Baker Academic

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Are We Ready for an LGBTQIA Jesus?

Jesus is both an ancient historical figure and a contemporary mirror. In the first case Jesus represents a particular time and place. In the second he represents us. It will not take much effort to find images of a Scandinavian, African or Asian Jesus on the internet. Images abound of Jesus with a rifle, a cigarette, a tattoo, and/or boxing gloves. Such images are sometimes meant to shine a spotlight on a particular ideology. But, in many cases, these images are earnest attempts to make Jesus relatable to would-be religious followers. So, of course, you can also find a gay Jesus or two with google image search. I talk about the ways in which Jesus becomes an advocate for groups persecuted because of sexual orientation in my The Wife of Jesus (esp. ch.5).

Image from Rutgers University webpage
Today's post isn't about how the political left is recreating Jesus in their own image. Strangely we liberals are too fascinated with the possibility of Jesus' heteronormativity to seriously consider anything else. But today this article was brought to my attention:

College Prof. Doubles Down After Declaring That Christ Was ‘Potentially Queer’ and ‘Bigots Invented a White Supremacist Jesus’

Now if you're into self-reflection, you might take some inventory by asking whether you were more offended by the phrase "Potentially Queer" or the phrase "White Supremacist." Feel free to process it with your therapist this week.

The professor quoted in this article is Rutgers University's Brittney Cooper, Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies. And before you write her off, consider the quotation that spurred this headline. She says:
“The Jesus I know, love, talk about and choose to retain was a radical, freedom-loving, justice-seeking, potentially queer (because he was either asexual or a priest married to a prostitute), feminist healer, unimpressed by scripture-quoters and religious law-keepers, seduced neither by power nor evil.”
Let's leave aside, for the moment, the progressive tendency to place Jesus in opposition to "scripture-quoters and religious law-keepers." That is a different subject for a different day. Let's focus instead on the fact that Cooper loves Jesus and refuses to let the religious right co-opt him without a fight. If you happen to be a Christian reading this, you had better thank God for Brittney Cooper because she's represents your best hope. She is a university professor who is invested in your survival within the public conversation. Her Jesus, like the Pope's Jesus, is relevant. I might disagree with her historical reconstruction but I wish I had a professor like her when I was eighteen.

In order to understand what the phrase "potentially queer" means in this context, you might need to brush up on your initialisms. Here is is a footnote from my book that offers an (albeit skeletal) explanation:

What I don't state here that requires explanation is that "queer" can also be used as an umbrella category in academic circles (for example: Queer Theory). Unless you appreciate the way that Cooper is using this category, you will misunderstand her. Notice that she offers two possible ways in which Jesus might be "queer": Jesus is either (1) asexual or (2) married in a way that places him outside of social norms. Notice also that neither sense suggests that Jesus is homosexual. Like I told you, we liberals are preoccupied with Jesus and Mary Magdalene (who wasn't a prostitute, but she has become this in cultural imagination).

What is most interesting to me about Cooper's suggestion is the possibility that Jesus was "asexual." Asexuality is the new addition to our alphabet soup. For a quick introduction to asexuality, youtube might help. But, in short, asexuals simply do not experience sexual desire like most people do. This, as you might expect, is much disputed. Suspicion of asexuality creates difficulties for "A" folks who seem queer to both heterosexual crowds and LGBTQI crowds. "A" folks are often simply labeled disingenuous; i.e. they must just be hiding their sexuality from us. For the sake of this post, let's assume that those claiming to have no (or almost no) sexual inclinations are telling the truth. If so, these "A" folks are struggling not only with their "queerness" but also with the awkward ways they fit within the LGBTQI community. To the point, "A" folks are often not represented by the initialism.

So back to Cooper's interesting point: could Jesus have been "asexual"? I would tend to think not. But consider this queer saying: "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it" (Matt 19:12). My take on this saying is somewhat unique and I won't rehash it here. But I cite it just to lend support to Cooper's possibility.

Getting to the point: There is an irony that is too wonderful not to recognize. Most Christians are extremely uncomfortable imagining Jesus with sexual inclinations. The religious right in particular seems to require an asexual Jesus. But as clever minds like Cooper know, "A" folk might be as queer as you get. As such, the conservatives who are most anti-gay have created a Jesus who aligns with their deepest fears.



  1. Anthony, terrific post! One of your very best.

    There are many things about discussions of Jesus' sexual identity that trouble me. Let me mention one of them. I'll ask in advance for your understanding and tolerance. I don't know much about the scholarly topic of human sexuality, and it's difficult to talk honestly about Jesus' sexuality without risking offense.

    I understand that there's a concept out there of "situational sexual behavior." The concept is somewhat outmoded, but it's useful for my purpose. The concept is that at any given moment, an individual's sexual behavior may be mostly shaped by his/her social situation. The concept is outmoded, I think, in that it fails to properly recognize what seems to be a natural fluidity in individual sexual orientation, as well as the continual influence of social factors on our sexual behavior. But the concept is useful, I think, in that it recognizes how certain social situations dramatically affect what might otherwise be our sexual behavior. The obvious ones cited are men in prison and other enforced all-male societies. But we can imagine many other such situations: for example, the celibacy of a married couple where one partner is seriously ill, or a person who has taken a public vow to remain celibate.

    Let's assume for the moment that Jesus was celibate during his ministry. Is this evidence of his sexual orientation? Or was this the result of the situation of his ministry? I'll admit, these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. But we can imagine a number of reasons why Jesus' celibacy was less an expression of his personal sexual inclination, and more a product of his mission. Jesus appeared to feel a strong sense of eschatological urgency in his mission: time was running out (for him? for all of humanity?). Under these circumstances, it would be natural to put sexual behavior to one side (just as we're likely to refrain from sex in an emergency: we're on a ship that's sinking, or our neighbor's house is on fire).

    There were also practical considerations at work. In a first century without birth control, sexual activity could lead to pregnancies and childbirths. Such activity within Jesus' group might have delayed the progress of the group. At minimum, it would have distracted the group from its mission. Such activity with people outside of Jesus' group might have made the group unwelcome (or at least, suspect) as they traveled through the Galilee and greater Judea. Jesus and his disciples were a travelling troop (or troupe?) of men and women "loose" from the usual constraints of society and family, and could easily have been seen as sexually threatening in the absence of a group-wide pledge of celibacy.

    OK. To a large extent, I'm talking out of my hat. I don't know much about the sexual mores of first-century Judea, and I don't see much evidence that celibacy was required from every member of Jesus' travelling ministry. What I'm trying to suggest in a long-winded way that there's a distinction to be made (however carefully, however subtly) between Jesus' sexual behavior and his sexual orientation, particularly if all we're looking at are the few months/years of his ministry.

    None of this is meant as criticism. Quite the contrary. Like you (I think), I would like to see religion get out of the business of judging people on the basis of sexual orientation.

  2. Larry, I have thought along these lines before and will need to think more on it. I do think, though, that the saying that precedes the cited verse from Matthew 19 might be understood as an example of your "situational" paradigm: "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery. His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given." ...Jesus does suggest that circumstances have influence on the level of celibacy that one can consider. More, to your point, this saying may make sense within the context of men and women who have families at home and find themselves on the road with a mixed-gender group. I.e. maybe he's saying: "for those of you who have wives/husbands at home, remain true to your girl or guy" (to paraphrase the Beach Boys rather than Janis Joplin). -anthony

    1. Agreed. In particular, agreed that Janis Joplin suggests greater eschatological urgency than Stephen Stills.