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Michael Pettinger, Ph.D.

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Queers and Christians: A Ménage à Trois

Posted: 03/26/2012 6:35 pm

A friend in Seattle was complaining about the new law recognizing same-sex marriage in the state of Washington. My friend is Christian, so it might not surprise some people that he is troubled by such a dramatic change. Still, I was taken aback.

In his defense, sexuality has always posed special problems for Christians. The command to love one another in the here and now lives in uneasy tension with the promise of Jesus' return and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, in which all social relationships will be transformed in ways we can scarcely imagine. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus says, "In the Resurrection they shall neither marry, nor be given in marriage." In the meantime, those who can should become "eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven." But he adds that many cannot embrace a life without sex, and Paul puts the matter bluntly when writing to the Corinthians: "better to marry than to burn."

Marriage and celibacy became the two ways Christians understood sexuality. This still left plenty of room for rancor. For many married Christians, celibate people were parasites who lived off the productivity of others while refusing to give back to society the one thing it desperately needed: children. Celibate people often condemned marriage as enslavement to the pleasures of the flesh, a practice little better than fornication. Augustine tried to make peace, arguing that marriage was a positive good -- though not as good as celibacy. But Protestant reformers would reject lifelong celibacy as a Christian ideal. Luther preached that God created humans as either male or female and gave them an innate need to reproduce. Marriage was more than a commandment; it was nature, and vows of celibacy almost always led to "fornication, adultery, and secret sins."

I said that there were two ways for Christians to understand sexuality. In reality, there are three. Fornication, the third way, was one thing that both married and celibate Christians could agree upon. Broadly understood, "fornication" covered all sorts of behaviors that seemed not to fit into the other two categories. Committing fornication did not mean that you weren't a Christian, so long as you viewed your behavior as sinful. Those who could do so repented, and those who could not lived in shame. And that shame reassured both married and celibate Christians that what they were doing was right.

When "fornicators" talk back, it's bound to trigger a crisis for everyone, including the "fornicators" themselves. That's what surprised me about my friend's complaint. I said before that he was a Christian. He is also gay. As written, the law would automatically convert his civil union into a marriage. I had assumed that he would be happy, but he wasn't. "I don't like it that my partner and I don't get to choose whether we want our relationship to become a marriage. I don't care whether the State recognizes it. If it were the Church, that would be a different matter." I had forgotten that the arrangements of the State are only for the here and now. Good Catholic that he is, my friend was mindful that his relationship anticipates the life of the world to come.

People are leading lives that are openly queer and faithfully Christian, official sanctions notwithstanding. Opposition from Christians committed exclusively to heterosexual marriage and/or celibacy is not the only challenge they face. There is the widespread suspicion and hostility of people who view Christianity, and religion in general, as a threat to their happiness and their lives. There is the risk of splitting into a seemingly endless number of identity-based communities, or glossing over our differences with a few cumbersome acronyms. And what becomes of sin and repentance, fundamental to the message of the Gospel, when what has long been labeled as "fornication" comes to be seen as an attempt to live before God with integrity?

The answers to these challenges can be found in a theology less concerned with defining "queerness" than with queering the ways we share our experience of God. It's a mark of maturity that Christians can take up these issues with faith that Christ seeks neither to change them into heterosexuals nor repress their true identities, but rather, to redeem them as they are.