Biblical Literalism: God Hates Figs!

From the archives, but still relevant – Westboro Baptist remain as deranged as ever.

This flyer was distributed during a recent Chicago counter-protest against members of the “God hates fags” Westboro Baptist Church.   Food for thought:

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Mark 11:12-14 and 11:20-25

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Matthew 21:18-22

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Jeremiah 29:17

Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.

Joan of Arc: Cross-dressing Martyr

Among all the multitude of queer saints,  Joan of Arc is one of the most important. In her notorious martyrdom for heresy (a charge which in historical context included reference to her cross-dressing and defiance of socially approved gender roles), she is a reminder of the great persecution of sexual and gender minorities by the Inquisition, directly or at their instigation. In LGBT Christian history, “martyrs” applies not only to those martyred by the church, but also to those martyred by the church. In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc).  In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected.  We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.

Joan of Arc Iinterrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)

Joan of Arc: Interrogation by the Bishop of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)

A Broken Church, and the Return from Emmaus.

The Gospel reading for today, the third Sunday of Easter, is Luke’s familiar telling of two disciples’ journey to Emmaus.

Michael B Kelly has used an interpretation of this story to draw an important lesson for lesbians and gay men in the Catholic Church, but in the present circumstances of the church, his presentation of the tale is relevant to the Church as a whole, to Catholics and other Christians of any orientation.

 

In this understanding, what is crucially important is not the familiar part, the journey itself and the encounter with a stranger who turns out to be the risen Christ himself, but the beginning and end of the story. The Gospel reading begins by saying that two disciples were on a journey to Emmaus, a village a short distance from Jerusalem. It does not spell out where they are coming from, anything of their background, or why they are travelling. Kelly fills in some gaps.

Queering Genesis: Abraham and Isaac.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the best known of the familiar Bible stories. Like so many familiar stories, we tend to view it reflexively, from one overly familiar perspective – that of Abraham. Queer readings consider other viewpoints – those of Isaac, and of his mother, Sarah.

In his chapter on Genesis for The Queer Bible Commentary, Michael Carden reminds us how often queer children are cast out from their families, often in the name of religion, to experience a figurative death in the families that should be nurturing, places of life. He quotes from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick:

I’ve heard of many people who claim they’d as soon their children were dead as gay. What it took me a long time to believe is that what these people are saying is no more than the truth. They even speak for others too delicate to use the cruel words…. seemingly, this society wants its children to know nothing; wants its queer children to conform or (and this is not a figure of speech) die; and wants not to know that it is getting what it wants.

-Sedgwick,  Tendencies, pp2 – 3

Sacrifice of Isaac (Orrente)

So, the (intended) sacrifice of his son by Abraham can stand as a representation of the actual physical and emotional violence meted out by so many people in the name of  religion, on their own sons and daughters, and on the broader queer community. (In this context, the patriarchal language favoured by the Catholic Church suddenly takes on sinister overtones). But I want to focus more closely on Isaac himself. What is his response to his planned murder?

Genesis is clear that Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice himself:

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.

-(Gen 22:6)

Carden points out that the Jewish Rabbinic tradition, and the account in the Qur’an, are more explicit in describing the son’s active co-operation in his own execution.

Rabbinic tradition has portrayed an Isaac who actively co-operates in all that Abraham does. Isaac is even portrayed as asking Abraham to bind him tightly so that he will not resist when Abraham strikes him with the knife, or even jerk that he might be injured in such a way that he might be injured and thus rendered unfit for sacrifice. This tradition of complicity is canonized in the Qur’an’s account:

He said: ‘O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: now see what is thy view!’ The son said: ‘O my father! Do as thou art commanded: Thou will find me, if God so wills one practicing Patience and Constancy!’ So when they had both submitted their wills (to God), and he laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), We called out to him. (Sura 37.102 -3)

- Carden, The Queer Bible Commentary, “Genesis / Bereshit”, pp 41 – 43

After the key event for which he is remembered, Isaac has a curiously low profile in the rest of the story.

The Isaac of both Genesis and subsequent tradition is a figure haunted by his own death. He lives in his mother’s tent, unable to leave the land. His narrative life in Genesis is brief, and for the greater part of it he is passively subject to the agendas of others. ….Rebecca is responsible for determining which son will inherit from Isaac…. Tradition says that Isac wore Abraham’s face, and, in support of that, the only account that Genesis gives of Isaac in his own right is a pale copy of Abraham in Egypt and Gerar. … The sole reality of Isaac’s life is the dread fact of @his ashes…piled on the altar’.

Invisible, in fact. How often have we, as lesbian, gay or trans, figuratively co-operated in our own attempted murder and that of our community, by actively co-operating with ex-gay movements, by remaining closeted, or simply acquiescence in the double standard which says we are welcome to be out, but not to be visible by “flaunting” our sexuality, while heterosexual relationships and public displays of affection are constantly rubbed in our noses?

Just today, for instance , there is a front page story in the Guardian which tells of how a male couple were evicted from a pub in Soho (of all places) for behaviour which the landlady described as “obscene” – simple kissing. Would an opposite  – sex couple have been evicted for the same behaviour?   And how many of us would have the courage to kiss openly in a public venue which is not designated “gay-friendly”?

If this Biblical tale reads more as a cautionary tale of what we should be avoiding than as  the Good News we hope to find in scripture, where are we to find encouragement, hope and inspiration? No story is complete without its ending. Remember that the conclusion of the story of Abraham and Isaac does not, after all, end in the human sacrifice. The Lord intervenes to prevent the crime. Fathers are not. after all, required to reject their queer offspring, we are not required to co-operate in our silencing and invisibility.

Wilfred Owen was not thinking of gay hate crimes when he wrote his celebrated poetry, but it is important that we as one persecuted community do not lose sight of the wider problems of persecution, hatred and violence. Carden reminds us that we are never far from war-mongering. Within the queer community, we too can be guilty of rejecting those who are minorities within the minority. As we resist efforts to silence us, let us not in turn be guilty of the same crime against others – queer or otherwise.

 

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

 

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

Wilfred Owen

 

Books:

Bohache, Guest et al: The Queer Bible Commentary, “Genesis / Bereshit”

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Lazarus, “The Man Jesus Loved”.

This morning’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, a familiar tale – too familiar, perhaps, as it contains much that should inspire us as queer Christians, but which we can easily overlook in its over – familiarity.

The Household of Martha and Mary.

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair). (John  11: 1- 2)

These verses remind us of the nature of the household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus – three unmarried people living together in one house. What we easily overlook in the twenty-first century, is how very odd, even transgressive, this would have been to the Jews of Jesus’ day. There was overwhelming pressure on all, women and men alike, to marry and produce children. For women, there was scarcely any choice in the matter: their lives were governed by their menfolk before marriage (either fathers or brothers), and their husbands after. It is true that after a man’s death, his brother was expected to take over the care and control of his widow(s), but this scarcely seems to fit what we know of this household. Lazarus is not married himself, and there is nothing anywhere in the text to suggest that he is in command of the household – quite the reverse. In this household, it is the women who run things.

 

Martha Mary and Lazarus

Although they are described as siblings, several scholars have noted that this could well have been a euphemism, hiding a lesbian relationship between the women, and masking the true status of the single man living with them. Whatever the precise details of the relationships, this is undoubtedly a queer (i.e. unconventional) household, which we should bear in mind as we consider the particular relationship between Jesus and Lazarus, the focus of the story.

“The Man Jesus Loves”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick. (John  11: 3).

Trans in Scripture

The Ethiopian Eunuch is our most famous trancestor. However, there are many more scattered through the Bible, both visible and invisible. We shall meet many more later.

-Lewis Reay

The Many Eunuchs Hidden in Scripture

There are numerous trans themes and characters in Scripture. If these are not immediately familiar to us, this is because often, they are simply hidden in plain sight – invisible unless we take the trouble to open our eyes and look. However, I do not wish to reflect too deeply on an experience which is not my own. Instead, I simply share with you some more extracts from a piece byLewis Reay, “Towards a Transgendered Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs, printed in “Trans/formations” (edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood).

First, I wish to consider Jesus’ extraordinary saying in Matthew 19 (v 12 -13) about different types of eunuchs.  To my transgender ears and eyes the meaning of this text is plain …… I would suggest that the Matthew 19 verses are the clearest statement that Jesus makes about the inclusivity of the new realm. This is a realm where no-one is excluded, even the most marginal outsider.

To see the hidden trans people in Scripture, we need to be sensitive to the words as understood when they were written – not as we use them today. A key word here is “chamberlain”, which to modern ears, refers to a senior political or government official. This ignores the significance of the first part of the word – “chamber-“. Reay elaborates:

The Greek word eunocoi comes from the root eune, a bed, and the verb achein, to hold: thus a eunuch is a “bed-keeper”, or more literally a “bed-companion” or “chamberlain” who was responsible for taking care of a monarch’s numerous wives. It also appears as a court “official”. The secondary meaning of the word is an emasculated man, or one naturally emasculated from marriage or having children, or one who voluntarily abstains from marriage.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word çârîyç or saris means “to castrate”l it also means a eunuch or official. The word appears 13 times translated as “chamberlain”, 17 times as “eunuch” and 12 times as “officer”.

And so, many of the trans people in the Bible are hidden behind descriptors like “chamberlain”, or (as other writers have explained) “cupbearer” – which includes Nehemiah.

Let me introduce you to some of my spiritual trancestors – Carcas the severe, Mehuman, the faithful. Hegai, the eunuch, Zethar, the star, Harbona, the ass-driver, Abagtha, the God-given, and Biztha, the booty, all eunuchs of King Xerxes (see the book of Esther).

Ebed – Melech, the servant of the king, an Ethiopian eunuch in the service of King Zedekiah, through whose interference Jeremiah was released from prison; Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch of King Nebuchanezzer, Teresh, the strict, who plotted to kill King Xerxes, Sarsechim, the prince among eunuchs, and Shaashgaz, the servant of the beautiful.

Meet some rabsaris, chief eunuchs and high-ranking Babylonian officials: Hatach, the truthful, Bigthan, the juicy, and Bigtha, the juiciest.

And, not least, the famous Daniel, and his three friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and the defiant Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego (see the Book of Daniel). Finally, our Ethiopian cousin, from Acts, who opens up the possibility of full inclusion into Jesus’ realm to all, not simply the Jewish world.

Most of these transectors named by Reay are minor characters, bit parts in the Biblical story. That’s not the case with his main argument.

The Genderqueer Jesus

Mollenkott (“Omnigender”) proposes that Jesus was chromosomally female (because of the virgin birth) …….. but phenotypically male. Mollenkott ties this in to the Genesis narrative of a God who is both male and female an neither, and therefore a Jesus who is equally both and neither, encompasing the breadth of “natural” human gender and sex diverstity….it is intersex people or female-to male trans-people who come closest to a physical resemblance to Jesus, being  chromosomally female and socially male.

Moxness (“Putting Jesus in His Place”) suggests that Jesus occupied queer space by virtue of his social location and th he location of his followers. Jesus’ followers put themselves outside the norms of society by leaving their homes and and their social gender roles to follow Jesus. By leaving their place in the household, ..they rendered themselves liable to the accusation of being eunuchs – their very gender identity was put into question for upsetting the gender norms of their time.

Jesus’ queer identity is not simply to be read in terms of sexuality, but he is truly gender queer. Jesus is our own trancestor: the challenge of eunuchs was that they could not be securely placed, they were in a position of ‘betwixt and between’, in a permanent liminal position (Moxnes).”

(“Genderqueer” was precisely the descriptor I used for Jesus in my own reflection yesterday, before I had read this particular passage).

Moxnes’ discussion of the famous passage from Matthew 19 observes that in Jesus’ day, the word “eunuch” may have been used as a term of abuse (rather like “queer” or “faggot” today). This puts a special light on Jesus’ response.

Bohache argues (“The Queer Bible Commentary”) that if, as Moxnes suggests, the term”eunuch” was used as a slur against Jesus and his disciples, then we have hit upon an essential concept for a queer understanding of Jesus:  today there are many for whom the term “queer” is a volatile word, since it originated as a slur among our opponents, but activists and others ahve reclaimed the word and used it proudly.

Isaiah’s Welcome For All.

The Promise of “a house of prayer for all people”  in Isaiah is not simply a promise that eunuchs would be allowed. Rather, it is an unrestrained revolution to the existing order of who can approach God.

Koch (in “The Queer Bible Commentary”) suggests that the last chapters of Isaiah commencing at chapter 56 present many instances of gender dissent and social queerness.

The Matthean eunuch verses are a mirror to the Isaiah 56 passage which extends the kingdom of God to eunuchs with a special place greater than that of sons or daughters. …These verses encapsulate the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ message – there is no one who is marginalised in God’s eyes, all are included.

And so, I conclude with the celebrated and important words of Isaiah 56:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”

Books

Althaus- Reid, Marcella & Isherwood, Lisa: Trans/formations (Scm Controversies in Contextual Theology Series)

Cornwall, Susannah: Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology (Gender, Theology and Spirituality)

Feinberg, Leslie: Transgender Warriors : Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman

Guest, Deryn et al (eds): The Queer Bible Commentary

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey: Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach

Moxnes, Halvor: Putting Jesus in His Place: A Radical Vision of Household and Kingdom

Tanis, Justin: Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry)

Wilson, Nancy: Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible


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