Let’s Talk About the Marriage Amendment Minnesota!

Alright, rather than devoting my time and energy about how cynical I feel about the general election, I should devote my time and energy to something I feel is important, perhaps even just as a citizen of Minnesota. There are other posts where I have talked about my religious reasons as a Jew for opposing this amendment and applauding the Minnesota Rabbinical Association for doing so—although I could probably write a whole book on Jewishness and queerness—and I have written about my own complicated relationship with regard to same-sex marriage and my own sense of queer politics. The last one is not to be divisive but to be honest with people to say that there is more at stake and that there should be open and honest conversations about these politics. But my point is to argue against this amendment.

The way that I have seen it is that this amendment has thrown religion to the forefront of a debate that is immensely complicated and several different issues rolled into one: how should religious institutions best be a public witness to their own message? How do we understand the “church”-state divide? How do we understand marriage as both a religious institution but also as a civic and economic institution that provides benefits to couples?

Nevertheless, it seems to be framed as a religious debate that has spilled into the public sphere. If you ask most Jews or most Unitarian Universalists, for instance, we’d tell you that same-sex marriage is a religious and public virtue. The debate is largely settled with these specific religious groups. Thus, I think the issue is largely a Christian debate. Christianity has had a large hegemony over the public sphere in the history of the United States, so this seems like a logical conclusion. Considering that secularism has always been influenced by Christian virtues and ethe (pl. of ethos) and I would argue, still is today, it should be no surprise that this can also play out as a seemingly non-religious debate.

But then I also believe it is incorrect to push this debate into other sectors of civil society where the debate is largely a non-issue. For a moment, I would like to go to Dietrich Bonhoffer and especially his so-called “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoffer at one point in time in his letters from prison discusses what is known as Arcani Disciplina (in German, Arkandisziplin), or the discipline of the secret.  The Discipline of the Secret was an ancient Christian practice that meant not discussing the mysteries of the faith, such as the Eucharist, in the presence of the unbaptized. Only those instructed in the faith and willing to make a Christian commitment through baptism were admitted to the Eucharistic communion part of the Lord’s Supper. Bonhoeffer reformulated this in light of the modern world, where Christian truths were forced upon an unwilling world. The Church should not wield the coercive sword in order to preserve the mysteries of the faith. Rather, they are to preserve them through prayer, worship, and example. 

Now, I would like to move to early Evangelical thought in the United States. It might surprise some of us today that evangelicals were the strictest supporters of separation of church and state, to such a degree that many supported taxing religious institutions. Their support of separation had much to do with a high view of God and religious volunteerism. Their high view of God was a plurality of religious groups should coexist and it is up to God and not the state to decide which religions should flourish and which should whither away. Religious volunteerism was important because state coercion or control of an individuals choice on matters of conscience would interfere with their free choice to choose the will of God. If religion and state intermingled, it meant that individuals no longer had a free choice and they could no longer rely on their own conscience to tell them what was right and wrong. Lastly, these evangelicals also believed that they had a divine mandate and the state would corrupt this mandate. Essentially, when state and religion mix, it is religion that becomes compromised. All of these views begin to make sense when we recognize that in the 18th century, Baptists and other evangelicals were an actively persecuted religious minority in states such as Massachusetts and Virginia that did have state-sponsored religion.

To Synthesize 

The evangelicals and Bonhoffer might not agree completely but I think both had a high-mindedness about truth. This is important in any democratic society, if we care about a democratic society. If the state takes a side in this issue, it signals the debate is effectively over.  Personally, I believe that if this amendment passes, that it will only be law for a short period of time because the debate isn’t over. I think the fact that the debate is occurring is a consequence that a consensus against same-sex marriage is quickly eroding. Then again, I take a view of the public sphere that is largely intolerant once there is a large consensus. Those who oppose same-sex marriage no longer have a monopoly on public acceptability and I fear that they are moving to the sword of the state to enforce their views of religiosity upon the public as a whole. Using the sword of the state shuts off a real public discussion about not only the issue of same-sex marriage but all the other questions that I mentioned above. The evangelicals in colonial America might agree with conservatives about marriage, but they would disagree with the way in which it is being handled because individuals no longer have a hand in making conscientious choices with regard to matters of religion. It also says that God’s truth can no longer win out, we need the coercive power of the state to enforce our views. Lastly, I bring up Bonhoffer for an important reason. First, I bring him up because I think he is correct about the issue of forcing witness on populations who largely don’t understand or accept it. It leads to the question of whether it is appropriate to amend our state constitution in such a way that privileges one sector of Christianity. Does witness belong to the entire state or does it belong to the faithful? Moreover, does an amendment such as this not make the population de facto Christian in a perhaps immensely problematic way?

These are reasons why I oppose such an amendment. It forces non-Christians to reckon with a debate that is effectively a Christian one and it removes the democratic potential of such conversations. We no longer have the face each other and discuss our conscience openly and honestly. The state gets to make those decisions for us. In the end, my post is an attempt to not only honor a more democratic discussion, but also to discuss ways in which one can oppose this amendment for fundamentally religiously conservative reasons.

For more more information, I would encourage you to go to Minnesotans United for All Families.

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Gay Marriage is so Neoliberal

I felt the need to talk this one out via my blog. It has to do with a combination of Obama’s tacit acceptance of same-sex marriage and a lot of other news events

One thing that occurred was with the United Methodist General Conference. Many of my friends were at the conference or following it closely. The thing that consistently appeared on my facebook feeds were about their disappointment in not including queer people in the church. At the same time, the general conference voting against divestment from companies that build the equipment that help perpetuate Israeli state violence against Palestinians. I am sure that a few words were said on the latter but most of the discussion was about the former issue.  For a Jewish perspective on the failure to end divestment, you can read here.

To be honest, I was angered that more reaction was given on a clause than on divestment from businesses that actively participate in the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians. To be fair, I think about Israel a lot as a Jew and I think about Palestine a lot and that the state of Israel really signifies the failure of the Jewish ethical tradition (not only the rabbinic tradition but also the philosophical tradition). I am also not Methodist, so it may not be up to me to judge the internal affairs of a church with which I do not participate (even if their decisions indirectly affect us all). So the human rights abuses by Israelis against Palestinians is something that I follow probably a lot more than most Methodists.

This kind of reaction is perhaps why every time we talk about someone supporting same-sex marriage, I roll my eyes. Or, I get angry even if the people posting the comments are well-intentioned (and they are definitely well intentioned). For some reason, focusing on the same-sex marriage debate got it in our heads that it is the main queer issue. Queer people are everywhere and in every strata of the societies which we live. To be more transparent, queer people’s houses are being bulldozed through the money the United Methodist Church invests in Caterpillar. My point is not to condemn the United Methodist Church, nor my friends who have spoken passionately about including queer people in their church, but really to see the failure of talking about certain issues as somehow meriting the “queer issue” status while other issues are somehow not. I think this is a systemic issue. In reaction to Obama’s approval, one of my friend’s on facebook said, “this is all nice, but where was the community support when CeCe was on trial?”

Marriage has become increasingly important, as neoliberal policies continue to dismantle the already small welfare state and privatize and deregulate our government. Marriage becomes the means of getting healthcare, affording housing, getting a green-card, so on and so forth. In a way, it’s ironic that those most staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage are also the people who supported the policies that helped bring about its genesis. Rather than talking merely about marriage, why are we not also discussing a public option for healthcare? It’s not that radical of a position, considering the majority of American citizens actually support a public option. Why are we not talking about homelessness in queer communities? Or housing discrimination? Or trans rights? Why aren’t we advocating more fiercely for more inclusive immigration policies? Or why aren’t we talking about the fact that the marriage debate is really about notions of respectability (the only way for queer citizens to be respected is to look respectable) and why aren’t we challenging those terms of respectability? Why are we focusing on what Obama has said when our foreign policy  supports the bulldozing of Palestinian housing? Or why aren’t more of us standing in solidarity with CeCe in her unjust imprisonment?

I guess these are the things I think about when I hear news about a politician’s views on same-sex marriage finally “evolving” to support it.

Barton’s Follies

Reading through John Barton’s The Nature of Biblical Criticism, I find myself unconvinced about his arguments concerning biblical scholarship. Part of this has to do with the convoluted nature of his argumentation but I suspect that this is intentional. While Barton argues that biblical scholarship is not primarily about advocating the historical-critical method, he also seems to believe that the text has one meaning (or makes assumptions about the author of the text, i.e. he considers 2 Thessalonians one of Paul’s epistles, even though many Paul scholars would contest him on that assumption).

It’s clear that the paradigm in biblical hermeneutics is shifting, allowing more room for critical social theory to enter into the fray of biblical scholarship. Then again, I am not sure that positivist readings of scripture are on the decline either, as Barton claims. I see these kinds of claims all the time in Hebrew Bible departments and even the program I am entering has been primarily such a program. My main contention is that he appears to dismiss advocacy readings in favor of a ‘plain sense’ of the scripture.

What this plain sense means is a “semantic or linguistic and a literary operation first and foremost, only indirectly concerned with the original, the intended, the historical, or the literal meaning” (101). Essentially, the plain sense of the text is the proper semantic or linguistic meaning of the words used in the text, “the texts mean what they mean, what they have always meant” (102).  At the same time, the ‘advocacy’ readings Barton disparages are essential.

Why reject advocacy readings? For a particular attack, he singles out Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (my home gurl). Schüssler Fiorenza, for reference, has been immensely influential in my work, despite our fields differing. Schüssler Fiorenza is correct in noting that biblical scholarship has been primarily concerned with objectivity and positivism (which I still think that Barton’s hermeneutic falls under) and this has obscured marginal voices in biblical scholarship. Barton contends that our arguments against any notion of objectivity are fallacious because we really do think that the text confronts us with something. In some sense, I agree with this criticism. Our advocacy readings are, in some senses, concerned with objectivity.

I have thought about this a lot in relation to the historical-critical method, especially in relation to Benjamin’s definition of historical materialism, where the oppressed past appears at moments of conflict in the present to confront us. Feminist, queer, afro-american, post-colonial, and other literary readings obviously have historical elements to them and helps in historicization (or contextualization of the text). Working with ancient Israelite texts, I do make the assumption that these privileged texts have silenced or glossed over the ‘oppressed past.’ In a way, I try to think of my work in literature as an extension of Howard Zinn’s method. Israelite texts that survived are the texts of the winners, those with the power in the culture to be able to preserve said texts and even then, I think we can gain inferences from the oppressed past within the privileged documents of the Hebrew Bible (and sometimes these texts stand against some of the normative practices of Israelite culture). But is this really a means to deny a whole host of literary hermeneutics that has helped in advancing in our understanding of the text and its critical engagement?

Perhaps in the end, I really feel the same way as Roland Boer.

MRA Votes No on Proposed Marriage Amendment

Although I am not surprised that the Minnesota Rabbinical Association decided to vote No on the proposed marriage amendment that would define marriage between a man and a woman, it is great news to hear. You can read the news here. Moreover, you can read their proposal over at Jewish Community action, which outlines their rationale for opposing the marriage amendment.

News like this doesn’t surprise me because the Pew Research Center has shown that a majority (75-76%) of the Jewish population has supported same-sex marriage, the group with the largest support of it. Even though the queer politics of same-sex marriage is immensely complicated (that is, same-sex marriage having some deep messianic significance in the queer community and the amount of attention and funding that goes to this issue instead of say poverty, which I think is a far more important queer issue, among many important queer issues, for instance), I still think that stories like this are important to me as a queer and observant Jew. Equally important is the title of the Pew article titled,  “Beyond Secular versus Religious.” I think titles like these are important to combat the impression that same-sex marriage is a secular issue or the narrative that same-sex marriage is supported by a secular elite and being forced on religious groups. Therefore, somehow any  innovation is constituted as a threat to religious freedom. Polling like this shows, however, that many political issues are not issues of religiosity over against secularity but religious people versus religious people. This isn’t to mitigate the importance of secular or nonreligious voices. However, what it is to point out is that religion should not be used as a linchpin argument. That is, if religiosity is important to us, it should have community value for us, not be something that is forced upon all of America. I recognized that “forced” is a highly contentious term. But it is also clear that the right’s vision of the United States as a Christian nation is a reading of the past that, to use Benjaminian terms attempts to convey to the present how the past “really was” and these totalizing readings of the past tend to end in violence because they flatten out the inherent tensions in history.

To move to the MRA’s rationale is equally significant because it reveals the “flashes of the past” that Benjamin found as a site of potential liberation. The MRA had two principles surrounding their decision Kavod HaBriyot “the dignity of [God’s] Creation” and Lo ta-amod al dam rei-echa “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Lev 19:16). The importance of the first rationale is significant because it is a specifically halakhic degree employed by rabbis in exceptional circumstances. That is, if Halakha is found to deny the dignity to human creations, or to use Butler’s term, if Halakha renders subjects unintelligible, then by the power of human dignity, Jewish law is suspended. I believe this is an immensely intelligent move on part of the MRA because while it does not deny that Halakha is discriminatory in regards to queer sexual activities, it argues that in this case human dignity trumps halakhic decision making. Moreover, their use of this term brings up “flashes of the past.”

The Association states, “The Jewish community has faced discrimination and therefore we will not stand by while others are targeted.” This leads them to the second principle found in the Torah. This represents the flashes of the past precisely because the Rabbis are recognizing that in this historical moment, that another group is facing discrimination. They are not arguing that this is exactly like the past, but are recognizing that our shared historical experience as the Jewish people has visited upon us disasters. It means that if we are witnesses to the injustices of our own past, it means that we must take a stand against the injustices of the present even if such a decision runs counter to our own traditions.

It is interesting that I am reading about Benjamin and also reading a book entitled Lost Intimacies: Rethinking Homosexuality under National Socialism by William Spurlin. Spurlin employs queer theory to argue that homosexuality in and of itself was not targeted in Nazi Germany but talks about the ways in which sexuality was racialized in Nazi Germany and that it was considered a Jewish invasion upon German sexuality. Moreover, Jewish men in European culture were often feminized and that homosexual men and Jewish men were often considered synonymous because both were too feminine. Spurlin is careful to argue that the persecution of homosexuals was less systematic than that of the Jewish people but he also points out that this persecution was not only real but that we cannot work out oppression on the basis of a single-axis of analysis.

The flashes of the past, at least for me, is that European culture often feminized Jewish men and considered them the root of homosexuality in Europe. This history signifies to me the importance of standing in solidarity with queerness and Judaism. It signifies solidarity and support in the present. For that, I am glad that the MRA evokes the Jewish past in their decision, even if such an evocation fails to mention the intersections of the queer and Jewish communities in Europe. It also means that religiosity moves not only beyond its often scriptural assumptions but also the assumption that religion is solely about faith and towards a sense of shared culture and historical memory.

An Abstained Vote for the President

Tuesday I am supposed to caucus with the Democratic Party and cast my vote for the candidate who will represent us. The presumption is that we all support President Obama in his reelection campaign. I’ve gone back and forth between whether I vote for Obama again. For me, criticism of state violence is not only one of my central political tenets but also religious tenets. Judaism has been a major source of critiquing not only the state violence perpetuated by the United States but Israel as well. My conscience tells me that it would be inexcusable for me to vote to reelect an administration whose policies are often similar to or exactly the same as the policies of the Bush administration. It is not merely a question of disappointment or disillusion with the fact that Obama didn’t turn out as the progressive that I had hoped. When it comes down to it, most politicians with that much power employ Machiavellian realpolitik. It is also to say that the administration itself has also been stopped at every point by a Republican senate and house. The Obama administration has had to ostensibly compromise and even after compromise the Republican party has refused to support him out of some misplaced sense of appearing purist.

On domestic policies, I was disappointed that his administration abandoned stronger versions of healthcare. We’re a wealthy industrial nation. We offer every citizen thirteen years of education paid for by the government, we should be supporting initiatives that give affordable and effective healthcare to all of our citizens. This is a Jewish conviction that shares similarities with Islamic thought. Blessing is not meant to be hoarded. Rather, material blessing from God demands that we bless others in turn. The Obama administration has effectively refused to support single-payer system as Max Baucus explicitly tabled the single-payer system without any discussion of it. While reformist attitudes have argued that we need to work up to a single-payer system and create the infrastructure for it, I believe that the infrastructure for it already exists and not only that but the majority of our population actually does support it, especially if you call it “medicare for everyone.” Moreover, I think that the Obama administration has largely pursued technocratic free-market policies and not ostensibly being rooted in issues of social justice. Again, I actually think on economic issues that our population is more to the Left than voting would have us believe.

This turns me to issues of surveillance, indefinite detention, due-process-free policies, and the continuation of the so-called war on terror. The one plus I can grant to the Obama administration is a stronger position on torture. At the same time, we have seen the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and conflicts in Libya that have resulted in the continued loss of human life. The Obama administration remained silent on the massacre in Gaza. Moreover, it seems abundantly clear that we will go to war with Iran in the upcoming year as an ally to Israel, resulting in even greater loss of human life. While I would argue that war dehumanizes not only abroad but also at home generally, it is clear that the war on terror has increased orientalist rhetoric within our homeland. We have seen a social dehumanization of Muslims, Arabs, and Sikhs. The Obama administration has continued the policies of the Bush administration, ones that many of us on the Left critiqued when Bush was president of the United States. It seems contradictory to shift my stance simply because a Democrat is in office. This is the worst sort of identity politics.

With that said, I cannot in good conscience, or as the Quakers would say, I feel moved to vote against the Obama administration this time around. Perhaps I will change my mind due to other circumstances, such as the potential for the House and the Senate to be Republican controlled. At the same time, I remain convinced that voting to reelecting Obama would result in a serious compromise of my own principles.

If I May…

I appreciate that Margaret Moers Wenig troubles the image of God rhetoric that envisions humanity as male and female. Wenig troubles the “God image” in three ways. First, she argues that not all human beings were created wholly male or female. Second, she argues that not all human beings identify with the gender it which they appear to have been created. Third, she argues that not all people fit neatly into the categories of male and female. Last, she argues that Jewish tradition does not assume gender dimorphism because it understands that there are six genders and that humans, even by rabbinic standards, don’t fit into the binary categories of male and female. In other words, Wenig appears to be heading towards a trajectory that renders Genesis 1 and its account of ‘creation’ problematic and contests the gender assumptions of it.

However, it is disappointing when Wenig concludes her reading of Gen 1:27-30 by analyzing the phrase, zachar u’nikvah bara otam “male and female he created them” as a merism, a biblical figure of speech in which a whole is alluded to by some of its parts. The notion of God creating the whole of humanity in his image and that all of us bear some image of the sacred is appealing, especially to the social justice person inside of me. It is a text that many queer people use as a means of advocating for their inclusion in religious institutions. At the same time, it’s hard for me to read that phrase as inclusive, or that somehow male and female can be read as merely a spectrum rather than two distinct gender-identities. To be sure, I am not saying that we should read the gender dimorphism in the text as an accurate depiction of gender or the sexed body. Rather, it appears troubling to me that a human being can identify with the “God-image” without seeing that integral to the text is the dimension of dimorphous gender-identities (or sexed bodies) and that humans created in that image are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” In other words, Gen 1:1-2:4a depicts gender in a way that is unintelligible without reproduction. It appears to me that rather than arguing, “this is not a text that we can accept without creative appropriation and, yes, queering,” reducing gender to a merism in the text allows it to stand as a sacral text without much critical disagreement with the way the text constructs desire, sexuality, gender, and ultimately, the human body.

In this text, God genders humans ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the human body is made intelligible through the commandment to reproduce. This is hardly surprising as Priestly narratives and legal materials, which Gen 1:1-2:4a is part, envision women as an extension and a commodity to men. Particularly, the purpose of women in the Priestly social vision is for their ability to reproduce. Various narratives are retold in which where women had a voice in earlier text, are rendered silent by the Priestly social order. This commandment could be—and has been—conceived as a teleological goal for human sexuality is reproduction, meaning that humans who have no desire to reproduce or do not identify with ‘male’ or ‘female’ categories in the ‘traditional’ sense are rendered as unintelligible within that cultural text (or at the very least, rendered as a chaotic force that threatens the social order which protects the Israelites from YHWH’s wrath).

While we might not think of it as such, inferences to the human body in Gen 1:1-2:4a are historical constructions. Genesis 1:1-2:4a might seem like a normative account for the human body and this makes sense, as the text itself is not legislation or narrative in the typical way. It does not appear to be historical but rather it can give the appearance of providing transcendent categories about nature. It is easy for us to believe that because God created those categories, that is the way the universe works: humans are categorized into binaries with the purpose of reproduction.

I agree with Judith Butler (and Foucault) that the body is not natural. Rather, like Butler, I agree that there is no ahistorical, natural body and that the human body is constructed through cultural norms, taboos, conventions and even laws. That is, all we know and experience is a historical body constructed through specific discourses of meaning and cultures. Even though, much of Western discourse has located a ‘biological sex’, it cannot exist outside of culture and that it is constructed specifically within culture. As such, ‘sex’ is an effect of gender norms and the effect of specific power relations.

The body in Gen 1:27-30 is not constructed as a merism because the sexed body in this text is understood through specific power relations, in this case, the importance of reproduction in ancient Israelite (hegemonic) texts. Moreover, it is understood through what the priestly writers convey throughout their writings. Gender differences are maintained in priestly writings because of the importance of reproduction and the dominance of supposedly male bodies over female bodies. I guess the issue I see, in the end, is whether this text can actually be resolved without deconstructing its supposed assumptions. Wenig moves in that trajectory but doesn’t do a ton to talk about how bodies are constructed through culture and how the ‘image of God’ rhetoric itself is gendered.

I do think that the image of God rhetoric can be appropriated, however. Such rhetoric was already appropriated from the Priestly authors who appropriated such concepts from the monarchical tradition in the ancient Near East, where the King was envisioned as being in the image of the deity. In that sense, the priestly rhetoric moves towards democratizing autocratic rhetoric and I think we should be able to appropriate that rhetoric and queer it even more. At the same time, I think we need to be clear that standing in God’s image, at least in this text means something very specific and it means ritualization in a way that inevitably excludes and renders others culturally unintelligible. It means that if we seek to appropriate that language, we should do so carefully and not without contesting the gender norms already assumed within the text. Perhaps it means allowing ourselves the ability to produce a more inclusive Image and at the same time recognize that any Image can and will be appropriated for exclusionary purposes.

Indoctrination, Yes

While I am obviously pissed at Queerty for its constant assertions that Minneapolis queer culture is somehow less than San Francisco queer culture, I agree with one of yesterday’s posts about indoctrinating children. The basic argument of the post can be summarized as follows:

They accuse us of exploiting children and in response we say, “NOOO! We’re not gonna make kids learn about homosexuality, we swear! It’s not like we’re trying to recruit your children or anything.” But let’s face it—that’s a lie. We want educators to teach future generations of children to accept queer sexuality. In fact, our very future depends on it.

and,

I and a lot of other people want to indoctrinate, recruit, teach, and expose children to queer sexuality AND THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Hell, our opponents even do the same…Anti-gay opponents are already unabashedly indoctrinating our children with the church and conservative politicians on their side and they make no bones about it.

Combine this with Foucault,

[One] thing to distrust is the tendency to relate the question of homosexuality to the problem of “Who am I?” and “What is the secret of my desire?” Perhaps it would be better to ask oneself, “What relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?” The problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships. …. The development toward which homosexuality tends is one of friendship (“Friendship as a Way of Life,” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, 135-6).

I agree absolutely with Queerty, we need to be honest that we are attempting to teach and expose children to queer sexualities and queer cultural practices. I wrote a lot in my one semester as a graduate student about the moral worth of queer sexualities and cultures. This Foucault quote was one of my mantras throughout the semester, particularly his statement about the “use of sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.” Queerness is a way of life, one that, while sometimes intersecting with the heterosexual matrix, contests the cultural norms of our society. Queerness is a Midrash on cultural norms and practices. I’m okay with that. I want future generations to have a critical lens and I want them to learn the beauty and power of queer culture.

As a side note, I agree that we need to be conscious about pointing out how the theocratic Right employs indoctrination. It is something that many people rarely do when engaging, if one can actually engage, with the theocratic Right. Politics of truth, right?