foreigners and those who associate with them (Jordan 7) all contribute to the scapegoating mechanism. The same processes come into play when the kyriarchal system reacts to maintain a system in which women, people of color, the poor and disenfranchised or anyone alien to our kinship group is dehumanized, isolated, expelled or in extreme cases killed.

This also provides another explanation for the results of research into why people are a part of mega-churches. Remembering that people seek in order of priority community, ministry and then meaning as a distant third, we see the invisible system of mutually reinforcing oppressions at work. First, participants in the community define themselves as insiders, establishing an identity as a regular attenders or church members. Second, in reinforcing the sense of belonging, they take up a function within the body, cementing their status within the group. For many it is enough simply to belong and participate in the life of the community, even if that means that they are implicitly involved in the oppressive forces that the community might exert. For example, a closeted lesbian may hide her orientation, yet actively participate in greeting people as an usher or running the church sound equipment. The church may openly condemn LGBT folk, but this closeted member is often ready to sacrifice personal integrity rather than face expulsion from the community. Thus her conscience is bound, her identity is annihilated and the old adage is once again fulfilled: Silence equals Death. Though she may convince herself internally that she doesn’t agree with the official stance of the church, her lack of protest is perceived within the community as agreement with the teaching on homosexuality and joins in the incredible pressure exerted on other LGBT folks to remain closeted or simply steer clear of the community. The closeted member thus perpetuates the violence of exclusion against others as well. The community shrouds its violence in the cloak of pious teaching, attributing their practices to the will of God – their violence becomes sacralized.

Thinking Outside the Hierarchy.

Often a first step in waking ourselves from unconscious complicity in the system of hierarchical dualisms is the discovery of the countless variations rendered invisible by the thinning and condensing of various categories that are then universalized as labels within the system. As Mark Jordan points out in The Invention of Sodomy, the creation of labels has a tendency to take complex events, such as the destruction of Sodom in the Genesis account, and eliminate details until a single action can be identified as the trigger for divine punishment (27). In this account, the suggestion that the citizens of Sodom wished "to know" Lot’s angelic visitors becomes justification for the destruction of the city and from this point forward "sodomy" becomes identified with acts of sexual transgression. As another example, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott makes the case that the current binary gender paradigm of male/female renders invisible all who do not fit within these two categories. Intersexed individuals are often surgically altered at birth to fit the paradigm of sexual dimorphism, thus reinforcing the idea that there are only two variants with any others referred to as aberrant. However, as Mollenkott points out, even anatomical sex includes six interrelated factors: chromosomes, hormones, gonads, internal reproductive organs, the brain (individual perception) and external genitalia (187). In the system of hierarchical dualism, only the most obvious of these factors – external genitalia – is normally used as the criterion for assigning sex.

From the previous two examples, two exercises emerge that both function in primarily the same way. By examining the story of the destruction of Sodom in its literary context (including previous passages in which it has played a role in the Genesis narrative) and taking into account other biblical sources describing Sodom’s sin, the process of thinning and overgeneralization can be reversed. Instead what emerges is a complex description of the accusations against the original city and its residents which refutes the one to one correlation between same-sex rape and annihilation. In a structurally similar manner, by learning about and acknowledging the multiple factors in the matrix of anatomical sex, as well as the culturally-defined and self-identifying aspects of gender expression, we find that the simple binary dualism of male/female cannot adequately describe the complexities of observable data. The same process can be applied to race identifiers which turn out to be subjective discernments of skin coloration and certain facial features rather than discernible genetic differentiation. Even class systems are based on a generally agreed upon, yet arbitrary, set of criteria generally regarding the number of possessions a person has or an accepted valuation of pieces of paper and digits on bank account statements that no longer even correlate to a standard based on some precious metal or other commodity. In the end, most of our culturally defined categories are merely shadows without substance, or shared illusions of differentiation without material reality. From a theological perspective we might say that none of our categories are based in ontological differences, but rather are epistemological in origin and are thus subject to revision as we change the manners in which we know and the questions that we bring to the table.

Alison’s work dovetails nicely with this exploration. In previous reflections I have addressed the temptation of the marginalized within the systems that we are describing to occupy the role of victim, bitterly complaining about the injustices of the system, but paralyzed and incapable of affecting any sort of substantive change, for the conscious victim is still rooted firmly in reaction to the system. Though she has often progressed to the point of understanding the oppression leveled against her, she may still be completely unable to formulate an alternative ideal. From a Girardian perspective this is to be expected, for we are all imitators of the desires that we see in one another. Thus, without an insight that comes from beyond the immediate matrix of power dynamics, we are left to shadow-box against the privileged who are, for all intents and purposes, merely doubles of us, occupying the other side of the dynamic, yet no different from us in any fundamental way. In the words of Albert Einstein, "the significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them" (1). It is often easy to decry the current system. The difficulty lies in imagining a viable alternative. As noted in a previous reflection, Judith Plaskow suggests that the starting point for change is the resistance to any framework which denies the agency of the oppressed. Such systems, she asserts, are to be questioned and transformed by placing the oppressed at the center (135). However, even as I read her statement I feel that we have not taken into account Einstein’s insight. Rearranging the system to simply place another party in the center may feel good at first to those who have been previously oppressed (though this too is questionable, especially if they were unaware of their oppression); however, the immediate pitfall often appears to be the creation of a new paradigm in which the former oppressor becomes the oppressed. This is especially true if the participants in the power dynamic perceive their situation as a zero-sum system where there are always winners and losers.

Alison’s work suggests that rather than occupying the position of victim and insisting that we be placed at the center of any reformed paradigm, we must be willing to surrender our demands and move into a place of relationality in which we recognize that far from actual authorities, those who occupy the places of privilege in various power dynamics are essentially just like us – human sisters and brothers attempting to pass off their demands and coercion as somehow valid, reasonable and authoritative. However, in truth their authority is based only in the threat of violence against us. It is at this point that Alison’s application of Girard’s theories radically diverges from anything else that I have read during this study. Though not explicitly stated, the theological imaginings of several other authors appear to be limited by their application to the temporal as the final ground of our reality. In other words, they are bounded by death, which is seen as the terminus of all things. However, the promise of the Kingdom (or the Divine Kinship, to remove patriarchal language) is different in that while we move towards a realization of mutuality, respect and love in this world, we rest in the hope of the Resurrection, a promise that allows us to be vulnerable and open to relation with one another in light of the understanding that we may die in the process. Outside of the Girardian theorists, the thinker who has come closest to making this statement was Mark Jordan during his LGBT Week lecture when he called for us to cease our endless proof-texting debates and to join one another on our knees in prayer before the eucharistic table (Jordan, Witness). What Jordan did not explicitly state is explored in full in Alison’s writings as the transformative grace bestowed on us during the liturgy and the sacrament. It is at this table that we come face to face with the self-giving Christ who resisted the power dynamics of his day by refusing labels and insisting on relationality with even the most marginalized of his society – the boundary transgressors in the poor, the sick (whom we still refer to as invalids), the sexual outcasts, the tax collectors (collaborators with outsiders), the ritually unclean and even those who did not share his religious faith. It is also at this table that paradoxically we come face to face with the greatest boundary transgressor of all, who rather than perpetuate the cycle of violence, willingly turned his body over to the powers of this world to be put to death. Did this Jesus die with an understanding like Mary Hunt’s that he would become compost in the arms of the earth and the stuff from which future generations of life would draw their substance? Or did this Jesus understand like John McNeil that his Heavenly Father would be waiting in the great hereafter to greet him with loving arms, welcoming him home[1] Perhaps it is possible that these two ideas can be held in dynamic tension, acknowledging both of them as true. [Instructor Comment:  There is an opening here — Christianity does have something to offer LGBT people — we must say it clearly–because so few hear the message.]  For in the sacrament, the gulf between created and divine is forded and we catch a glimpse of a God who unconditionally loves us and has provided us with an example which we may imitate, a solution offered from above the level of the problems we have created – a different way of thinking and feeling and being that aligns itself with the Divine and restores the unity of all things.

Meanwhile, back on earth…

But what does this have to do with gays in the military and same-sex unions? As to the military the answer is patently simple: it doesn’t. For in the divine economy there is no place for militaristic ventures into foreign lands and sacred violence that justifies the murder of others under the rubric of stamping out evildoers. Fundamentally this is not an issue of "equal rights" for all, but of acquisitive mimesis that has been turned away from the positive examples set by Jesus Christ and toward desiring what "everybody else" has. If the empire calls upon you to carry its armor for a mile, then clearly carry it two; however, I find little room in the example of Jesus to then don the armor and charge into battle with bloodlust in one’s throat.

The question of same-sex unions is a bit more complex. As long as the government privileges the union of two people as a matter of policy, it seems that justice would require that the same rights be bestowed on all couples regardless of the assigned sex of the parties involved. However, I agree with Dale Martin’s assessment that "marriage cedes to the state or the church [one’s] genitals" (39). As Mary Hunt pointed out this summer, she’s all for equal marriage rights, but not hot on the idea of marriage in general. I have a tendency to agree with both of them, but what would an alternative look like?

In my reflection on same-sex unions, I had once again touched on Mary’s idea that "just good sex" is "safe, pleasurable, community building, and conducive to justice" (158). By coupling this with the idea of the mystical union that Paul describes as occurring between the participants in a sexual act (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), I have already come to the conclusion that a casual sexual encounter does not fit the criteria for an ethical interchange. At the same time, civil and ecclesial approval of a relationship, though they may "legitimate" children or sanction sexual relations, do not supply all that is needed for the proper stewardship of a sexual bond. In his essay entitled "Trinity, Marriage, and Homosexuality," Eugene Rogers draws on the discipline (ascesis) of nuns or monks and marriage partners as potential models for same-sex couplings (151). Through the workings of the religious community or marriage, Rogers asserts that "God uses the perceptions of others one cannot easily escape to transform challenge into growth, into faith, hope, and charity" in a process of sanctification (151). Though the marriage covenant becomes a relationship in which sexual relations are made licit, it is not simply a license for sexual activity, but a vehicle for spiritual transformation that produces grace (Rogers 153) – by definition a sacramental act.

This is a new concept for me. As a Southern Baptist I was raised with no sacraments and only two ordinances (baptism and communion). Sacraments were considered by all good descendants of Zwingli’s thought to be so much nonsense, while the ordinances were practiced in obedience to the commands of Jesus recorded in the New Testament tradition. However, as witnessed by my previous section on the grace imparted through the Eucharist, I am warming to the idea of a special grace that comes through the mystical relationship of two human beings united by the Divine. I hesitate to call this union "marriage," with its overloaded civil and religious meanings; however, at the moment we are left with only a broken landscape of descriptors of which no particular term has yet risen to the fore. As such, perhaps the term marriage will do for now.

I find Rogers’ idea of the spiritual transformation that takes place in a relationship requiring mutual submission one to another most intriguing:

"Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means (but not only a means) by which God catches human beings up into the community of God’s Spirit and the identity of God’s child" (158).

Rogers goes on to draw analogies between the partners in a "wedding" and the first two persons of the Trinity, with the witnesses gathered being analogous to the Holy Spirit that rejoices in the life of the joining (159). Like monastic vows and opposite-sex nuptials, this union requires the involvement of the community to reach its full potential (Rogers 162), for in the absence of community it is doubtful that flaws can be adequately exposed for the purpose of healing and sanctification (Rogers 163). Though I am still working out the implications of this line of thought, I believe it shows promise.

As a final note on rights and privileges bestowed through civil marriage, it appears to me that Mary Hunt is correct in her assertion that we should be examining mechanisms for joining two or more persons into a community of legal rights without regard to sexual identity. Mary prefers to speak of those who are "lucky in love," but this doesn’t provide the full picture. It is well known that people marry in our society for reasons other than love. Conservatives often describe marriage in terms of creating safe spaces for procreation and the raising of children. But, this too is disingenuous, as civil law requires neither procreative potential nor the desire for children as prerequisites for marriage. By reframing the question in a hypothetical exercise that excludes the need for marriage to obtain various forms of joint property rights and decision-making authorities regarding children and health issues of spouses, we have cleared the way for discussion of the spiritual benefits to emerge. I would suggest that in a better world, these would be the only benefits discussed as we venture as a spiritual community into recognizing the union of two people and participating in the ongoing project of sanctification.

[1] Two viewpoints recounted by Mary Hunt during Summer Academy.


Works Cited

Einstein, Albert. The Quotations Page. 2004-2007. 4 January 2008 .

Hunt, Mary E. "Just Good Sex: feminist Catholicism and human rights." Good Sex: feminist perspectives from the world’s religions. Ed. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005. 158-173.

Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

—. "The Witness of GLBT Christians." LGBT Week 2007. Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster. 8 November 2007.

Jung, Patricia Beattie and Ralph F. Smith. Heterosexism: an ethical challenge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Martin, Dale B. "Familiar Idolatry and the Christian Case against Marriage." Authorizing Marriage? : canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 17-40.

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. "Crossing Gender Borders: towards a new paradigm." Body and Soul: rethinking sexuality as justice-love. Ed. Marvin M. Ellison and Sylvia Thorson-Smith. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003. 185-197.

Plaskow, Judith. "Authority, Resistance and Transformation: Jewish Feminist Reflections on Good Sex." Good Sex: feminist perspectives from the world’s religions. Ed. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005. 127-139.

Rogers, Eugene F., Jr. "Trinity, Marriage, and Homosexuality." Authorizing Marriage? : canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 151-164.


Instructor’s Comments

Bryce —

Another solid piece of work. These last three papers point to important issues raised in the readings and indicate clear and deep thinking on your part.

This synthesis brought together for me just how interconnected our work is as scholars. Your paper also reminded me of the important work LGBT Christians have to do for the life of the world. And I am pleased — but not surprised — at how much the Roman Catholic scholars have to offer us in this work. What or why do you think this is the case? You have noticed & noted that RC scholars do have common issues. I hope to discuss this when we meet. Well done.

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