Hoc Est Corpus Meum: Juridical Legitimacy and Somatic Truth

Day 3 of Lent

As early Christianity transitioned from a persecuted religious sect in the Roman world to the official religion of empire, the burgeoning institutional church began to manifest its newfound status in church buildings. In the Roman West, one of the earliest formats for the church copied the Roman basilica. The basilica was, in the Roman world, a sort of public meeting place, a combination of marketplace and City Hall. It was also the seat of the law courts and of jurisprudence.

Characteristic of the design of the basilica was the apse– an area, sometimes elevated, located at the end of the long, rectangular building. It was at these ends that Roman judges, in their seats of authority, would hear cases at law.

When Christians adapted the form of the basilica for their churches, the apse housed the altar. Where else to house the sacerdotal authority of the priest to say the Mass than in the seat where the Roman judge passed judgment?

I have often thought about the peculiar resonances of this history: the way that the patterns of juridical and sacerdotal authority overlap in it, the latter mimicking the former. For congregants celebrating a Mass in the earliest basilicas, it would be hard not to hear echoes and see reflections of the Roman judge, and the political order he represented, in the words and actions of the celebrant priest.

In our time, this blurring of performative roles seems odd and quaint. We have thoroughly differentiated the marketplace, the court of law, the public meeting-place, and the church. Yet, when we look more closely, Christianity in our own time is full of such blurred roles, of practices of legitimating authority that stem from nothing more than (seemingly natural) legitimation practices in culture generally.

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I say this as a prelude to a line of thought I have been pursuing for some time now regarding the way Christianity in the United States has handled issues of LGBTQ inclusion, a line of thought that is generally critical. The conversation within Christian churches regarding LGBTQ persons, and the full range of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender and sexual expression they represent, has tended, disappointingly, to focus almost exclusively on issues of inclusion and recognition. Can LGBTQ persons be fully themselves and still identify as Christian? Can they enjoy membership, fellowship, and communion? Can they participate in roles of lay leadership? Can they be called to positions of ordained ministry?

Generally this conversation is framed in terms of broad theological considerations (about moral boundaries, Biblical authority, love, inclusion, welcome, and hospitality), of which the church’s response to LGBTQ persons would be a particular case. In a way, this way of proceeding is understandable. In a situation that presents a problem or challenge to traditional understanding and practice, one way to handle it is to reflect on matters of general principle, and then allow one’s actions to be guided by whatever principles seem most compelling. It is responsible, “principled.”

More often than not, such a discussion takes on the flavor of a juridical proceeding, much like a case in law. Sometimes, the different “sides” to the discussion engage in a dispute over facts, or seek to enter different facts into evidence. As often as not, though, the dispute is not over questions of material fact but (in keeping with the analogy) questions of law—that is to say, considerations of principle from the perspective of which the disputes over fact gain relevance.

The discussion over LGBTQ folk in church then becomes an exercise in theological adjudication. Which considerations control in this case, and how do those considerations apply to it in such a way as to guide our conduct? Does the principle of radical love and hospitality control? Or is it the principle of Biblical literalism (filtered, of course, through a selective, unacknowledged interpretive lens)? Is it some balanced approach between the two? What does the high court of theological reflection deem to be the best effective answer to the questions of principle, and what instructions does it issue to us on remanding the matter back to us to implement?

Of course the debate over LGBTQ persons within Christianity at large isn’t a formal juridical proceeding. It might be capable of being resolved more effectively if it were. But there is a very real sense in which the dynamic of the discussion, especially within academic and institutional contexts, works like one. In church contexts in particular, the “issue” we queer folk present is often, in point of fact, a matter of determining official formalities: Of resolutions and motions debated by official bodies that relate to the granting of titles and offices. In other words, the discussion is not about whether LGBTQ persons are right with God in the abstract, but instead whether we can be members of congregations, or can be ordained to church offices, or receive sacraments such as marriage. The discussions of our standing before God routinely take place in the context of specific demands we might make, or be expected to make, for recognition and privileges granted by church institutions. Of course, broader discussions of principle also happen in individual congregations, in seminaries, and increasingly in debates online. But outside a philosophy classroom it is rare in my experience for there to be a sustained discussion about our existence that isn’t tied to some claim about how authorities should treat us.

We like this juridical way of proceeding. It is familiar to us from legal and political institutions in our larger culture. It is clearly about something important; institutional privileges and recognition matter. But limiting the discussion to those things has a subtle way of invalidating what we say on our own behalf and in our own voices. It turns us into pleaders, parties to the case. If that is so, certainly we can’t also be among the judges; that is patently unfair. Of course we think we are valid, that we belong and have something to contribute; that is the claim to be adjudicated, the question at bar. What is needed, so a juridical model like this one suggests, is an impartial judge, someone to decide between the parties but who isn’t one of them. We must await the judges’ recognition that our identity is valid, speak only when it is our turn to speak. The judges will then judge, and it is our job to remain quiet and wait for the judges to rule. The rarefied air of general theological principle, it is presumed, is orientation-blind, just as it is supposedly gender-blind, color-blind, and blind to everything else but who God is and what is essential to humanity.

Yet who speaks on behalf of this gender-blind, color-blind, and orientation-blind point of view? Who is somehow deemed sufficiently impartial and hence the best judge of everyone else’s claims? In practice, it turns out to be straight white men, since they are thought to have no axes to grind, no special pleading to make. They are the functionaries of the asexual, genderless, raceless, dispassionate God, themselves without meaningful race or gender or sexual orientation. To read them as raced, gendered, or sexed is to play “identity politics.” In the specific case of us LGBTQ folk, we may appeal to less-than-ideal judges: women (who are gendered), people of color (who are raced), just so long as they are straight.

I think that much of this lies behind the phenomenon of “professional LGBTQ allies,” both within the church and without. This is not to say that allies mean to do this, nor that allies are not welcome or valuable. What happens, though, is that straight allies perform a legitimating function in theological discussions, rendering LGBTQ concerns decent and respectable, telling other straight folk that we are OK, mediating our voices to them. Straight allies do not themselves create this mode of production; they merely serve a function within it.

This mode of production is not restricted to the discussion of LGBTQ persons in Christianity, either. It also informs the discussion of women and gender in Christianity. (It also informs discussions of race everywhere, both inside Christian contexts and outside of it; I will have to focus on that in another post.) If you aren’t aware of how Christian culture delegitimizes women’s voices, I suggest you read and dwell alongside the women in my blogroll at right who blog about women in Christian culture, and in particular “progressive” and “emergent” Christian culture. Evangelical Christian culture is tirelessly, endlessly creative in its patriarchy, of course. Of late, though, the discussion has turned towards the fact that, while “progressive” and “emergent” Christians talk a good game about inclusion, equality, radical hospitality, and the like, the ones who actually dominate the discussion of the good game and tell us what its rules are tend to be—you guessed it—straight white men. Well educated straight white men, in fact. Straight white men have an easier time in that world getting invited to speak at conferences, getting published, getting a readership, getting traction for what they say. Some of them also prove remarkably brittle when they are called on this reality.

My take on this phenomenon is that, again, we see the juridical model at work. The ideal judges will look on women’s experience, and queers’ experience, and tell us better than we can what it all means. We are of course too close to it ourselves. It is as close to us as our own bodies; it is written in our most secret places. How could we possibly get past all that and say anything that is plainly true?

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What the juridical model misses is that outside of discursive practices, outside of books and public talks, there is somatic truth: the truth of bodies, of concrete practices, of labor and life, of who gets to speak, and when; of the ways our voices sound, the curves of our elbows and hips, the look of a lover drinking us in, the flat look of love that has grown cold. The order of somatic truth is rich and tightly knit. People who are not straight, not white, and not male are better able to testify to this order of somatic truth than those who fall on the privileged side of these axes for the reason that they disrupt the tacit somatic truth of the dominant culture. We constantly trip over its unexpressed rules. Its operations are for us a daily reality we have to know about in order to survive.

We may be culturally on the margins, but somatically we are right here. We are in your neighborhoods and your churches. We are next to you in the classroom, on the street, at the movies. We are in your families. It doesn’t take much to find us. We have gifts to share with you. Our bodies not only take up space, but occupy space, and that space contains life. Of course, you have gifts to share with us, too; your lives enmesh with ours. Your truth is also a somatic one, whether you acknowledge it or not. Yet we know a lot about your somatic truth, since it surrounds us all the time. We don’t need to learn more about yours. You need to learn more about ours.

The juridical model has trouble with somatic truth, since somatic truth does not need juridical permission to exist. Somatic truth has purchase on us directly, in the encounter with the other person. It is a claim of bodies upon bodies. Some of us, in that encounter, are open to it, are transformed by it. Others have the utmost difficulty responding to the humanity of the other person, the legitimacy of their embodied experience, without a court order (as it were), and even then they will refuse to see it.

Yet it is in this somatic encounter that I believe Jesus meets us as well—the God-man, the child of the illegitimate extralegal union of God and the Virgin, the one who routinely breaks every law and every rule, the one whose body is broken and blood is spilled and yet returns again and again whenever that breaking and spilling is remembered in his name. Jesus can meet us just on the other side of the law; perhaps it is the only place he ever does meet us. And everyone already has a place in that encounter.

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