Jesus Sex and Jesus Gender

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Christian traditions have wanted to hide on Jesus' body the organs of male sex at the same time that they have wanted to insist upon his male gender. A full consideration of this division might look to the difference between male organ and male power, between what theorists distinguish as the penis and the phallus. The penis is an organ while the phallus is a totem. I propose for the moment only the beginning of a simpler analysis. Consider how the distinction between sex and gender in Jesus allows his masculinity to be pliable for official purposes.

Two cautions before beginning this consideration. First, the distinction between sex and gender can only be provisional. The distinction has been used to separate (physically determined) sex from (culturally constructed) gender. Sex means roughly the kind of body you are born with. Gender is the way you were taught to handle that sexed body within a certain social regime. Between "sex" and "gender" there appears "sexuality," which sometimes seems physiologically based and cross-cultural, at other times culturally specific and always under construction. But the trichotomy, the triplet of terms, cannot be stable. It is never clear, for example, what should be included in "gender." Analyzed carefully, "sex" is no less troublesome, since external genital anatomy is only one biological marker of sex and since societies disagree when interpreting the marker. So in distinguishing Jesus' (hidden) sex from Jesus' (institutionalized) gender, we can only expect a rough and ready distinction between what cannot be cleanly separated.

The second caution: In talking about Jesus' gender, it is safest not to get entangled in questions about his "sexual orientation." It is very useful to undo the heterosexist presumption that Jesus was of course heterosexual - that he would obviously have been married to a woman if he had entered into an erotic relation at all. As incarnate God, Jesus violated any number of social expectations. Perhaps he would have violated this one too. Of course, the deceptions in applying terms for sexual orientation across history are numerous even when there is an abundance of evidence. There is little or no evidence about Jesus' sexual desires in the canonical Gospels.11 So while it is helpful to rethink the Gospel narratives without the assumption that Jesus was "heterosexual," it is very wise not to attempt to prove that he was "homosexual." In any case, the point here is precisely not to inaugurate a quest for the historical Jesus' sexuality. The point is to notice the consequences of how Christian traditions have distinguished Jesus' sex from Jesus' gender.

Recall again the contrast between silence on sex and stridency on gender. When canonical theologians have considered Jesus' sex, they have refused to allow it what might be considered ordinary sexual operations. Reasoning from hypotheses about genitals in Eden before the fall, and from rules about the right use of sex, they have suggested, for example, that Jesus never had an erection. Erections in Eden would have been voluntary: Adam would have chosen to have one only for purposes of procreation with Eve. Since Jesus never willed to copulate with anyone, he would not have willed an erection.12 Again, the disorder of human sexual desire is considered both a cause and an effect of original sin. When I feel the rush of desire for another man, I am only showing that I am objectively disordered in consequence of the sin that long ago disrupted human life. When a heterosexual woman feels lust for a man whom she never intends to marry and without any notion of procre-ative possibilities, she too is showing disorder. Jesus was not disordered by sin. So Jesus didn't suffer such desires. In sum, for many traditional Christian theologies Jesus had genitals (which need to be hidden), but he did not have anything like what we think of as ordinary sexual reactions. He was like us in all things but sin - and the traditions stigmatize most of our experienced sexuality as sin.

So far, the enforced silence on Jesus' sex. The strident affirmations of Jesus' gender are much more familiar to us. We Catholics hear, for example, that women cannot be ordained to priesthood because they cannot represent or symbolize Jesus. We are told, again, that church leadership is more appropriate to men than to women: not only was Jesus himself a man, but he chose only men as his disciples. So Jesus' masculine gender has enormous significance for church life. Indeed, recent Vatican arguments against the ordination of women suppose that the maleness of priesthood is a divine given that cannot be changed by the church even if it wanted too.13

Of course, Jesus' masculinity is somewhat curious. First, most Christian churches have conceived it as a strictly celibate masculinity, since they take it as obvious that Jesus never engaged in sexual activity. Second, though perhaps less obviously, Jesus' masculinity is a sort of eunuch masculinity. If we are to believe that he never "had sex," we are also not to think about his having male organs for sex. Finally, the masculinity of male Christian leaders has often itself strained social expectations of masculinity. In the Catholic Church, the norma-tively celibate priesthood has not infrequently been treated as a sort of third sex or intersex. It has been assigned gender roles that mix or confuse ordinary gender expectations. There are, I suspect, similar shifts of gender expectations even in the normatively married Protestant clergy So while Jesus' masculinity is held up as the standard for the masculinity of Christian ministry, it is also complicated in ways that make it seem problematically masculine.

If believing Christians hesitate to accuse Jesus of being effeminate, they have not hesitated to level the accusation against particular representations of him. Bruce Barton, once popular as author of The Man Nobody Knows (to be read with emphasis on "man"), was pushed to portray Jesus as an athletic business leader because he was so put off by representations of Jesus as a wimp.14 If the prevailing images of Jesus were not to be abandoned altogether, they had to be monitored quite closely. Consider Warner Sallman's best-selling portraits of Christ.15 Sallman himself undertook them precisely in order in present the figure of a masculine Christ, a "real" man's Christ. Alas, Sallman himself was accused of presenting a soft, strange, effeminate Christ, with glistening locks and flimsy robes. So the pictures of Jesus have to be toughened up, butched up. Jesus' portraits have to keep proving their masculinity.

What threatens the masculinity of Jesus' representations? I have mentioned above some reasons why Jesus' official masculinity is problematic from the start, but we should add here another reason that we can notice particularly in portraits. Religious images are objects of devotion. Jesus' masculinity must be troubled because both men and women have passionate and psychologically intimate relations to him. His portraits are meant to attract and direct devotion. They are portraits of someone loved ardently by members of both sexes.

Jesus is our Lord, but also our friend. We go to him with our cares and our concerns. We suppose that he knows all of our shameful secrets, including our hidden sexual desires and acts. He even sees us performing them. So Jesus knows things about my body and what I do with it that an erotic partner of many years may not know, that the sum of my lovers may not have seen. Jesus knows me inside out. He loves me and I love him. He wants to help me in my daily struggle to live rightly, including with regard to sexual desires and acts. How does his gaze on my body affect my gaze on his? How does the intimacy of our relationship trouble my relation to him as someone who has a sexed body? Must I hide his sex in part because I can't figure out how to think of his sex in relation to our intimacy, my devotion? For heterosexual men, Jesus must be a buddy and cannot be only a buddy (since Jesus sees private things a buddy isn't supposed to see). For non-heterosexual men, Jesus can all too easily be more than a buddy - with the dangers that implies. What is it for a "straight" woman to have a superbly attractive man solicit her deepest love even as he knows her intimate history? And if lesbians might seem to escape the paradoxes of reacting with desire to Jesus' physical body, they might seem to be especially subjected to his (male) gaze. Every human body is watched by Jesus everywhere it goes, in everything it does. Is it any wonder that we are so worried about how Jesus appears - and must not appear?16

Other reactions to portraits of Jesus are not only possible, but certainly more frequent in conscious experience. I may look at a crucifix and think that it is bad art, a bit of factory kitsch. Or I may look at it and recall how different Jesus may have looked "in fact." Or, again, the sight of a crucifix may lead me to meditate on the many ways in which Jesus appears to me - in the consecrated bread and wine, in the faces of the needy, in the luminous transfigurations of human love. Jesus' physical body may be noted more as absent or as multiplied than as singular and specific. Still, if I am led by a piece of religious art to place myself at the foot of the cross, to walk with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, to follow his commands in a fishing boat on Galilee, I must also meditate on my reaction to his body, which must be sexed as human bodies are.

Why need that confrontation be erotic, someone might ask? Isn't any effort to eroticize Jesus' body a sign more of cultural decadence than of serious thinking about faith? After all, isn't it a hyper-sexualized culture that forces us to consider every body in terms of its sex and to worry that every relation is repressed sexuality? There is a real point to these questions, and I will come back to it in a moment. I would only note now that anxieties over Jesus' sex or gender predate contemporary America. They predate the preoccupations of "muscular Christianity" and the YMCA. We have noticed already old quandaries about the representation of Jesus crucified. We could also have noted that Christians have always been attracted by an ideal of life beyond sex, and have considered such a life an imitation of their Lord's life. Jesus' sex has always been unsettling, both cause and effect of how unsettling any sex has been for Christianity. We deduce our sexual morality from Jesus' rejected sex; Jesus must have rejected sex because of our sexual morality. So we need not be afraid to stand by the insight that troubles about the sexed body of the Messiah are deeply inscribed in Christian living. They are not merely cultural byproducts of the last decades - or centuries. We should not be afraid to continue with our meditations.

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