Saturday, 3 May 2008

On the moral superiority of gays

One of Stanley Hauerwas’s most memorable essays is his 1993 piece, “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)” (reprinted in the excellent Hauerwas Reader) – an essay in which Hauerwas argues that gays are morally superior to Christians, since they managed to get themselves excluded from military service. His point is simply that the church often fails to take its own identity seriously, and so we pose no real threat to the status quo. But imagine a church that really took itself seriously – it would be an intolerable threat, an unbearable disruption! “Could you trust someone who would think it more important to die thank to kill unjustly? Are these people fit for the military? … Would you want to shower with such people? You never know when they might try to baptize you.”

Further, Hauerwas observes that the real function of society’s “no” to gays is simply to shield ourselves from the painful truth of our own moral confusion. In a culture of drastic moral incoherence, “the moral ‘no’ to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something.” We pronounce this “moral no” precisely in order to convince ourselves of our own security; we exclude someone else in order to reassure ourselves that we are not without a moral norm. But in holding up the gay community as a moral example, Hauerwas turns the tables. He poses a prophetic challenge to the church, a challenge to our complacency and our calm assurance of our own moral superiority.

I think a similar prophetic challenge underlies Rowan Williams’ famous lecture, “The Body’s Grace”, presented to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1989. The lecture has been widely discussed – vigorously praised by some, and feverishly condemned by others. But in the first instance, we should realise that Williams was not simply trying to provide a descriptive account of same-sex desire, or a straightforward theological description of human sexuality.

First and foremost, his aim was to provoke a certain kind of response. His lecture was more a prophetic challenge than a didactic analysis: he was concerned precisely with the question of the church’s identity. Like Hauerwas’ essay, Williams’ lecture tries to rouse the church, to provoke us to action – to ask what an authentic Christian community might look like here and now, in an environment of moral confusion and fragmentation.

I have a suspicion that the real heart of Williams’ lecture is disclosed in his humorous offhand remark that, within the church, the ordinary “norm” of male-female intercourse may itself be the exemplary sexual perversion, since such intercourse can involve the action of “one agent [i.e. the husband] … who doesn’t have to wait upon the desire of the other.” As Williams puts it: “in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a ‘perversion’.”

It is at precisely this point that the fundamental intention of Williams’ lecture becomes clear: to disturb the complacency of Christians, characterised as we are by a seemingly invincible aura of moral superiority. Williams is trying to threaten us, to show us that we are not morally safe and secure. Thus his whole lecture turns on the argument that “sexual union is not delivered from moral danger and ambiguity by satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion” – it’s simply not that easy; we’re not as safe as we thought we were.

As writers like Williams and Hauerwas remind us, then, the task of Christian ethics is not to shore up the status quo, not to reassure us of our own security – and certainly not to naturalise the status quo, so that our own behaviour becomes the self-evident norm against which every deviation can be identified and condemned as such. Instead, the task of Christian ethics is to bring us under the judgment of the gospel, and to remind us that our action is always fraught with danger. In every new decision we are balanced precariously on the edge of a knife. In every decision, we stand under judgment. It is the false prophet who cries “peace, peace – when there is no peace.”

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