Monthly Archives: April 2016

Bathroom Bills and the Panopticon

One of the most prescient elements of George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four is the ubiquity of surveillance—rather, of the possibility of surveillance. No one in Orwell’s novel is certain whether they are being observed through telescreens at any given moment, and thus they conform themselves to social expectations even in their private lives.[1] Indeed, the constant possibility of surveillance leads citizens to constantly surveil one another, effectively doing the authority’s job for them and internalizing the authority’s values. This is ultimate ideological victory. Permanent visibility becomes a form of power and control, what Foucault called “panopticism;” telescreens functioning as the panopticon.[2]

The recent passing of the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” more broadly known as the “Bathroom Bill,” in North Carolina is intended by its supporters to protect the safety and privacy of users of public restrooms. The law

directs all public schools, government agencies and public college campuses to require that multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities, such as locker rooms, be designated for use only by people based on their “biological sex” stated on their birth certificate. Transgender people can use the bathrooms and changing facilities that correspond to their gender identity only if they get the biological sex on their birth certificate changed.[3]

This is only one example of such laws, which are appearing in increasing number in recent months. Supporters of the law see this is a commonsense protection, for young girls in particular. Many clarify that they are not worried about transgender women attacking cisgender women,[4] but about cis men taking advantage of trans-inclusive policies to gain access to bathrooms or changing rooms for the purposes of viewing or assaulting women. While I find this scenario implausible,[5] my primary objections to this law pertain rather to enforcement and surveillance.

If someone suspects that I am a trans man (many trans men indeed appear more masculine than I do), and thus that I am in the “wrong” bathroom, what is their recourse? Presumably to contact management of the establishment who will contact either police or their own security. What is my recourse? Even if I have state-issued ID on me, this does not settle the matter legally, as the law explicitly refers to birth certificates. I do not carry my birth certificate with me, and of course many trans people have ID that does not match their birth certificates. (In any event, a law that requires a person to have identification in order to use the bathroom is inherently classist and draconian.) Indeed, video emerged on Facebook in December 2015 of a biologically female woman being physically ejected from a restaurant bathroom because she didn’t seem feminine enough to security, despite a small crowd of women attesting to their mistake. In this absurd encounter, male security forces attempt to protect the privacy and security of a woman’s space but are themselves the ones violating it.[6]

And this is one of the central problems with these kinds of laws. Supporters wish to make spaces safer, but in fact establish a virtual panopticon, as the public surveils and polices each individual of the public to ensure that they are performing their gender well enough. Moreover, this applies to both cis and trans individuals. Trans people who “pass”—that is, are not generally perceived to be transgender—are effectively immune to such laws. (See, for example, the top submissions to the “Transpassing” subreddit, many of whom are likely to remain unaffected by these laws one way or the other.)[7] Trans people who do not pass, as well as cis people whose appearance or behavior calls attention, are at the mercy of public scrutiny.

These laws thus reinforce strict gender roles—not only the gender essentialism that believes a person’s chromosomes (or genitals, or internal reproductive organs, etc.) dictate their gender, but also the expectations that society has for men as such and women as such. These laws contribute to the social atmosphere in which all people, whether gay, bisexual, straight, cis or trans, are constantly having their gender performance observed and judged, and add a penalty for failure to conform. Bathrooms—one of the most common and necessary public utilities—thus function precisely as Orwell’s telescreens: sites of surveillance, mechanisms that discipline us through daily scrutiny into internalizing a particular account of what it means to be man or woman.

                [1] “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live…in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

                [2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.

                [3] Avianne Tan, “North Carolina’s Controversial  ‘Anti-LGBT’ Bill Explained,” ABC News, 24 March, 2016,

                [4] The term “cisgender” was recently added  to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. For definition, see

                [5] Most sexual assault is not perpetuated by strangers, but by relatives and acquaintances. Those few who do assault strangers in public rely on stealth and moments of isolation and opportunity—in which law becomes irrelevant—rather than drawing attention to themselves, as any masculine-presenting person entering a women’s bathroom or changing room does, whether they wish to or not. As many detractors of these laws have already pointed out, trans people (and I suppose this would include cis men imitating trans people?) are far more at risk in public spaces as it is.

                [6] Matthew Tharrett, “Aggressive Cop Forces Gay Woman Out Of Ladies Room For Not Having ID,” New Now Next, 20 April, 2016,

                [7] The issue of “passing” and its desirability or not in the trans community is highly individual and politically charged. For discussion, see Chris Godfrey, “Transgender Men and Women Discuss the Politics of ‘Passing,’” Vice, 25 March, 2015, passing-when-youre-transgender as well as Princess Harmony Rodriguez, “5 Ways to Support Trans People who Don’t ‘Pass’ for Cis,” Black Girl Dangerous, 6 August, 2015,


The Damages of Capitalism


There are many different perspectives from which to critique capitalism as it actually exists. Libertarians critique capitalism as it actually exists for accepting far too much government intervention. Leftists critique it for its tendency to centralize wealth in the hands of a small elite. Environmentalists critique for its prioritizing short-term profits over long-term stewardship of the planet. As a theologian, however, I am more interested in critiquing capitalism from a theological perspective. Theology is not a compartmentalized exercise but must touch on every part of life, including capitalism.

What is “capitalism as it actually exists,” more simply identified as the global market? It is not the same thing as “the free market,” though many who have fought for more purely free market policies have shaped the global market and pushed its expansion globally. Capitalism is not simply the elements of free market or libertarian ideology. Capitalism is not simply free enterprise, free trade, private property, loaning on interest, etc. These are only some components of capitalism.

Rather, capitalism is “a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life. Other societies have had markets, often on a large scale; but only in capitalism is market dependence the fundamental condition of life for everyone. And that is equally true of capitalists [that is, owners] and workers.”[1] This mass dependence upon the market makes the market the arbiter of life and death for the majority of the world. It is, more significantly, a way of thinking about the world.

Whereas the defenders of the global market boast increased freedom for all its members, the history of capitalism expansion does not bear this out. Catholic political theologian William Cavanaugh observes three significant areas in which, as the market spreads through globalization, it actually produces “unfreedom.” The first is advertising, a multibillion dollar industry that directs and creates both desire and dissatisfaction among populations. Whereas marketing portends to be “information about products so that consumers may make choices that are both informed and voluntary,” it is as the same time “a machine fully capable of creating desire and delivering it to its intended goal.”[4] Indeed, these are interrelated functions: “Marketing can manipulate desire successfully in part because of its success in convincing the broader public of consumers that it is not manipulating their desires.”[5] Cavanaugh seems particularly scandalized by General Motors’s department dedicated to “the generation of dissatisfaction” among customers who own cars that would otherwise long be useful. (One perceives the same trend to an even greater degree today among computer and cell phone marketing.) Secondly, global capitalism leads to the establishment of massively asymmetrical power relations within companies themselves. In 1980, the average American CEO made forty-two times what the average worker for the company made; by 1999 that ratio had increased to 475:1.[6] What Cavanaugh cites is a specific instance of a more general trend within post-industrial nations toward the accumulation of wealth among a small elite. French economist Thomas Piketty argues persuasively that this is not an aberration, but is a necessary outcome of a steady, stable market in which the rate of return for invested wealth exceeds the overall economic growth rate. Except in cases of remarkable growth, as from a non-repeatable technological boom or spike in population, this is the natural working of the market. If Piketty is correct, an “inegalitarian spiral” of wealth imbalance is intrinsic to capitalism, even in societies with a strong social safety net and aggressive investment in “upskilling” the work force.[7] As the owners of capital gain power, labor loses power. This trend is tied in part to the capability of transnational companies to move production overseas, where they pay wages as low as thirty cents an hour, which gives employers the power to say to the workers of a community, “You can accept this, or you can have no jobs. Take your pick.” Cavanaugh cites examples of overseas workers for American and transnational companies, working sixteen-hour days for wages that do not support their livelihood in dangerous and harmful conditions, often under armed guard. Frequently, corporations move production to areas already destabilized by global trade expansion, in tangent with bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have “been pressed into service to promote economic globalization.”[8] A salient instance of this is the rush for American companies to open manufacturing centers in Mexico following the signing of NAFTA in 1994. Proponents of free trade in Mexico had amended the constitution in 1992 to privatize the ejidos, lands that had for generations been communally held and worked by peasants.[9] Janet Parker observes that due to this privatization, “the loss of these communally held lands, which are the life-blood of many indigenous populations, has greatly accelerated.”[10] These decisions were made specifically in order to facilitate a full transition to a market economy, to enable more free trade, yet in so doing it created the conditions in which the exploitation Cavanaugh laments can occur.

Why do companies do this? Cavanaugh notes that it is because they can, but also notes that in many cases it is because they must, which brings us to the third aspect of the “unfreedom” that free-market ideology produces. In an economy of unbridled powers competing, managers and other employees often find themselves powerless to do the things they would want, driven instead by market forces beyond their control. Managers often lament having to close American plants to ship production overseas.

In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the laborer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.[11]

The same is the case for farmers who find they must change to a monoculture due to the demands of the market even as that both depletes their soil and makes them more dependent on the market and, hence, less free. The same is also true of consumers who might believe sweatshops are unethical, but either cannot afford to or could not imagine a way to purchase clothing not produced in them.

In this way, bodies of various kinds are splintered. Local residential communities become fractured along economic or class lines, leading to ghettoization, suburban sprawl, “white flight,” and gated communities.[12] Relationships between producer and consumer are sundered, as production is moved across the planet, or else occurs virtually in secret, as in most industrial farming in the United States.[13] Post-industrial centers of capital continue extracting resources from the majority world while embodying ways of life that cannot possibly be extended to much of the world: the U.S. alone constitutes 5% of the world population, while consuming approximately 25% of the world’s energy.[14] Thus the First World becomes increasingly incapable of relating morally to the majority at all. Pope Francis argues in Laudato si that the global north has accrued a moral “ecological debt,” owed to the global south, following effects on the worldwide ecology resultant from “the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.”[15] Far from uniting the world, globalization is thus far shattering it.

Even individual, literal human bodies are broken in the market’s machinations. In researching the tendency of aggressive free market capitalists to treat disasters as “exciting market opportunities,” Naomi Klein uncovered decades of what she terms “the shock doctrine.”[16] The shock doctrine rests on the recognition that the expansion of the market into new territories requires steps—the privatization of previously public options, government deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending—that are deeply unpopular. In order to see these implemented, coercion of entire populations has at times been necessary. In the aftermath of natural disasters, as in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, rebuilding was accompanied with social restructuring.[17] In the absence of natural cataclysm, however, “infamous human rights violations…were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for introduction of radical free-market ‘reforms.’”[18] Klein explores the Argentinean junta’s “disappearing” of up to thirty thousand people during the 1970s, the social upheaval following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Falklands War in 1982, the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis in which Yeltsin consolidated power to unilaterally privatize through military force and having opposing parliament members arrested, as well as less extreme instances of social disruption either presaged by or accompanying market transition. By no means did all expansions of the market depend on these kind of violent destabilizing factors, but the most extreme involved both the backing of the U.S. military and the direct involvement of Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics, as in Argentina under Videla and Chile under Pinochet. In these cases, large numbers of people were “disappeared” and tortured. Luis Justo, who has since ascended to chair the bioethics department at Comahue National University in Argentina, narrates that

more than 30 years ago I asked my surgical instructor about petechial lesions on the scrotums of some criminals interned in the surgical ward. The shocking answer was, “Oh, yes, the police make them all go through ‘the machine’ before taking them to the hospital.” The machine, the “picana electrica,” was a device for torturing prisoners with electric shocks, usually in the vagina, testicles, mouth, anus, or nipples. I was horrified by the fact itself but no less by the matter of fact tone in which the answer was given. As a medical student I was pretty powerless, but I went to the head of the surgical service and tried to lodge a formal complaint. I was rebuffed without any chance to make my argument heard.[19]

Individual bodies were tortured, not usually to extract information, but in order to intimidate and silence political dissent against changes being instituted. “As a means of extracting information during interrogations,” Klein observes, “torture is notoriously unreliable, but as a means of terrorizing and controlling populations, nothing is quite as effective.”[20] It remains unknown precisely how many of the disappeared were tortured, how many killed, but “from Chile to China to Iraq, torture has been a silent partner in the global free-market crusade.”[21] There is a sense, of course, in which this partnership is purely indirect. While the Nestlé Corporation will fight to restrict water from being defined as a human right in order to sell that same water to residents at huge profits—a form of economic violence—they do not direct their employees to the murder and torture of those residents.[22] Almost universally, the CEOs and employees of corporations, as well as public investors, are appalled by the violent excesses that can accompany a society in market transition even as their livelihoods are dependent upon it.

However, Klein argues that to the degree that globalization of the market frequently depends on “creative destruction” of traditional (non-capitalist) ways of life this violence is not an aberration, but is systemic. She cites former secretary general of Argentina’s Agrarian Leagues, Sergio Tammasella, who was tortured and imprisoned for five years. During the Argentine Tribunal Against Impunity he was given the opportunity to name individual soldiers who had abused him. Instead, he stated that the abuse he, his wife, and fellow members of the Agrarian Leagues had suffered could not be isolated from the economic interests such suffering served.

Foreign monopolies impose crops on us, they impose chemicals that pollute our earth, impose technology and ideology. All this through the oligarchy which owns the land and controls the politics. But we must remember—the oligarchy is also controlled by the very same monopolies, the very same Ford Motors, Monsanto, Philip Morris. It’s the structure we have to change. That is what I have come to denounce. That’s all.[23]

It is abundantly clear that the institutions of the market must be reassessed from the perspective of an ethic of life. Hinkelammert and Duchrow write that “every practical proposal regarding alternative institutions and actions is to be checked and judged by whether it is de facto useful to real life and whether anyone was excluded from the process of devising it or would not benefit from its consequences.”[24] They track the development of the institution of property—and the limits imposed upon it—across the history of Israel, noting the ways that the institution adapted to these precise concerns.

In the ban on interest of the Book of the Covenant (after 722 BCE) the point is to prevent a threat to life through the property mechanism of debt. Deuteronomy (622) adds the periodic cancellation of debt and debt bondage, if they have come about at all through the ownership mechanism. In the holiness law of the priestly writings (sixth century BCE) property is finally stripped of absoluteness because the earth and people “belong” to God and therefore people only have usage rights to the earth—with the consequence that every generation has to regain access to its own means of production. In the light of the political and ideological absolutization of the property-based economy brought about through the Hellenistic and Roman empires, faithful Jews and Christians can only opt to resist. They choose between God and Mammon and set up alternatives in small, attractive groups that freely share their property so that there are no poor in their midst.[25]

This is an historical—indeed, a Biblical—example of economic institutions being adapted and rebuilt from the bottom up. Similar proposals are on offer today. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) offered to every person in a society is one way to create a sort of virtual commons, empowering and protecting the most vulnerable in society without creating the same kinds of inefficiencies and patronizing stigma as means-based welfare.[26] The Movimento Sem Terra movement in Brazil struggles for fundamental land reform, an obvious necessity when homeless individuals and foreclosed homes ceaselessly coexist.[27] Cavanaugh points to cooperative corporations, which attempt to navigate Christian values and capitalist aims by embracing distributism, the form of “third-way” economics championed by Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. A prominent example is the Mondragon corporation, which is worker-owned and -governed. Within the company, “The highest-paid employee can make no more than six times what the lowest-paid makes; 10 percent of surpluses are given directly to community development projects.”[28]

Whatever policies one finds attractive and tenable, what is clear is that capitalism as exists is destructive of life on earth, destructive of relationships, and to the degree that it shapes Christian believers in ways contrary to the love of God and neighbor and stewardship of the earth, can rightly be called antichrist. Believers are thus impelled to condemn such a system and work for its conversion to something that brings life and promotes flourishing, both in our backyards and across the globe.

                [1] Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Capitalism’s Gravediggers,” Jacobin, 12 April, 2014, accessed 19 April 2016,

[2] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Character Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2009), 94.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 16.

[5] Ibid., 16-7.

[6] Cavanaugh, 18.

                [7] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014).

[8] Janet Parker, “And God Said, Let There Be Many,” in Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy, ed. Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 143.

[9] Maria Teresa Vazquez Castillo, Land Privatization in Mexico: Urbanization Formation of Regions, and Globalization in Ejidos (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1-3.

[10] Parker, 149.

[11] Cavanaugh, 22.

[12] David Gruesel, “The Injustice of Gated Communities,” Think Christian, 19 April, 2012, accessed 16 April, 2016,

[13] Matthew C. Halteman, Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation (Washington, DC: Humane Society of the United States, 2008), 23-36.

[14] Smith, Desiring, 101.

[15] Francis, Laudato si, sec. 51.

[16] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 9.

[17] Klein, 8.

[18] Ibid., 9-10.

[19] Luis Justo, “Argentina: Torture, Silence, and Medical Teaching,” British Medical Journal 326, no. 7403 (June 21, 2003): 1405.

[20] Klein, 126.

[21] Ibid., 15.

[22] See Kelly Price, “Nestlé: The Global Search for Liquid Gold,” Urban Times, 11 June 2014, accessed 16 April, 2016,; Matthew Boesler, “Bottled Water Costs 2000x More Than Tap,” Business Insider, 12 July 2013, accessed 16 April, 2016, bottled-water-costs-2000x-more-than-tap-2013-7.

[23] Klein, 127.

                [24] Franz J. Hinkelammert and Ulrich Duchrow, Property for People, Not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 161.

                [25] Ibid., 162.

                [26] Scott Santens, “Why Should We Support the Idea of a Universal Basic Income,” Huffington Post, 26 June, 2015, accessed 19 April, 2016,

                [27] Duchrow and Hinkelammert, 171.

[28] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 27. From the perspective of free-market ideology, there is no difference between this organization and Nestlé, to the degree both are free from state intervention and both consist of entities entering into contracts uncoerced. While the market lacks any mechanism or perspective by which to say which of these situations is “better,” a Christian account can clearly point to the good that Mondragon does: “Not only is the company successful and laborers highly satisfied with their work, but the communities in which Mondragon plays a significant part enjoy lower crime rates, lower rates of domestic violence, higher rates of education, and better physical and emotional health than neighboring communities.” Apart from these sorts of universally relevant measures, this cooperative form of management accords with Cavanaugh’s reading of the eucharist itself, as “the very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ.”

Thinking Morally about Same-Sex Love

Let us suppose that, as Robert Gagnon argues,[1] the scriptural presumption against the moral legitimacy of same-sex love is thorough and without exception. Not all exegetes agree with this interpretation, but let us set the exegetical question aside for now. Even if the Bible indeed says it, and we believe it, that does not necessarily settle a moral issue for us. The Bible, after all, offers no moral objection to slavery, and though slavery in the ancient world was not the racialized slavery of the American antebellum south, neither was it something that we would countenance today. Slaves in the society in which the New Testament was composed could be raped, beaten, and in certain circumstances legally killed by their masters.[2] Thinking morally about applying scripture to our lives is a move beyond mere exegesis—the reading and interpreting of texts in their original contexts—to hermeneutics—what Richard Hays refers to as an “integrative act of the imagination” in which “we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts.”[3] For Christian communities, hermeneutics are tested by their practical outliving, by “their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God.”[4]

Moral reasoning based on the norms of the natural order has traditionally been referred to as natural theology or natural law thought. On the other hand, thinking that privileges the experiences of the individual or of the community that seeks to interpret the world has been labeled as “narrative theology.” We cannot, however, sharply divide these areas of thought. Because natural law seeks the conditions for human flourishing, it must accord with the experiences of actual humans. We must therefore take a phenomenological approach to understanding romantic love and sexuality: what they are for and when they are disordered.

Why do romantic love and sexuality emerge in humans in the first place? Many theorists posit reproduction or social constructionism as evolutionary foundations of romantic love, but James Giles proposes a vulnerability and care theory that I find very persuasive and also compatible with the main themes of the Bible. For Giles, “The experience of being in love involves a complex of desires for reciprocal vulnerability in order to care and be cared for.”[5] Accordingly, sexual desire involves “the physical expression of these [romantic] desires in the form of desires for mutual baring in order to caress and be caressed.”[6]

Vulnerability, dependence, and care have also become central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral life. For some time, MacIntyre had worked to establish an account of morality that was purely sociological, based in communal practices and tradition. In the introduction to his 2001 Dependent Rational Animals, he writes, “I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.”[7] MacIntyre thus seeks to reunite nature and narrative in his work.

Virtue always requires a telos, an end, a concrete conception of the good toward which actions should be oriented. Living morally as an embodied human, for MacIntyre, requires an awareness of two sets of irreducible biological facts: “Those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others.”[8] The most basic fact of human life is that each one of us is born and maintained alive in a state of moral debt. Within such a natural order, the fundamental virtues are ones of “acknowledged dependence,” of which MacIntyre emphasizes “just generosity” and “elementary truthfulness.” Just generosity consists of three patterns of giving and receiving: affective/emotional relationships, hospitality, and openness to urgent need. Elementary truthfulness demands that we allow the other in any relationship to learn what they need to know, not concealing our own need to learn (that is, admitting our vulnerability), and not withdrawing from the circle of learning in some kind of “ironic detachment.”[9] Just generosity and elementary truthfulness are at the same time obligations that we as humans owe to one another and skills in which we strive to grow.

This account of the meaning inherent in human embodiment does not rely on strict gender binary or gender subordination. All human beings are infinitely indebted. As MacIntyre notes, some debts are measurable, but every parent’s “initial commitments” are in “in important respects unconditional,” because we never know what becoming a parent will end up demanding of us, and the human race could not carry on without such unconditional commitment.[10] Because all are infinitely indebted, all are equally bound to embrace the virtues of generosity and truthfulness, virtues that can only be established in relationship to particular others, that is, specific people as opposed to “humankind in general.” The reciprocal vulnerability of romantic relationships makes them a key institution for the cultivation of such virtues, and there is no compelling reason to presume that the genders of the individuals involved undoes that. Same-sex partners are as capable of generosity and truthfulness as opposite-sex partners, as these virtues do not rely on the natural subordination of one gender to another. Not only does gender subordination not figure into the virtues of acknowledged dependence, certain accounts of masculinity are toxic to them.[11] We may finally note in passing, though a much fuller account could be developed, that acknowledged dependence, just generosity, and elementary truthfulness are among the most central and persistent scriptural themes.

Robert Gagnon, however, perceives the gender binary as significant, not only because of his reliance upon biblical cosmology, but also on rationalist grounds. He writes that

If men and women are not really all that different…why is there little attraction to the opposite sex on the part of many homosexuals? For example, in male homosexuality, there must be something distinctively and significantly male in males, a masculine dimension utterly lacking in females, that causes some males to be attracted exclusively to other males and not, for example, to a female who exhibits stereotypically masculine traits.[12]

For Gagnon, this is what makes same-sex love unnatural and immoral: attraction to someone of one’s own gender is “sexual self-absorption and narcissism, or, perhaps worse, sexual self-deception.”[13] Self-absorption and self-deception would be clear violations of generosity and truthfulness. Gagnon’s analysis is problematic, however, as it defines essence (in this case, of gender) as infinitely more significant than individual identity. On Gagnon’s account, any attraction between two people of the same gender is in fact love of self, rather than love of another person, as no two men are more different from one another than any man from any woman. As a man, the only things I can love about another man are aspects of myself. I find this claim entirely unconvincing, as should everyone who has ever been in love with an individual and not every individual of a given gender. Moreover, as Paul Jewett observes, what makes a person other is not a matter of mere biological difference, but recognition of that person as an individual, “who is different from us and whom we may not seek constantly to conform to our desires.”[14] Otherness is not a biological feature, but a moral stance.

In fact, most elements of gender differentiation are deeply cultural and “anchored in the routines of the division of labor and the routines of one’s physical body.” [15] Isolde Karle observes that “each person (man or woman) is required (both implicitly and explicitly) constantly to emphasize those characteristics that correspond to the social definition of his or her gender identity and to carry out corresponding practices while suppressing inappropriate behaviors.”[16] Even the most basic aspects of daily routine—ways of walking, vocal intonation—are socially policed and “charged with an ethic, a politics and a cosmology.”[17] Thus, “women learn to smile, look down, and accept interruptions. In a particular way, women are taught how to sit, occupy space, and adopt appropriate postures.”[18]

Even at the biological level, there is no clear basis on which to speak of essential sex. There are many varieties of biologically intersex individuals, the result of various incongruities of up to five different biological variables, ranging from chromosomal factors in cell nuclei to external genitalia.[19]

It is not impossible for a “male” fetus (XY chromosomes and testes) to develop into a female—complete with labia, clitoris, a short vagina, breasts, feminine musculoskeletal structure, and female gender identity. This is the common pattern for intersexed persons with androgen insensitivity syndrome, one of the more common intersex conditions. Similarly, it is not impossible for a “female” fetus (XX chromosomes and ovaries) to develop into a male—complete with a phallus capable of vaginal penetration, male pattern hair growth, voice descent, masculine musculoskeletal development, and male gender identity—as is possible in more severe cases of congenital adrenal hypoplasia.[20]

Indeed, some individuals may never discover the underlying intersexual state of their gender identity. Gender is utterly irreducible to specific biological factors, and instead appears to emerge from some interstice of biological, mental, affective, social, and spiritual factors. As Megan DeFranza pointedly summarizes, “Males, females, and intersexed persons are all made of the same ‘stuff.’ We belong to the same order of being.”[21]

What do we do, then, with the exegesis that we set aside earlier? If scripture indeed condemns same-sex love as such, it is because scripture assumes a specific natural order with which human acts are either moral or intrinsically disordered. At this point, we may well ask why Paul would choose homoeroticism as the premier example of human rebellion in Romans 1. What makes it so clearly “contrary to nature” for Paul? Two major reasons present themselves, one literary and one social. First, there are clear literary-symbolic reasons for Paul to select same-sex eroticism as his illustration here. At the crowning of the creation account we find the gender binary, man and woman created together, divided, and reunited. Women pairing themselves with other women, and men with men, are a clear literary antonym to this. Indeed, Paul narrates a cosmic exchange, as human rebellion ends in this scene so antithetical to the creation account. Paul surely has Genesis 1-3 in mind here, but makes more direct reference to the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (sometimes called the Apocalypse of Moses), in which explicit mention is made of Adam and Eve “suppressing the truth,” “exchanging their glory for mortality” and exchanging their dominion for “unnatural subservience” to animals.[22] This is significant, as Greek Life narrates the fall somewhat differently from the Genesis account. The narrative is placed in the mouth of Eve, recounting the events to her children. Whereas Genesis portrays the serpent as the deceiver and does not mention Satan, Greek Life portrays Satan telling Eve through the serpent (a separate character from Satan) that he will only give her fruit from the tree if she will compel Adam to eat of it as well. She vows to do so, and though instantly upon eating she is shamed to perceive her nakedness and the deprivation of “the glory with which [she] was clothed” (20:3), she nonetheless carries out the plan to deceive Adam and force him to eat as well. (This may account for why Paul refers to women “exchanging” their natural relations for unnatural before mentioning men doing so, though other explanations are on offer.)[23] We cannot say conclusively how highly Paul regarded the account of Greek Life of Adam and Eve. He may have taken its fuller account of the fall narrative as entirely authoritative, or he may have regarded it as an expansive work that was literally untrue but highlighted important themes left implicit in the Genesis narrative. In any case, he clearly affirmed the elements that he incorporated into his own mini-creation account in Romans 1, and Greek Life seems to have informed how he understood φυσις/nature, and thus what “accords with” or “opposes” nature.

The second driving reason for Paul to choose homoeroticism as the premier illustration of fallenness is the culture in which Paul lived. A reader today who peruses Greco-Roman literature depicting or referencing homoeroticism cannot help but come away alarmed and disturbed by the practices with which Paul would have been most familiar. Virtually all same-sex contact was oppressive or violent: promiscuity, prostitution, and pederasty.[24] In Roman society, the distinction between active and passive partners in male same-sex acts was of extreme importance, with the active partner being considered especially masculine precisely because the passive partner was being “used, humiliated, and physically and morally damaged.” [25] Sarah Ruden writes that, “Heterosexual penetration could be harmless in the Christian community, in marriage… homosexual penetration could be harmless nowhere. There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all, in the sense of times or places in which it was mutually safe for men to have anal sex with one another.”[26] Ruden cites a wide number of writings—mostly journal entries and poems written so as to appear light-hearted—from leering men hoping to use slaves and young boys (one writes of his love for boys aged twelve to sixteen, allowing that possibly one could be attracted to a boy so old as seventeen, but warning that “if someone has a yen for older boys, he’s not playing anymore but looking to get some of what he gives”), as well as boys fearful of being so used. [27] Ruden is impressed that while many Greco-Roman moralists and satirists “lit into” passive homosexuality—that is, into the victims—Paul leveled his criticism against men who engage in such acts, and thereby shame not the victim, but themselves.[28]

However, this analysis (like the more popular work of John Boswell) fails to account for Paul’s mention of female same-sex relationships, which were of a fundamentally different character. Surely, this omission is in part because there is vastly more extant Greco-Roman writing about male same-sex relationships than female. Bernadette Brooten, however, has amassed a tremendous amount of ancient material on the subject, focusing upon the poems of Sappho, Greek erotic spells and potions (some of which were used by women to attract women they loved), astrological texts, medical texts, and dream interpretation manuals. The attitudes reflected across this wide spectrum of materials reflects the consistent and persistent belief that the natural role for women was passivity, and thus “Paul condemns sexual relations between women as ‘unnatural’ because he shares the widely held cultural view that women are passive by nature and therefore should remain passive in sexual relations.”[29] Paul upholds heterosexuality for the same reason he expects women to submit to men: the misogynistic assumptions of his cultural worldview.

Given that our scientific, philosophical, and experiential resources do not support this understanding of nature, are we pressed to reconsider the naturalness of what the authors of scripture knew to be unnatural? This is a complex hermeneutical question. The Bible, according to Charles Cosgrove, “contains both momentous and trivial instances of scientifically outmoded empirical knowledge. To take a weighty example, the temporal and cosmological aspects of much early Christian eschatology is [sic] untenable within the modern scientific worldview. An inconsequential example is the Gospel saying, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body…,’ which assumes that the eye is a source of light.”[30] With the exception of extreme fundamentalists—such as flat-earth conspiracy theorists and geocentrists—Christians have typically been content to grant that such empirical knowledge falls outside the scope and purpose of scripture, which is rather theological, historical, and moral. Difficulty arises, however, when scripture makes theological or moral determinations on the basis of empirical presuppositions that cannot be maintained. As David Balch observes, “Our ecclesiastical debates do not concern simply Paul’s ethics and ours, but Paul’s science and ethics and our science and ethics.”[31] The author of First Timothy presumes that women are “weaker” than men and more easily deceived. This reflects the widespread Hellenistic view that men are rational and women passional.[32] For this reason, he does not permit women to hold authority over men. While some churches continue in both this descriptive and hermeneutic posture, contemporary understanding largely rejects the notion that women are by nature less capable of rational decision-making, and many Christians therefore regard the strictures on women exercising leadership as culturally bound. We may likewise regard the scriptural presupposition that same-sex love is sinful because it is unnatural as a culturally bound perspective.

                [1] Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 88-9.

                [2] For a brief overview, see Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

                [3] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: HarperCollins, 1996), 8.

                [4] Ibid., 9.

[5] James Giles, “A Theory of Love and Sexual Desire,” abstract, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 24, no. 4 (1994): 339.

[6] Giles, 339.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), 2.

[8] Ibid., 1.

[9] MacIntyre, 119-52.

[10] Ibid., 90.

                [11]See, e.g., J. A. Mangan, ‘Manufactured’ Masculinity: Making Imperial Manliness, Morality and Militarism (London: Routledge, 2014).

[12] Via and Gagnon, 90. It is interesting that Gagnon essentially takes the argument from orientation and re-purposes it to his own non-affirming ends.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Paul K. Jewett, Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human: A New-Evangelical Theology, ed. Marguerite Shuster (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 339.

[15] Isolde Karle, “Beyond Distinct Gender Identities,” The Depth of the Human Person: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Michael Welker (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 335.

[16] Karle, 335.

[17] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 27-8.

[18] Karle, 335.

[19] Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 23-67.

[20] DeFranza, 173.

[21] Ibid.

[22] John R. Levison, “Adam and Eve in Romans 1.18–25 and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve,” New Testament Studies 50, no. 4 (October, 2004): 519.

[23] Cranfield, 126-7.

[24] Loader, 137.

[25] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his own Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 49.

[26] Ruden, 49.

[27] Ibid., 60.

[28] Ibid., 66.

[29] Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 216.

[30] Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 116.

[31] David L. Balch, “Concluding Observations by the Editor, Including a Comparison of Christian with Jewish Interpretation,” in David L. Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 300.

[32] Cosgrove, 144.