Can Justice Be Served Practicing a Queer Hermeneutics of the Bible?
Bigotry and violence aimed at “queer” people can be traced to fear and hatred felt by many who consider heterosexuality the only normative behavior. For the purposes of this essay “queer” is anyone who lives outside of a heteronormative construct and includes the LGBTIQ community. The heteronormative construct is a framework whereby everyone is measured against the plumb line of heterosexuality as the “normal” existence. Thankfully, a multitude of voices have risen against racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and many other “isms” and against the heteronormative construct. In the hearts of many of these protestors is the desire to do the right thing for all of humanity. Those living at the edges of society and their courageous defenders seek justice for all and recognition that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth.”[i] Ironically, the statement “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” is made by the United Methodist Church, an organization that specifically excludes gay people from ordination and strictly forbids its ministers from performing same-sex marriages.
One cannot comprehensively discuss the treatment of marginalized members of society without entertaining a conversation regarding justice. Justice means more than “all things must equal for all people.” Equality, simply stated, means that everyone gets the same right, access or status regardless of their circumstances. Justice is ensuring that everyone receives or is able to obtain what they need according to their needs. Equality is a distribution of resources in an equal amount, whereas justice is a distribution of resources to level the playing field. The question this discussion will attempt to answer is: “Can justice be served practicing a queer hermeneutics of the Bible?”
A thorough answer to the previous question requires a brief examination of what the Bible says about justice. The word justice occurs 125 times in the scripture. God outlines the plan for Abraham as “doing righteousness and justice” in Genesis 18:19. Public officials charged with leading the Israelites are instructed: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20). Jesus admonishes the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 for neglecting “the law, justice, mercy, and faith.” The theme of justice is scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible. A formal definition of justice is “rendering to everyone that which is her/his due.” One specific verse, Micah 6:8 states, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The Hebrew word for “justice” within this text is mishpat or “a verdict pronounced judicially; especially a sentence or formal decree…including a participant’s right or privilege.”[ii] Matthew Henry comments on this passage, that God “has shown us our end, which we should aim at, in showing us what is good, wherein our true happiness does consist.” Henry indicates that our happiness can be found in doing justice. [iii] Likewise, the New Testament goes into great detail describing the price necessary to avoid the consequences of death upon sinful humanity. God tells the children of Israel that blood is required to cover their iniquities and Christ calls believers to remember the sacrifice of his “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”[iv] For followers of Christ, justice is the blood shed on the cross by Jesus as payment for their sin.
The question, “Can justice be served practicing a queer hermeneutics of the Bible” can be answered depending upon one’s interpretive style or hermeneutics. The framework within which texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are frequently grounded is the androcentric-heteronormative framework. The relevance of this restrictive lens of interpretation explains why texts have been used against anyone who lives outside of the androcentric-heteronormative paradigm. Scripture translations perpetuate injustices, perhaps unintentionally, but they always oppress, control and discriminate. For instance, the United Methodist Church’s statement on human sexuality, does not “condone the practice of homosexuality,” considering it to be “incompatible with Christian teachings”. [v] These are very strong words for an organization which goes on to say, “We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law”.[vi] In other words, the protection of the rights of same-sex couples is the best legal recourse to take (simple justice), but it does not mirror the direction the UMC takes spiritually, emotionally, theologically, or socially. The UMC reads justice from a hermeneutics of jurisprudence ignoring the prism of social location.
It is obvious that biblical interpretations, conducted through an androcentric-heteronormative hermeneutic sustain injustice and oppression. An adjustment from a heteronormative to a queer hermeneutics would help to resist the oppressive nature of the androcentric-heteronormative hegemony. Instead, a reading of the sacred texts from the social location of the oppressed, the marginalized, “Other,” would create new understanding about how best to serve justice. Perhaps a new theory of justice needs to be articulated to answer this question: “Can justice be served practicing a queer hermeneutics of the Bible”?
Theologians and ethicists have dealt with this question. For example, Karen Lebacqz’ Theory of Justice defines justice as “not so much a state of being as a struggle and a constant process. It is the process of correcting what is unjust. It is the process of providing new beginnings, not an ideal state of distribution.”[vii] Lebacqz examines injustice and places it in an alternative framework of not giving “everyone what is due” but effecting justice by correcting injustices. She outlines a rudimentary five step process whereby this restorative justice can be utilized to correct injustice. Lebacqz explains:
- Justice will be conceived very broadly. It will participate in the richness of the biblical concept of justice in which justice is nothing less than “right relationship” or sedaqah
- Justice will reside in responsibilities and duties, not in rights. The covenant of mutual responsibility…implies care of one for another, the welfare of each depends on the other.
- The primary injustice is therefore exploitation. Domination and oppression are injustices because they are violations of a covenant of mutual responsibility. They violate the relationship and they violate the personhood of both parties.
- Since injustice is rooted in exploitation and oppression, justice as the process of correction of injustice takes shape primarily in rescue/resistance and in rebuke/reparations. God’s justice for the oppressed consists in liberation from oppression. The struggle for justice by the oppressed therefore consists in resistance to forms of oppression and in actions consonant with liberation as the goal. Those responsible for injustice have the duty of redress…ending exploitation or oppression and making reparations for the harms caused by past injustices.
- Any such justice will be understood to be incomplete and partial. Self-analysis and self-correction will therefore be a crucial part of a theory of justice.[viii]
The strengths and weaknesses of Lebacqz’ process must be considered before using her theory to answer the question: “Can justice be served practicing a queer hermeneutics of the Bible?” The strengths of restorative justice are its breadth, commitment to sedaqah (grounded in charity), righteousness, the idea of a covenant of mutual responsibility, and its exhortation to resist oppression. A queer biblical hermeneutics supports such an approach to justice. It not only hears the voice of the oppressed but also reveals the identity of the oppressor. It also deconstructs the androcentric-heteronormative construct through which scripture is regularly interpreted. Conversely, the weaknesses of the process can be found primarily as they apply to getting the oppressor to admit culpability, stop exploitative practices, and make reparation. Recompense for injustice may ease a portion of the suffering of the oppressed; but, hurtful words and violent actions once spoken and carried out cannot be unsaid or undone. We cannot un-murder Matthew Shepard[ix] and we cannot un-speak the hateful names used against queers for generations.
Understanding justice, from a queer hermeneutical perspective, highlights the tremendous amount of work that remains to be done in ensuring justice for queer communities. Everything begins with a conversation between parties willing to practice “self-analysis and self-correction.” Sacred texts such as the Bible contain many instructions for practicing justice. Interpretations of these Bible verses via an androcentric-heteronormative hermeneutic serves to oppress those living outside of the androcentric-heteronormative paradigm. Interpretations via a queer hermeneutical practice will serve justice by providing a more inclusive interpretation of scripture. We must be committed to correcting injustice so that we can begin practicing justice.
[i] United Methodist Church. Umg.org: What We Believe. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/human-sexuality-backgrounder.
[ii] Blue Letter Bible. Accessed April 23, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org//search
[iv] The New Interpretors Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Walter J Harrelson, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 2003.
[v] United Methodist Church. Umg.org: What We Believe. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/human-sexuality-backgrounder.
[vii] Karen Legacqz. “Implications for a Social Justice Theory.” In From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, edited by Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey , (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 254-260.
[ix] Julie Blindel, “The Truth Behind America’s Most Famous Gay-Hate Murder,” The Guardian, October 24, 2014, accessed May 6, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/26/the-truth-behind-americas-most-famous-gay-hate-murder-matthewshepard