Church’s Code Keeps Jesus on the “Down Low”

Originally published in The Witness, July 3, 2006.

For many of us who have always cast a suspicious eye on why biblical scholars, theologians and ministers do not have a clue as to who the historical Jesus was, Dan Brown’s bestseller and now blockbuster movie, The Da Vinci Code, sheds an illuminating light onto the hysteria that maintains the mystery.
And the mystery is that there has always been an open secret about Jesus’ sexuality that not only attacks the pillars of Christianity, but also profoundly plays into the oppression that women as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people face today in both church and society.
And that open secret about Jesus’ sexuality — along with the suggestions that he was gay, married, or both, if Jesus was on the “down low” — point to the issues we are wrestling with today in what conservatives call the “cultural war,” namely the institution of marriage, women in the church, and gay clergy. The hysteria surrounding those issues creates the perfect climate for stories about secret texts emerging from centuries-old closets and church authorities trying desperately to keep the lid over the “truth about Jesus.”
However, the debate about Jesus’ sexuality takes him from his mother’s womb to his tomb. The Christian depiction of Jesus as that of a lifelong virgin who had no sexual desire and who never engaged in sexual intercourse raises anyone’s suspicion, when Jesus’ traveling with unattached (and therefore “loose”) women and with at least twelve men — the law of averages would say that at least one out of the bunch was gay — made his scandalous band the subject of a great deal of winking and nudging around ancient Palestine. Of course, given the compulsory heterosexuality in ancient Palestine, a gay Jesus would have been forced to be on the “down low.”

… the mystery is that there has always been an open secret about Jesus’ sexuality that not only attacks the pillars of Christianity, but also profoundly plays into the oppression that women as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people face today in both church and society.

So if there is a spiritual and sensual narrative encrypted in Da Vinci’s 1498 painting “The Last Supper,” it’s part of a tradition going back to before Jesus’ death.

And while many Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals find Da Vinci’s sensuous painting blasphemous, Da Vinci’s homoerotic subtext pries open the door to the alluring quality about the Catholic Church that gay men find both rabidly homophobic and ravenously homoerotic.

When asked in 2002 during the Catholic Church sex scandal why so many gay men are attracted to religious life and the priesthood, Mark D. Jordan, professor in the religion department at Emory University and author of The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism, told The Boston Globe:

Homoeroticism is written into the Catholic imagination and its institutions. Many gay believers feel a strong calling to the priesthood or religious life. The call doesn’t seem to deny same-sex desires; it seems instead to complete them. It is a call to act out your manhood against social expectations, outside heterosexual marriage and in the company of other unmarried men.

Whatever Jesus did or didn’t do sexually, his reported failure to marry and have children would have made him, in the eyes of his culture, Queer, unfruitful and feminized.

They are promised an exchange of their ‘disordered’ identity as outsiders for a respected and powerful identity as an insider. They want to remain in the beautiful, sexually ambiguous space of liturgy. They are drawn to public celebration of suffering that redeems [and] they want to live in as gay a world as the Catholic Church offers.

And let’s not forget the theological significance and erotic (both homo- and hetero-) overtones in ritual kissing — between people of all genders and social classes, no less — that was a vital part of worship during the early centuries of the Christian Church, as passing the peace with a hug and/or handshake is a vital part of worship in today’s Christian churches.

Kissing on the lips was a way of binding a community together and it always followed the communal prayer, the Eucharist, or rites of baptism and ordination. Kissing on the lips was seen as transferring a portion of one’s spirit to another, sharing in the collective blessing of the Holy Spirit, and the earliest Christian texts never suggest that gender or kinship should be a factor in whom one should exchange the kiss of peace.

While homophobia in today’s Christian churches is antithetical to the gospel proclaimed by the early Church, so too is the denigration of the sacred feminine.

It would have been highly unusual and very scandalous, given Jewish marital customs, for Jesus not to be married; normally he would have been betrothed and married long before he became an itinerant preacher and called both male and female disciples. And just as any good Jew in Jesus’ culture (aside from a few fringe sects like the one that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls) would have obeyed the command in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” by having children, any “real man” in Jewish or Roman circles would have shown his masculinity by penetration. Whatever Jesus did or didn’t do sexually, his reported failure to marry and have children would have made him, in the eyes of his culture, Queer, unfruitful and feminized.

Our sexualities are the expressions of who we are with and in our bodies. They are a language and a means to communicate our spiritual need for intimate communion — both human and divine.

But Jesus was unashamed to tap into the forbidden zone — his feminine side. The sacred feminine is not only the life force tied to women’s ability to produce new life, but is also the power of the erotic that African-American lesbian poet Audre Lorde depicted as “a source within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.”

Our sexualities are the expressions of who we are with and in our bodies. They are a language and a means to communicate our spiritual need for intimate communion — both human and divine. They are our self-understanding through which we experience the world.

However, the hysteria that surrounds Jesus’ sexuality forces us all to see the walls of partition erected in our society, in our churches, and in our families that prohibit us from living freely in our bodies and force some of us on the “down low.”

And these walls not only contribute to the false socialization of who we are as male and female — they also contribute to the false spiritualization of who we are as the body of Christ.

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