A Holy Queering: Part Two

June 9, 2011Chelsea Collonge & Liza Minno Bloom

Post image for A Holy Queering: Part Two

Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river,
those who don’t drink dawn like a cup of springwater

or take in sunset like supper,
those who don’t want change, let them sleep.
This Love is beyond the study of theology…
I’ve given up on my brain
I’ve torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away

The comments to our first post were both confirming and challenging, and we will continue tailoring this series based on people’s responses. One question that emerged last time was, how does wildness include accountability in relationship?

There is a growing trend in Christian moral theology to discern systems of sexual ethics that are less act-based and more relationship-based. The growing consensus among progressive Christians is that the substance or content of a sexual relationship (ex. consent, mutuality) is more important than its form (ex. gender, marital status). (For a good example of this, see Just Love by Margaret Farley of Yale Divinity School.) Theologians are also questioning secular liberalism’s respect for individual freedom held against the Christian norm of community. (Ex. Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics by Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College.) Before proposing a new framework of sexual accountability of our own, we need to tease out what individualism and community look like from a specifically ecological Christian perspective.

When living in Bolivia, a Quechua woman explained to me (Liza) the difference between Andean epistemology and Western/Eurocentric epistemology. She said: for the Westerner, 1+1+1+1=4; for the Andean, 1+1+1+1=1. What she was getting at is the radical relationality of all living things that is represented in Andean philosophy versus the notion of individualism that the West (mostly the U.S and Europe) invented and ran with. The idea that we are each individuals, with full sovereignty over the choices we make for ourselves and total responsibility for the consequences of our actions, shapes life in the West.   Indeed, the binaries that we discussed in the previous article in this series are predicated on the idea that people are isolated individuals who can be essentialized into one single element (woman, straight, Native, queer, Black, etc), abstracted out of their social or environmental context and labeled, valued, devalued, organized, categorized, and separated, like so many products.  Any time we give a simple definition to something wild and natural, whether a person or sexuality itself, in an attempt to “know” it, we deny its complexity and contextuality and use it for our own purposes.

So our first task is to problematize Western individualism. For this we can turn to the Body of Christ, and to our own bodies. Feminist scientist Donna Haraway points out how individualism is a myth even at the bodily level; she says, “I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of the cells that occupy the space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions…To be one is always to become with many.” Our very body, like the Body of Christ, is a community, and a multigendered, interspecies community at that. St. Paul’s metaphor of the Church as a body, combined with our ecological understanding of the body, points to the character of the community that Jesus envisioned and loved: wildly diverse including multiple ages, genders, sexualities, and species.

Along with every other living thing, we are embodied and relational beings and these aspects of our humanity can find expression in the fact that God made us sexual. Given this, we must ask, how do we exist as healthy, fully alive and present community members, members of our own body as well as our own environmental and social/spiritual communities? We have to heal our ingrained abuse and disdain toward human sexual embodiment because how we treat our bodies affects how we treat all other bodies, and the body of the world. This requires undoing not just Western individualism but the collective Western project or communal ethic of body-hatred and control, which is rooted in U.S settler colonialism (as we discussed in our last article) and gives rise to many collective, body-based oppressions (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.).

So we are not just advocating for a “communal” (as opposed to individualistic) ethic but for a particular communal ethic. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is a pro-Religious Right politician and no doubt an individualistic American. But note the deeply collective death-dealing agenda that’s behind his promotion of patriarchy for individual American families, from an interview with Fox News in 2003: “…it’s common sense that a marriage is between a man and a woman. I mean, every civilization in the history of man has recognized a unique bond. Why?… [It] is not about affirming somebody’s love for somebody else. It’s about uniting together to be open to children to further civilization in our society.” (By children he means white, Christian, American children, by the way.) Andrea Smith, a Native feminist scholar, reminds us that this patriarchal family structure of paterfamilias was viewed as the building block of empire from Roman through American settler colonial times (see her quotation in the end notes). We recognize that the dominant systems that are in place—capitalism, nationalism, imperialism, and the heterosexism that goes with them—are, by their nature collective systems, which promote individualism.

Our quest for wildness therefore includes anti-individualist AND anti-oppressive practices: consent, accountability, humility, reciprocity, inter-dependency, confession and forgiveness. We need new ways of knowing one another, and luckily, a commitment to honoring and exploring sexuality provides many new ways of both loving AND knowing. A recent article on the Infoshop website, “Theoretical Polyamory: Some Thoughts on Loving, Thinking, and Queering Anarchism” by Deric Shannon and Abbey Volcano, ask if we can connect how we love with how we know. They posed the question this way: “How might we live our lives in ways that create new cultural forms and subjectivities that we build on our own terms (inasmuch as that is possible) rather than accepting the identities, cultures, and subjectivities that we have inherited from a sick and hierarchical world in which humanity is perpetually at war with itself, the environment, and the entire non-human world?”

From the double-entendre of the Biblical “to know,” to the feminist movement’s insistence on taking embodied experience into account as valid knowledge, sexuality and epistemology (how we know what we know) can go hand in hand. For example, eco-theologian Sallie McFague advocates for an ethic of interconnectedness that acknowledges difference, rather than seeking a state of pseudo-oneness, by embracing our sensuality as an alternative way of knowing.  She points out that “touch,” our main embodied way of experiencing life, is also a metaphor for a respectful way of experiencing, knowing, and learning about other people and beings (including God) in our world. We can touch an “other” like God in and through the details of creation, with this connection simultaneously highlighting the distinctness of the other body.

Touch is just one aspect of our senses, our multiple ways of connecting. Our senses both limit and enhance connection; in sensing something or someone else, you literally become part of that thing/creature, while knowing simultaneously that you are not that thing/creature. For example, Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses writes about how when you smell someone, you are inhaling particles of their skin and hair, literally breathing them in; yet, you are still not that person.  Interconnectedness and difference.

With an ecological understanding of community, we can now reframe our question of how wildness includes accountability in relationship. Sex-positive norms, including “wild” ones, must arise from communities out of their own histories, which have differential experiences of positive sexual affirmation, respect, and freedom, and negative sexual denigration and violence. Shannon and Volcano urge “anyone who identifies with queer positionality (such as the authors of this series) to take steps to ensure that new categories and identities that we develop in response to what currently exists do not become new normative standards within our own communities.” White sex-positive feminists (such as the authors) cannot and should not speak for everyone in defining sex-positivity for communities and movements. This pattern has been problematic in promoting normative ethics and prescriptive standards, which map onto reality, rather than allowing living beings to exist for their own purposes and to listen to their own experience as a guide.

However, we also recognize that the answer within communities and organizations is neither to let social dynamics play out completely unchallenged, accepting whatever behavior patterns arise. Most often, when communities or organizations have no structure of accountability built in, even in the name of having a free or anarchistic space, we have seen that this results in the reenactment of dominant societal norms like white leadership, male leadership, cis-gender leadership, straight leadership, able-bodied leadership, and the dismissal of the experiences and opinions of people who are not these. We are wary of the idea of prescribing behavior (for ourselves or others), yet see the efficacy of a system in place that enables certain behavior patterns and protects against others.

So, what would an accountable, anti-oppressive collective project around sexuality look like in your community? What does “sex-positivity” mean to you and yours?

Blessing of the Senses
by Fr. John O’Donahue

May your body be blessed.
May you realize that your body is a faithful and beautiful friend of your soul.
And may you be peaceful and joyful and recognize that your senses are sacred thresholds.
May you realize that holiness is mindful gazing, feeling, hearing , and touching.
May your senses gather you and bring you home.
May your senses always enable you to celebrate the universe and the mystery and possibilities  in your presence here.
May the Eros of the Earth bless you.

* * *

End notes:

Donna Harraway When Species Meet (University of Minnesota Press 2007)

Indigenous feminist scholar of decolonization Andrea Smith writes in GLQ Journal: “Heteropatriarchy is the logic that makes social hierarchy seem natural. Just as the patriarchs rule the family, the elites of the nation-state rule their citizens. Consequently, when colonists first came to the Americas, they saw the necessity of instilling patriarchy in Native communities because they realized that indigenous peoples would not accept colonial domination if their own indigenous societies were not structured on the basis of social hierarchy. Patriarchy, in turn, rests on a gender-binary system; hence it is not a coincidence that colonizers also targeted indigenous peoples who did not fit within this binary model. In addition, gender violence is a primary tool of colonialism and white supremacy. Colonizers did not just kill off indigenous peoples in this land, but Native massacres were always accompanied by sexual mutilation and rape. As I have argued elsewhere, the goal of colonialism is not just to kill colonized peoples but to destroy their sense of being people. It is through sexual violence that a colonizing group attempts to render a colonized peoples inherently rapable, their lands inherently invadable, and their resources inherently extractable.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1350897193 H H Brown

    The best article I’ve read in a long while. Thanks so much.

  • Adam Dickson

    Thanks very much for this follow-up article, particularly because I was just reading the first part of your series yesterday, so the issue is fresh in my mind.

    I am highly intrigued by the idea that human sexuality needs to be “untamed,” and perhaps liberated from the suppressive norms we find in more conservative models. With that said, I do have some questions and concerns. You present a very balanced and reasoned account of what a responsible yet liberated “communal” sexual ethic may look like, but do you believe that polyamory is something which could be responsibly and morally practised? As distorted are the ways in which some conservative-minded Christians have interpreted Biblical passages on sexual morality, it does seem as though sexual morality was important in the minds of the Biblical writers even if they didn’t completely agree. For example, I can see that Paul’s warning against prostitution and his according encouragement for the “sacredness” of marriage in 1 Corinthians 6 was highly counter-cultural in a time and context when sex was seen as a commodity and merely a tool for casual leisure. In that sense, his perceivably “conservative” stance on sexual relationships could also be seen as counter-imperial.

    Undoubtedly, we live in a different time and culture, that much goes without saying. However, we do see the harmful effects of more liberalised sexual relationships: broken familes, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, promiscuity, etc. In your minds, how can an “untamed” sexual ethic address those problems without falling into the same worldly patterns of brokenness and self-destruction?

    I do like the idea that the content of a sexual relationship is more important than its form, but I also believe it’s important to remember that marriage is, from a Christian perspective, a covenant commitment. Whether that covenant commitment has been appropriated by empire is a different matter; to Christians, it has significance. Shouldn’t, therefore, the ultimate end of any relationship be a monogamous, covenant commitment between only two people? Ergo, marriage?

    Please take these as loving questions from a fellow searcher on the way :)

    God’s blessings!

    • Anonymous

      Hi Adam-thank you for these points. They are akin to my own as I have thought about sexuality in general. I particularly want to affirm your point about Paul. After doing some research on sexuality during the time of Paul, I get really frustrated by the ways in which his theology are misunderstood and mis-characterized. The fact is that in Paul’s time a lot of the things we consider to be conservative and oppressive actually drew people to the church in large numbers (especially women). For example, in a culture in which marginalized groups were used by others for sexual pleasure Paul’s emphasis on celibacy for example was very attractive. I just wish that we would at least acknowledge that much of Paul was indeed liberating and counter-cultural in these conversations.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Adam-thank you for these points. They are akin to my own as I have thought about sexuality in general. I particularly want to affirm your point about Paul. After doing some research on sexuality during the time of Paul, I get really frustrated by the ways in which his theology are misunderstood and mis-characterized. The fact is that in Paul’s time a lot of the things we consider to be conservative and oppressive actually drew people to the church in large numbers (especially women). For example, in a culture in which marginalized groups were used by others for sexual pleasure Paul’s emphasis on celibacy for example was very attractive. I just wish that we would at least acknowledge that much of Paul was indeed liberating and counter-cultural in these conversations.

    • Greg W

      Hi Adam:

      I agree with you on much of this – especially, like Nekeisha, about St Paul’s writings on sex and their historical context – however, I would like to make a point about Polyamory.  While I do not practice polyamory or believe that it is compatible with what the bible says about sex, I do think that we need to be clear when we are talking about it instead of simply falling into stereotypes that prevent us from getting at the real issues.

      Polyamory is not about resisting and giving up all rules about sexuality in favor of a “free love” system where everyone simply does what they want.  Actually, it is quite the opposite.  Polyamory seeks to create new, often stricter, rules and norms surrounding sex in order to avoid falling into the oppressive patterns around us.  For example, people in poly relationships seek to be much stricter about consent – and therefore about honesty, communication and negotiation (in short all the things that we would associate with “faithfulness” in our relationships) – than more normative patterns of sexuality would dictate.

      Ultimately, polyamory is about creating voluntaristic, non-coercive and therefore non-violent sexual relationships by replacing the patterns of control and domination with patterns of mutual respect and self-giving love.  To me, this sounds a lot like the image of marriage that we are given in the Bible – mutual and voluntary subordination that allows both parties to be truly human with one another.  While I do not believe that Christians can practice polyamory in the sense of having multiple partners at once or engaging in sex outside of the sacramental and covenantal relationship of marriage, I also think that we have a lot to learn from our poly brothers and sisters about how to re-form our sexuality so that it better incarnates the cross of Christ.

  • Anonymous

    I love that you pointed out the connection of paterfamilias and civilizations.  In hope, that by pulling out the brick of patriarchy the whole wall of civilization will crumble.  I think conservative/right pundits are correct when they say attacks on the sanctity of [heterosexual] marriage is an attack on their very way of being, their whole civilization.  

    Also, I’m grateful for the sobering second to last paragraph, warning of the danger in creating new normative identities, from those of us identifying as queer (which is especially dangerous for this white dude). 

    I’m so glad y’all are writing these.  

  • ric hudgens

    Two of your central paragraphs on embodied experience, touch and the sense reminded me of this passage from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous: 

    “There is an intimate reciprocity to the
    senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we
    lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the
    terrain gradually tunes us in turn. The senses, that is, are the primary way
    that the earth has of informing our thoughts and of guiding our actions. Huge
    centralized programs, global initiatives, and other ‘top down” solutions will
    never suffice to restore and protect the health of the animate earth. For it is
    only at the scale of our direct, sensorial interactions with the land around us
    that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the
    living world.  Yet at the scale of
    our sensing bodies the earth is astonishingly, irreducibly diverse. It
    discloses itself to our senses not as a uniform planet inviting global
    principles, but as this forested realm embraced by water, or a windswept
    prairie, or a desert silence. We can know the needs of any particular region
    only by participating in its specificity – by becoming familiar with its cycles
    and styles, awake and attentive to its other inhabitants.”

  • Anonymous

    Dear Donna,

    So I read the National Geographic article “Too Young to Wed”.  Can you please help clarify to me how you understand this cultural practice?  I am having a hard time finding a way to blame Western colonization for what seems to be a very indigenous practice.  Do you think there are any indigenous practices, excluding those that are Jewish and/or imperial Christian, that need to be stopped?  Do you think that the work in Yemen should be toward ending the tradition of child marriages or simply delaying the impregnation of these children through the use of the pill?  I mean if the 11 year old bride’s parents want her to get married (the decision is very communal) and she agrees (she’s 11 so why wouldn’t she just follow her parents wishes?) and the pill limits the scientifically-proven risks associated with child birth at that age then there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the situation if your statements above are true (please correct me if I am wrong).  Or is it better to tell National Geographic to not do these stories because those outside Yemen should not judge those within it?

    Also, how is consent and mutuality not, at its foundation, individualistic?  If the individual must consent and the act of sex must be mutually agreed upon by more than one individual then it seems to uphold a value of the individual to make decisions on yes and no.  Consent and mutuality seem to be irrelevant to the very indigenous practice of child marriage in certain communities in Yemen.

    • kissmith

      I think most of us can agree that children cannot truly consent to sex at that age. We are speaking here, of adults, not children who are married off to adults. This is a different and very worthy conversation, one that needs a lot of thought and tenderness.

      • Anonymous

        The particulars of arranged marriages between children and adults might need to be reserved for a different discussion, but I do have questions around consent that I think are pertinent (or at least I hope they are). You say “I think most of us agree that children cannot truly consent to sex at that age”–and I agree. But I wonder how we have determined that. Is that a biological fact or is it a culturally determined practice? And if it is the latter and a community chose to defy that culturally determined practice by considering children of age 11 to be able to offer consent as part of their understand of re-wilding their sexualities, how does that fit or not fit with this framework Liza and Chelse are proposing? Is it simply up to individual communities to decide? And where does the idea of the Body of Christ, in which we are not all just bodies in communities–but are (at least theoretically) supposed to be bodies that are connected to one another in a witness to something bigger than either our communities or our individual selves, fit in with all of this?

        On the one hand, there is a call to “wild” our sexualities–a concept that I am admittedly still struggling to get a good handle on as far as what it means in theory and practice. And yet you also made definitive statement about who can and who cannot choose to participate in this wilding based on a kind of common kind of sense understanding (that is certainly not shared by everyone, I am sure) that sexual activity between a consenting adult and a consenting 11 year old, or between two consenting 11 year olds is probably not something to celebrate. I guess what I am trying to lift up is that even a wild sexuality is necessarily bounded–in the same ways as what I am assuming would be referred to as “sex-negativity” is bounded, albeit less rigidly. I think Liza and Chelsea are already acknowledging that by saying “accountability, humility, reciprocity, inter-dependency, confession and forgiveness” should be central to a holy queering. But I am not sure the term “wild” or even “sex-positive” communicates that there are indeed limitations–and that some of these limitations would not be that different from the limitations of Western sexuality from which it is trying to escape.

        I think the other thing I wanted to wrestle with is the limitations of consent. While it is absolutely necessary for preventing things that are obviously non-consensual like rape and sexual abuse, it really doesn’t speak to people who are developmentally disabled for whom determining when consent is actually consensual can be a challenge. I bring this up in part because ablism was mentioned as one of the forms of oppression that we need to overcome and because of my time working with adults who had different abilities mentally and physically. One of the notoriously tricky things to sort through was sexuality among participants. What does consent between a “higher functioning” adult and a ‘lower functioning” adult look like? How do you determine when someone has consented or when someone has not consented? How do you determine whether the consent was based out of full knowledge of what s/he would be participating in and not? Granted consent is not the only thing the authors are calling us to consider and it is probably not the biggest issue facing he kinds of communities represented here. But I think the underlying still questions has relevance if we admit that many of us are broken spiritually and in other ways, and that this too colors what it means to give consent to one another or even how we understand what is mutual and what isn’t. Ranting and thinking out loud here as someone who is seeking
        to be open but also as someone who is not yet convinced.

        • Greg W

          Hi Nekeisha

          While it is less relevant to the specific question of consent and issues of ableism, one resource that I have found helpful in terms of defining consent in other arenas is Jacqueline Friedman’s concept of “Enthusiastic Consent” which she articulates in her book YES MEANS YES…here’s a link to the website.


          I think that Friedman’s idea of broadening our idea of consent beyond simple “yes” and “no” to include things like emotion, body language etc might help us to answer some of these questions…actually, come to think of it, it could very well be relevant to issues of ableism, since it expands qualifications for consent into areas that are not limited to “mentally competent” people.

          Never mind – this comment might be relevant after all ;)

  • Greg W

    Great article!

    I was wondering: especially given the emphasis here on individual communities developing their own norms for sex-positivity, how are Christian communities to balance the need for sex positive feminism in the context of Western culture with the long history that celibacy has as a liberating technology in Christian circles over the last two millenia?  The previous article pointed out the liberating function of Jesus’ celibacy.  That legacy has continued in the form of celibate, often monastic or semi-monastic communities from the cult of St Thecla to the Beguines and continues to be incarnated by similar communities today?  In short, what role can “wild” celibacy play in sex-positive Christian communities?

    • kissmith

      What a great question! I’m so interested to hear what others have to say on this, as it is something I think about often. Of course, it is so possible to be sex-positive and celibate, but I wonder what some deeper thought about this would bring up.

  • kissmith

    This was fantastic! Thank you so much for this article. It was really refreshing to read something this articulate and thought provoking. I really enjoyed the pieces connecting liberal individualism, sexuality and colonialism and the part in which you discussed different communities having different ways of defining “sex-positive” based on need and circumstance. That seems to be so so important, as so much of the debate on sexuality seems to be people feeling that their own choices are being invalidated.

  • Anonymous

    Sex and Marriage… the first century… Jesus… Paul.

    Back in the olden days our Old Testament studies teachers always introduced us to the “Honor/Shame” based social systems which stand behind the biblical record.  In this understanding the 10 Commandments are essentially property rights accorded to God and male humans.  These property rights protected the integrity and honor of both God and men.  The cultural advance in the Torah was that honor/shame were codified, standards of judgment established, punishments qualified and quantified.  Previously tribal standards prevailed with erratic results.

    In this system marriage is a transfer of property (a woman) from father to husband.  When husbands died the woman became the property of her eldest son.  The “pre-born” in the womb was the property of the husband.  Adultery was a violation of the property rights of a man.  Rape was the violation of the property rights of a father.  Polyamory was acceptable for any man so long as he engaged with a free woman (with no father, husband or son whose honor would be compromised) and therefore “a free woman” was synonymous with prostitute in biblical times even if she did not engage in the profession!
    So this is the dominant context from which Jesus comes when talking (critically) about sex, marriage, etc.

    Sexual immorality was generally considered a family problem in Hellenistic cultures like Greece and Rome.  Rarely do we find much government intervention through legal statute.  Then around 17 BC Augustus Caesar decides that Roman morals need a make-over and promulgates the first statutes making adultery (among free citizens) illegal.  Now this only deals with adulterous behavior between Roman citizens, protection of integral reproduction and inheritance, and encouraging reproduction and discouraging non-religious celibacy among the social elites.  Sexual exploitation of slaves, heterosexually and homosexually, was still quite acceptable.  A general “unwilding” of sex is taking place in the Gentile world in which Paul is proselytizing.  It is hardly likely that he, a Jew and conscientious Roman citizen, would have advanced radically unconventional norms.  Further Paul is in a certain sense building on that cultural shift and in the context of a world that will anyway be consumed by the wrathful judgment of God.  His counsels on marriage and celibacy and social relations must be read as provisional ethical compromises for a brief interim period INSIDE the Christian community while it awaits the quickly coming end… he might have written differently had he known that his brief quickly written letters would be all we would have to live on for 2000 plus years!

    It is clear (to me at least) that the sum and substance of the teaching of Jesus is that human relations are to be without any element of selfishness, self-centeredness, self coercion, manipulation, shaming, violence, domination, intimidation, and resentment.  Each and every relationship must be judged by these standards.

    The Radical Jesus teaches us that we can do this NOW and not in the great by and by when patriarchy is overthrown, when the more newer more better more just “archy” is established on earth.  

    It seems to me that you are calling for a rebirth of a provisional sexual ethic that stands between aggressive individualism (sex as free market consumption) on one extreme and aggressive collectivism (sexual exploitation by the sexually empowered)) on the other. An ethic that balances freedom and accountability.  Embraces and affirms both conscience and communion.  All good things.

    I guess for me the project begins with taking absolute and utter adult responsibility for my own sexuality which must be judged by the standards of Jesus as mentioned above.  Only I can know when I am acting as aself-centered being or acting as a being who is a centered self.  Only I can know the motives which animate my choices and behavior.  It is neither my place nor within my power to judge the sexual contents of another’s relationships.  My one and only job is to accept absolutely whoever stands before and with me as they are, and what they hold sacred, without judgment.  Please note I did not say without question!  No one is accountable to me.  I do not wish to belong to a community which expects adults to be accountable to the group.  To me this is just a more politically correct and sophisticated adaptation of the honor/shame based value system which creates insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, “us” and “them.”  Just another form of Ecclesiarchy.

    Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  Jesus loved us absolutely without limit and without condition and without accountability… accountability, humility, reciprocity, inter-dependency  are the consequences— not the pre-conditions of the love which WE are to have for OTHERS even when they, perhaps especially when, they don’t love us or are indifferent to us.

    Sorry for the length of this very provisional rambling and thank you for your thoughtful submission.

    • Anonymous

      A general “unwilding” of sex is taking place in the Gentile world in  which Paul is proselytizing.  It is hardly likely that he, a Jew and  conscientious Roman citizen, would have advanced radically  unconventional norms.

      A question here but what are you basing this on exactly? From the albeit limited reading I did on this for a seminary class, the early Christian communities stances on sex and sexuality were deeply threatening to the Gentile society around him and non-normative–and attractive to at least some of the most vulnerable sexually within the society. One second century apocryphal text that sheds some light on this is The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which tells the story of a young woman who, upon hearing Paul’s call to abstinence, leaves her fiancee, remains a virgin and becomes a follower of Paul. Thecla is then sentenced to burning (which she is miraculously saved from), martyrdom and an attempted gang rape for vowing to remain a virgin. Although this is a noncanonical story, it does reflect what Elaine Pagels, author of Adam, Eve and the Serpent observes about Greco Roman culture, which is that “a young man or woman who hesitated or refused to marry the person chosen by his or her family would be considered insubordinate or possibly insane.” (80). Given that 1) marriage was seen as a symbol of the harmony of the Roman Empire and 2) said empire was facing a very significant population decline among both slaves and citizens that worried, a religion that preached that celibacy was the preferred state would have been deeply threatening to a society dropping in numbers due to plagues, low fertility rates, abortion and infanticide, and a number of things.

      So yes, Paul’s teaching about celibacy was most certainly unconventional for the religious society around him. I think it was also probably non-normative for at least some Jewish sects whose laws were specifically geared toward living chaste lives within marital covenants. It should also be said that women in particular were especially drawn to Paul’s teaching on celibacy and marriage, particularly because of the ways it gave them agency (including freedom of movement via Christian communities) within the patriarchal Greco-Roman society. It should also be said that Paul’s belief that all this would soon expire bears little difference on how radical or not his teachings were from the standards around him. I would recommend  The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark (written by a sociologist who I don’t recall being Christian” and The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity for those seeking more information on this.

      It is clear (to me at least) that the sum and substance of the teaching  of Jesus is that human relations are to be without any element of  selfishness, self-centeredness, coercion, manipulation, shaming,  violence, domination, intimidation, and resentment.  Each and every relationship must be judged by these standards.

      Again I have to disagree. There are at least three direct teachings attributed to Jesus on marriage and they are most certainly not limited to these good but nevertheless vague principles. There is Matthew 5:31-32 (which exceeded in its strictness both Jewish and Gentile teaching at the time); Matthew 5:8 (which sees divorce as a capitulation to humanity’s sinfulness) and Matthew 19:10-12, which also prioritizes celibacy (and some say also affirms monogamous marriage though I don’t know the breadth of interpretations to gauge whether this is true). Some of these we have already downplayed within the Christian tradition, but it seems to me only fitting to acknowledge and wrestle with what Jesus actually said on the matter and not just cull together principles, well meaning as they are.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the recommended readings. 

        I will need time to digest your response.   I will reflect and get back to you.  Please know that I really appreciate your willingness to shed light to what is not an easy thing for me to understand.

        • Anonymous

          No problem j2p…sorry for the lengthy post back. I know that can be daunting. I have just been giving this stuff a lot of thought lately and your post reminded me of the paper I wrote a while back :)

          • Anonymous

            First I must caution you that I have a tendency to reduce and extrapolate.  I often write bold and sweeping statements because fora like this really force one to reduce ones thoughts in ways that would never pass muster in an academic environment.  There may be things which I write which may appear to be pulled from thin air but please trust that they are not.  

            When you confronted my statement about Paul not advancing “radically unconventional norms” the operative word, and the one needing qualification is radically.  What I say here is drawn from the general world of New Testament studies.  1.) There is a contrast between the internal life and order of the Pauline communities and what is considered normative in the social context in which these communities emerged.  2.)  The ethical teachings of Jesus and Paul are clearly of two types: a.) the way the Jesus communities serve as a realization of the eschatological ethics of the kingdom of God principally by following the teachings and example of Jesus; and b.) the practical “domestic” ethics of living now while they wait for the “any day now” expectation of the end of the world.  This second layer of ethical development is reflected in Paul, the editors who redacted the sayings of Jesus, and other non-canonical sources.  Some refer to some of these ethical “developments” as emergency legislation responding to unexpected situations and potentially disruptive of the good order of the communion. (Scandal prevention and damage control!)  Others see some of it as interim or provisional guidance answering practical struggles with living in the gap between now and the end.  (Working out salvation with fear and trembling.)  Some sayings of Jesus are softened and qualified… others tightened and made less flexible depending on the experience and needs of the communities from within which the documents are being generated.

            The proclamation of Paul’s message was fairly brief, concise and to the point.  ”Hurry! hurry! Step right up!  The end of the world is coming in which God will judge all men and women and those who are found to be righteous by God will be given a life of eternal blessedness and union with God and those found to be unrighteous will be doomed to eternal loss.  Jesus, who was killed, resurrected and has ascended to the heavens has provided the means of obtaining saving righteousness and avoiding eternal loss.  If you trust in Jesus and live as he commanded you will be saved when the end comes and, my brothers and sisters, the end is coming soon!.  Come on down!  Don’t miss this chance!  Tomorrow may be too late!”  He would support his message with the Hebrew prophets when reaching out to Jews and speak in more philosophical terms when addressing Greeks for whom the prophets were either unknown or of marginal authority or interest.

            Absent from Paul’s work is any attempt to really familiarize his gentile prospects with Judaism on any level let alone practice even the most rudimentary Jewish beliefs and rituals except to mock and even condemn the “retrograde” tendencies of the ecclesiarchy in Jerusalem.  Christians were able to have faith in Jesus and never take a class in Judaism 101.

            Also absent from his message is anything which would necessarily appeal “to the sexually vulnerable” because the sexually vulnerable would have considered their vulnerability to be normative or not something to be resisted.  It was radical for the Pauline communities to have unrelated men and women gathering in the same space.  How many slaves were included in the Pauline communities whose masters were not also members?  Probably few if any.  The concept that the Pauline communities empowered the vulnerable and marginal to make unconventional choices without the approval of their families and masters is a projection of our own contemporary values back in time.    If a father believed the end was coming he might support a daughter’s inclination to remain celibate but it is highly problematic that the daughter of an unbeliever could assert such a decision. INSIDE the Pauline community there was a radical experience of equality and a “living out” of Kingdom values.  But life outside probably remained pretty much unchanged.  Just like today we attend the ecclesiarchal gathering of our choice and may have wonderful spiritual experiences of acceptance and communion but come Monday we are still living in and with the oppression of an unredeemed and irredeemable world.  The majority of women in the Christian community were probably related to male members of the community or probably (far more rarely) permitted membership by a controlling male within her family group.

            “It should also be said that women in particular were especially drawn to Paul’s teaching on celibacy and marriage, particularly because of the ways it gave them agency (including freedom of movement; freedom from childbearing which was particularly dangerous in those days and not under their control; freedom to retain their property) within the patriarchal Greco-Roman society.”

            This I think is problematic at least in the social and historical context of Paul’s teaching.  I think again this is a backward projection of our way of seeing things.  This notion of agency (freedom of movement, freedom from child bearing, etc.) could only exist in a space provided by, and with the consent of, the controlling males of any Greco-Roman woman.

            The Roman Catholic Church’s idealization of celibacy and it’s promotion through religious orders was an attractive, and socially acceptable and highly conventional, option especially for aristocratic and educated women from the middle ages forward.  I know many lesbians of a certain age who chose the option of vowed celibacy as a way of escaping the societal expectations of marriage and practicing heterosexuality.  But in the Pauline communities the radical freedom experienced (fore-tasted)within the church did not empower counter cultural choices outside the church.

            Additionally there were two types of anti-christian propaganda in the pre-Christian Empire.  Unfortunately all of the well articulated criticisms of Christianity, and justifying legal sanctions and persecution, were destroyed by the Ecclesirachs who were not interested in having any textual evidence of their enemies arguments.  It is hard to gage therefore what the real interest was in stemming the growing tide of Christianity.  The first type of propaganda and the earliest were actually accusations of sexual immorality, cannibalism, incest, and the promotion of anti-family values.  This kind of “street propaganda” is quite pedestrian and are the familiar calumnies that bigots foment against any target of their irrational hatred or fear in all times.  The second sort of anti-Christian propaganda which came later was much more philosophical and sophisticated and centered on the irrationality of the whole Christian system of beliefs and values.  Resurrected demi-gods, virginal conceptions, eschatological fantasies, “pride which rivals the pride of Jews” and a refusal to participate in the political life of the community and take up arms to defend against enemies were the accusations these government sponsored critics hurled at Christians.  In short insufficient patriotism.

            Concerns over diminishing birth rates, and concern over celibacy (the practice of which was diminishing within the early Church anyway) was probably of marginal if any interest to civic leaders.  In Paul’s time because the Christian community was insignificant in size and later because the practice of permanent celibacy had diminished and in some places disappeared even among the clergy.  Again while there may be validity in such a thesis it seems again like a backward projection and while superficially reasonable not supported by what remains of the documentary evidence from that time.  I have no way of knowing this but I wonder if the decline in eschatological expectations led to a gradual disinclination toward celibacy as a viable option for most Christians?You see I come to this forum unarmed.  My formal theological education ended a quarter century ago and although i try to stay abreast of the latest trends in academic theology it is difficult, and expensive, to keep up.  Also it is my custom to donate my books to church libraries once I am certain I am “done” with them.  Therefore I have no ready supply of books at my command to deploy in discussions.  Much of what i am writing here is based on classes I took a long time ago.  My classes on scripture were taught by Dennis Hamm, SJ and Bruce Malina, both on the faculty at Creighton University.  

            So please bear with my faulty and fumbling exposition here.

            What do you think about the Jesus Seminar and John Shelby Spong?

            How does one become a Jesus Radical?  Is one a radical who deploys Jesus as one among many revolutionary ideological weapons or is one radicalized by an encounter with Jesus?  Both?  Neither?

            Peace, to you my sister!

          • Anonymous

            Thanks a lot for this detailed response. I’ll start by saying that when I ask folks to clarify their sources, it isn’t necessarily because I think they don’t have any. But because I think when we are dealing with topics such as these–especially when a lot of information about Paul and his sexual ethics are basically flying around–it is good to name where we are getting things from. I am often very disappointed that Paul is so demonized in the church around sexuality when some people don’t even have a clue what he did or didn’t say or what the context was in which he said it. (I see him as liberating in some ways and less so in others). So putting exchanging resources is a way to provide information. I am responding to your points that stuck out to me, but I have read and will need to re-read everything else.

            Also absent from his message is anything which would necessarily appeal “to the sexually vulnerable” because the sexually vulnerable would have considered their vulnerability to be normative or not something to be resisted…The concept that the Pauline communities empowered the vulnerable and marginal to make unconventional choices without the approval of their families and masters is a projection of our own contemporary values back in time.

            The way I am reading your statement, it is like saying that people born into slavery whose lives were vulnerable would not have considered their condition something to be resisted because it was normal. And if I am reading you right then I fail to see how such a statement could be made so definitively. I know I can’t make any definitive statements about what people felt back then either, but I don’t think that the need or desire to resist comes from the social order telling you it is okay. Women (and slaves) in the Greco-Roman society were being dominated sexually (and otherwise) by the males of the household. The male decided whether a child should live or be thrown into a heap. The male could use his slaves for sexual pleasure whenever he so chose. I don’t think that just because those conditions were normal that people did not experience trauma or that they did not desire to live free from the confines of what their master permitted. The fact that Greco-Roman society had protections against those that tried to revolt indicates that people did want and might try to at least challenge the social order. I would like to believe that hearing a message or learning about a community in which those things were not only no longer necessary but were also saving, would have been a radical message that would lead to actions not only inside the community but to actions in relation to the outside world. Paul records a slave running away from his master. Paul’s imagination about how to respond was limited back then to telling the master that he needed to accept the slave back as a brother (sadly). But the fact that the slave ran-away or that Paul had to caution people in Romans not to be “too out there” with their newfound freedom indicates that people were being unconventional in their living in ways that others outside the community might just notice. (John Howard Yoder does some work on this in this book The Politics of Jesus)

            The story of Thecla, which may or may not be “true” is not my own projection. It is one story among others about an early Christian woman being persecuted for her choice to remain celibate. Clearly she is written as making a choice that neither her family nor her fiancee approved of which led to deadly consequences. So it seems to be the case that early Christians did see this kind of resistance as a possible action for its members. The reality of persecution for followers of Jesus throughout their early history also makes your statement questionable because if people could not make unconventional choices without the approval of their families and masters, then why would Christians be seen as a threat? And how could the church grow as rapidly if they could only join with the permission of their master who would have seen Christians as atheist–a serious offense during that time? I’m not saying it isn’t possible…I do believe their are stories of households being converted. I’m just saying that to be so closed to the possibility that people live unconventionally seems to go against some of the early sources and the reality of persecution that Christians faced.

            This I think is problematic at least in the social and historical context of Paul’s teaching.  I think again this is a backward projection of our way of seeing things.  This notion of agency (freedom of movement, freedom from child bearing, etc.) could only exist in a space provided by, and with the consent of, the controlling males of any Greco-Roman woman.

            It seems to me that this is a dispute between the conclusions of our sources that I am not sure can be resolved in this space or at all since it seems to be a problem in academia in general. Stark (the author I named) does not say that celibacy or singleness was the only factor for why women were probably drawn to the church–in fact the book is fascinating in seeing all the ways the early church witnessed in unconventional ways and who it attracted. But he does name that as one of the reasons women likely joined. All I can do is direct you to it to see what you think if you are interested in engaging his (or Brown’s or Pagel’s) hypotheses further.

            I have heard of Jesus Seminar and Spong but has not attended to their work to make a judgment.

            How does one become a Jesus Radical?  Is one a radical who deploys Jesus as one among many revolutionary ideological weapons or is one radicalized by an encounter with Jesus?  Both?  Neither?

            Well we don’t have membership rules or criteria :) I can say that I see my own Jesus Radicality if you will as grounding my concerns for resisting oppression within the radical teachings and witness of Jesus who was with God in the beginning and is God and remains with God until… and seeing the anarchist political framework as a faithful way to practice kingdom living :)

          • Jacobmic

            This is a fascinating conversation.

          • http://www.jlundstrom.se Jonas Lundström


          • Anonymous

            Wonderful things to consider and again thank you for the provocative thoughts and responses.  I think we have come to a point we can both move on. 
            This morning having an unexpected day off from the sweat shop I decided to try and “catch up” on some sources/resources to 

            Our discussion, between two followers of Jesus, is so dependent on the resources of the academic-industrial complex and the various “Archies” within it.

            Sometimes I remind myself of the Pharisees asking Jesus “By whose authority do you do these things?”  And Paul’s mocking of the Corinthians “I am for Paul, I am for Apollos, I am for Cephas, I am for Christ…”

            I am for Tolstoy, I am for Ellul, I am for Eller… I am a feminist… I am a contextualist… and on and on.

            I would like to share with you a link to a “God-blogger” (my term for all of us religiously oriented passengers on the world wide web) I like his blog because he is really fun writer, quite comprehensible to an interested non-academic and he connects with a whole bunch of scholars whose works may not be familiar to you and may be of interest:


            The link goes to an entry touching on the topics we have been discussing (marriage/divorce) but I would really encourage exploring his links and resources.

            What I appreciate most and am grateful for (today) is that there is a space like this, a person like yourself, people like the authors of the above submission and readers who contribute to this forum who, in a world so hell-bent on not thinking and not reflecting, engage with issues like justice, mercy, love, peace and all those other vague principles that make life worth living.

          • Anonymous

            Good and welcome words for a thoughtful and provoking conversation. Thank you for being such a hospitable participant in the discussion :) I will have to check out the blog as well…

  • Maydayhope68

    Words like rewilding pull so deep, with so much promise. The terrible otherness in their sound and roll on the lips shows how badly we are separated from something we miss. But it seems like we only visit them in the zoo. Like mysterious nocturnal creatures we look at them in the monochromatic red lights of Paul and Rome, Moses and Origen. In the end maybe we learn more about the red lights and the intricate art of zoo construction then we ever learn about our wildness. 
    Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the attempt to grapple with the traditions behind us. The wellsprings of our colonization. I really like when an artifact is unearthed and refashioned like the authors use of the eunuch saying. Picking the pocket of the past is exciting. And of course it is the only way to speak the language of our pals who embrace the cage. But its so constant. Why this forging of a first century license to let our living heart beat according to its own deeply felt rhythms. Does it it feel like this to anyone else? I want the authors to know I like what these articles approach. They should feel welcome to write without license. Maybe they do. What do I know but I wish our imaginations could have a night out of the red lights, outside the bars. I would like to see where we would head.

  • Derek

    I look forward to these every month. You two are my new favorite writers! 

  • Chelsea

    Dear friends,

    For our next posting, we are hoping to respond to people’s requests for more specific details and examples by sharing anonymous stories from people of diverse sexualities and gender identities. In this way we can highlight the (often invisible) diversity that exists in our communities/movements, while providing multiple and contextual answers to the questions we posed in our last posting: What would an accountable and anti-oppressive collective project around sexuality look like in your community? What does “sex-positivity” mean to you and yours?

    If you are willing, we would be most grateful if you would send us one to two hundred words answering these questions from your experience. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive answer in such a small space, but just an illustration of one of the things in your heart regarding this subject. We encourage you to describe your past experiences in community in a general, not specific way, as these things have tended to lead to argument/analysis in this forum; but rather to describe your vision of what could be with details and/or hypothetical examples.

    Because the Jesus Radicals blog does not qualify as safespace, in our next post we will present all the submissions as anonymous, with only the only identifier being your self-selected gender, sexual orientation, and current relationships form/status (so please send those to us as well). Please also share the other aspects of your identity that affect your experiences (race, class, nationality, etc) in the narrative itself. We will keep everything you share with us (the two authors) strictly confidential.

    Please let me know if you have any questions and if you would like to participate in this! Also feel free to forward to personal friends and contacts; submissions should be emailed to chelsea@lovarchy.org. The deadline is July 20 (in just one week, sorry–remember, nothing has to be perfect so just dash something off, from the heart!!)

    Many thanks,

    Chelsea (and Liza)

    • Anonymous

      This sounds like a really great way to bring other voices into the conversation Chelsea and Liza. Thanks.

  • Lovedove88

    Great article! Hi Liza I do we know each other from Metro Hope Church in Harlem? -Onleilove

    • liza mb

      sure do! it’s great to “see” you here….hope you’re well!! liza

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