Last time out, I wrote about the way in which our benevolent political masters have fostered a culture in which it becomes more and more difficult to avoid conforming to what society considers acceptable behaviour. This applies in all sorts of ways. Some of the clearest examples have of late been with regard to traditional Christian beliefs, which have progressively been rendered illegitimate, from whether gay couples are welcome at Bed and Breakfasts to whether the Catholic church can run an adoption agency in accordance with its own teaching.
This process of requiring conformity – and enacting penalties against those who do not fall in with such conformity – is something that lies right at the heart of the Christian view of the world. This is for the simple reason that it was one of the clearest and most characteristic features of Jesus’ own life and ministry. Put simply, Jesus had a striking and distinct ‘bias to the queer’, which got him into a lot of trouble, and was almost certainly the fundamental reason why he ended up being executed by the state.
This was seen most clearly through his ‘table fellowship’, that is, by looking at who Jesus chose to spend time with, break bread with, have a drink with. The mass of people who conformed to cultural norms, and especially those who were responsible for espousing what those cultural norms were – the priests and lawyers – consistently criticised Jesus for eating with ‘sinners’, that is, those whose nature or behaviour meant that they fell outside of society’s norms. Sometimes this was for reasons that we might recognise as being ‘sinful’ today – a prostitute, for example. Often, however, the people who were excluded were simply those who didn’t fit – those who were physically disabled in some way, the halt and the lame, or those who were from a different ethnic group or religious background. Time after time Jesus rebukes those who sought to police the boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and the queer, consistently speaking up for the sheer human worth and loved-by-God-ness of those that the dominant society were rejecting.
Jesus, after all, was well aware of the way in which human solidarity is so often fostered and encouraged through the establishment of a tribal identity over and against an ‘Other’. This happens in the school classroom, when one child is perceived as being different, and thus becomes the isolated one, often victimised and bullied. It happens in a community when strangers appear in our midst, bad things happen, and a community rallies together to purge the interlopers from amongst us. It happens at a national level when a particular community is seen as the source of all the tensions experienced by that nation, and so the nation is led to believe that destroying the dissident community will ease matters. It happens internationally, when a ‘bad dictator’ is held up as being responsible for all sorts of terrors, and if only we can get rid of him then things will be alright.
It is, in other words, a fundamental feature of our human nature that we will seek to define an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’ – and to use that difference as a way of generating community solidarity. In a word, it is part of human nature to find a scapegoat, and at each level of human life to then seek to expel or destroy that scapegoat in order to keep affairs in their proper order.
The best way to understand the life and death of Jesus, for me, is to recognise that Jesus is acting against this background. That he knows exactly how human beings behave, and that, given the nature of his ministry, he had a very good idea of what would eventually happen to him. That due to his consistent tweaking of the nose of authority he would eventually be turned into the scapegoat himself, and be expelled from the community, and destroyed. What makes the Christian religion distinctive is that it says, very simply – God is the one who is destroyed, not the group doing the destroying. In other words, God is on the side of the queer.
It is because of this emphasis that Jesus teaches so consistently that we are not to judge each other, that judgement belongs to God alone, that if we ever become aware of a speck of dirt in our neighbour’s eye we need to fist make sure to wash the mud from our own before we seek to intervene. The process of scapegoating can only start when there is first a judgement about acceptability – a statement saying ‘We are OK but you are not’, whatever the ‘not’ might be. It might be a missing limb or blindness. It might be a skin colour or a religious belief or a sexuality or a political point of view. In each and every case that we have a record of, Jesus consistently affirms and upholds the sheer humanity of those that the dominant society are excluding. This is, I would argue, the single most salient political emphasis of Christian belief.
Of course, it is due to this stream of Christian thinking that we have the present legal arrangements that we do; it is what one author has called ‘the deep workings of the gospel text’. In other words, in so far as we benefit from an understanding that we now call ‘human rights’, they rest upon the centuries of prayerful reflection upon the idea that each human being is made in the image of God, and as such is deserving of care and consideration. The language that is often used today is determinedly secular, but that is simply to place alternative clothing upon the same body. Put differently, before there was a generic humanism, there was a Christian humanism, but whatever name we wish to call it matters less than the reality being described. If we are to have a free and humane society then there must be a certain level of care which every single human being must be enabled to enjoy. We, too, must exercise a bias towards caring for the queer.