The Holy Leper and the Bisexual Christian

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

If Jesus is holy, then clearly holiness is not about separation. (Mike Riddell, Third Way, 12/96; quoted in The Other Side, May-June 1997, p. 57)

Jesus’ life calls to me in many ways, inviting me to love God, myself and my neighbors, to trust God utterly and relinquish my fear, to give myself in service and to strive for a justice that would do justice to God’s mercy. Jesus offers me a model of what it means to be a teacher, a healer, a servant, a prophet, a martyr. I could spend the rest of my days trying to learn from him and striving to follow him in the particularities of my own life circumstances.

One lesson I draw from Jesus’ life is that God meets us where we are and welcomes us into abundance, not by demanding that we abandon our deepest selves but by offering the Kingdom to us at precisely those most sad and joyous, most broken and healing, most vulnerable places. If I am to take this lesson seriously, I must ask what Jesus has to say to me as a bisexual person, capable of emotionally and sexually loving both women and men, often mistrusted and sometimes rejected by both heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people. If I am to find God in the life of the Rabbi from Nazareth, what word of hope is there for my sexual identity? Can that identity draw me closer to God, through Jesus, in some way?

The gospels, of course, do not record any sayings of Jesus on homosexuality, let alone bisexuality, and it is impossible to know from the available Biblical scholarship whether he was attracted to women, men, both or neither (though I would tend to doubt the last possibility). However, there is another level at which I can seek answers to my questions, one that both draws on plentiful gospel materials and goes beyond them into mystery and silence. Jesus was not merely a teacher, preacher, healer and prophet; he was also, and centrally, a shatterer of boundaries, destroyer of margins, and dismantler of statuses in the name of God’s boundless, all-inclusive love. It is this facet of Jesus’ commitment which threatened the authorities of his time and brought him to the cross, and it is in this work of his that I find my own potential for loving beyond at least certain boundaries welcomed and sanctified.

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg , author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, among others, has detailed the status-driven politics of holiness and purity among Jews in Jesus’ culture. Today’s commonly recognized forms of social inequality – racism, sexism, class inequality, heterosexism, ageism, ableism and the like – derive largely from what we might call hierarchical dualisms, value systems in which two opposite social categories are defined, one of which is valued (white, male, rich, heterosexual, adult, able-bodied) and one of which is devalued (person of color, female, poor, lesbian/gay, very young or very old, disabled). Social inequality in Jesus’ time depended similarly on hierarchical dualisms, with related but differently conceived categories.

At the core of what Borg calls the politics of holiness was the question of whether a given individual was pure or impure, clean or unclean; the answer meant the difference between social welcome and social disapproval, even ostracism – which, in such an honor-and-shame-based culture, amounted to social death. On the pure/clean/valued side of the equation were rich (or at least economically solvent) Jewish men in good health and in a position to count themselves among the righteous by following the extensive Jewish laws in their entirety. Among the impure, unclean and devalued were the poor, Gentiles, women, the sick and those Jews considered sinners for not being able to keep the laws (usually by virtue of being poor, women, sick or some combination of all three). Jesus’ frequent references to whores and tax collectors should be understood in this context; whores (unchaperoned women, some of whom were actually prostitutes) and tax collectors (seen as shills for the occupying Roman empire, forced to handle “profane” money, trusted about as much as young African-American men are trusted by security guards in stores today) were among the biggest “sinners” in the purity system. It is not a coincidence that Jesus welcomed them over and over again, told stories in which God’s love for them was clear, and told the purveyors of the purity system that tax collectors and prostitutes were getting into the Kingdom of God before the so-called righteous.

Jesus could offer this welcome to outcasts because of his own experience of God’s love and welcome, which Jesus translated into a call to be compassionate as God is compassionate (Lk. 6: 36) – that is, beyond boundaries. He spoke of a gracious Father who sends rain on the just and unjust, urged his followers to love not just neighbor but enemy as well, and instituted a new social structure for eating, a table fellowship in which rich and poor, righteous and sinner, men and women were at the same table in total violation of the purity rules (e.g. Mt. 9:10, Mk. 14: 3-9, Lk. 11: 37-38, 14:1, 19: 1-10). He treated women, Gentiles, the poor and the sick with dignity and respect (with one interesting exception, Mt. 15: 21-28, in which he came around at the end), and he welcomed children, considered nobodies in his culture (e.g. Mt. 18: 1-6, 10; 19: 13-14; Lk. 9: 46-8, 10: 38-42, 21: 1-4; Jn. 4: 5-42, 8: 1-11). He challenged his culture’s hierarchical family structure in ways that would horrify today’s “family values” crowd if they paid attention to it (e.g. Mt. 8: 21-2, 10: 34-7, 12: 48-50, 23: 9; Lk. 11: 27-8, 14: 26), and he skewered wealth (Mt. 6: 19-21, 24; 19: 21-4; Lk. 4: 13-14, 6: 20, 24, 30, 34-5; 12: 15-21, 14: 33, 16: 19-25), piety and prestige (Mt. 6: 1-6, 16-18; Mk. 9: 35, 12: 38-9; Lk. 14: 7-11, 18: 10-14) as marks of status. He also engaged in what AIDS activists would call a direct action against Purity Central (the Temple, heart of the politics of holiness). Jesus apparently saw God’s graciousness as shattering boundaries and understood the appropriate human response as right relationship with God, others and self, which likewise required boundary shattering. Jesus offered us/called us to liberation from legalisms into love, from class into compassion, from status into solidarity. (My best understanding of the Kingdom of God today is that it is simply life in love, compassion and solidarity with self, others and the Holy.)

Perhaps Jesus’ most awesome boundary destruction took place in his healing work. Sickness was a mark of uncleanness, and many of the people he healed were doubly unclean, such as Gentiles (Mt. 8: 5-13, 15: 21-8; Lk. 17; 1-19), or the woman with a “bleeding problem” (Mt. 9: 20-22; Jewish law defined menstrual blood as an unclean substance). Jesus also healed on the Sabbath, breaking the temporal boundary between sacred and profane (Mt. 12: 10-13; Lk. 13: 10-17). While the story about the demoniac in the graveyard (Mk. 5: 1-17) is probably not historically accurate, it fits what we know of Jesus that he would enter a graveyard (unclean) inhabited by a man with unclean spirits (worse) and send them into a herd of nearby pigs (the most unclean animal, according to Jewish law). Crossing the barriers between healthy and sick people allowed Jesus to offer people with little hope a chance to cross back into the world of the well, but he was only able to do this by himself crossing into the world of the sick and, therefore, the world of the unclean.

Most of the time, when Jesus healed lepers, he touched them (e.g. Mt. 8: 2-4, Lk. 7: 22). Touching a leper meant that Jesus took on leprosy himself, both in the sense of risking exposure to what we would today call an eczema or psoriasis condition, and in the sense of socially becoming a leper for all intents and purposes. Jesus, beloved of God, chose uncleanness to offer healing, but rather than simply becoming a leper, he sanctified leprosy. Lepers in Jesus’ culture lost any status as clean that they might have had earlier when their condition became public. Jesus, however, appears to have been able to interact with lepers without losing his “clean” status, perhaps due to his healing ability or the authority with which he taught. At least, there is no evidence that he either behaved as an unclean person was supposed to or that he was treated as unclean by those around him. Thus, Jesus became what we might call a holy leper or a God-filled outcast; he was somehow simultaneously clean and unclean, an impossibility in the face of the dualism at the heart of the politics of holiness. His impossible status did what no political protest of the time could have done: it collapsed the core of the dualism undergirding the politics of holiness. In other words, by becoming a holy leper, Jesus demolished the categories of “holy” and “leper” as hierarchical opposites, freeing lepers to be holy and enabling those people defined as pure (e.g. the Pharisees) to encounter their own “uncleanness.”

This perspective on uncleanness is, I suspect, a somewhat uncommon way to think about Jesus’ gift to humanity. Christians are more likely to focus on Jesus’ bridging of the gap between humanity and divinity, to celebrate his conquest of death for all time by the way he died, or to argue (as Rene Girard did in VIOLENCE AND THE SACRED) that Jesus, in taking on the scapegoat role, rid the world of its need for scapegoats. However much these characterizations of Jesus’ work may speak to me, I am most awed and humbled by his willingness to become unclean and his resulting conquest over “uncleanness” and the “pure/impure” dichotomy which has fueled so many hierarchical dualisms. For this work of Jesus offers me hope that my bisexuality, far from being a sin, disease or case of confusion, might be God’s way of working gracefully in me against exclusivism and categorization, on behalf of God’s joyful and inclusive Kingdom.

Different people, of course, have different gifts, challenges and life missions, and I don’t mean to suggest that being bisexual is in any way better than the alternatives, or that everyone must become bisexual in order that “Thy Kingdom come” (that would require a miracle beyond any we see in the scriptures!) It does seem to me, though, that Jesus the holy leper is well-situated to welcome Amanda the “neither gay nor straight/both gay and straight,” to challenge me and to reassure me.

Jesus the holy leper speaks to my bisexuality by offering me a model for life outside the boundaries of destructive hierarchical dualisms. Jesus does not appear to have spent much energy worrying about the impossibility of his status, since there was too much Kingdom work to do and since his experience was that nothing was impossible with God. If I am to follow Jesus in this way, I can and must relinquish my concerns and anger about people who deny the existence of bisexuality. Let them believe what they believe; in the meantime, I’d rather work on bringing the Kingdom a little closer than wrangle over the “truth” of my sexual identity. If bisexuality really is a threat to the gay/straight dichotomy, if it challenges people overly invested in the status quo on both sides of the equation, perhaps that’s because it is supposed to do so. In the meantime, says Jesus, I’m free to stop worrying about rejection and to offer such healing as is mine to give by crossing boundaries in love. He challenges me to do this work in remembrance of him, and if the boundaries I cross are somewhat different than the boundaries he crossed, so be it (though the people defined as unclean today include sexual minorities of all stripes).

I suspect that, in addition to my being called to feed the hungry, attend to the sick, visit the prisoner and house the homeless as much as anyone else on the planet, I’m also called to find ways to use my bisexuality, my form of “holy leprosy,” in the service of inclusivity and welcome. I can, for example, strive to make God’s love manifest in all of my relationships, sexual and nonsexual, regardless of the genders involved. I can refuse to behave as though men were superior to women (traditional sexist values) or as though women were superior to men (a common response to sexism, but not, I think, the ultimate word about who we can be as human beings). I can offer particular encouragement to others who cross boundaries of gender, sexuality, race, and class, by word and by example, and I can try to be alert to the unique, wonderful and surprising gifts of individuals without either disregarding or idolizing their gender identities. These kinds of work are not limited to bisexual people, of course, but my bisexuality can help me carry them out. Undoubtedly, there are more tasks ahead which I cannot envision now, but for which my bisexuality will also be a gift.

Finally, then, Jesus does offer a word of hope for my sexual identity. Jesus’ example, if “translated” as I have tried to do here, reassures me that if I live my bisexuality with such Kingdom values as love, compassion, honesty, integrity and forgiveness, my sexual identity can and will be used in the service of the Kingdom, part of the solution rather than part of the problem (as the street evangelists would have it). The “symptom of sin and alienation” so derided by Biblical literalists can actually be a gift of grace to draw me closer to God the Great Lover, as I seek the Kingdom through my bisexuality and offer that bisexuality back to the Kingdom again. I pray in Jesus’ spirit that this work may give shape to my days, I offer thanks for a God who won’t let mere human boundaries stop love, and I praise the Rabbi whose love took him beyond all such boundaries in God’s service. Amen.