Unexpectedly Christian: The Unrecognized Grace Behind Gay and Lesbian Emancipation

WhenFeb 15, 2007 from 8:00 pm CT
Location The First Congregational Church of Wilmette
1125 Wilmette Avenue
Wilmette, IL 60091
Event Details


Theologian James Alison addressed an audience of religious professionals and laity on February 15, 2007 at First Congregational Church of Wilmette (FCCW), a United Church of Christ, on the topic Unexpectedly Christian: The Unrecognized Grace Behind Gay and Lesbian Emancipation.  Alison was invited to speak by FCCW and The Raven Foundation. Alison’s lecture addressed the theology behind the gay and lesbian experience of emancipation through grace, in light of René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire.

What is Mimetic Desire?

To briefly explain Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is a difficult task, but one that must be undertaken to understand Alison’s comments and the context of his thought.  Simply put, there are three main parts to Girard’s theory.

The first states that humans imitate the desires of other humans. These desires can be for physical objects, such as specific foods, clothing, cars, or the latest-and-greatest video game, or these desires can be for metaphysical objects, such as social status, power, and/or happiness. Imitating the desires of another will inevitably bring us into competition and often conflict with one another in a rivalry for the object.  Soon, the rivalry ceases to be about the object; it is about displacing, humiliating, and/or defeating our rival.

The second part of Girard’s theory states that these rivalries can easily lead to a never ending cycle of violence.  This puts the community in a very dangerous situation.  The cycle of violence can be broken, and the community saved from destruction, when a third party – the scapegoat – is blamed as the cause of the conflict.  The scapegoat is likely to be a weaker member of the community, one who is marginalized and has no defenders. With blame shifted onto the scapegoat, the original conflict is temporarily resolved.  Peace in the community is restored, but the root cause of the conflict remains undetected, while the innocence of the scapegoated victim is concealed.  The original parties have a very difficult time understanding the role they play in victimizing the scapegoat because the peace they experience allows them to justify their accusations against the scapegoat.

The third part of Girard’s theory explains that the discovery of the scapegoat mechanism occurred primarily through Jewish and Christian scriptures. Girard sees the scapegoat process played out in the Jewish prophetic tradition and in the Christian understanding of the life of Jesus as ultimate scapegoat for the rivalistic desires of human culture.  The Jewish and Christian traditions challenge the logic of the scapegoat mechanism, shedding light on the truth about the cause of the conflict and the innocence of the scapegoated victim.

With this explanation of mimetic desire in mind, we can now turn to James Alison and his lecture Unexpectedly Christian….

Revelation and Interpretation

Alison seeks to explore a problem with contemporary theology regarding the emancipation of gays and lesbians. The problem was pointed out to Alison by the Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams. Williams says that the majority of the discussions concerning theology and homosexuality revolve around a pre-theological worldview. Alison explains this challenge by paraphrasing Williams: On the one hand, there is a world in which fundamentalist reading of the Bible is the norm and there are simply no hermeneutical questions that can be asked. And on the other side, there is what one might describe, and I’m putting words into his mouth here, but, fundamentalist liberalism – a set of presuppositions surrounding what is right and good and natural that have essentially to do with civil rights, human rights, and in particular that maximally sacred document, your Constitution, which provides therefore, as you like, the religious underpinning of the rightness of the position.

Alison states that the two questions at the heart of Williams’ challenge are, “What is the ecclesial process by which a revelation from somewhere else that is not simply ourselves talking to ourselves, opens us up to a bigger reality?  And does that include gay and lesbian people?”  Alison’s answer to the first question involves the revelation of Christian scripture and tradition.  Alison is able to answers yes to the latter question by using the term “kath’ olon,” or according to the whole, which, in his view, includes gay and lesbian people.

To help us understand how kath’ olon includes gay and lesbian people, Alison deliberates on the Greek Logos and the Christian Logos.  Logos is a Greek word that has multiple meanings, including “word” and “reason.”  To make the distinction, Alison uses “Greek Logos” to mean philosophy, or human reasoning, and Alison uses “Christian Logos” to mean the Word of God, or revelation.

Ironically, revelation comes to us through human reasoning, so both the Greek Logos and the Christian Logos need to be applied if theology is to be relevant.  “Greek Logos” helps us understand the historical context of issues such as homosexuality.  But it is the “Christian Logos” that reveals the innocence of the scapegoat and our complicity in the scapegoat’s victimization.  Girard’s mimetic theory gives structure to Alison’s use of both the Greek Logos and the Christian Logos.

Examples of Scapegoating

Alison gives a few historical examples of the Christian Logos revealing the innocence of the scapegoat.  His first example is the Black Plague.  During the Black Plague, Christians blamed minority groups for the Plague, but Jews bore the brunt of the blame. It was rumored, and thus believed, that Jews poisoned village wells. This “poisoning” was treason against the village, and so it was thought that the Jews were deserving of death.

Another example is the Spanish Inquisition, and the tendency to blame certain women for hail storms. Because these women were viewed as causing hailstorms, they were deemed witches, and deserving death.

Both the persecution of Jews and women are examples of a community’s search for a scapegoated victim.  Under the influence of the church, people began to doubt the guilt of the accused and to wonder what actually does cause disasters such as the Black Plague and hailstorms.  For example, Pope Clement VI (1291-1352) issued two papal bulls claiming that whoever blamed the Jews for the Black Plague “had been seduced by that liar, the Devil.”  Because of his ability to see the innocence of the scapegoated victim, Clement urged his clergy to protect the Jewish people.  Our modern understanding of science allows us to see that the accusations blaming the Plague on the Jewish people, and blaming certain women for hailstorms, were ridiculous.  A disease carried by mice caused the black plague, and hailstorms are natural phenomena.  But, as Alison carefully observes, it was not science that ended the accusations of witchcraft; it was a refusal to believe in the accusations of witchcraft that led to science.

The Invention of Heterosexuality

This discussion of the false accusations that led to the persecutions during the Plague and Inquisition opens the door to a better understanding of the modern day discussion of gay and lesbian emancipation.  Alison states that only “over the last fifty years or so it has become increasingly possible to stand back from what we know to be the case about these people and start to say, ‘I wonder what it is that causes some people to be different?’”

In the United States, discussions concerning the historicity of homosexuality revolve around either gay community in 1930s Santa Fe, or GIs coming back in 1940s San Francisco. To start in either place, Alison states, is historically and culturally inaccurate and inevitably leads us down the wrong path.  The wrong path is to impose enlightenment values on the debate as opposed to kath’ olon values.  The discussion must be understood in its pre-enlightenment context.

The beginning of the enlightenment – around the 17th century – brought a new concept to humanity. That concept was heterosexuality. Before the enlightenment coined the term heterosexuality, homosociality was the norm; people were not aware of “sexual identity” as we are aware of it today.  People of the same gender lived together and socialized together.  Marriage was arranged primarily to create stronger property links, defense groups, bonds between families, and also breeding.  Another thing happened in the pre-modern world that may seem strange to us: people of the same gender shared beds.  This is where we get the term “bedfellows.” One’s “bedfellow” was one’s best friend. This does not necessarily mean that sexual activity occurred between bedfellows. There is no reason to think that they were what we moderns would call gay; they may have been, or they may not have been. They certainly did not think of themselves as gay because the term had not been invented.
With the invention of heterosexuality in the 17th century, people began to think that one’s spouse should be one’s best friend, and, thus, one’s bedfellow. This understanding brought with it a new social system. While heterosexuality began to replace homosociality, there began to emerge a strange, new sort of “being” – the homosexual.

“The new and weird sort of being,” says Alison, “is the being that was perfectly happy under the old system. Because being over the top and flamboyant in the old world was absolutely part of the expressiveness. But in the new world, how do such people fit in? They didn’t.”

This caused the beginning of the “gay subculture.”  Along with the new subculture, persecutions against this “new and weird sort of being” began. Because the subculture was different, the larger culture misunderstood people of the subculture as dangerous. The larger culture began to talk about this group…in criminal terms, in medical terms, and then in psychological terms, until you get the definition of the word homosexuality, invented in the 1860s, as recently as that. But it wasn’t until that time that there was a clear language with which to talk about that sort of person. And of course, in many cultures, there still isn’t.  That’s why this is important.

Modern notions and understandings

During the 20th century, many began to see the persecution of gay and lesbian subculture as unjust, while others still held on to a pre-modern understanding of what causes a few people to be different. This brought people with entirely different worldviews into conflict. Although some held to a pre-modern worldview of what causes people to be gay or lesbian, they incongruously used the modern language of gay and lesbian. For these people, whatever causes homosexuality really does not matter; for these people what matters is that gay and lesbians are a threat to the larger culture. This misunderstanding is related to the earlier misunderstanding that Jews were a threat to the larger culture during the Black Plague and that witches were a threat to the larger culture during the Inquisition.

A similar group believed that if gays and lesbians were not evil, they must be sick. This led to efforts to “cure” gays and lesbians through such practices as lobotomies and electric shock therapy. The only two explanations for why people are gay and lesbians are 1) they are evil or 2) they are sick.  “And it’s only by those two being exhausted that you come to the possibility of, well, maybe they just are,” emphasizes Alison. Alison analogizes that homosexuals are homosexuals in the same way that left-handed people are left-handed; they just are.  Scientists tell us that homosexuality is wired in a similar way that left-handedness is wired, and that wiring happens before birth.

Kath’ olon, Jesus, and Mimetic Theory

Jesus does a very peculiar thing – something we have a hard time understanding.  He invites everyone to the party (see Luke 14:7-24).  This is catholoholum.  We don’t understand the nature of catholoholum because of our tendency to blame others for the problems we see in the world.  We want to think that others don’t deserve to be invited, in order to believe that we do deserve the invitation.  When we focus on the faults of the other, we forget that we also fall short of the glory of God.

Indeed, the unrecognized grace of God is behind the continuing emancipation of gays and lesbians – and also behind the emancipation of the rest of us.  We fail to recognize that grace because of our pre-modern, or what Rowan Williams calls “a pre-theological,” worldview.  In our fallen world that leads us into pointless and violent rivalries, all any of us can do is thank God for kath’ olon.  All any of us can do is thank God that we are all invited to the party.

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