On Jennifer Knapp and Loving Sexual Ethics
May 1, 2010 § 1 Comment
The release of Jennifer Knapp’s new album and the recent news that she decided to be open prior to its release that she has a female partner and is still a Christian has completely consumed my inner (and much of my outer) world lately.
I love this woman. Her art has changed my life, no sentimentality included. Many, many people feel this way.
I am deeply upset by the news. Let me explain. Her same-sex romance and continuing ownership of the Christian faith does not constitute a moral conflict for me. This would not have been the case some years ago. I am upset, because it causes me great pain to relate to the spiritual turmoil she clearly went through in reconciling her faith with same-sex love and attraction. I went through a process of grieving when I read the reasons for her long break from making music. All I kept thinking was, “That’s it!? That’s why?” A great artist was broken to the point of being unable to create for eight years. To me, that is nothing short of severe injustice and of tragedy. The “Christian music industry” (VOMIT) was largely to blame. But that is not what I want to focus on just now. That was only part of what happened. She felt herself torn between her partner and her faith – between two parts of herself. That is some of the worst pain and the worst cognitive dissonance to reconcile and recovery from.
I decided to post this in an attempt to succinctly convey the total shift I experienced in moral comprehension surrounding same-sex attraction, sex, and love. If you love Jennifer Knapp or are otherwise at all conflicted about how the combination of homosexuality and Christianity interact, I think you will want to read this post.
On we go.
When you ask any Christian why they believe homosexuality is wrong, they will invariably answer, “The Bible says.”
This response is not ubiquitous or necessary in discussion of any other supposed sin. Everything else has moral ramifications that can be elaborated upon and even separated from church-speak all together. I can explain to a friend of any and all or no religious backgrounds why it is a sin/immoral choice/bad idea to: kill, rape, exploit, drink too much, eat too much, use too many resources, ignore others, and so on and so on. I do not need to appeal to anything outside of my own intuitive moral sense, the Spirit of Love in me, and trust that it will resonate with the same in their moral conscience and leave them with a personal moral decision.
But with homosexuality you get the same old, “God wills it. Look, the Bible says…” argument every time. This was the case for me initially. I could not come up with anything besides, “The Bible says…” and this seemed anomalous to me. So I kept coming back to those passages regarding homosexuality over and over again, trying to gain some moral grasp of what they were saying and why.
Amidst the complex and shockingly specific Law of the Old Testament, in the list of people who get stoned to death, with abrupt vehemence, homosexuality (specifically male, but we all agree that the culture did not fully perceive women as moral agents and they should be included) is listed. No Christian can quote the Law without appealing to some authority beyond the text as to which parts of the Law are still relevant to us under the New Covenant, with the Holy Spirit replacing the Temple and so on, and in what way. For example, I do not leave the corner of my fields for widows and orphans, but I give a portion of all of my resources to the under-resourced. I wear multi-colored clothes made of blended fabrics, but I try to wear excessively expensive clothes that flaunt wealth. I hold my father’s hand when his skin is discolored and cracked instead of sending him to a tent and bricking him in the head if he treads back without being “purified.” All Christians understand that Jesus eradicated the Law, stating that the Jewish clergy belied God in the way they kept the letter of the Law and not the spirit of the Law.
Then there is that bit in the story of Sodom and Gommorah – the men turning to lust after one another. A close reading of this eradicates its relevance pretty fast. This was not a culture where men were so “evil” they wanted to kiss other men and marry them and adopt babies, oh my!, but a vicious, overt rape culture. When the angels show up, the townsmen literally pound on the door and demand that they be handed over. Not for consensual sex of any kind – the town was primed for gang rape, slavering over fresh victims. That is so far gone, it isn’t difficult to read the story and think, “I don’t know if I could have thought of anything but fiery destruction to solve the problem either…” I would say this is tantamount to the moral confusion of trying to deal with legitimately evil people, which is a separate, long, and terribly difficult discussion in and of itself. Frankly, I don’t fully understand the story’s ramifications, but what I take away from it is that even Abraham, who was super righteous by all accounts, was LESS merciful than God, even though he perceived the opposite during his moral negotiations with God on the subject.
So, we’re on to the more actually challenging question of mentions of homosexuality in the New Testament.
Jesus said not a word about it. This is a very significant indicator of a very relevant fact – the sin that should be taboo in the Christian church is not homosexuality, or any sexual sin.
What is it? Hypocrisy. Willfull distortion of the truth, projecting an image of righteousness and piety, for the sake of gaining leverage and power that you use to exploit people and get away with abuse. There were PLENTY of people having same-sex romps all around Jesus as he lived and taught and healed. It was Rome. But the people he railed at, shamed, and blamed for the impending demise of the Jewish people’s world as they knew it were the hypocritical religious leaders who had learned to implore the authority of God without exhibiting the love of God. Jesus talks to these people in a manner radically different from his norm. It’s a huge part of what gets him killed.
Then we are left with Paul, and a less quoted bit of Revelations (written by John). Paul’s words are the crux of anti-gay sentiment in the Christian church. This is where my very real moral dilemma got stuck for a long time. I could not figure out what to do with Paul. I kept thinking, if I can just understand why this is listed as a sin, then I will be at peace with it.
I noted first off that homosexuality is NEVER singled out as a particularly “bad” sin. It is mentioned only in lists of the kinds of people who won’t enter the Kingdom, and if you notice the context, these lists are sent by Paul to communities in the midst of radically altering their moral views to the very new and largely undefined Christianity and scared that they aren’t good enough, that they aren’t doing something. It can’t be as easy as loving, can it? And what does that mean? He was trying to answer so many questions, because people were so willingly to follow the Way of Jesus, but struggling to comprehend what it was. Married couples were confused as to whether they should become celibate to “be saved,” and Paul tried to direct the to understand that having sex or mutually choosing to abstain were both ok. The lists are there to comfort them, not terrorize them! He is trying to say, you are not missing some magical thing that is required to get you into heaven. He named the people who were to be left of the Kingdom, naming liars, cheaters, murderers, etc, etc. Basically, those people who make a lifestyle of exploitation – they relate to others as predators, by going for whatever they can get from them. They choose dominance over love. They seek to destroy life rather than nurture it.
So why are homosexuals in this list? The answer I found from Biblical scholars is one I had a hard time with for a while, but now think is true. In short, the word homosexuality did not exist in Roman culture the way it does in ours. There was no such thing as same-sex marriage; there was not even separate caste marriage. Early Christians habitually broke marriage laws by marrying people of differing cultural and social standings. It was assumed at the time that men (those who were dominant) had the right to the bodies of women AND children, both male and female who were perceived as lesser and therefore property (inherently and rightfully submissive), and that they would have sex with them, that is get pleasure from bodily exploiting them. A man was not considered homosexual if he had sex with males – there was instead a lot of highly disturbing politics regarding tops and bottoms that I won’t go into now.
What did exist, rampantly, was temple prostitution. Boys and girls were sold or given to temples (and remember this was the most multi-cultural society before ours, there were a freaking ton of religions) and visitors would have sex with them without a fleeting moral qualm. This still exists today, if you ask me, in many guises. I would say Las Vegas is one of them – we go there to worship money. Paul wanted early Christians to know that they were to have absolutely no part in this. The people Paul was talking about when we say “homosexuals” would be more aptly described as “sex traffickers.” That is so in line with Jesus’s teachings, there is no contention. Anyone who is predatory with their sexuality, who does not honor the human rights of those they have sex with, IS A SINNER, until they repent and stop.
But how many Christians are mobilized to stop sex trafficking, sexual abuse, or rape apology in the current world? You hear statistics like in THIS country, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and by the age of eighteen one in three women and one in six men have been sexually assaulted…. And you turn around and see Christians fighting “sexual immorality” by telling kids they must abstain even from being turned on by each other until marriage and that if gays are allowed to marry the world will end.
But I don’t know anything about Greek or Biblical scholarship on my own. I had to allow that perhaps Paul did mean just all same-sex desire and sex. And this is where it really got tricky.
Then I noticed something. The Christian church relates to Paul’s letters in much the same way that we do the Old Testament. There are passages we literally ignore and passages we tout. Women don’t cover their heads all the time, and men grow long hair without being metaphysically shamed and lessened. Women speak in church, and no one is suddenly stripped of their moral insight.
The best parallel I can find to the way the Christian church relates to homosexuality is slavery. Paul ALLOWED for slavery, as did the Old Testament. He sent a slave back to his owner. He said, “Slaves, obey your masters.”
Abolition was an issue that drew sides both within and without the Christian church. There were those who argued that the Bible allowed it and told slaves to be subservient. People believed being black was having “the mark of Caine” and being destined for suffering, which they gladly exploited for their own gain. And there were those who argued that all human beings were equal in God’s eyes, and that no one who served the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Love could or would rob another person of their right to freedom and body sovereignty.
No one could erase those lines from the Bible. Paul did say, “Slaves obey your masters,” although maybe he meant bondservants and maybe slavery was different in that culture, but who knows. We learned to believe that the Way of Jesus leaves no room to own slaves. We gloss over those verses. We know they are wrong.
I believe that Paul also allowed for sexism. And that the Way of Jesus does not.
The anti-gay factions of the Christian church claim to uphold the sanctity of the Bible. They quote it as if they are not appealing to any other authority besides the letter, but, undeniably, they are. The letter of the law is nothing without the Spirit – this is one of the greatest tenants of Jesus’s teachings. And the letter does not animate itself regardless – there is always some “interpretation” being made. The Bible says, “Fear God,” “Love is God,” and “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” We’re all making decisions in how we understand it. How could we not?
What they are actually upholding and arguing is the sanctity of gender – specifically binary gender in which males and females are delegated into very specific, appropriate, and “God-given” roles.
I find no reason to believe, either in the Bible, in my own moral conscience, or in Jesus’s teachings as I have been able to discern them, that any trait found righteous in a man should be sin in a woman or vice versa. Men are called to be tender, to be non-violent, to uphold the rights of the weak, to divest of the “privilege” of exploitation. Women are called to be defiant and adhere only to the authority of God and the inclinations of their own moral conscience, to resist tyranny and defend themselves and others from oppression, to be their own moral thinkers and judges.
There is lots more to be said of the gender politics of Jesus. The fact that the tomb was discovered by two women, a direct parody of Jewish law where the testimony of two men was enough to confirm or condemn and women’s testimony counted for nothing, the inclusion of women in Jesus’s set of intimates, his insight into how people won’t marry in Heaven but be like the angels (which signifies to me that we are to be without gender/sex), and then the female leaders Paul himself commends in other letters than the “wives be submissive” and “women be silent” ones and his statement that “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” In summary – Jesus demands the divine, human rights of women be upheld the same as men’s, and children are naturally thrown in. Love, not ownership and not oppression, are the Way of Jesus. You cannot reconcile the two.
If we as a culture take ownership of people by defining their gender and their appropriate roles, their appropriate behaviors and temperaments, and their appropriate lovers we strip them of moral autonomy and body sovereignty, and we replace a love ethic with legalism. I believe, in short, that Paul was transitioning from Jewish law to the Way of Jesus, and that the place where he was most caught up in the old was in regards to patriarchy (the inherent right of the strong to rule over the weak and to take possession of their bodies, in a myriad of ways, through psychological terrorism or force) and so you get justification of slavery, sexism, and homophobia. If this is not Paul’s error, then it is ours in how we have understood him and just as relevant.
How can a loving action be made sin by the mere coincidence of gender? Gender has to be sacred – more sacred than love. I don’t mean love as affection or simple bodily desire or even extreme feeling or obsession. I mean love as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. Sexual desire calls us to closer communion with others (even when we’re teenagers and in our time of deepest introversion and resistance to intimacy), and we either learn to allow it to guide us wisely, crush it out of ourselves to our own loss, or turn what was meant to be sacred into a means of exploitation, of ourselves and/or others.
I think Christianity does demand a love-centered sexual ethic. And I do believe that our society does not have one. Rape apology, child abuse, and sexual trauma in the form of body-negativity, sex-negativity, gender-normative social conditioning, and homophobia abound.
Let me ask you this – doesn’t anybody think it’s odd that non-Christians are just as disgusted and abhorred by homosexuality as Christians? Doesn’t the coating of a severe preexisting prejudice in religious language seem slightly convenient to anyone?
We are using the name of Jesus to excuse our sexism, rape apology, homophobia, and the dominance of a huge number of people’s sexualities through physical or psychological violence, especially through shaming.
And that to me smacks of the taboo sin. Hypocrisy.