Should Sophie Run?

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Should Sophie Run?

Let me introduce you to my daughter, Sophia.  She is 21 and she loves to run.  In high school she astonished everyone when she showed up as a senior and qualified for the state cross country meet.  Later that year she tried track too, and quickly became a leading scorer for her team, often winning the 1500 and the 800.  Now she just likes to run.  Sophie’s early morning run is her one pure moment of freedom each and every day.  Sophie has autism and cognitive disabilities.  There are not many adult things she can do on her own, where she is in charge and free to decide for herself.  But on her morning run she is free.  She knows the neighborhood.  She can turn right when she feels like turning right.  She can take the hill when she feels like taking the hill.  Down the hill?  Sure, why not?  For most of her day, Sophia’s life is fairly constricted and controlled.  But she starts every day completely free.

Until today.  Today we woke up to reports from around the country of agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweeping through neighborhoods, stopping people as they walked, and setting up check points to catch out undocumented immigrants for deportation.  For most of us, this is a remote story.  I am a white, male, professional-looking guy.  If I were to come upon a checkpoint, I could just show my driver’s license and go on my way.  But if my skin were brown and my hair black, I would need more.  I would need to prove that I am a legal resident of this country.  I travel, so I have a passport.  If I needed to, I could carry it with me.  But do you have a passport?  Do you have an official copy of your birth certificate?  Do you have any papers you could show a police officer to prove that you are a legal resident of this country?  Today, if you have brown skin and black hair, you had better get a passport and a copy of your birth certificate or naturalization papers and carry them with you.  If you look like an immigrant, you have to be able to prove on a moment’s notice that you are a legal resident.

Sophia is not white.  She is Roma.  She has golden skin and black, silken hair.  Most people around here—even people we know—assume that she is Mexican, Central American, or perhaps from somewhere in the Middle East.  What if she were to encounter an ICE team working our neighborhood on one of her morning runs?  Could she prove that she is a legal resident?  She speaks a very simple, halting English and is easily confused.  She wouldn’t be able to give her address, let alone carry on a conversation.  She might panic.  She would cry.  How would an ICE agent interpret all of this?  A young woman, probably Mexican, poor English, probably a recent immigrant, nervous, upset.  What then?  Would she be arrested?  How would we know?  ICE would transport her for processing to a city 200 miles away.  How long would it take us to find her?  Would she be afraid?  Would anyone figure out who she is?  Would we reach her before they put her on a plane to wherever they guessed she was from?

Sophia’s world, and ours, suddenly changed this week.  It changed because she has dark skin and black hair.  That’s a fact.  From now on, she needs to stay close to her white parents, who can produce the documents and clearly explain things on her behalf.  If she were white, we would not have this problem.  That’s a fact.  And this is what is fundamentally wrong and un-American about our current immigration policy and its enforcement.  Sophia is less free today because of the color of her skin.  She is less free because of her disabilities.  She is less free because of a public policy that targets people who look like her and because she could not defend herself if an ICE agent were to apply that policy to her.

This morning we’re calculating the risks and costs of Sophia’s freedom anew.  Should she still go for her morning run?  There has always been some risk involved.  But we know our neighborhood, which includes a lot of undocumented workers trimming and blowing and primping the landscaping.  But we never thought of these men as a threat.  They are friendly, hard-working people, focused on making a living.  But when ICE comes to get them, what then?  We’ve always taught our kids to regard the police as their friends and protectors.  And now?

For now, Sophia is still out there running.  She values her freedom too much to let it go without a fight.  And we do too.  But our eyes are peeled.  And even now the neighborhood is strangely quiet.  Where are the blowers and trimmers today?  Do they know something we don’t?  Should Sophie run?

Yes, Virginia

This year our local newspaper reprinted Francis P. Church’s reply to the eternal question Virginia O’Hanlon posed to the New York Sun in 1897: Is there a Santa Claus?  If you’ve never read it, google it now.  It is well worth the 2 minutes it takes to read these 500 brilliant words.

http://www.nysun.com/editorials/yes-virginia/68502/ 

The phrase, “Yes, Virginia,” has become synonymous with believing in incredible things.  People of faith hear it as a childlike affirmation of religious belief, skeptics see it as a rhetorical slight of hand.  But it is neither.  Francis Church was a very subtle and insightful theologian.  He asked…

 

What does it mean to have faith in the modern world?  For many, religion has become something like “believing in incredible things.”  Woody Allan once quipped, “To me there's no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions.  They're all equally valid or invalid, really.”  For the skeptic, religion is all about believing in silly things, like Santa Claus, for instance.  For the true believer, it is the same.  Religious faith is belief in supernatural events and places, like heaven and hell, angels and demons, and saints, like Santa Claus.

 

But Mr. Church saw a third way.  Myths, like the Santa Claus legend, are metaphors for truly transcendent realities.  He wrote, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”  Love, generosity, devotion—these are the real transcendent things that come to life the Santa Claus legend.  Such things are real; we could not live without them.  But they transcend the world of material reality.  You cannot measure or weigh them.  Something in them even resists explanation.  But they are real.  Not all real things are material.  Love is real, and yet, only a fool would try to explain it.  Consider Church’s final paragraph:

 

“You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”  Science has its place.  But there are things that only the poets, the novelists, the prophets can explore.

 

To have faith in the modern world means trusting that things like love, justice, beauty, joy, generosity, hope do exist.  They are real.  And life without them would not be worth living.  Religion is best, I believe, when it endeavors to explore these things.  Religion is not “believing in incredible things.”   Religion is attending to transcendent things.

 

Christmas is full of stories, and at the center, the story, the story of Jesus’ birth.  Was Jesus born in a manger?  Did shepherds worship him? Did Magi come from afar?  No.  It’s a story.  But in that story true things come to life, things that move us to hope once again that with each new birth the power of love, justice and mercy comes to life among us in utter innocence, and that this power could change us and save us from our sins.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He loves you, and would give to you and every child in all the world the gifts that would bring you happiness and peace.  Go to sleep, Virginia, and dream of that world.  “In all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”  Go to sleep and believe that the world of your dreams might become real.

The Praying Androgynes of Corinth

This is the fifth installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  Some parts of this series originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe, visit the website of the Westar Institute. SP

 

The Praying Androgynes of Corinth

Someone posted an old picture of my family on Facebook the other day.  It was taken on a Sunday morning in (I think) 1963.  What I noticed was something you might also remember about that time, if you are old enough—the fact that all the females were wearing hats.  My mother, looking young in her early thirties, and my sisters, ages 4 and 6, too—they’re all wearing hats.  It was because we were coming from church.  Back then, all women and girls wore hats to church.  The hats were a vestige of an older idea that women were to wear a veil in church.  The hats originally had veils; the veils disappeared, but the hats stayed.  The whole practice was based on a passage in one of Paul’s letters, First Corinthians, in which the apostle says, “any woman who prays or prophecies with her head unveiled dishonors her head” (1 Cor 11:4).  Why?  Because woman was made from man, not man from woman; and woman was created for man, not man for woman (1 Cor 11:8-9).  Or if that doesn’t convince you, Paul says, “because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:10).  It never made much sense.  But… it’s in the Bible, so wear the damn hat.

It turns out, though, that it never really made much sense because Christians had been misreading this passage for centuries.  Read it for yourself sometime in context (1 Cor 11:2-15).  You’ll quickly see what Robin Scroggs saw: the passage isn’t about women, but both women and men.  If you were to read it in Greek, you would notice what Jerome Murphy O’Connor noticed: the word for veil isn’t actually present in this passage.  Paul speaks not of veiled or unveiled women, but of “covered” or “uncovered” men and women.  Then, if you read carefully all the way to the end of the passage, you might notice that the covering Paul is talking about is not a veil, but hair.  Read verses 14-15, Paul’s summary of the argument.  Clear, no?  It’s not that women were praying and prophesying without a veil, but that women and men were wearing their hair in an unusual way.  Men were wearing their hair long, not cropped short, as was the custom.  Women, whose hair was normally long, were wearing it down—not using it as a “covering.”  Paul is referring to the convention of women wearing their hair up, in a bun or often in an elaborate weave, not down and flowing.  All of this was embarrassing to Paul.  Long hair on men might have signaled that they were male prostitutes.  Long flowing hair on women, too, suggested sexual license.  What will people think?  It’s not a good argument, but it is a common one.

But the reasons for Paul’s embarrassment don’t explain why the Corinthian prophets were wearing their hair long and down around the shoulders.  I assume they weren’t running a brothel on the side.  The explanation lies in a belief, now long forgotten, that was fairly common among ancient Jews, including those who followed Jesus.  It was that when the end of the world came, everything would go back to the beginning, to Paradise, Eden.  Time would circle back and God would restore the perfection that was lost when Adam sinned.  Now, of course, it wasn’t just Adam who sinned in the Garden, but Adam and Eve.  And that’s important, for many believed that the splitting of Adam into male and female was the beginning of the end.  Had Adam remained as he was created, “in the image of God,” the whole history of sin and fallen-ness could have been avoided.  Now, here is where the idea gets interesting.  Many Jews read Genesis 1:27, where Adam is created “in the image of God,” with an emphasis on the words that come next: “male and female He created them.”  “Them?”  But there was only one person then—Adam.  So, there were versions of this text in the ancient world that actually read “male and female He created him.”  Adam was originally created both male and female.  He was, like God, androgynous.  When God would finally turn back the clock to restore in all of us the image of God lost when Adam sinned, we would all become as Adam once was, androgynous. 

What has this to do with the Corinthian prophets?  The great Yale scholar of early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, believed that this was the idea that motivated the Corinthian prophets, both male and female.  When they prayed or prophesied they wore their hair in a manner that was neither male nor female.  Add a non-descript tunic and you have prophets who are to all appearances no longer male and female, but androgynes, like Adam, praying and prophesying in the image of God.

Bizarre?  Not really.  In the history of religion priestly gender bending is actually fairly common.  Just look around you for good examples.  Male and female clergy dress exactly the same today.  In churches where women cannot serve as priests, the priests wear vestments that look a lot like dresses.  Protestant ministers wear robes modeled on academic gowns.  Never noticed that?  You would notice if it were not so.  Can you imagine the reaction if the Pope were to appear in a three-piece suit?  Now that would be bizarre.

Why this sacred androgyny?  What does it mean?  I think it symbolizes a human desire to transcend gendered existence.  That includes roles and conventions about how men and women are to act, how power is divvied up, and yes, sex.  We are animals, after all, and all animals like to procreate.  We all have desires.  And are they not beautiful, are they not good?  Surely.  And yet, sex is often also an expression of power and violence.  This also comes all too naturally, especially to the male half of the species.

The earliest known Christian statement of faith (arguably, that is) is a baptismal creed embedded in one of Paul’s early letters.  It declares that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28).  In the new community they were forming there would no longer be ethnic, class, or gender distinctions.  The very categories “male” and “female” were to disappear.  Meeks believed that the Corinthian prophets knew this tradition well, and tried to live it out, at least in worship.  In the community that used the Gospel of Matthew, men were giving it even more dramatic expression.  There are men, it says, who have “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:12), meaning they had actually emasculated themselves for a higher ideal that took them beyond gender.

Many people today think that Christianity should be associated with a strong defense of traditional gender roles.  Men are to be men and women are to be women.  But many of the earliest followers of Jesus saw gendered existence as fundamentally flawed.  They saw the distinction between male and female as the excuse for inequality and violence on a par with slavery and racism.  They even took an oath in baptism to no longer abide by its strictures.  I believe the proper term for this today is “Queer”—the “Q” in GLBTIQ.  The term is [post]modern, but the commitment to flout traditional gender roles and to embrace difference, and finally, to see something more deeply human in every person…this is ancient wisdom. 

Queer Christianity didn’t last very long.  Paul’s discomfort with it must have been widely shared.  The praying androgynes of Corinth eventually fell under a veil of modesty and were forgotten.  Perhaps it’s time to remember them, their queer creed, and their queer wisdom.

Note: The essay by Wayne Meeks referred to in this post originally appeared as “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity,” in the journal History of Religion in 1974 (vol. 13, pp. 165-209).  Among the many scholars I encounter, most still declare it to be one of the finest pieces of scholarship they’ve ever read.

Paul Hated Sex (But Thought You Should Enjoy It)

This is the fourth installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship.  SP

 

St. Paul Hated Sex (But Thought You Should Enjoy It)  

St. Paul hated sex.  I don’t mean that he hated having sex.  No one knows if the famous apostle ever had sex and whether or not he liked it.  I mean that he hated the idea of sex.  He was, by his own account, a sexual ascetic, who believed that others would benefit from this choice as well.  Sex was part of family life and involved a wife and children—things that could distract one from single-minded devotion to the Lord.  So if you can, give it up.  But if you get horny and can’t, well, go ahead, knock yourself out.  Find a wife or a husband and get to it.  That’s what it’s for (not procreation, but recreation—so says Paul, 1 Corinthians 7, no kidding).

Funny how Paul’s views about marriage and family life seldom come up in Christian discussions about sex.  Not that Christians make a regular habit of discussing sex.  Maybe this is a remnant of the famous apostle’s own perceived prudishness.  But if sex generally is a taboo subject among the faithful, gay sex is not.  Gay sex—or at least those who engage in it—is the battleground for the true believer in the 21st century.  For the evangelical, homosexuality is a sin.  Why?  For many, it is because Paul says so.

He says so in two passages, Romans 1:26 and 1 Corinthians 6:9.  But does he really say so?

1 Corinthians is a letter that Paul wrote to a cluster of churches he founded in the Greek city of Corinth.  In the sixth chapter a rather banal question seems to have come to Paul’s attention: Just how good do we have to be?  To this Paul offers a banal answer: “Wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).  He then provides a list of “wrongdoers.”  It includes what you would expect: adulterers, drunkards, thieves, etc., and then these two types: “male prostitutes and sodomites.”  Through the years modern English translators have used various words to convey what they believed was Paul’s meaning here: sexual perverts, homosexuals, homosexual perverts, or “abusers of themselves with mankind,” as the King James Bible delicately puts it.  But in truth, we don’t really know what the Greek words behind these translations mean.

The first of the two words, in Greek, is malakos, an adjective meaning “soft.”  Here it is used as a masculine plural noun, so it means something like “men who are soft.”  Would that have meant “gay?”  Not as far as we know.  It might mean something like “womanly,” since ancients generally thought women’s bodies were softer than men’s.  But ancients also thought that a lot of sex could make a man soft.  The over-sexed man was not depicted as a chiseled stud, but a foppish pansie—a “softie.”  This is why some scholars translate the word “male prostitutes.”  But prostitutes weren’t the only people who had lots of sex.  The “softies” Paul is talking about could well be the over-sexed, the horny, a man constantly “on the make.”  But softie does not mean “gay.”

The second word—the one often rendered “homosexuals”—is a very odd word.  Scholars call it a biblical hapaxlegomenon, that is, a word that occurs just once in the Bible.  It occurs rarely outside the Bible, but when it does, it is only in lists—lists of vices, like this one.  This is the sort of word that gives lexicographers headaches.  If a word is not used in an actual sentence, it is almost impossible to know what it means.  The word is arsenokoitai.  It has two parts, arseno-, which means a male human being, and koitai, which means what it sounds like: coitus.  But here is the question: are the wrongdoers in this case men (arseno-) who have sex (koitai)—presumably too much sex—or men who have sex (koitai) with men (arseno-).  In other words, is the word arsenos, folded into this word, meant to indicate a man who has sex, or a man with whom a man has sex?  (Technically, it is a question of the objective or subjective sense—but now I risk tedium.)  You get the problem.  The word itself is ambiguous and it is never used in a context that might clarify its actual meaning.  We know it has to do with sex, and that it is bad, but beyond this we can only guess.

Most people today think that a man who has sex with a man must be gay.  But ancients did not think this way.  They did not know about sexual orientation—gay, straight, or bi.  They assumed, rather, that a person’s sexual appetite could be expressed with either gender.  A person with a normal sex drive would usually have sex with a person of the opposite gender.  But people with voracious sexual appetites and weak self-control might go further and have sex with a person of the same gender—excess sex, you might say.  Same-gendered sex was not a sign that someone was homosexual.  It meant that someone was lacking in self-control.  That is how Paul thinks of same-gendered sex. 

One can see this in the other passage where Paul mentions same-gendered sex, Romans 1:26-27.  In this part of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul is ranting about the sinful lives of Gentiles.  They are so bad, he says, that God decided to “give them up to degrading passions.  Their women exchanged normal intercourse for abnormal, and in the same way men, giving up normal intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:26-27).  Notice that the men and women he is talking about here are not gay.  They are heterosexual.  But excess passion has led them to give this up and exchange “normal intercourse” for “abnormal.”  Normal sex is one thing—and bad enough in Paul’s mind.  But excess passion leads to more than this and worse—abnormal sex!  What exactly does this mean?  Excess sex—so much sex than one gender won’t do it.  One recent study has suggested that “abnormal sex” refers to anal sex (for women and men).  Anal sex was a way for women to have lots of sex without getting pregnant.  And it was a way for men to have sex with men.  To moderns, this might mean “gay sex.”  But to Paul, it just meant a lot of sex.

Paul, it turns out, did not hate gay people.  He did not yet know about gay people.  What he hated was sex.  To him, sex was just raw passion.  One ought to be able to resist it.  Sex is for spiritual sissies, he thought.  But he knew that most of us are sissies, so he made a concession.  In 1 Corinthians he writes, “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).  If Paul had known about the whole range of human sexuality, he would have despised all of that too, but perhaps no more than any other sexual expression.  Perhaps he would have said to anyone, both straight and gay: “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998).  I know of nothing better on the subject.  This post originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.

David Loves Jonathan

This is the third installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship.  SP

 

David Loves Jonathan

The Old Testament is no place for wussies.  It is filled with men like Joshua, who razed the walls of Jericho and slaughtered its inhabitants, “both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).  Sampson slaughtered an army of 1000 Philistines wielding only the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:15).  Even the Israelite women were tough.  Remember Jael, who lured the Canaanite general, Sisera, into her tent, got him drunk, laid him, and then, as he slept it off, drove a tent peg through his head (Judges 4:21).  That’s harsh.

But the toughest, cleverest, most illustrious warrior of them all was David.  Remember him?  His exploits are related in the biblical books of 1 and 2 Samuel.  In Bible School I learned that as a mere boy, David took on Goliath, a real live giant, and without sword or shield, brought him down with just a sling and a stone.  Then, as the giant lay unconscious upon the ground, David drew Goliath’s own sword and cut off his head with it.  The Bible says that when the Philistines saw this, they fled.  When I saw the color illustration of this in my Bible, I thought it was cool.  Another legend relates how David won his way into the royal family by presenting King Saul with the foreskins of 200 Philistines.  This was not illustrated in my Bible.  Eventually, David himself would become king, subdue the Philistines, and establish a kingdom that would be the symbol of Israel’s golden age for centuries to come.

But here’s something Bible School did not teach me about David, the toughest, meanest warrior-king in Israelite history.  David loved Jonathan.   Jonathan was King Saul’s son.  The Bible describes their first meeting, when David appears before Saul still carrying the head of Goliath in his hand: “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). 

The story of David and Jonathan’s love is one of the great stories of the Bible.  It is a classic tale of star-crossed lovers.  King Saul soon becomes jealous of David, because his prowess as a warrior exceeds even his own.  But Jonathan conspires with David to keep him safe from Saul’s wrath.  When Saul discovers their relationship, he explodes into an angry rage: “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!  Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Samuel 20:30).  Later, as David and Jonathan prepare to part company, the Bible describes a most tender scene: “they kissed each other, and wept with each other, and David wept the more” (1 Samuel 20:41).  The saga ends when after many months David learns that both Saul and Jonathan have fallen in battle.  His lament includes these touching lines: “I am distressed for you, my brother, Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful; surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

For many years readers of the Bible have passed over the love angle in this story assuming that the language of intimacy and affection was simply a peculiar way of describing a very close buddy-buddy relationship.  But recent studies by scholars of the Hebrew Bible like Martti Nissinen, Saul Olyan, and Susan Akerman have placed this story in its ancient context and shown that it is indeed a love story.  Akerman, in her book, When Heroes Love, compares it to the similarly charged story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Like David and Jonathan, the saga of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is a story of ancient male intimacy.  Gilgamesh is a bad king driven by rapacious sexual energy, which “leaves not the son to his father… nor the maid to her mother.”  Then, one day, mighty Gilgamesh dreams of a companion, a friend, to whom he is drawn “as though to a woman.”  And so it is when Gilgamesh meets Enkidu, the crumbled tablet upon which this fragmentary story remains spares us all the details save this: “they kissed each other and formed a friendship.”  Enkidu tames Gilgamesh and together they share many adventures—the part of the story that we all read in all the literature anthologies.

What these scholars have learned is that in antiquity there are no heterosexuals and homosexuals.  Men are generally omnisexual and can have sex with anyone, male or female.  Men were thought of in this way also in ancient Greece, where most young aristocratic men engaged in intimate relations with adolescent boys before moving on to heterosexual marriages.  Gilgamesh rapes both boys and girls.  Enkidu prepares to meet Gilgamesh by sleeping with a female prostitute.  To us this all seems odd.   Are they homosexual or heterosexual?  But not so for ancients.  Sexuality is one of the most culturally conditioned realities in the human experience.   In ancient Greece, male with male love was considered the highest form of love.  In Athens, the love of Achilles and Patroclus was celebrated as ‘an affair to remember.’   In our story, it is often wondered how David could love Jonathan, and yet still marry Jonathan’s sister, Michal (1 Samuel 18:27).  In antiquity, when heroes fall in love, it does not mean they only date men.

Ancient authors don’t generally supply lurid sexual details in their love stories, so don’t go to any of these ancient texts expecting to find explicit sexual accounts.  And any implicit sex might not be what you would imagine.   For example, ancients generally believed that a man should not be penetrated by another man—that would be to make him a woman.  Aristotle spells out for Greeks just what men can and cannot do in a legitimate love-relationship.  David and Jonathan cry together and kiss—whatever else ancient audiences might have imagined them doing is anyone’s guess.  Mine is that it would not have been a pitcher-catcher sort of thing, but something more mutual or equal.  Still, one should not think that because the story does not include an account of anal intercourse, they are not two men in love.  David loves Jonathan and Jonathan loves him back.  This is the gist of their story.  And it is one of the most celebrated stories in the Bible.

Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998).  I know of nothing better on the subject.  This post originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.

 

Sodomy

This is the second installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana, who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship.  SP

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Sodom and Gomorrah.  When you think of all the evil places on this earth, you think Sodom and Gomorrah, as in “that place is a real Sodom and Gomorrah.”  For Connecticut moms, it’s New York.  For Mormons, it’s Vegas.  For evangelical Christians, it’s San Francisco—San Francisco, the birthplace of gay rights, Queer culture, gay pride, the capital city of sodomy.

How did gay sex come to be called sodomy?  It all goes back to the Bible and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The story, in chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis, goes like this.  When the patriarch, Abraham, is camped near the Oaks of Mamre, God sends three messengers to tell him that he is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, for the sin of these cities had been very grave.  But Abraham bargains with God: would he spare the cities if 50 righteous souls could be found there?  How about 40?  30?  20?  How about 10?  Ok, 10 – if 10 righteous souls could be found there, God would spare the cities.  So off the mysterious messengers go to Sodom to find 10 righteous souls.  When they arrive at Sodom, they find Lot, Abraham’s nephew, sitting at the city gate.  He welcomes them into his home with gracious hospitality and prepares a feast.  One down, nine to go.   But before the dishes are cleared, the men of Sodom—“both young and old, everyone to the last man”—show up at Lot’s door and demand that the strangers in his house be handed over to them to be raped.  Lot tells them no and, being a righteous man, offers his virgin daughters instead.  But it is not virgins they’re after, so they storm the house.  Lot is rescued at the last minute as the angels of the Lord pull him into the house and strike the attackers blind.  The next day, Lot and his family flee the city as God destroys it with fire and brimstone.  Only Lot’s wife is lost when she gazes back at her beloved city and turns into a pillar of salt.

One might well say, no wonder they call it sodomy.  Sodom was an entire city of gay men!  But wait.  Really?  An entirely gay city in the Ancient Near East?  The Biblical imagination is larger than life, but this is too much.  No, it turns out that something else is going on in this story, something more at home in the Ancient Near East than big mean gay cities. 

The story actually turns on two common realities from the days of the patriarchs: the code of hospitality and the fear of strangers.  The first derives from the hostile landscape of the desert.  When sojourners pass by, you must welcome them, for one day it might be you wandering in the desert without food, water or shelter.  In this story, both Abraham and Lot do their duty to the stranger.

But strangers can also bring trouble.  They are, after all, strangers, among whom pass murderers and thieves undetected.  That is why when you gaze upon the ruined gates of these long-disappeared cities, you will sometimes see some peculiar symbols.  A common one is the all-seeing eye.  Pass through these gates, it says, but we will be watching you!  Another common symbol is the erect penus.  This symbol is really more common in Greece, but it exposes an important ancient sentiment.  Like the all-seeing eye, the big erect penus is an apotropaic symbol to ward of evil and evil-doers.  It says, enter, you stranger, but if you f#%k with us, we will definitely f#%k with you!

The phallic welcome sign tells us what any study of male sexuality in the Ancient Near East will reveal: that male rape is not gay sex.  It is phallic aggression.  Lot, it seems, was a stranger in town.  And now he had brought other strangers into the city with him.  Who were they?  Why had they come?  The men of Sodom surround Lot’s house not because they are horny, but because they are suspicious and aim to put the strangers in their place.  And for this, their city is destroyed.

People still call gay sex sodomy.  But it is a misnomer.  If modern usage were true to its ancient origins, sodomy would mean something like phallic aggression.  Sex as violence.  The violent side of sex is, of course, still with us.  But it is not associated primarily with gay sex.  In fact, violent sex is almost always heterosexual sex.  Even when the violence is male on male, say, in a prison setting, the structure is still heterosexual.  “Watch out,” the warden says to the new arrival, “or Bruno here will make you his girlfriend.”  What is it they call men who become passive sex objects in prison?  “Wives,” I believe it is.  Why?  In heterosexual sex, the man penetrates, the woman is penetrated.  Male rape places a man in the role of a woman.  The horror men feel about this is the horror of emasculation.  The hetero-sexist underpinnings of this feeling need no comment.

The biblical story of Sodom is not about gay sex, but sexual violence.  Sodom is destroyed not because it is the San Francisco of the Ancient Near East.  It is destroyed because it is consumed with sexual violence—heterosexual phallic aggression.  The Sodomites are not men who love men, but men who fear and hate the stranger, the outsider.  Ironic, is it not, that the infamy of Sodom is associated today with men who love men, while those who hate and fear people who seem strange and different to them claim a refuge in the Bible for their bigotry.

Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998).  I know of nothing better on the subject.  This post originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.

 

 

When a Man Lies with a Man

This is the first installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship.  SP

 

When a Man Lies with a Man as with a Woman

People today widely believe that the Bible condemns being gay.  They get this idea from, well, reading the Bible.  When most people leaf to Leviticus 18:22 in their Bibles, they read something like this: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”  In Leviticus 20:13 they find identical words, only adding death by stoning as punishment.  That seems pretty clear.  End of story.  In our early 21st century American culture, a man who “lies with a man as with a woman” is usually thought to be gay.  But the Bible was not written in our day or for our time.  These two texts were written about 2500 years ago in a time and place scholars generally refer to as the Ancient Near East.  What did it mean for “a man to lie with a man as with a woman” in the Ancient Near East?

Male-male same-gendered sex in the Ancient Near East—so far as ancient texts discuss it—had three possible meanings: domination, recreation, and religious devotion.  To understand the first, one need only think today of prison sex or war-time rape, or read the news from Syria, where male rape has recently emerged as a tool of government repression.  This new thing is actually a very old thing.  In the Ancient Near East male-on-male sex was usually seen as an act of violence.  This was (and is) not gay sex.  It was heterosexual phallic aggression.  It was generally frowned upon, unless done in a context where violence and domination were the point, as in war.  Today the practice is shocking.  In the ancient world, not so much.

Ancient Near Eastern recreational male-male sex was a similar thing.  This is something one might do with a slave or personal servant in the absence of female companionship.  It was also frowned upon in some cultures, who viewed it as exploitative and demeaning to the man or boy who was forced to play the role of “woman” in such sexual activity (note the inherent sexism).  To lie with a man “as with a woman” pretty much captures the point.  Men were supposed to be men, not women.  Men pitch; they don’t catch.  Gilgamesh is a good example.  The chief shortcoming of the ancient king of Ur was his voracious sexual appetite, which he satisfied with women, daughters, and sons—no one was safe.

In the Ancient Near East, male-male sex can also have a religious meaning.  Sex as religious devotion is an odd concept for most of us, but it was not so for ancients.  The Ancient Near East is a dry place.  Agriculture there is a critical, but precarious undertaking.  Consequently, agriculture attracted a good deal of religious attention.  Fertility gods were common, as were fertility rituals.  Sometimes this involved ritual sexual activity with male priests, who, like the gods they represented, were thought to be androgynous—that is, both male and female.  Devotees believed that by planting one’s seed in such a priest, one could ensure the fertility of the earth for another year.  Odd to our ears?  Yes, but other peoples’ religion often seems odd to outsiders.

None of these meanings depended upon the homosexuality of the participants.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  All depended on the assumption that the initiator of the act was acting in the very heterosexual role of male.  A man could dominate another man by buggering him, thus forcing him into the subordinate role of female.  That is why it is permitted to rape one’s enemies at the end of a battle, but not to bugger one’s slave.  In the first, violent aggression is part of what the soldier signs on for.  In the second, you’re just taking advantage.  In the case of ritual sex, the devotee is seen as performing the heterosexual male role of planting his seed in another, in this case a man re-imagined as part-female.  So, was there actual gay sex in the Ancient Near East?  Probably.  But it is never discussed in the surviving literature.

What meaning, then, did the sex acts referred to in Leviticus have?  Theoretically it could have been any of the three: domination, recreation, or religious devotion.  Most scholars think it was the last of these.  This is because of the word used to condemn it: abomination, in Hebrew “to (ebah.”  This word is often used in contexts where religious offense is involved.  And this section of Leviticus, known to scholars as the Holiness Code, is all about steering clear of foreign religious and cultural practices.  So it probably means, don’t engage in sex with a foreign priest, but we cannot be sure.  It might mean, don’t bugger your slave.

But we can say very clearly what it does not mean.  It does not mean don’t fall in love with another man and have intimate sexual relations with him.  Male-male sex just did not have that connotation in the Ancient Near East.  Male-male affection is not unknown in that place and time.  A famous example from the Bible is the close relationship between Jonathan and David depicted in 1 and 2 Samuel.  David says of Jonathan, “Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).  And yet, the account of their relationship never mentions sex.  Male-male sex in the Ancient Near East does not mean “I love you.”  It means “I own you.”  Today, of course, it is different.  Male-male sex can mean “I love you.”  To such a thing Leviticus offers no comment.

Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998).  I know of nothing better on the subject.  This post originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.

Three Myths of Easter

When it comes to the death and resurrection of Jesus, most believers have a little trouble knowing just what to believe.  What really happened to Jesus?  Why was he killed?  And are we supposed to believe that he really, truly rose from the dead?  How much of this is myth and how much of it is history?  Myth?  As in fairy tale?  No.  Myth, as in the stories we tell ourselves when the meaning of history isn’t clear.  Myth, as in the stories by which we live when we need inspiration and conviction.  Myths aren’t lies, but they aren’t history either.  So, what are the myths in the Easter story and how shall we take them?

Myth #1: Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

Here is a myth you really can’t take literally.  No one wants a God who relishes human sacrifice, really.  So, what does this myth mean?  It comes originally from ancient ideas about martyrdom.  When someone died for what they believed in, it was common to characterize that death as a sacrifice.  We still use this expression today.  Martin Luther King sacrificed his life for the cause of civil rights, for example.  Actually, he was gunned down by someone who hated him and the whole idea of civil rights.  This was true of Jesus too.  He was arrested by Roman authorities and executed for sedition.  So what was his cause, the thing for which he sacrificed his life?  He talked about a new empire, the kingdom of God, we say, in which the beggared poor are blessed, the hungry fed, and where the last become first and the first last.  He advised people to care for one another, to refrain from judging others, and to love even one’s enemies.  Some of this is seditious, some of it isn’t.  The point is, this is what he died for.  So, would this save us from our sins?  Yes, most of them—the worst ones, anyway.

Myth #2: The tomb was empty.

Here is a myth you could take literally, but what would it mean?  In the Gospel of John, Mary discovers the empty tomb and declares, “They have taken my Lord and I know not where they’ve laid him.”  An empty tomb is just a missing body.  To skeptics and opponents, and even the grieving, it means nothing.  What about the other stories of Jesus’ resurrection—that he appeared as a stranger to two people near Emmaus, then morphed into Jesus, then disappeared; that he passed through a door and appeared to his disciples, then disappeared; that he later rose up into the air—and disappeared?  Nothing but ghost stories to the unbeliever.  Historically, people did not believe in Jesus because of stories about the resurrection.  They’re just not that convincing.  Those who believed the stories, believed them because they already believed in Jesus.  What convinced them was their experience of Jesus himself, who he was, what he said, what he did, and what he stood for.  So, the point of the resurrection is not, can you believe in miracles?  The point is, can you believe in Jesus, what he stood for, what he believed in? 

Myth #3: The resurrection is Christ’s victory over the powers of death.

The traditional Easter hymns talk a lot about victory.  Victory over death, “o’er the grave.”  But I think what we hear in these hymns is usually just victory.  We really kicked ass in the religion games.  Nobody else has a resurrection.  That’s our ace of spades, which Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists just can’t trump.  Historically, however, resurrection was a pretty common thing in ancient Mediterranean religion.  Heroes, demi-gods, philosophers, poets, emperors—especially emperors—death couldn’t hold them either.  That is probably why Christianity didn’t actually take off like wild fire when Jesus' followers proclaimed his resurrection from the dead.  The resurrection claim was neither unique nor powerful.  Generations would pass before anyone noticed that there was a Jesus and that he had followers.  Centuries would pass before anyone began to think of Christianity as a legitimate religion.  And when it did gain legitimacy, it was because Constantine the Great discovered the cross as a talisman to be carried into battle.  It brought him victory in a bloody civil war and sent his foes headlong into the Tiber River.  And so the Prince of Peace finally triumphed as the God of War.  So, what was the vision of life that Jesus hoped would triumph in the end?  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God.”  And how many generations, how many centuries would it take for that vision to triumph?

Easter is not an historical fact that gives Jesus and all his followers the final victory.  It is a myth expressing the hope that Jesus’ death was not the end of Jesus’ vision, and the daring thought that the triumph of his reign of love and peace might still live out there somewhere in the near or distant future.

 

Killing Jesus

Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.
—Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, 2001

When Jesus was killed by authorities charged with keeping the Roman Pax, his friends and followers were not without cultural resources for dealing with the violent end of his life.  As they began to reflect on Jesus’ death, they soon came to see it not as a tragedy or calamity, but as an inevitable part of his life, an end fitting of the kind of life Jesus led.  They began to develop ways of speaking of the death of Jesus that would connect it with his life and draw attention to his life as decisive for their own lives.  That is why they told the story of Jesus primarily as the story of a martyr.  From Greek and Roman literature they knew the pattern of the Noble Death, in which heroes die for the cause to which they had devoted their entire lives.  In Jewish literature this idea was expressed in court tales, in which the hero remains faithful to God even under threat of death.  They died as they had lived, true to the things they believed in.  

This is how the followers of Jesus thought about his death.  His death mattered to them because his life had mattered to them.  They spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life, and reaffirmed their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds.  In his life, they had come to know God.  To the followers and friends of Jesus, his death was important in its particularity—as the fate of him who said and did certain things, who stood for something so important to him that he was willing to give his life for it.  That something was the vision of life he called the Empire of God.  They too believed in this vision of a new empire.  And if this vision was indeed God’s Empire, then the bearer of this vision was not dead.  No executioner could kill what he was.  To kill Jesus, you would have to kill the vision.  This is what the cross could not do.

When Christian believers and theologians approach the question of Jesus’ death today, these are generally not the concerns that lie close to hand.  The things Jesus said that lead to his death are not at issue.  What he lived or died for is of no concern.  The event of Jesus’ death has lost its particularity, its connection to the course of real human events that brought it about.  In this abstracted status, Jesus’ death has become for us a mythic event connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life.  As we fret over the moral and ethical failures of our lives and dread the perils and punishments that might lie beyond the grave, we are comforted by the knowledge that Jesus died “to save us from our sins.”  His resurrection assures us of our own immortality.  If Jesus came to fulfill his cosmic destiny and die on the cross so that we might be saved, then anything else he might have done in his life—his own aspirations, his own values and vision, his carefully chosen words and daring prophetic deeds—pales by comparison.  Ethics are never so important as salvation.  With salvation it is life itself that hangs in the balance, our lives, which we desperately seek to preserve, even in the face of death, whose threat confronts us all.  Thus, Jesus’ death and resurrection have become the universal saving events in which we find God’s graciousness extended even to us, hopeless sinners, who have no intention of giving up the lives we live, oblivious to the vision of human life Jesus espoused and the God he embodied.

The eclipse of Jesus’ death and resurrection in their particularity, and their elevation to the status of mythic events in a cosmic struggle, is invited perhaps by the way Paul and other early Christians placed Jesus’ death and resurrection at the center of their own traditional apocalyptic hopes.  Apocalypticism casts the struggle between good and evil in terms of a great cosmic battle, with the forces of God arrayed against the armies of the Evil One.  In Jewish apocalyptic the power and victory of God is marked by the resurrection of all those who have been slain by the forces of evil.  In the final struggle their faithfulness and sufferings are vindicated.  This is the framework in which Paul interpreted the resurrection of Jesus: he was the first fruits, the first of those countless ones slain in the struggle against evil to come back to life (1 Cor 15:20).  The resurrection was for Paul a signal, a cosmic alarm clock sounding the arrival of the final battle, which would begin any day.  But Paul and others who interpreted Jesus’ death and resurrection in this way did not detach the death and resurrection of Jesus from his life.  The cosmic battle they believed they were witnessing was being waged over a specific idea, a real cause.  The struggle in which they were engaged was the struggle for the vision of human life their crucified messiah had espoused.  For Paul, to experience the resurrection of Jesus was to become possessed by his Spirit, to share “the mind of Christ,” and to embrace the life of Christ as his own.  And Paul and others formed communities that would be the “body of Christ,” embodying the life of love and mutual care that Jesus had died for.  What he died for, they would now live for, until God would finally establish the Empire of God as the universal rule of love and justice in the world.

As time passed, however, and that first generation of friends and followers who had known Jesus and actually remembered his life passed from the scene, the connection between the particulars of Jesus’ life and the mythic structures of cosmic battle became ever more tenuous and eventually were lost.  The struggle became less and less a struggle for a particular set of values connected to Jesus, and more a clash of powers.  The power of Christ was pitted against the religion of the Jews, against the pagan gods, and ultimately against the universal foe, death itself.  One can see this already in the Apostles Creed, where the life of Jesus has been diminished to a mere comma, a blank space residing quietly between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  The elements of the Christian creed are the elements of the cosmic drama common to many ancient religious traditions: miraculous birth, death, resurrection, ascension.  Jesus became simply another of the many dying-rising savior gods of antiquity, association with whom would assure safety in this world and the next.  His table fellowship would for some become a mere dispensary for the “drug of immortality,” the pharmakon athanasias, as Ignatius would come to speak of the communion bread (Ephes. 20).  

Eventually Jesus Christ would become the greatest savior god of all.  His cross would become a logo, a talisman emblazoned on the shield of Constantine and his soldiers to protect them in battle.  Jesus became a partisan, whose name would strike fear in the heart of anyone who by chance had not been born under his sign.  In the Middle Ages his cross would become a sign of terror, before which Jews and Muslims would cringe in supplication, begging mercy from marauding hordes of crusaders, or stand in defiance only to be slain.  The symbol of weakness Paul embraced became the symbol of merciless power, where it remains today for many Christian believers.  One can see this still in its infinitely trivialized American form on any given Sunday—afternoon—where the warriors of sport pause to cross themselves as a solemn prelude to the touchdown victory dance that is sure to follow, taunting those poor unfortunates inexplicably abandoned by Jesus in their moment of greatest need.  Today the cross is for winners, not losers.

Is Jesus dead?  Not yet.  But what the cross could not do, Christians could.  We are killing Jesus.  Jesus was a sage, or if you prefer, a prophet.  Sages and prophets live by their words and deeds.  In this sense, for most of us who assemble in the name of Jesus, he is dead.  His words and deeds mean little to us, if anything at all.  We do not look to Jesus for a way of life, but for salvation.  “He died that we might live.”  Indeed.  It seems we have to kill him in order that we might live whatever lives our power and privilege will allow us to lead.  When real life is at stake, most of us will take personal salvation over the Empire of God any day.  And so we prefer our Christ crucified, a once living Jesus silenced by a higher calling.

But this was not so for the friends and followers of Jesus.  For them, the Empire of God was salvation.  They saw God’s care for them in the communities of mutual care and love founded in Jesus’ name.  They experienced the acceptance and welcome they received around the tables of the Jesus movement as redemption.  Beggars, lepers, prostitutes, and expendables of every sort—the “nothings” of the world, as Paul puts it—embraced Jesus’ Empire of God as their one great hope and longing.  And others did, too—people like Paul, who gave up lives of considerable status and importance to enter into these communities of the new Empire.  Why did they do it?  They were responding to the compelling vision of Jesus, who lived on for them, alive in their midst.  For them, this was no existential metaphor for commitment.  Jesus was really alive, spiritually present with them.  Whatever it might mean to speak thus today about Jesus—to say that he is “alive” in our midst—it must above all else mean that he somehow still offers us the vision of a new Empire, into which we are still invited in a very real way.  Apart from his words and deeds, the living Jesus would have meant nothing to those who encountered him in the private and public places of antiquity.  Neither can Jesus be alive to us apart from his words and deeds.  He is alive to us only as he was alive to them, as a real invitation into a way of life we can see reflected in his own life, and the God to be encountered there.  

 

Adapted from Stephen J. Patterson, Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus (Fortress, 2004)

 

It's Trans Sunday

Last spring one of the young men in my son’s group prom date turned up the day before the dance in a dress.  My son had promised to loan him the money for the ticket, so off they went together to the school office to buy it.  Two young men suddenly found themselves on the most daring walk of their young lives.  High school is just as tough as you remember it.  Somehow they survived it.  The next night I drove them and half a dozen other kids—gay, straight…and trans—to the prom where they stuck together and had a great time.  The times they are a-changin’.

The ‘Trans’ phenomenon is the new frontier in the long transformation of ideas and attitudes about sex and gender in our culture.  Most people find trans to be more challenging than gay, lesbian, or bi.  That’s because it goes to the heart of the matter in a way that g-l-b only implies.  When a man desires another man, it implies something different about gender, but the difference itself is left unstated.  A gay man still looks like a man; a lesbian still looks like a woman.  With g-l-b, gender roles are still, more or less, in tact.  But transgender thwarts gender roles directly, explicitly.  And that is the real issue—always.  Gender organizes our entire world. It gives us our marching orders, tells us where we fit, how much power we have, what we’ll be paid, and where to go to the bathroom.  Transgressing gender is serious business.

The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (in Mark 9:2-13; Matt 17:1-12; Luke 9:28-36) is about his transformation.  The Greek word that describes what happens to him on the mountaintop is metamorphoun.  Jesus “morphed.”  What he looks like in his transfigured state is left un-said.  His clothes become dazzling white, it says.  He glowed.  Scenes like this in early Christian literature are usually set after the resurrection, when Jesus appears to the disciples as a heavenly being, god-like, restored to divine glory and ready, now, to reveal the deepest secrets of God.  So, if the story is true to form, it means to present Jesus to the disciples transformed into the image of God.

What was the image of God like?  Very bright, for one thing.  When Moses encountered “the glory of the Lord” on Sinai it is said that his face glowed for days.  Adam, it was thought, had the image of God, that is, before he lost it in the garden.  God created him “in the image of God,” says Genesis 1:27.  What could that mean?  The rabbis thought that it meant he was really big—that his body reached into the heavens.  He also must have been dazzling bright, sharing God’s “glory.”  And they noticed that Genesis says something specific about the man created in God’s image: he was created “male and female.”  Most people who read this today assume this means that there were male and female versions of the first human.  But ancient Jews and Christians read Genesis episodically.  Eve, they knew, appears later, in Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is all about Adam.  He and he alone was created “male and female,” in the image of God, an androgyne.

Incredible?  No.  Ancient Jews and Christians actually thought quite a lot about gender and Adam and what a return to that initial moment of primordial perfection might entail.  It often involves androgyny.  Many believed that the whole history of sin and human failing began when God took the rib from Adam and created Eve—the beginning of gendered life.  Paradise would only come when gender (not women) disappeared.  In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus tells the Sadducees that in the resurrection people will no longer marry nor be given in marriage, for they will become like the angels—that is, without gender (Mark 12: 24-27).  In 1 Corinthians (11:2-16) we find Paul talking over a practice in Corinth that is best described as liturgical gender-bending, where men and women pray and prophesy with hair long and flowing, so that no one can tell who is male and who is female.  And in Matthew (19:10-12) we learn that there were followers of Jesus who embraced the ideal of genderless life so fully that they chose to become “eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven”—castrati for Christ.

All of this reflection on gender has roots that run deep into the very origins of Christianity.  The oldest Christian baptismal creed includes it.  That creed, embedded in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, went like this:  “You are all children (literally: sons) of God in Christ…. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female….” (Galatians 3:26-28).  Baptism erased the significance of race, class, and gender.  This is what it originally meant to be transformed by baptism into a child of God.  No longer “male and female” referred directly to Genesis 1:27 and implied that the newly baptized had returned to that primordial perfection in which male and female reside in a single whole.

Jesus baptized by John; mosaic, 6th century, Ravenna, Italy

Jesus baptized by John; mosaic, 6th century, Ravenna, Italy

In 2 Corinthians, chapter 3, Paul waxes eloquent about the transformation that occurs in Christ.  His inspiration is that story about Moses on Sinai, when he encountered God and came away glowing so brightly that he had to put on a veil so people would not be blinded by the light coming from his face.  This was when Moses received the Law from God—and Paul is using the story to defend himself against other Christians who have used the Law to criticize him for trying to create a more diverse community, even though it meant breaking the Law.  Paul was Jewish (as were most Christians then), so he speaks of the Jewish Law.  But he’s really talking about any law, any rule, any idea or standard calcified by time and carved into a weapon to use against one’s enemies.  Anyhow, he uses the Moses story in an odd, but clever way (and sort of snarky).  He says, when Moses received scripture, he had to wear a veil to cover his face—and that veil still hangs!—over the minds of people whenever they try to read scripture (2 Cor 3:15).  Reading the Bible can harden your mind.  Sad but true, Paul, sad but true.  But Christ can remove the veil, he says:

When a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, with unveiled face, seeing in the mirror the glory of the Lord staring back at us, are being changed into His image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:16-18

Everyone—not just Jesus—but everyone bears the image of God.  We may present as male or female, but deep inside there is another image, the image of God that is male and female.  “Male and female he created them.”  So says the Bible.  Unveiled.

Today we suddenly find ourselves in a time when men and women are removing the veils, dressing up, coming out, and revealing for the first time the image of God they see when they look into the mirror.  Mort is coming out as Maura, Samantha as Sam, and Pat—well, we still don’t know if Pat is a man or a woman.  But does anyone really care?  We are all being transformed, it seems, from one degree of glory to another.

This is Transfiguration Sunday.  Make it Trans Sunday and celebrate the image of God, wherever and however it appears.