Are we queering the Body of Christ?

Dialogue and conversation about sexual ethics is the order of the day, according to United Methodist Bishop Martin McLee.

So, please help me understand a couple things I’ve been reading in recent weeks. And I am asking this as a legitimate question. Imagine, for a moment, that I’m a member of your congregation who came in after reading some of this online. I am confused by it and want your pastoral help in understanding how it fits with the things I’m hearing in United Methodist publications, web sites, and blogs.

To give you a sense of the challenge here, I grew up at a time when the word “queer” was considered offensive and certainly not one you would use to describe someone else. So consider me one of those ancient members of the congregation who does not understand why we can’t read Psalm 23 in the King James translation.

I’ve come into your office. I’ve shared some things I’ve read. I don’t understand them and want to know if the church is teaching these things now.

Here are the tattered pages I pull out of the folder I brought with me.

First, there was this exchange in Tony Jones’ blog comment section.

Jones wrote a blog post praising the decision of his local newspaper to run a picture of two men kissing on its front page. His post centered on his 9-year-old son’s response to the picture as no big deal. He declared it a sign of progress as a new normal emerges in our culture.

One of his commenters was not so enthusiastic. (I’ve inserted links to some of the meanings of the terms for those who are not familiar with them.)

Queer sexuality is far, far from culturally normative. It remains heavily marginalised while a sanitized homonormativity is both pushed by advocacy groups controlled by the privileged within the queer community (primarily white cis gay men but, to a lesser extent, white cis lesbians) and appropriated (not to mention exploited) by non-queer media (like this newspaper, using a ‘provocative’ image of two white men kissing to sell papers). Queers who cannot or will not conform to homonormativity, such as bisexuals, queers of colours, and trans* individuals, continue to be marginalised and oppressed, the nonchalance of 9-year-olds at homonormativity notwithstanding. Homonormativity being all-but-synonymous with assimilationism, its victory is a victory for queers whose bodies and lifestyles conforms to heterosexist norms. Your sons response represents progress for the queer community, not the end of our structural marginalisation and not cultural normativity for the lived experience of the majority of queers.

The person who wrote the comment on Tony Jones’ blog appears to be arguing that no line can be drawn when it comes to sexual ethics. To argue on behalf of lifelong, committed relationships between two men is — in this eyes of this commenter and apparently some others — to advocate for an oppressive homonormativity that is little better than the Christian doctrine that people are trying to dismantle.

Jones for his part sought to reassure his commenter that more progress would be made:

Matthew, of course I’m not saying that all is now well for the progressive vision of our cultural future, nor am I saying that no one is marginalized, nor am I saying that all of our problems are solved, nor am I saying that we should stop fighting for equality. I am simply saying that we’ve come a long way, and this newpaper is a cultural touchstone.

To which, the commenter replied:

I’m not denying the progress, just seeking to add that it’s relative. There’s been more progress for those whose queerness can conform to homonormative norms, white, cisgender gay men and women in monogamous, two-persons, (upper) middle class relationships, than those who queerness does or cannot. For those of us in the latter category, seeing acceptance of homonormativity touted as victories for us all reinforces our own peripheral or even outsider status in the mainstream LGBT movement and community.

So, this leaves me confused.

What I hear argued in our denomination is that we should not discriminate against loving, committed, monogamous relationships. So is that the final point in this process of evolving doctrine, or do we go to the next step demanded by this person on Jones’ blog? If not, why not?

These questions continued yesterday when I started getting posts on my Twitter feed out of a Progressive Youth Ministry conference. I went searching the hashtag #pym14 and found some of the following tweets from conference attendees. (Please note: I am not offering these as a representative sample, but as ones that confused me or raised questions that I do not know how to answer.)

Since I do not understand what queer theology is, I did what every 21st century person does. I Googled it. Here are the top responses: Wikipedia, a dedicated web site complete with queer lectionary reflections, what looks like an undergraduate paper on the topic, a book called Radical Love, and a Huffington Post article tag.

I did not buy the book, but did read much of the other material. I have a better understanding of what queer theology is, but I am not clear whether it is informing our debates in the UMC.

So, again, help me out. In this process of dialogue in our denomination, are people trying to move us toward a “queering” of the body of Christ? Or is there some other end point? And what does it mean to queer the Body of Christ? Specifically what are people arguing on behalf of? And if they are not arguing for that, why not? What are the doctrinal and theological resources that argue for some movement in this direction but not total movement? Or is what people are arguing for not indebted to queer theology? What is the shape of our teaching on sexual ethics that advocates for change envision? And what is the basis for that revised doctrine?

I’ve e-mailed Bishop Talbert and others about these questions in the past. So far, I’ve gotten little help in understanding these things that confuse me.


11 thoughts on “Are we queering the Body of Christ?

  1. I know how to read and write. Sometimes even well. I could not understand “Matthew,” the commenter to Tony Jones. I was like reading a different language.
    Our youth staff did not attend PYM ’14.

  2. Thank you for this. These are good questions to raise.

    I can’t say what is happening to the United Methodists, but can give one perspective (as a non-cis queer). I had not heard the term “homonormativity” before, (my spellcheck does not recognise it) but worked it out. It is an ideal gay life aping straight norms.

    There are some of us that these norms will not fit. I want there to be room in the church for us. The Catholics say “you must not make the best the enemy of the good”. A lesbian trans woman with mental health issues may be better off in a relationship which will only last one year, which gives her life a little stability.

    Making absolute rules about these things does not work. It does not fit real people in real life.

    1. Clare, thank you for taking the time to write. I certainly understand this as your perspective. I’m curious, from your perspective, what would be a definition of holy sexual practice? And how do you come to that definition or description?

      1. I don’t know. Possibly sex between a heterosexual married couple who abstained before marriage and were free to marry on a Biblical understanding, or celibacy. To those of us incapable of this, is saying “You’re not trying hard enough” always good enough?

        1. Oh, I agree 100% that “you’re not trying hard enough” is not a good response to any spiritual challenge we face. It puts the burden on us to be stronger than we are.

  3. Right now our understanding of sexuality is largely reduced to saying what we are against. Even those advocating a straight only policy have so short-handed it (to ‘marriage is between one man and one woman’), that it is almost meaningless. Is Christian marriage mainly about aligning genitalia? Are there other qualities that would make a marriage uniquely Christian? Jesus routinely rebuffed ‘minimum standards’ for higher standards (Matthew 5:21ff for example). Were we to begin promoting a high standard of Christian marriage, we would find a lot of straight couples all over church leadership whose marriages leave a lot to be desired. Our pulpits, district offices and even our episcopacy is littered with broken marriages and sexual sins. The current debate is not only a gay vs straight debate it is a struggle between a low standard and a high standard. It seems plausible to determine a high Christian standard of marriage that includes gay couples. Admittedly, I know gay Christian married couples whose marriages I admire. So what is the standard?

    I say all this to say that those advocating for full inclusion of LGBT people in the church are not without standards. That’s a false dichotomy. To be for gay marraige is not necessarily to be for polygamy (which the Bible seems to have no problem with, BTW). As for ‘Matthew’s’ concern, there may indeed be a line drawn there (against including polygamous relationships). Then again, that could not be on strictly Biblical standards, could it? We cannot even address Matthew’s concern because we do not know (or agree) what a Christian marriage actually is.

    1. Thanks for writing. I hope I did not suggest that people advocating for a change are without standards. What I’ve been trying to discern is what those standards are and how they are derived. My goal is to try to figure out how these standards (principles) integrate with a holistic theology.

      The current teaching of the church, as I understand it, is a mix of concessions to brokenness (divorce) and appeal to what the church best understands to be God’s will — celibacy in singleness and lifelong monogamy in marriage. There may be theological problems and practical misapplications, but I can articulate and understand how this fits into a wider theological system. Or, at least, I understand it better than I do what I hear being offered as new teaching.

  4. John, I know there are people who are deliberately “queering the church.” I’ve never felt comfortable with that phrase, but it’s up to them to decide on its utility.

    One bit of text you shared is actually the task of every person who exposits the Bible: “To queer-Purposefully making strange what is familiar, normal, culturally constructed.” To me this means looking at a familiar text from a new perspective, to let people know that there’s more there than they may have seen before.

    In my writing, I simply look at material from a different perspective.

    For example in what I posted today, I share my research on the Q community and Rabban Yohannan ben Zakkai’s successful attempt to annihilate it. I’ve taken publicly available information and drawn legitimate conclusions.

    1. I find the phrase “queering the church” an unhappy one as well, but perhaps for different reasons than you do.

      You left off the rest of the quote: historically shaped. Not liberative for all.

      I found the quote a bit hard to interpret, as I thought it was a ground-level assumption these days that all meanings are culturally conditioned and historically shaped. Seems like you get into an infinite regress if you say your objective is to defamiliarize every culturally conditioned or historically shaped meaning. I suppose if I understood liberation theology better than I do, I might grasp the whole quote. It does seem to put priority on reception of the text vs. intention of the author.

      I don’t see the purpose of exposition to always be the search for unfamiliar readings. I remember Will Willimon joking once about the pastor who preached the prodigal son from the point of view of the fatted calf. Certainly unfamiliar. Perhaps liberative for fatted calves. Maybe not the best reading, though.

  5. The infinite undecidability (or regress or queerness) of the text isn’t going to help us focus on Christ. The goal of Christian conversation must be to focus on Jesus Christ: “…we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” [Ephesians 4:14-16] The rest is a diversion, and the Slough of Despond is near at hand.

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