Erasure: Eros-affirming Christianity

“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”

-George Orwell

 

This post has been a long time coming and, in this post, I know I’m going to be speaking about topics that are sacred in unorthodox ways so first I want to emphasize that I am not a theologian. I am an intersectional researcher and believer of Christ. I was raised in a Haitian Baptist church in a very conservative yet uniquely spiritual manner but began exploring theology as an academic curiosity during my undergraduate and graduate program.  During my exploration, I was drawn to Isaiah 58:5-8 (NLT):

“You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Then your salvation will come like the dawn and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind”

I meditated on this verse and it became the crux around which I organized my faith. My faith wasn’t about performing, it was about loving and liberating my neighbor. My faith was activated as a political identity and my role occurred to me: I wanted to examine The Bible, the sacred Christian text, and look at the books a with a more critical eye. Though our government is not a theocracy, our country has evoked a lot of Christian religious imagery throughout its history. The story of Cain, for example, was the biblical explanation for the subjugation of Black people in America during slavery and the Jim Crow era. I’ve even seen Romans 13:1 pop up recently by conservatives urging people to “obey [their] leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over [their] souls.” Which is very different from the Psalms 109 verse conservatives cited in support of the speedy exit of Former President Obama.

The Bible, as we know it today, dates back over 3500 years (some may even say 5000 years). It was derived from many codex and parchments discovered in disparate places, compiled and distributed by man. It has been translated into different languages and versions, and has been used by institutions as “God’s doctrine” to oppress/exclude various groups of people so a critical eye is pretty necessary when examining the text.

The Bible has been weaponized against certain communities especially women and queer people to justify disruptions of their communion with the divine but we must separate the biblical author’s biases and perspectives from our understanding of God and divinity.

Considering my commitment to God as Yahweh Nissi and Jehovah Rapha, I perceived those interpretations as antithetical to the faith. One of the ways I feel the text has been weaponized has been through the erasure of a healthy discussion of eros (which is defined below) and the erotic from public religious discourse. According to Audre Lorde:

“The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives”

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, Eros is:

  1. “The sum of life-preserving instincts that are manifested as impulses to gratify basic needs, as sublimated impulses and to preserve the mind and body”
  2. Love conceived by Plato as a fundamental creative impulse having a sensual element
  3. Erotic love or desire
  4. Name of the Greek god of erotic love (not what I’m referring to)

Traditionally, the Bible has been used to wedge a gap between spirituality and sexuality. However, this post uses The Erotic Word by David Carr, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power by Audre Lorde and Breaking Open: Sodom and Gomorrah by Soulforce to help guide us as we bridge the gap between our sensual and spiritual selves.

In modern Christianity, sexuality is seen as the opposite of spirituality. Early Christians were influenced by Pythagorean philosophy which was explicitly anti-sexual. It preached that the only way to gain spiritual freedom was to redirect sexual desire to desire for higher goods like beauty and truth. This philosophy undergirds the development of early attitudes towards sex. The philosophy is reinforced in the Bible with stories depicting Jesus as single and Paul’s consistent personal anti-sex bias especially present in Galations 5:16-19. It’s also reinforced by the development of “cultures of celibacy” among priests, leaders and notable thinkers who were deemed spiritually superior for practicing sexual restraint. Though, in contemporary times marital sex is seen as the exception to moral contempt – early Christian writers even forbade marital sex during huge parts of the church year. The church began to shift away from this view in the 1800s in exchange for support of a nuclear family though mixed sexual messaging in the Biblical texts remained the same.

If you’re still having trouble making the leap from spirituality to sexuality, let me try to illustrate it for you with an exercise. Below is a list of one-word concepts of spirituality:

 

Wholeness

Letting Go

Relationship

Safety

Trust

Love

Communion

Oneness

Gratitude

Connectedness

 

 

How many of these words also apply to sensuality?

Though the Bible has been used to repress eros and sexuality, I want to present some examples and historical contextualization to highlight the ways the Bible affirms the link between the spiritual and the sensual.

Let’s begin this conversation with a discussion of the body with the first mention of the human body in the Bible: Genesis 1: 26-27 says:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a]and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

27So God created mankind in his own image,

   in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.”

The first images of humans are actually very affirming. Rather than seeing the body like Paul does, as something “contrary to the Spirit,” this presents the body as our physical connection to God.  Rather than being prisoner to our flesh, our body is actually a signal of our global dominion and divinity.

The story of the first humans Ha’adam or Adam (meaning human) and Havah or Eve (meaning life) has been used to repress women and sexuality but upon further examination of the text, it actually seems to affirm not only erotic connections but connections to the Earth and equal corresponding partnerships. The Biblical Hebrew word for Earth, “Adamah” seems to be an explicit connection between Adam who was crafted from the earth. God, who created the Earth, saw and declared that “it was good,” so crafting human from Earth evokes further affirmation of our body. If the Earth is good, then our bodies, a product of the Earth, must also be good.

Not only did God create our bodies from the Earth he deemed as good, he also breathed divine breath or nephesh into them. Carr argues that:

“Genesis 1 affirms human bodily form and sexuality as reflections of God’s image and blessing. Genesis 2 affirm that God crafted human bodies and enlivened them with a divine breath that is in us as long as we live. Our inner electric energy, the part that moves us and feels passion, is God’s enlivening breath” (p.30)

Though early Christianity celebrated solitude and often sanctioned sexual behavior, Genesis 2 is also very affirming to embodied relationships. The author creates Ha’adam or Adam who names all the animals, but he had no equal until God created Eve as to correspond to him. He makes them equal and without any mention of procreation, the biblical author writes:

 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will be joined to his wife. And they will become one flesh. 25 The man and his wife were both without clothes and were not ashamed.

This image celebrates non-reproductive erotic connections between corresponding partners

Our two first Earthly friends not only set the tone for how modern societies viewed eros, they also set the tone for centuries of years of female and sexual subjugation. Genesis 3 begins the story of the fateful Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit. Traditional interpretations about the forbidden fruit imply that it is a symbol of sexual transgression however, I implore you to take a closer read:

1Now the snake was more able to fool others than any animal of the field which the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say that you should not eat from any tree in the garden?” Then the woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden. But from the tree which is in the center of the garden, God has said, ‘Do not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’”

The snake said to the woman, “No, you for sure will not die! For God knows that when you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and bad.” The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and pleasing to the eyes, and could fill the desire of making one wise. So she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were without clothes. So they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves clothing.”

For one, contrary to popular interpretation, the Bible doesn’t actually liken the snake to Satan. The serpent is actually an ancient symbol of immortality and wisdom so what we see in Genesis 3, is an ancient temptation between Eve/Havah (or life) with wisdom and immortality. As the story goes, Adam and Eve both eat the forbidden fruit. However, contrary to God’s words, they do not immediately die (they live very long, fruitful lives), instead what we see here is a death of naivety. Adam and Eve eat the fruit and for the first time they realize they are naked and experience shame. Reading the text closely, the forbidden fruit is actually wisdom or “knowing good and bad.” A lot of early Christians were taught that the original sin was a sexual sin and that’s why Adam ruled over her and women have pain in childbirth to control her sexual palate. However, the story of Eden seems to be one about maturity, and what it means to become consciously aware of the pain and suffering in the world. This lens allows us to see maturity and adulthood as a time when one’s eyes are finally opened. Rather than making reaches to make this story a condemnation of previously affirmed eros, this lens allows us a window into the development of consciousness of the first humans and genesis of our faith.

Finally, the last bit I want to deconstruct with you is: Now that our “eyes are opened” and we are “like God knowing good from bad,” how do we apply this discretion to our application of these ancient texts. For one, we do research and we contextualize the stories of our ancient spiritual leaders. 2018 is a very different year from the 6th century B.C. We should use discernment, community and love to decide how to adapt ancient Biblical texts not racism, nationalism or homophobia. There are many behaviors that are explicitly condoned or accepted in the Bible that do not coincide with our current norms or understandings or have been intentionally skewed to promote the exclusion or already oppressed people.  For example, the actual story Soddom and Gomorrah is  a condemnation of rape (and an indictment of the failed moral obligation to take care of visitors as part of a covenant with God) rather than consensual or homosexual sex. Honestly, it is nearly impossible to create a sexual ethic aligned with contemporary norms based on the Bible, women’s consent wasn’t even a Biblical ethic. The Bible’s explicit commentary on sex supports behavior that our society had criminalized. In Proverbs 6:26, the Bible says “For the fee of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life” as a way to support prostitution over adultery.” However, our leaders are not on the pulpit urging males into solicitation. Our nation has an issue with cherry-picking verses for their benefit under the guise of autonomy and discretion. The incomplete proselytization has a lot to do with erasure and unjust condemnation of minorities like queer people and women from divine policy and decision making. Without a seat at the table, we’ve become a menu item.

Once we can admit that we’ve been removed (by thousands of years and translations) from the ancient text, we can use our God given wisdom and autonomy to support an Eros-affirming Christianity that aims to liberate the oppressed neighbors among us especially women and queer people and celebrates the divinity inside our bodies.

 

 

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