Tag Archives: queer

Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace: Dec 17th

Today, the church celebrates the feast of three young men, Shadrack, Mesach and Abednego, the companions of Daniel the prophet: they are important for highlighting a much neglected group in the church – the transgendered.

We are probably all familiar with the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and of his three companions in the burning fiery furnace. What they don’t tell us in Sunday School, is that as slaves captured and taken to service in the king’s court in Babylon they were almost certainly eunuchs – castrated males. This was the standard fate of slaves in the royal court, as Kathryn Ringrose has shown, and as anticipated by Isaiah:

And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.

-Isaiah 39:7
If there is any group more likely to have the bible-pumping conservatives frothing at the mouth more than gay and lesbian Christians, perhaps it is the trans community. Yet this is entirely misplaced, as Isaiah makes clear elsewhere:

4For this is what the LORD says:

“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.

-Isaiah 56: 4- 5
The three young men, forcibly castrated as slaves, are clearly not directly comparable to the modern trans community, but there are nevertheless lessons to be learnt, from them and from others in Christian (and non-Christian) history. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

The Babylonian slaves were clearly among those who have been made so by others. Those who made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven may be a reference to the common religious practice in the societies surrounding the Jews of men who castrated themselves to serve as priests, especially in the cult of Cybele , and also in some other religions. (Some commentators believe that is this practice of castration that is meant by the words mistranslated in some of the clobber texts as “homosexuals”, lines which more accurately refer to castrated gentile priests. In this view, it is the association with pagan idolatry, not the sexual practices themselves, which made them taboo). The idea of making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of God later led some early Christians to adopt the practice, notably the early theologian Origen, who castrated himself in. Metaphorically, it is the same idea of emasculation which underlies the Catholic church’s insistence on compulsory celibacy for priests in the Roman rite.
Modern trans people are also not directly comparable to this third group – but they are arguably included in the first group:  made so by birth. Less directly, some scholars argue that the biblical term “eunuch” is the closest parallel in biblical language to the modern term “homosexual”, and so the welcome promised by Isaiah may be said to apply to all who are queer in church –

a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters; 

I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever

Even if we reject this connection, there remains a fundamentally important lesson for us all in the story of the three young men, a story that has relevance and resonance for us today that goes way beyond the children’s illustrated Bible pictures of men who could not be burned by the flames. To see this, remember why it is that they are commemorated. They were commanded by the king to eat the forbidden meat – to conform. It was for their refusal to knuckle under and give in to the pressure to abandon their fundamental religious identity that they were sentenced to death by burning.
But in their faith and loyalty, they were protected from the flames. Centuries later, it was the Christian Church that again turned to burning as a punishment for those who refused to conform, either to orthodox religious belief, or to heteronormative sexual standards. We continue to live with the legacy of that prejudice, which masquerades as religious obligation. Like the three men in the Babylonian fire, we too must stand firm in our commitment to the truth. In our steadfastness, the flames of prejudice and religious bigotry will likewise be unable to destroy our queer Christian community.
(The image used is a window by John Piper as a memorial to Benjamin Britten, whose “Burning Fiery Furnace” told the story of the three young men as one of his three “parables for church performance” – one act operas, although Britten himself avoided the term).

Related articles

Pope Benedict, on the Queer Lessons in the Church’s Martyrdom of St Joan.

At Enhanced Masculinity, I came across a post which reported on an address by Pope Benedict about the martyrdom and later canonization of St Joan of Arc. I was pleased to see this, as I have written before of the importance of Joan as a queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later rehabilitated and honoured. Much the same will surely occur in time to those modern queer heroes who have been professionally martyred, by the Church which has deliberately destroyed their careers, for the great sin of attempting to speak the truth on sexual ethics or LGBT inclusion.
So, in addition to the significance of this address to my own arguments about the relevance of the queer saints and martyrs, it also relates to the current theological ferment on sexual ethics and widespread criticism of the institutional church. When I then crossed to the Vatican website and read the address in full, I found even more in Pope Benedict’s words that can guide and inspire gay in lesbian Catholics in our struggles to withstand the hostility of the traditional, disordered teaching on homoerotic relationships.

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Queer Gods, Demigods and Their Priests: The Middle East

(For a proper understanding of the place of homeroticism in Jewish and Christian history, it is instructive to contrast it with its place in other religions. I have described previously how many religions not only accept a recognized and important place for same sex love, but even identifyspecific patrons of homosexual love. I now propose to consider the many other gods and goddesses who either took same sex lovers themselves, or were served by sexually or gender non-conforming priests  and priestesses. I begin, as any account of the development of civilization must do, in the Middle East.)
Same sex love is a common theme in world religion and its literature, and is even present at the very beginning of literary history. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest work of literature – and includes a central theme of love between two men. The hero Giligamesh was the king of Uruk, described as two thirds god and one third man, and a giant in size and strength, with a prodigious sexual appetite. He routinely used his strength and royal power to take advantage of both young men, taking them from their fathers, and young women, taking them from their husbands. To protect their sons and wives from the kings lust, the people turn to their gods, and in particular the creator goddess Aruru, pleading with her to send Gilgamesh a companion on whom he can expend his energies. Aruru responds, and sends to Gilgamesh a man, Enkidu, who is massive in size, inspiring in physique, hairy like an animal, and with luxuriant tresses of hair “like a woman”.
Gilgamesh’s Grief at Enkidu’s Death
The subsequent relationship between the two, their adventures together,  Gilgamesh’s grief after Enkidu’s death and their subsequent reunion in the afterworld with Enkidu’s ghost form the meat of the epic. The content is not explicitly homoerotic, but there are clear erotic undertones. Enkidu was created to divert the king’s sexual appetite from his subjects, and there is no indication that such a prodigious sexual energy suddenly evaporated. At one point, Gilgamesh even declines a direct sexual invitation from the goddess Ishtar – preferring his male companion Enkidu. Recalling the words of  the biblical prophet David about Jonathan, it is said that Gilgamesh loved Enkidu “like a wife”.
Discussing the erotic element in their relationship, the biblical scholar Marti Nissinen (“Homoeroticism in the Biblical World“) makes an interesting point, one that will be familiar to many gay men in the modern West, and should give pause to those who insist that sex between men may be permitted in a committed, permanent relationship, but not before:
At first, the Epic of Gilgamesh can be described as a characterization of love between two men, with a homoerotic aspect that expresses their deep friendship……At the beginning, there is plenty of sex in the lives of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but this lifestyle is presented as primitive and reckless. ….As the story proceeds, the relationship deepens and, simultaneously, the sexual passions seem to subside to the point that one can speak of a “spiritual” friendship between the two men. The erotic tension between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is not lost, but is transformed in the way that the same – sex interaction of the two men finally is characterized by love, with little if any sexual activity. Eroticism is important first and foremost as the impetus to the transformation which leads first from savage sexual behaviour to mutual love, and finally away from physical sex.
This process will be familiar to many modern gay men. In place of the romantic stereotype of a slowly blossoming chaste courtship, followed by a grand wedding and only then by sexual consummation, the pattern is more usually reversed.  Possibly influenced by the absence in practice of opportunities for more conventional courtships between men to develop, possibly by the more frankly sexual interests in relationships of men compared with women, the majority of gay male relationships begin with sexual encounters on or soon after a first date. Some of these develop into lasting friendships, and then some into lasting, committed unions.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, it is not the gods who were queer, but their priests and priestesses. There is a wealth of material on this, but two extracts from de la Huerta make the point in summary:
In ancient Mesopotamia, the Goddess Innana (also known as Ishtar) was considered the patron of the sinnisat zikrum, a class of gender-variant and possibly lesbian princesses. Likewise, she was also honoured and served by the kulbu, gender-variant male priests, which included the assinu and the kurgarru. Both male and female functionaries wore androgynous attire combined with sacd vestments and were considered to hold special powers. It was believed, for example, that the simple act of touching an assinu’s head would lead to victory in battle, while the mere sighting of a kurgarru was thought to bring good luck.
The Canaanite Goddess Ashtar was also served by a class of gender-variant priests, called qedeshim (the “holy ones”) who were responsible for the upkeep of the temple grounds and the creation of ritual objects. They were said to engage in sacred temple prostitution and may have used sexual practices as a way to induce enhanced states of consciousness.
-De la Huerta, p 32 (after Conner, Blossom of Bone)
In Egyptian mythology, there is an important reminder that sex (whether between men or between a man and woman) was not always an expression of love, but was frequently an expression of power and aggression. Seth, the murderer of his brother Osiris, summons Osiris’ nephew Horus, ostensibly to achieve some reconciliation. Instead, he attempts to rape him while Horus is asleep, thus putting him into a sexually subordinate position, which would leave him unfit for kingship. Instead, the younger man turns the tables by getting some of Seth’s sperm in his hand, which he later mixes with his (Seth’s) food. By taking male sperm, into his body, it is Seth who becomes unfit for kingship.
Recommended Books
De la Huerta, Christian: Coming Out Spiritually: The Next Step
Related Posts:
Some Gods of Homosexual Love (Queer Saints and Martyrs) 
Chin, Mayan Gay God (It’s a Queer World)
The Chinese Rabbit God (It’s a Queer World)

The Story of the “Queer Saints and Martyrs”: Taking Shape

Ever since I began writing for the Queer Church, one of the key themes I have been exploring has been that of the place of LGBT men and women in Christian history – recognized and unrecognised saints, martyrs for the church, some who have  been martyred by the church directly or indirectly, and those who have achieved remarkable high office in the church, as popes, bishops or abbots in spite of clear homoerotic interests and activities.

As I have explored individuals and notable groups, I have been seeing the outline of a narrative thread underlying them, which I have been using to draw them together into what I hope will become a book for publication. The outline for the book I have previously published, as a synopsis, and as a reflection of the feast of All (Gay) Saints. I have now expanded this synopsis one level, which I will be posting in instalments over the coming week, under six main divisions. For a preview of these posts and the work in progress, follow the links to my  “Queer Saints and Martyrs” pages here at Queering the Church, and from them to the detailed posts on individuals and groups at my satellite site, “Queer Saints and Martyrs – and others”.

Prologue: Before Christianity

Same sex relationships in other religions, in the stories of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and in the Gospels (before the disciples of Christ came to be known as “Christians”)

The Early Christians: Saints and Martyrs for the Church

From both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, a wide range of men (and fewer women). These include pairs of lovers, martyrs for the church, bishops who wrote homoerotic verse, and cross-dressing women.

Christian Homoeroticism in the Middle Ages: Saints and Others

Boswell has been criticized by more recent academics for his assertion that the Middle Ages represented a great flowering of a gay sub-culture. However, even if he overstated his case and the term “gay” for this period is subject to misinterpretation, there is no doubt that there were numerous recognized saints and other senior clergy who freely used homoerotic imagery in their spiritual writing, and  others who are notable for achieving high office as popes or bishops, in spite of well-known erotic relationships with men.

The prevalence of such relationships among the clergy prompted the most important of the calls for strong penalties against “sodomy”, by Alain de Lille and St Peter Damian in particular. For a long time though, these calls were rejected by the leaders of the Church.

The Great Persecution: Martyred by the Church

The figure of Saint Joan is of central importance to queer Christians, as a cross-dressing queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later canonized.  As the Middle  Ages passed into the Early Renaissance, many thousands more alleged sodomites were tried and condemned to death by the church, either directly by the Inquisition or by secular authorities at its instigation.

Ecclesiastical involvement in these trials later gave way to purely secular proceedings, but the initial pseudo-religious motivation for declaring same-sex love a capital offence remained an important factor in the retention of the death penalty in many European countries right up to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and for the export of state-sanctioned persecution by the colonial powers to societies which had previously tolerated or even celebrated sexual minorities.

As secular authorities relaxed or withdrew criminal sanctions though, religious authorities applied a form of figurative martyrdom to gay or lesbian identified people in the church, attempting to censor the writing of theologians who dissented from the orthodox prohibitions, or excluding from ministry those who were seen to be gay or lesbian.

Modern Saints, Modern Martyrs.

In the early church, it was said that the growth of the faith was fed by the blood of the martyrs. Much the same thing appeared to be happening at the close of the twentieth century and start of the twenty first. “Martyr” means one who gives witness, and the witness of the LGBT identified men and women who refused to be silenced by the Church authorities has inspired many more. Over the last few decades there has been a great flowering of writing on faith and spirituality from a queer perspective, and of explicitly queer ministry.

Epilogue: All Saints, and the Call to Witness

“Sainthood” in Christian theology is not simply a matter of those few who have been formally recognised and canonized by the Catholic Church, but is a state to which we are all called.

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