Risk, Vulnerability, and Intimacy: A World-Changing Holy Week

Take, eat, this is my body.” Have you ever said that to someone? If you have, you probably did so privately, away from public view, and in a moment of romantic tenderness. It may have felt a bit risky and you made yourself quite vulnerable in saying it. That profound invitation is highly charged with intimacy – both in its offering and its potential rejection.intimacy_th4ree

Many Christian ministers actually issue that invitation weekly, sometimes daily, and rather publicly. Does that ritualized invitation sound risky? Does the rite vibrate with an intimate vulnerability? Do you or does anyone else gathered at the Eucharistic table blush when hearing those words? Take, eat, this is my body…

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Christianity’s annual pilgrimage through Holy Week. The events commemorated during this holiest of Christian weeks unfolded in a land occupied by an imperial army, exhibited all the narrative arcs of a classical tragedy, and culminated with a promise that still makes even the most devout among us at least a tad incredulous: love is stronger than death.

One of the focal points in this week spotlights a shared meal among close friends. This moment, I have come to believe, sheds indispensable light on the whole week and, therefore, on the very character of God revealed in Jesus – and in all those who seek to follow the same path into the mystery of God’s own life.

intimacy_handsMake no mistake: The path charted by this holy week beckons with a truly peculiar energy, more peculiar than its familiar liturgical cadences usually evoke. Peculiar not least for the kind of God this week proclaims: the God who risks vulnerability for the sake of intimacy.

Institutional Christianity has too often urged doing the right thing and living the right way so that we might persuade God to let us into Heaven. That urge reverses entirely the essence of the Gospel. The Eucharistic Table performs instead a remarkable claim: God makes God’s own self vulnerable to the ecstasies and foibles of bodily human intimacy.

“Take, eat,” Jesus says; “this is my body given for you” (Matthew 26:26). He says this with no guarantee whatsoever that this offering will be received well if at all. Notably, God initiates this moment of self-giving born from God’s own desire for intimacy.

Sexually intimate couples know, or at least intuit, what this holy week means. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it well when he noted that desire always carries risk because desire makes us vulnerable. Sex is an offering of the self, even in casual encounters, and very little can protect us from the potential of looking silly or feeling unwanted. “Nothing will stop sex from being tragic and comic,” Williams writes. “It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our bodily entirety, where we can venture into ‘exposed spontaneity’ . . . and find ourselves looking foolish or repellent.”

And that is divine risk, the very risk God takes with us and whole of God’s creation.

The gospel according to John foregrounds that astonishing risk by recounting hardly anything at all about a final meal but instead by describing the provocative moment when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:3–11). That bodily moment of intimate tenderness is followed by another. The disciple “whom Jesus loved” reclined on Jesus’ breast during the meal, presumably sharing the kind of whispered small-talk that intimates often do.intimacy_baby_foot

These two gospel moments portray what many couples, households, and friends experience in cherished moments of communal intimacy around a shared table. Yet a third moment in this story disrupts these expressions of intimacy with a yearning for redemption. In the wake of tender foot washing and in the midst of intimate bodily contact, John inserts a moment of disrupted affection. Jesus declares just then that one of his companions will betray him.

Tenderness disrupted by betrayal – this distills in microcosm the human predicament. The fullness of that for which we yearn seems so impossibly and constantly out of reach. Intimacy is thwarted at nearly every turn, whether because of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or class, or neighborhood, or national borders. Surely somewhere, somehow we will find the intimacy of communion all of us seek beyond the imperial mechanisms of violence that seem always to disrupt the glorious intimacies of bodily life.

Whether in a shared meal or in tender foot washing, Eucharist displays an unimaginable hope in the most loving act imaginable—an unprotected offering of the self, both body and blood. The vulnerability of this offering bathes the Eucharistic Table with tender intimacy. It does something else as well: it indicts institutional Christianity for its own history of religious violence. From crusades and inquisitions to paternalistic and misogynistic repressions, the Church has betrayed the Table that ought to inspire an audacious hope.

eucharist_hands_bread_wineSexually intimate couples can remind all of us about where the holiness of this week’s hope resides: in the intimate offering of the self to another for the sake of life.

I’ve been quoting here from my two recent books, Divine Communion and Peculiar Faith. Those books emerged in large measure from the deep impact that more than thirty years of holy weeks has had on my spiritual/bodily self in the world. After all these years, I think I might finally be starting to grasp the deceptively simple and absurdly profound message of Christian faith: God yearns to be in intimate communion with God’s own creation. I am convinced that this insight can change the world.

The biblical writer known as Luke thought so too. In his account of the earliest Christian communities, he described the effects of these hopeful insights by quoting the violent detractors of their mission: “These people…have been turning the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6).

May this Holy Week overturn your own world, and with it, the many other worlds we all inhabit. And may it do so as it has always done, with divine moments of risk and vulnerability for the sake of heart-rending intimacy.

Women [and] Archbishops: Lent & Liberation, Part 4

Brackets matter. Take the title of this blog post, for example. It signals two things at once: 1) the topic of women in relation to archbishops; and 2) the tantalizing possibility of women as archbishops. The title manages both of those meanings with the nifty little conceit of brackets.

But there are other kinds of brackets, the kind that aren’t spoken but are clearly operational nonetheless. Like this: “For the sake of Church unity there are certain things [women’s ordination] that we really can’t talk about right now.” Or this: “Accepting gay people in our churches would break centuries of traditional Church teaching [about the all-male priesthood].”

Brackets are [functionally and politically] handy and [spiritually] dangerous. If we can’t say what we really mean and talk with each other about what really counts, does it really matter what kind of [political or religious] conversation we’re having?

Unless very skillfully used, I find brackets annoying. So let’s take the recent resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury as an occasion to consider the insidious use of bracketing in Christian churches.

The circles in which I tend to run are abuzz about brother Rowan’s failure during his tenure fully to embrace lesbian and gay people. Anyone who has read his brilliant theological essays knows that he actually does affirm LGBT people. The real problem here has been his inability fully to embrace women. That failure is at the root of the “gay problem” – and it’s usually bracketed.

All of us engaged in the struggle for sexual inclusion need to be very clear that the entire struggle rests, not on sex and sexuality, but on gender – and especially on the status of women and women’s bodies.

So on this Lenten journey toward new life, I would like to share just three [further] observations about this struggle, which may seem arcane at first. Trust me; these matter, just like [insidious] brackets.

1. Raping Men is Worse [in the Bible] than Dismembering Women

The next time someone trots out the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 to oppose equal marriage rights – a story about rape, not “homosexuality” – ask that person about the strikingly similar and horrifying story in Judges 19.

Destruction of Sodom. The dismemberment of a woman apparently doesn't warrant divine pyrotechnics.

In that biblical story from Judges, a host is faced with the same dilemma as Lot was in the story from Genesis. In Judges, however, no angelic intervention prevents the sexual sacrifice of a woman to fulfill the requirements of a hospitable household. The woman in that story, an anonymous concubine, is brutally raped by Benjamite men in Gibeah and is later ritually dismembered to prompt retributive military action by Israel (see Judges 20:6-11; and for goodness’ sake, don’t let your children read the Bible!).


So why have no Hollywood films been made depicting the fate of that concubine at the hands of the Benjamite tribe in Gibeah nor of the swift retribution inflicted on the Benjamites by Israel? No European legal statute or Medieval penitential category emerged to describe the rape and ritualistic dismemberment of that nameless concubine. There is no sin of the Benjamites referred to as “Benjamy” or sinners as “Gibeahthites” as there are “sodomy” and “sodomites.” Why? (I’m grateful to the books on sodomy by Mark Jordan and Michael Carden for that essential question.)

The answer is painfully clear: biblical writers were truly horrified by the prospect of raping men. Dismembering women? Eh. Not so bad, really…

2. Polygamy Protects Women [Who are Submissive] in Households

Bishop John William Colenso

Only the most historically astute Anglican Christians today will recall that John Colenso was a 19th century Anglican bishop in South Africa. He got into trouble by permitting new converts to Christianity to continue in polygamous relationships. This prompted a crisis in the Anglican Communion that didn’t get “settled” (if it really ever did) until the late 20th century.

Even though both the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth conferences grudgingly accepted polygamy for the sake, ostensibly, of the economic well-being of women, something far more patriarchal is at work here. The (limited) tolerance of polygamy in all these decisions is directly proportional to the lack of any threat it poses to the gendered order of marital relations, more particularly to the patriarchal ordering of a household.

As long as there is a man in charge, we can live with a bit of [ethical] wiggle room.

3. Same-Gender [Non-Hierarchical] Marriage would Destroy the Ozone Layer

Think back to 2003. Remember all those objections to the election of openly gay and partnered Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire? Those objections were not about “homosexuality.” The voices objecting to that election made some rather revealing rhetorical shifts. They no longer referenced the biblical story of Sodom (that’s so 20th century). Instead, they started insisting on the earlier Genesis accounts of the supposed “complementarity” of women and men as essential in God’s design of creation.

In a 2003, Peter Akinola, the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, declared that setting aside the “divine arrangement” of marriage as between a man and a woman is an “assault on the sovereignty of God.” In a rather startling rhetorical move, Akinola compared this assault to the human depletion of the ozone layer insofar as “homosexuality” marks a “terrible violation of the harmony of the eco-system of which mankind is a part” (See Steven Bates’ great account of all this.)

The “harmony” in question is none other than the gendered ordering of the patriarchal household.

Those are just three among countless instances of bracketing the dignity of women for the sake of preserving patriarchy. They call me to fervent repentance in this Lenten season for failing to do more to dismantle patriarchy. They also beg a question, at least for me: Why am I still a Christian? I do have reasons for embracing this peculiar faith, and I’ll try to articulate them as we move on toward Easter.

For now, I’ll just say this: there actually is a woman archbishop. Her name is Katherine Jefferts Schori. For some complex political, cultural, and religious reasons, she is not called “archbishop” but instead the “Presiding Bishop” of the Episcopal Church. But she is, in fact and in effect, an archbishop. Thank God.

I don’t mean that she alone will somehow erase the patriarchal past. I don’t even mean that she is a feminist (she might be, I don’t know). Given Christian history, those issues don’t matter nearly so much right now as the mere fact that the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman.

That gives me hope. I know it does for many others as well. And wouldn’t it be great if Queen Elizabeth II found hope in that, too? She, after all, will decide who will replace Rowan Williams. Let us pray…