Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Possibilities of a Christian politics in support of Gay Rights: Loving the Magdalene – II

Over the 25th and the 26th of July I was in Pondicherry, to participate in a workshop around the theme of public consultation and citizen participation in urban governance. Fortuitously, on the 28th of the same month the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) organized in Madras a symposium on ‘The Indian Church and repealing of the Section 377 of IPC’. Since my return journey home would have to take me through the city of Madras, it occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to tarry a while longer in the south and listen in on some of the discussions that would take place at the symposium.

The decision was not made in vain. Over the course of the day long seminar, a variety of positions on the issue of Section 377 (which as we know relates to the issue of homosexuality) were presented, some of which reaffirmed my faith in the capacity of institutional Christianity to respond with the caritas it affirms as its central tenet.

Those conscious of sectarian divisions, should note that the NCCI is an organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches in India. The Catholic Church in India is not a member, though the Council seems to include representatives from the Catholic tradition in its events. This particular symposium hosted a Jesuit priest who works with the youth. The key note address delivered by Rt. Rev. Dr. V. Devasahayam, the CSI Bishop in Madras displayed a profound change from the Catholic position. As previously discussed in this column, the Catholic response to the Court decision on 377 has been to acknowledge that while religious morality cannot be the basis for criminalization, homosexuality itself is immoral. This position is in keeping with the Vatican’s counsel of the need to reach out in love to homosexual people, even though acting on homosexual desire is an ‘intrinsic moral evil’. The position of the CSI Bishop however was an unconditional embrace toward the members of the LGBT community. This trend continued in two other papers presented by the theologians associated with the Protestant Churches. In the discussions that followed later however, it was clear that these positions were not universally accepted. Christian acceptance could be extended to the eunuch, but to the homosexual?

Dr. George Zachariah, a theologian at a Lutheran institute, presented a paper that was very closely argued, and a delight to listen to. His argument offers a significant axis around which a Christian response to the entire issue of homosexuality can turn. Given that the debate around sexuality is about the place of sex in human life, he quoted from Marvin M. Ellison to argue that “The primary norm for sexual and social relations can no longer be marriage or even heterosexuality, but rather justice-love in all relations”. This term of justice-love was understood as “the pursuit of right relatedness as mutual respect, care and the sharing of goods and power”. Based on this logic, Dr. Zachariah argued that the gay-friendly or queer perspective “does not reject family or marriage; rather it proposes a justice centered ethical framework to examine power and powerlessness in intimate relations”. He recognized that “power relations shape all aspects of life” and that the ‘romanticising of family life ignores power, abuse, exploitation and oppression among intimates’. Justice in marriage and married life therefore, “involves respect and care as well” and further, that “we need to distinguish between marriage as an experience and marriage as an institution”.

Zachariah brings to us a valuable key to understanding the family without collapsing it into the patriarchal model of the family. I do not however, want to pursue this aspect of his argument further, but return to his original question and take a different route from there. For a queer (and Christian) politics, what is the place of sex? Returning to Ellison’s formulation, the place of sex in a queer-friendly Christian politics would be the realization of justice-love.

This formulation, that centers the realization of justice-love in the Christian experience to my mind clashes with the dominant understanding of queer/ gay/ LGBT politics. A good amount of LGBT politics is premised on the centrality of sexuality as defining one’s identity. Thus it is imperative for this politics to argue, as indeed some activists at the symposium did argue, that homosexuality is not a choice, it is a genetic condition. It turns out however, that this position is not without challenge. In such a situation, what is the gay-rights defender’s position? Does the choice of homosexual over heterosexual love place this person afoul of a Christian politics? Using this notion of a commitment to justice-love, clearly it does not. On the contrary, the commitment to justice-love would make the sex of the person we love immaterial, placing the human-being at the centre of our eroticism. It demands that this eroticism be respectful of the individual, not treating, as we are encouraged to by the culture of consumerism, the individual solely as an object that will gratify our physical desire and emotional needs. Eroticism via justice-love compels us in this context to the virtue of a giving and an emptying of ourselves for the beloved. In these thoughts, I believe Marvin Ellison would agree with me.

A commitment to justice-love engineers another powerful move. It prevents us from making sexuality the sole marker of our identity. It compels all of us to fight for the rights against discrimination of all sexual minorities, whether we are a member of a sexual minority group or not. One of the problems with LGBT activism that places sexuality at the centre of identity, is that it fetishizes sexuality (and sex), such that whether we like it or not, our life is defined by our sexual behaviour. With our identity defined by sexuality, it could turn out that sex-seeking becomes one of the centers of our existence.

The problems of such a sexual-identity based politics do not extend merely to making sex-seeking the centre of our existence. It encourages a limited view of politics, such that we seek the liberation of sexual-minorities alone, to the exclusion of other minorities. Thus, it would lead to a politics of ‘me first, then others’. The battle against 377 is perhaps an example of this. Some of the arguments and strategies mobilized by the LGBT activists are deeply problematic, in that they seem to have employed strategies that may have difficult implications for other groups. For example, we know that the result of PILs has resulted in an unaccountable judiciary that has very often trampled on the rights of the poor. Has recourse to the Court in the case of 377 via PIL not justified the problematic politics of the PIL? Further, when arguing that 377 is a colonial British imposition, has it not latched onto the power of a certain anti-colonial nationalism that is unforgivingly cruel to those people (like the various varieties of Indian Christians) that are more obviously touched by colonialism?

It turns out therefore, that it is possible for an individual to be both true to Christian values and be in favour of the ending of discrimination against sexual minorities. A queer Christian politics does not threaten the institution of the family, as many fear queer politics will do. On the contrary it liberates the family from the constraints of a patriarchal imagination. More importantly however, it turns out that a Christian spin on queer politics could wind up liberating queer politics itself. And this perhaps, is the sweetest thought of all!

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 5 Aug 2009)

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