Queerness, the idolatry of norms, and the “new” morality

Queerness, the idolatry of norms, and the “new” morality April 6, 2016

Nicki Minaj, Live Femme Fatale, by Dyllan, Wikimedia Commons C.C.
Nicki Minaj, Live Femme Fatale, by Dyllan, Wikimedia Commons C.C.

I wish that United Theological Seminary president David Watson could have been at lunch with me today. I attended a presentation on Nicki Minaj and the queering of hip-hop culture that was eye-opening and very stimulating. Right now, some of my closest student relationships are with queer black women. I love them, and I think they have a lot to teach me about the gospel. David Watson wrote a recent piece called “Christian Unity and the New Moralism,” in which he complained about the moral absolutism of LGBT-affirming side of our great debate in United Methodism. Since I spend most of my ministry at Tulane in community with students who embody this “new morality,” I figured I would tell those with ears to hear why I see queerness as not only compatible with the gospel, but a critical means by which American Christianity can be detoxified.

Is it moral to be normal? That’s the basic question that queerness asks. Is a person morally better when they are white, male, straight, cisgender, and middle-class? For a substantial part of the last three centuries, the answer to this question was a boldly open and uncritical yes. Enlightenment man was the pinnacle of Western Judeo-Christian culture; it was his duty to civilize the half-naked savages while keeping his histrionic wife tamed.

It’s been less than a century since it stopped being socially acceptable to presume openly that men are morally superior to women, and several decades since openly calling black people morally inferior became problematic (now we have to use coded language to do that). We still believe openly in the moral inferiority of  poor people, but this attitude is rightly being exposed as utterly unbiblical.

The Christian debate over queerness is the final hill to defend for those who are invested in making normativity moral (out of loyalty to the past). I respect the fact that many people on the other side of our debate are genuinely operating out of a devotion to tradition and scripture, and are very emphatically and self-consciously opposed to sexism, racism, and classism to the degree that they have had their eyes opened. I want to be in a Christian community with people who are very cautious about reinterpreting scripture. I need conservatives like my friend Derek Rishmawy to keep me honest.

Here’s my concern. Sexuality is not and has never been a stand-alone, neutral concept that can be analyzed with universalized objectivity outside of our historical context. The main elephant in the room for me is that white supremacy has used the bogeyman of black sexuality for centuries to justify slavery, segregation, and most recently the prison industrial complex. We cannot disentangle our modern Christian teachings about sexual purity from centuries of paranoia about defending young white girls from horny black men. It colors everything about the white Christian sexual imagination. White Christian fathers’ chief moral responsibility is to protect their daughters from premarital sex. That’s why defending the second amendment has become a white Christian duty.

The two most predominant manifestations of this underlying paranoia today are the Donald Trump presidential campaign in which the horny bogeymen have become Mexicans and the transgender bathroom panic in which transgender women who get beat up and literally murdered in the men’s room are suspected of using their gender identity to infiltrate the ladies’ room and rape little girls (despite zero documented cases of this ever actually happening).

The horny black man/pure white girl trope with all its subvariation is perhaps the most important foundational fear upon which American politics has been built. And there is nothing Christian about it. Because Jesus is the “horny” black man swinging from the rope on the lynching tree. Unless we see that Jesus’ cross is supposed to show us God’s solidarity with those whom we hate and fear, we cannot be saved by it.

There are critically important moral things to say about human sexuality, but white Christians cannot speak about it with integrity until we confront  directly the way we have used “sexual purity” and “family values” as the justification for politically sticking it to black people (a.k.a. welfare mamas, their deadbeat baby’s daddies, nappy-headed hoes, thugs with droopy pants, etc). Our imagination is saturated with ubiquitous black sexual immorality.

We need to recognize soberly that the purpose of “focusing on the family” has often been to offer an alternative to “seeking the kingdom of God,” so that those of us who kept our pants zipped up until we put a ring on our fingers can justify building our entire lives around making sure our own kids get the most and the best while indignantly denouncing the use of our tax dollars to subsidize the lifestyles of those ghetto girls who couldn’t keep their legs together.

We need to understand that the danger of our “focus on the family” morality is that we might actually go to hell because of it. If we’ve built our entire religion around the pursuit of chaste heterosexual monogamy, then what will prevent us from becoming the goats that Jesus casts into eternal punishment in Matthew 25 or the rich man Jesus damns for not letting a beggar eat at his table in Luke 16? If we try to dodge the warnings of Matthew 25 and Luke 16 by appealing to “justification by faith,” we risk coming face to face with a Lord who says, “Truly, I never knew you.”

I don’t support everything that happens in every aspect of queer culture (which is by no means monolitic). There are certainly reasons to put limits on how we indulge the appetites of our flesh. While I’m not a Platonist who believes that the goal of spiritual maturity is to be perfectly rational and in conscious control of my bodily impulses, I do believe that my desire needs to be liturgically shaped so that I can be the most radically hospitable vessel of God’s mercy possible. And it’s precisely because of my conviction that I cannot embody authentic solidarity for marginalized people without the ascetic pursuit of holiness that I want to obliterate the demonic distraction of conflating morality and normality once and for all.

Taking up Jesus’ cross is the unity of holiness and solidarity. We are crucified to the world so that we can walk with the crucified. The former without the purpose of the latter is as bankrupt as the latter without the discipline of the former. Holiness without solidarity is the conservative error; it makes us bitter. Solidarity without holiness is the progressive error; it leaves us undisciplined. The “holiness” of imposing austerity on others is a category error. The way I bear Jesus’ cross is to temper my flesh through fasting and defend queer Christians and other marginalized people.

Queerness is the wrecking ball that shatters the idolatry of norms which have allowed conservative Christians to settle for less than a radical pursuit of other-centered holiness and have pushed progressive Christians out of the church due to an avoidable toxic distraction. Hear me clearly. I’m not calling for the “moral anarchy” that my brother Talbot Davis worries about.

I’m saying that we need a better foundation for talking about why we put limits on our fleshly behavior than saying God gave men penises and women vaginas so that they could fit together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle in a lifelong covenant that bears witness to Christ’s love for the church. Though that may work for 80-90% of humanity, those who don’t fit the jigsaw puzzle are not evil and cursed because they don’t fit the jigsaw puzzle. And it is evil to destroy their lives forcing them into that jigsaw puzzle so that our moral system can be less complicated.

There are much better reasons for being chaste and celibate than conforming to a jigsaw puzzle that lets normal people off the hook for seeking the kingdom of God because they’re focusing on their family (the very concern Paul raises in 1 Corinthians 7). I recently discovered that lifelong abstinence from alcohol  is necessary to my pursuit of God’s kingdom, not because I read the Bible objectively and found an unequivocal verse that requires it of all people at all times, but because God told me to do it on the morning of March 16th, 2016. I wouldn’t have heard God speak if I didn’t have a weekly practice of fasting and prayer that incorporates the scriptures that have been tattooed on my heart over the course of my life.

I want to teach my students how to develop ascetic practices for listening to God speak in the entirely contextual ways that God speaks into peoples’ lives. We need to have a healthy, mystical reverence for the  Bible to listen to God effectively, which becomes very difficult when the Bible has been weaponized against otherness. I have a dear friend whose mind is so filled with sentences starting with “the Bible says…” that they have rejected God altogether.

The reason to put limits on our behavior is so that we can hear God speak, because a moment of God’s presence is way more wonderful than a fifth of Jack Daniels or even an incredible orgasm (which under the right circumstances can be a true taste of God’s presence, but anyway). We need to have our desire liturgized in order to enjoy life, but that also requires smashing the idols that have become stumbling blocks, including the ones that have become our modern equivalent of the circumcision laws the apostle Paul railed against.

So the task of the “new morality” that so frightens David Watson is this: reestablishing a foundation for Christian ethics that is more solid and Christ-centered than normativity for normativity’s sake. It is certainly right to be wary and cautious about this process. It’s like weeding in a garden bed where the herbs we want to keep are more fragile than the viciously entangled roots of the toxic weeds that must be removed. But every time I learn something new (whether it’s from the Bible or a lunch presentation on queer black sexuality) that further confirms the deconstruction and reconstruction that needs to happen for the path of Christian holiness to be cleared of stumbling blocks, it is my duty to speak so that we can discern God’s will together as a church.

This really isn’t a new morality at all. It’s been around for 2000 years in the tucked away pockets of Christianity that “have been hidden in Christ” (Colossians 3:3) and have never stopped being crucified by the empire-builders who have co-opted Jesus’ name for their power. It’s the morality that says things like “I desire mercy not sacrifice,” “humanity was not created for the sabbath but the sabbath for humanity,” “there is no longer male and female for all are one in Christ Jesus,” and “God has chosen the despised ones to bring to nothing the things that are.”

I would like to be part of a United Methodist Church in which there is good faith conversation between conservatives and progressives about how to share the good news of Jesus Christ in a confusing cultural context whose elephants in the room include major historical sins on the part of Christians. It’s a farce to speak of there being any good news for the “nones” and “dones” of our world if Good News is just the name of a caucus group that focuses on excluding marginalized people. I would like to engage in holy conferencing with David Watson and others like him at our denomination’s General Conference in Portland this May. My hope is to fast and pray for the duration of the first week; perhaps David will fast and pray with me.

Who knows? Maybe the apostles Paul and Peter will also come to Portland this year. Maybe Paul will testify about his vision which made him realize he had been persecuting Jesus when he thought he was defending God’s holiness. Maybe Peter will tell the whole body that after God told him not to call unclean what God has made clean, he went to Cornelius’ house and found out that queer people speak in tongues too. Maybe there will be a James there who, despite being unable to find direct scriptural justification for revoking God’s circumcision covenant with Abraham, does find a new way of reading an old prophecy that fits the occasion and shows us what the Holy Spirit is actually telling us to do today.

I have two prayers for General Conference that I have said aloud as mantras over the past several months literally thousands of times: “Give us a dream that shows us your truth” and “Silence every lie.” I do not know that I am right. I know I need to listen more carefully to people who disagree with me. But I am going to bring into those conversations what I have learned about God’s love from queer Christians. Because I believe that they are an important means by which Jesus is saving the world from us.

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