Monthly Archives: August 2012

Marx vs. Rohr. And me. On a plane.

by Eva Tejon

“Eva, he isn’t Jesus!”: words spoken to me in an A-Level Sociology lesson, many years ago, when
my teacher broke the news that despite being prophetic, revolutionary and bearded, Karl Marx
wasn’t, in fact, a Messiah. (The realisation came, incidentally, after hearing that Marx had been
repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, Jenny).

Despite this fall from grace, I still believe that Marx has many relevant things to say about organised
religion.

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of
soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ He argued that religion dulls the pain produced
by oppression, making life more bearable for the proletariat, stupefying its adherents rather than
bringing true happiness or fulfilment. It achieves this in a number of ways:

Religions often promises an eternal paradise after death, thereby making life on earth more
bearable (and people less likely to revolt as a result of oppression), with the anticipation of a
blissful afterlife.
Some faith traditions make a virtue of the suffering faced by the poor (e.g. ‘It is easier for a
camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom
of heaven’ – Matthew 19:24). This makes poverty seem more tolerable, and, again, revolt
less likely.

Religion regularly offers the hope of supernatural intervention to solve earthly problems. In
some traditions, this leads to disengagement from societal struggles. Some claim this is the
approach of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who remain neutral in party political matters. In other
traditions, prayer might appease an individual’s conscience, making them less likely to take
outward action.

•  Religion can be used to justify the social order, and an individual’s position within it. Aside
from well-known examples of some Christians supporting apartheid in South Africa and the
trans-Atlantic slave trade, a commonly quoted cultural instance of this is the verse (now
rarely sung!) of the popular Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

And ordered their estate.

For some expressions of religion however, I think Marx got it wrong.

As well as faith in God leading people to ‘put up’ with rotten systems, for the reasons above,
Franscian friar and contemplative Richard Rohr wrote that ‘There is probably no one more truly
radical than real persons of prayer because they are beholden to no ideology or economic system,
but only to God. Both church and state are honestly threatened by true mystics. They can’t be
brought off because their rewards are elsewhere’ (Everything Belongs, p. 157).

I don’t know about you, but my flashes of inspiration often come on public transport. On
the way home from my holidays last week, I was reading Rohr describe a situation I found

familiar: ‘Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred space, it’s going to feel like suffering.
It’s letting go of what we’re used to. That causes suffering. But part of us always has to die. If that
readiness isn’t there, we won’t enter into sacred space. The prophet leads us into sacred space by
showing us the insufficiency of the old order; the role of the priest is to teach us how to live in the
new realm… In this new realm, everything belongs’.

It’s what prompted me to write this article. Upon reading this passage, two ideas converged in
my mind: first, the thought of what is wholly (holy) us never being disowned (and knowing this to
be how God has worked in my life -‘everything belongs’), and secondly the boldness, and indeed
responsibility, this acceptance affords us to be madly, and indignantly, capable of raging against the
machine – the commission to make all people feel loved, wanted, and never disowned (everything
belongs).

Sometimes it’s hard to put a feeling into words, isn’t it, but if anything I felt mildly told off; I felt like
God was saying to me “You’re a girl who loves another girl. Fine. Great. Now shut up about it and go
and make other peoples’ lives better. You are loved. Now go and love others. No excuses now”.

The writer of John’s gospel put it more articulately: “A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my
disciples, if you love one another” (John 13: 34-35).

Faith can free people, either to be inactive (as Marx suggested), or to be radically active for inward
and outward transformation. Because we do not work under our own strength. Because it doesn’t
matter what the world thinks. And because there are higher standards to aim at.

(Thanks to Haralambos and Holborn, the sociologists’ bible, for some of the summary of Marx’
approach to religion).

Advertisements

If only the Church were more like BiCon

Symon Hill

Just over a week ago, I sat in a seminar room at Bradford University and ran a workshop on Christianity. Some participants were Christians. Some were not. Many had mixed feelings on religion. I was really moved when one participant told me she thought she had been prejudiced against Christians but the workshop had challenged her and made her realise there were more intelligent, open-minded Christians than she had assumed.

The workshop was called ‘Queer Christianity’ and it took place at BiCon, the UK’s national Bisexual Conference.

I was there mainly as a punter, but I readily agreed to lead a workshop when asked by one of the organisers a few weeks before the event. I have been wanting to go to BiCon since 2009, but this is the first year I have had chance. It was wonderful.

I have rarely, if ever, been to a conference that felt more genuinely inclusive. This concerned not only access for disabled people and a strong emphasis on respect for people regardless of gender identity, sexuality, class background or views on religion. It also extended to personality type and personal interests. Clearly some people wanted to stay up partying all night, others were there for discussions on political activism, some wanted lots of sex and some were happy to have a good chat over a cup of tea and an early night. Some went to the bar dressed up in elaborate outfits. Others turned up in jeans and T-shirts.

What was remarkable was that I never experienced any impression that any of these groups were looking down, or mocking, or seeing themselves as superior to any of the others. Of course, I am only describing my own experiences. Others may not all have had the same feeling. I cannot tell what went on in people’s minds or in private conversations, and I’m not saying everything was perfect. However, I speak as someone who, since childhood, has found it hard to fit in. I still very easily feel out-of-place. The fact that I could be open about my religion without being mocked, even by people who strongly disagreed and said so, meant a great deal. On the last night, I even felt confident enough to dance (almost unheard of). I felt that, however bad anyone considered my dancing to be, this was a place in which they were unlikely to laugh at me.

I am aware that some of the differences at BiCon involve clashing opinions on ethics; for example, when it comes to casual sex. I would not want to see a situation in which no-one could express their ethical views. At BiCon, there were workshops, as well as informal conversations were they could do just that. There was inclusivity with no expectation of uniformity or identical beliefs.

At times, the word “inclusivity” is used to describe a fluffy and superficial unity in which differences are overlooked. Sadly, when it is applied to churches, the term sometimes describes an attempt to make everyone feel comfortable without addressing the challenges that face us in a sinful world. But at its best, a truly inclusive church would mirror the radical inclusivity of Christ, in which all are welcome and all are challenged.

It says a great deal that my best recent experience of inclusion has come not through a church but at a gathering of people who would be condemned by a good many of the churches in this country and around the world. I will never stop being both sad and angry that churches that are supposed to reflect the love of Christ continue to condemn people for falling in love.

So you think you’re Straight? What does that mean?

by Sam Somewhere

How do you define yourself? In one form or another, I’ve been asked this question quite a lot. And I use to think I knew the answer. The world was divided into a series of very clear groups: Straight people want relationships with people of the opposite sex, Gays are men who want relationships with men, Lesbians are women who want to be with women. Bi-Sexuals are people who are attracted both ways. I am a Man attracted to Women. Therefore, I am Straight.

The world, it turns out, is not made up of these very clear groups. And what people mean by Straight isn’t actually that simple. When I say “I am Straight”, people get an image of me that is probably much more detailed than should be assumed from my answer. For a start, they will assume that what I mean is that I’m attracted to women, because they will assume I’m male.

When I’m being asked by someone in a Church context, whilst debating homosexuality, I tend to default to the easy answer. It is, perhaps, a sign of weakness. Its a bit like the people I know who go about their lives happy that others see them as straight when the reality is that they’re bi in straight marriage. In a Church context where suspicion and hurt are commonplace, its hardly surprising. But its not truthful.

In wider society, a Gay man could now be living a more Straight life than a ‘Straight’ woman. This sounds ridiculous, but let me explain what I mean: a friend of mine who society labels as Female but is actually Genderqueer has two partners and there are expressions of Kink in both relationships. A Gay friend of mine is living in a deeply monogamous civil partnership (which he and his partner call a marriage), and they get along just fine not engaging in Kink.

The Church, when it discusses these issues, may claim to be using a very simple “Man Marries Woman” concept of Straight. A quarter century of church life tells me that, in reality, the starting point is most often the narrowest definition of Straight imaginable: the Church marries people into monogamous relationships where their is some sex (consummation), but not too much (unhealthy obsession), wherein sex refers only to intercourse (because ew, you wouldn’t actually do X, would you?) and where it is very clear that the man is in charge (which is normal, and not at all connected to the Kink concepts of Domination and Discipline), but no pain is inflicted and no props are employed (because whoever made them must be extremely sinful).

I sometimes refer to someone who chooses this approach as “MPO” – Missionary Position Only. I mention this only because our entire sexual vocabulary hinges on a religious word defining the Lowest Common Denominator; the safe, clean, minimal approach. Any deviation from this line is to be frowned upon.

I want to see a debate in the Church that understands how useless this ‘Straight’ term actually is. The exciting thing about the Queer way of approaching issues, as opposed to the LGB(T) approach, is the challenge it gives to everyone. An LGB(T) approach says “We gays/lesbians want to be recognised as normal people”. A Queer approach, at its most radical, does exactly the opposite – it challenges others to recognise that they might not be as Straight as they previously thought, whether in their own gender identity, the genders and sexes of those they are attracted to, or the styles of relationships they are best suited to.

I want to argue that Straight is a fundamentally silly term. We use it to mean one thing and imply another – to infer a degree of normality or conformity. In mainstream churches, we accept by default that many people will hide behind it as an excuse not to confront and discover their deepest feelings and desires. As an institution, the Church celebrates bisexuals choosing Straight marriage, and pushes us to disown any affiliation to the Kink world.

Churches often give us gender-stereotype conforming Men’s Groups and Women’s Groups as well as Marriage Preparation Courses that claim to fit a range of personalities but which refuse to let us define our own relationships as unique in their configuration. We must be careful to ensure close inter-gender friendships are not mistaken for relationships or even affairs, and if we’re men, that we hug in a way that tells everyone its OK – we’re not actually gay. And when marriages don’t work out, we look for who to blame and push them out of the Church altogether, or assume they’ll never want to come back, rather than seek to minister to them.

Its time we developed the maturity to confront out assumptions about those around us, both within and outside the Family of Christ. And for myself, I’m going to need more time to figure out who I am and how I best relate to people. All I know is that the more I go on, the less I feel I can define as Straight.

Que(e)rying love and relationships

by Beth Predicate

Love is at the heart of Christianity. Romantic love is also core to many people’s experiences of life today. This often takes the form of an idealised romantic love that seems to exclude or deny love of others. ‘To the One I love’, greetings cards often read. Surely as Christians we should counter this notion that we can only love one person, and advocate against restricting our love thus.

Jesus said that the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself comes only after the commandment to love God. This surely implies that we should strive towards love in all our relationships. Certainly for most people love is different in each of their relationships. However, to accept the greetings-card sentiment that we can only really love one person (in that way, some might add, though this notion somewhat confuses me) is to undervalue the love we have for many of our friends. I, for one, love many people, and tell most of them so frequently.

I happen to be in a romantic relationship with one person, but that does not mean I love my friends less than I do that person. I’ll stick with the term ‘romantic’ throughout for want of a better term, though I’m not entirely at ease with it. Whilst the love I feel for most of my friends is qualitatively different to the love I feel for my partner, I don’t believe that that is always or necessarily the case. After all, many people make the transition between being friends and being lovers or partners. Indeed, it’s not impossible to make the transition from partner to friend, either. I’m sure plenty of people feel uncertain of the precise nature of their feelings for particular people.

In the past I’ve been physically attracted to people and enjoyed a degree of physical intimacy with them whilst knowing that I would not want a romantic relationship in the conventional sense with them. To be ethical and avoid confusion in that type of potentially blurred relationship I have always been as clear as possible about my feelings with the person concerned relatively early on. Usually such honesty is welcomed and reciprocated. Sometimes love doesn’t seem to fit into neat boxes, and yet society would seem to have us believe that it does.

Perhaps many Christians would want to delve a little deeper into exactly what forms of physical intimacy I am talking about here. Hand holding or touching? Kissing on the cheek? A peck on the lips? A cuddle? A kiss where tongues meet? More intimate contact still, perhaps involving breasts or genitals? I’ll leave you to wonder. Partly to preserve my own privacy, but mostly because I believe that the important thing in any relationship is its love, its mutuality, its sincerity and its honesty, rather than the details of its physicality. Many physical acts have, after all, changed in meaning over time and between cultures. Here we could get into a separate discussion of quite what we mean by sex and which of the above acts are sexual. I’ll leave that for another time, and perhaps another article – ‘Que(e)rying Sex’, or something along those lines.

Some people I’ve encountered such blurred lines with I’ve stuck to calling friends, others lovers, and still others I’ve been at a loss to find an adequate description for. Sometimes I’ve felt (and indeed, feel) a very deep love for friends, without their being any physical dimension to our relationship. Admittedly, such an entirely non-physical relationship is relatively rare for me, since I’m a tactile person by nature. By now I’ve largely stopped trying to analyse or find words for many of my relationships. Which perhaps brings us round to that term ‘In a relationship’, which is so common. Most of us are in many relationships, with many different people, and I’d suggest that to imply otherwise is to denigrate those relationships in our lives which society would not deem ‘romantic’.

In a fast-moving world where so much is changing, and where weddings often cost thousands and thousands of pounds, it pays to sell an idealised ‘traditional’ love and a notion of ‘The One’. I suspect I’m not alone in doubting that ‘The One’ exists: at least not for most people. Often we choose to spend a considerable portion of our lives in a romantic relationship with one person, but that’s not to say that no other romantic relationship would or could work for us.

We are all too often defined by our romantic relationships. In magazines contributors are often described briefly. Spouses of contributors are relatively frequently mentioned, especially in the case of female writers. Obviously it’s great that there are important people in such contributors’ lives, but why should people not refer to important friends in such descriptions if they wish, particularly if single? A single life need absolutely not mean one devoid of wonderful and meaningful relationships, much as our society would often have us believe it does.

I’d love to live in a society where it is just as acceptable for my ‘plus one’ at a wedding to be a friend as it is for them to be my romantic partner. This Christmas day I’ll probably be with a friend, though I may well see my partner and my family at Christmas time too. Sadly the potential importance of friendships is rarely recognised or understood by society, and I suspect this will be viewed with incomprehension or even suspicion.

How might we as Christians begin to love our enemies if we do not even fully acknowledge and appreciate our love of friends and their potential importance in our lives? A queer Christian take on love might begin by acknowledging its importance for us in many of our relationships, be they ‘romantic’ or not. Indeed, the only relationships we see Jesus conducting in the gospels, besides chance encounters and comradely ones, are loving friendships, so we have a good example to follow there. One of the apostles is even referred to as ‘the one Jesus loved’, and Jesus undertakes the physical act of washing his disciples’ feet.