The BBC webpage--which acts as my default news service, perhaps because it shows a quaint old-world desire for objectivity--recently published two articles back-to-back which put US churches in a no-win (Why is faith falling in the US?). The first, from a conservative voice, argues that erasure of boundaries and an accompanying loss of vigorous language make everything so mushy that, in the end, why should anyone bother? The second gives the inverse: the broad evangelical church condemnation of homosexuality has had, and continues to have, a disproportionate alienating effect on young people.
On the one hand members of a church like the Episcopalians, in their efforts to welcome the LGBT community, come consciously to celebrate an indeterminate language which leaves neutral observers feeling they just drank dishwater. On the other, exclusion of homosexuals, at whatever level, has produced a geometrical growth in the "Nones," those who refuse all religious affiliation. Among young adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, thirty per cent are Nones, and their numbers continue to rise.
All this fuss and confusion over man bits and lady parts, and how they are employed! Of course, we all recognize how much passion and desire swirl around these bits and parts. But according to Rene' Girard there is really nothing intrinsic about why we desire them: after the simple sex instinct is granted it is because everyone else desires them that they really becomes desirable. The fact that people talk about them all the time and that they are used continually in advertizing to sell billions of dollars of merchandise are ample confirmation of this constant modeling. More to the point, in Things Hidden Girard argues that heterosexual desire always has something homoerotic in it, because the same-sex rival for the love of the romantic other-sex beloved is him/herself secretly desired! Otherwise s/he would not be a rival. (Yes, a little mind-twisting, but think about it.)
In which case romantic love is in pretty tricky waters from the get-go.
But what happens when the churches confronted by a gathering confusion of difference between the sexes begin to feel the pressure? Certainly they can opt for the evident gospel example of Jesus ignoring the legal boundaries, and turn to celebrate the loss of difference. Thus the first article reports on the decision at the recent General Convention of the Episcopal church voting to approve transgendered clergy and a liturgy for same-sex marriage. At a special communion service after the votes a bishop made an offering prayer thanking the non-gender-specific "Spirit of Life" for "disordering our boundaries."
But, then, what happens to the beautifully insistent, resonant language used by that great subverter of all boundaries in whose name all this is done? What happens to the cultural coding that makes everyone sit up and know immediately that something real is going down? What happens to "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"? Or to "Call no one on earth your father, you have but one Father in heaven"?
Jesus' open table fellowship in which he broke the boundaries between pure and impure is connected by a main artery to the cross. By a leap of divine imagination Jesus was able to see how the temple in Jerusalem was the engine for all divisions and he would eventually have to go there to confront it. The temple did not simply represent the ritual holiness of priests and their offerings. Its zealous commitment to the Davidic lineage and its military Messiah was pitched in immediate and direct rivalry with the Roman citadel built right above it. Here was the violent heart of human culture in Judea and all the cultic and national dividers expanded in a shock wave from its sacred center. When Jesus sat down with the publicans and prostitutes, the lepers and Samaritans, his itinerary to Jerusalem and his date with the explosive temple-praetorium axis were already decided. That's why he had the freedom to throw a party for all these outcasts.
In light of this any melting down and disordering of language that does not pursue its argument to the abolition of our contemporary temple, the military-industrial-media complex, is little more than one more instance of joy-riding the gospel. The bits and parts that we should be concerned with are the weapons of war that male and female, and every shade either side and in between, all equally carry. (And these include the weapons on the streets of Chicago, New York, Aurora, Milwuakee...). Here is a language that can be clear and arresting for humanity of the 21st century. Let's hope that the worthy subverters of difference carry their program all the way to the violent heart of the problem.
Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian
Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian