Thursday, November 11, 2010

Brandy Daniels on Border Logic of Contemporary Christianity and Gay Teen Suicide

Two valuable points in Brandy Daniels' analysis of the connection between what some Christians think, say, and do, and the suicides of gay youth:

1. Taking her cue from J. Kameron Carter, Daniels argues that there is a pathological "border logic" at work in contemporary Christianity, which is intent on seeing some members of the human community as threats to the purity and integrity of the churches, and which must constantly police the boundaries to keep those threatening others outside.

2. The tremendous pain some Christians inflict on their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters today is, quite specifically, the pain of being placed outside: outside the pale, outside the circle of salvation, outside the beloved community.

Gay and lesbian people are frequently made homeless today by their brothers and sisters in Christ.  And that pain--the pain of exclusion from home and family--is at the heart of the problem of suicides of gay youth.  It is a terrible indictment, indeed, of Christianity as it is now understood and practiced by many Christians, that many of its adherents seem unable to understand the cruelty and hurt they are inflicting on other human beings by their commitment to a ruthless border logic that turns some human beings into unwelcome outsiders, simply because of who God has made them to be.

As I read Daniels, it occurs to me yet again that the conversation about the connection between religious belief and gay teen suicide would be enriched if the anthropological insights of Mary Douglas informed this conversation.  In her classic work Purity and Danger, Douglas notes that human communities mimic human bodies in policing their boundaries and access points against threats from the outside perceived as potential pollutants of the body politic.

The police work of the body intensifies when threats appear to loom larger.  When a potentially infectious agent is detected in the outside world, the body begins to monitor access to its orifices--it monitors access to the points of contact by which pollutants enter it--with heightened vigilance.  And so at moments of increased stress, the body politic frequently imagines any and all outsiders or newcomers as possible security threats and patrols its borders to keep these threats outside.

When I blogged about the recent papal visit to Spain yesterday, I asked why some Christian religious groups need to keep postulating enemies against which to define themselves and their purity.  I suggested that this posture of enemy-making and border-monitoring, premised on the notion of a threatened purity at the heart of the defensive community, departs from the gospels.

I am speaking, in particular, of the need of the current papacy and its defenders to project demonic images of modernity and secularism, and to define doctrinal purity and orthodoxy over against those perceived demonic threats.  I am also speaking of the strong need of the current pope and many members of the hierarchy to paint a malicious picture of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ as enemies of the church to be kept at bay, lest these brothers and sisters pollute the church's purity.

It might be argued that the intense preoccupation of the current pope and many members of the Catholic hierarchy with their gay brothers and sisters as potential pollutants to be expelled from the body of Christ has everything to do with very personal dramas of policing, purity, and expulsion, precisely because many Catholic clergy, including those at top levels, are themselves gay.  The personal drama of self-policing and expulsion of unwanted sexual urges--the personal drama of many Catholic clergy--is writ large for the church they control, as they imagine their own inner struggle for purity as the decisive struggle of the church itself, at this point in history.

As a priest-theologian friend of mine often notes, the pronounced penchant for anti-gay cruelty that is particularly noteworthy in contemporary Catholicism arises out of the need of a clerical caste many of whose members are gay to control, demean, and keep outside threatening energies found within that caste itself.  The current Catholic leadership structure reserves a particular kind of cruelty--with a particularly savage intent to expel--for gay folks, and for gay men especially.  And this savage cruelty towards those who are gay goes hand in hand with a strong cruelty towards women, who are seen as a decisive threat to the all-male clerical club that must constantly police its boundaries in order to assure its ritual purity at the heart of a church struggling for ritual purity under the leadership of this defensive, self-absorbed, centripetal ruling elite.

How does it happen, some good readers of this blog keep asking, that a church so dominated by gay men can become so obsessively bent on humiliating those who are gay and lesbian?  The answer to that question lies, I think, in the need of a threatened clerical club controlling the governance structures of Catholicism to imagine that its own inner drama is the drama of the church as a whole.  And in the need of that threatened club to imagine enemies to its ritual purity, and to imagine that in vanquishing perceived enemies of its club, it is engaging in holy war.  And in the need of that club, as well, to imagine that the future of the church itself depends on what happens to the clerical club--as if the church as a whole is merely an extension of its tiny clerical elite.

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