A Man’s man

Present Day Context

This week, Carl Nassib became the first NFL player to out himself as an openly gay player. Nassib’s action has been greeted with a chorus of affirmation and support from team owners, coaches, fellow players, and fans. My, what a long way we’ve come in a relatively short time! Despite conservative Christian resistance and hard right political opportunism we see a growing acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream social, sporting, judicial and political life in the US. Across European democracies – where they previously existed – long standing criminal codes against male homosexuality have been repealed. Yet, in increasingly totalitarian Poland and Hungary, government attacks on LGBT+ persons are on the increase, as nationalist politicians deploy the Vladimir Putin playbook.

LGBT+ persons form a convenient scapegoat for rightwing and totalitarian regimes. Like the Jews, gays – especially gay men- represent the feared other of the enemy within. Homophobic persecution is principally directed towards gay men for two reasons:

  1. In patriarchy women don’t really matter.
  2. It’s male homosexuality that evokes an atavistic fear at the heart of male dominated order. Freud noted the paradox at the heart of patriarchy with respect to male homosexuality. He asked: why does something purported to be so rare and so abnormal provoke such powerful reaction?

In Russia and elsewhere, the LGBT+ community is an easy scapegoat for distracting attention away from regime policy failure. Africa continues to pose its own special examples of drastic persecution of LGBT+ communities. Uganda and most recently Nigeria pose examples of recent attempts to impose the death penalty for homosexuality.

With support from conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, homophobic persecution goes hand-in-hand with political attempts to increase male control over the female body. Draconian anti-abortion legislation such as that enacted with strong support of the Catholic Church in Poland and now being attempted across Republican controlled states in our own country dovetails with homophobic hostility.

What’s in a word?

As a term homosexualitat first appears in 19thcentury German scientific literature. The term causes confusion among English speakers who usually mistake the Greek homo – meaning the same, for the Latin homo-  meaning man-male. 

Homosexuality from the Greek homo means sexual attraction for the same sex, rather than the Latin homo meaning sexual attraction by men for the male sex. Contrary to popular usage the term applies equally to sexual attraction between women as between men.

Biblical Context

Last week’s reading introduced us to the relationship between David and Jonathan, who at their first meeting experience love at first sight!

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

As if to add emphasis – in a somewhat Freudian slip – the text has previously made explicit reference to David’s smooth cheeks and sparkling eyes – allusions to his effeminate youthful ,and at best, androgynous appearance. In today’s installment, we skip forward to the death of Saul and Jonathan; father and son together having fallen in a last stand in battle against the Philistines. With broken heart, David composes one of the great love eulogies of all time. In what came to be known as the Song of the Bow, David cries out in anguish –

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!

How the mighty have fallen.  ….

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! ….

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle.

Jonathan lies slain upon you high places.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved were you to me;

your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

How the mighty have fallen,

and the weapons of war perished!


These are the words of one man’s love for another. Issues of gender and sexual identity continue to fuel our current culture wars making for an interesting answer to the question: was David and Jonathan’s love, homosexual?

Or were they just Oxbridge-style soul-friends; the kind of tortured platonic attraction between men much admired among the English upper classes and characterized in the novels of E. M Forster’s Maurice and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; men’s platonic desiring one another with their minds on higher things from the waste up.

Until relatively recently, the story of David and Jonathan has only been read through a patriarchal lens. Biblical commentators have over the centuries gone to considerable lengths to deny any homoerotic inference in the love that David openly declares for Jonathan. 

Contemporary commentators no longer directly deny the homoerotic content of this story but issue strong warnings against the danger of anachronism – that is where we project back into history our current attitudes, values, and ideas. Alongside the development of a feminist biblical lens, there is now, a growing body of commentary committed to a queer reading of this text.  Bruce Gerig openly embraces the homosexual nature of the love between David and Jonathan. David and Jonathan are clearly an emotionally bonded couple. From their first meeting, Jonathan places his love for David above his loyalty to his own father- protecting David from the dangers of Saul’s murderous paranoia – a very big statement in a patriarchal society. On the face of it, by declaring that Jonathan’s love is a love beyond that of women – David, the inveterate womanizer, seems to draw attention to the homoerotic component to the love between them.

Are David and Jonathan great historical gay figures? I see no reason we should not draw from their story encouragement to resist the patriarchal expunging of homoeroticism from the interpretation of scripture. However, I accept that to read a modern polarity of homosexual – heterosexual back into the relationship between David and Jonathan is anachronistic. The terms homosexual and heterosexual, and the distinctions they imply are products of the modern age. David and Jonathan were not gay in the contemporary sense that I would claim that description. The love between David and Jonathan is the sexually charged love common in intensely patriarchal-warrior cultures. From Classical Greece to Samurai Japan, in these tribal-warrior cultures the social and emotional inferiority of women meant that while suitable as the bearers of children, they could never be considered as emotional partners with men. In patriarchal societies the primary emotional identification for men could, and can, only be, other men.

Many of us grew up with the phrase – he’s a man’s man – without ever wondering about the hidden irony. In traditional man’s men’s worlds, there’s a discrete tolerance for homoeroticism, usually involving age difference relationships between older and younger men.

Our social concept of homosexuality as a stable emotional developmental state, existing along a continuum of identity and gender fluidity has little relevance when reflecting on men’s sexual arrangements in such societies.


What’s the value in the story of David and Jonathan for 21st-century readers?

  1. It  questions our assumption that in the patriarchal past, homoerotic relationships were always forbidden. The patriarchal lens is rooted in the Israelite anxiety about homosexuality, evidenced in the early texts of the Torah; an anxiety of a tribal society’s concern about diverting sexual energy away from procreation. Babies meant survival.
  2. Reading the Bible through a non-patriarchal lens reveals more complex wider social nuances – raising the possibility that in Israelite society where the primary emotional identification was between men and not between men and women, homoerotic expression had its place.
  3. For these reasons alone, a patriarchal reading renders the Bible itself as a very unreliable witness in any attempt to prohibit contemporary homosexualities.
  4. The story of David and Jonathan reminds us that a Christian theology of human relationships rests not upon issues of gender but on the capacity for love. Love as emotional commitment and ethical fidelity is the Christian understanding that underpins the experience of a love relationship between significant others.
  5. David is not only an inveterate womanizer –he is a very poor role model for emotional commitment and ethical fidelity as we understand these today. He’s a man of his time and place. A warrior king, abusive husband, and terrible father. He’s also a man with a deep and abiding love for another man. When we stop trying to domesticate him, we can see there’s nothing odd in any of this.  
  6. Human beings may be biologically gendered for the purposes of reproduction, yet this cannot be the final statement on either the purpose of sex or what it means to be made in the image of God.

For 21st-century Christians, it is no longer the gendered identity of the object of our desires that matters, but the integrity of the love that comes to bind two persons in a relationship that is of primary significance for both.

The longing that characterizes such relational love- the giving, the receiving, and the sharing of such love is a direct reflection of the divine nature; of our longing for God, and the longing God has for us.

In that sense David and Jonathan reflect the timelessness quality of human relationship.

It’s the Technology Thing – Stupid!

Two weeks ago, reflecting on the events of Samuel’s anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king, Linda+ noted:

There is plenty to ponder here, with more questions than answers. What should people expect from their leaders? What should they fear? What should influence leaders’ decisions regarding power and vulnerability, war and peace, poverty and wealth, justice and equality?

For the rest of this month, throughout July and into early August – the O.T. readings are taken from the books of first and second Samuel, first and second Kings. These chronicle the goings on in Israel as it grapples with new challenges to its national identity and security.

What we refer to as the Deuteronomic History covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. One of its major themes is the uneasy fit of monarchy within the framework of Israel’s ancient covenant with God.

History has an uncanny rhyming quality. The dramas chronicled in the Deuteronomic History continue to echo into our own time. Like ancient Israel we too are struggling anew with our own national identity. For us it’s as a nation of laws within a guiding framework of the Constitution. New information emerging from the last days of the Trump administration reveal anew the crucial importance of fidelity to the Constitution as our only true defense against the tyranny of mafia style government.

The Covenant between God and Moses – forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel was forced by external threat into a difficult transition from a tribal confederacy into a monarchy. But fidelity to the covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of YHWH’s regent.

The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king’s reign. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?

The story so far.

  • Samuel’s leadership occurs on the cusp of momentous political change in the face of the long Philistine emergency.
  • The Philistines were a sea marauding people originating from northern Greece. In an apt comparison – they were the Vikings of their day. Over several decades they established colonies along the Mediterranean coast bordering the Israelite Confederation.

For as long as the Israelite tribes had inhabited the hill country, they had warred with their Canaanite neighbors on the coastal plain. But the Philistine threat was different in magnitude. More than the usual tension between neighbors – the Philistine emergency represented the clash of technology on the cusp of the transition from the bronze to iron ages.  The Philistines possessed superior iron-based technology – giving them the military upper hand against the bronze-based weaponry of the Israelites.

Back to the story.

  • The tribal elders came to Samuel and said: look you are going to die soon, and we won’t accept your corrupt sons as judges over us. Therefore, give us king like the nations around us – one who will unite us in battle to defeat our enemies.
  • Against his wishes, after warning the people of the curtailment of the freedoms they could expect under a king, Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king over Israel. Israel may have needed a king, but as it turned out, Saul was not the king it needed.
  • Both Samuel and eventually God grieve over Saul. God sends Samuel out again, this time to Jesse of Bethlehem – in search of a new candidate to anoint as king. After reviewing the beauty parade of Jesse’s strong and handsome sons – men all rather in the Saul mold – you know tall, broad shouldered, bearded and virile – God instructs Samuel to anoint the youngest son, David; a mere boy in the bloom of youth with sparkling eyes and ruddy cheeks.
  • After this secret anointing the next we hear of David is when he appears with Saul’s army preparing for battle with the Philistines.

We all know the story of David and Goliath, the young shepherd pitted against the most ferocious Philistine giant of a warrior. Every Sunday school child knows the outcome of the story of David slaying the mighty Goliath with his slingshot.

We pick up the story following David’s victory when returning with the army to Saul’s house we learn that for Saul’s son Jonathan, it’s love at first sight – remember those sparkling eyes and ruddy smooth cheeks. But Saul is consumed with murderous envy of David. Having appointed him head over the army, Saul is increasingly trapped between and rock and a hard place. With every victory the young David brings home, Saul’s paranoia can only grow as All Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.

The winds of historical change are driven in the end not by political or social change but by a society’s capacity to harness the drivers of technological change. History shows that flourishing societies keep abreast of technological change and harness it for constructive ends that mitigate social and political disruption. History shows that societies who fail to embrace and harness technological change become overrun by it and fall behind in the race to the top.

The impact of technological development and its far-reaching effects is crucially important for social harmony within America and for securing our place in the world. All over our country, community and group identity no longer stems from the quiet confidence flowing from economic prosperity. Failure to effectively harness technological change to benefit all has resulted in a crisis of community and social identity – not only in America, but throughout the industrialized first world. Culture war and race have replaced prosperity as the core component of social identity. In culture war a seeming endless gushing of social grievances –amplified by the technological revolution in social media- represents our failure to harness technological change for the wider benefit of sections of society that feel left behind.

We feel powerless in the face of a looming ecological catastrophe. We feel equally helpless as the rapid pace of technological change and its unforeseeable effects reshape our lives for ill as well as good. Left with nothing else, we retreat from our sense of helplessness into the satisfactions of culture war.

One need look no further for the most recent example. Faced with a crisis of identity caused by a shrinking base –itself the result of increasing disillusionment at the Church’s failure to address the challenges of modern life – the Catholic Bishops Conference responded this past week not with addressing the effects of the pandemic, or the growing inequality of rich and poor, or the increasing polarisation of society. In international refugee week no mention was made to the plight of the worldwide refugee crisis – all crises with technological causes. Retreating in the face of ongoing sexual scandals they took refuge in an attempt to weaponize the Eucharist in the service of culture war. Where the Southern Baptists have led the way, American Catholic Church leaders seem intent on following.

Last week I spoke about living on the cusp of change and our paradoxical attitude to change. The changes we long for are also the changes we resist most as hope for the future conflicts with fears of loss of the past. This paradox, I believe, goes to the heart of the current struggles symbolized by the conflicting visions our two main political parties hold for America’s future.

All our current social advances and losses can be traced to the pressures introduced by technologically driven change and in many cases our failure to harness it for the common good. From the shipping of core industry and national infrastructure offshore to the increasing dominance of monopolistic corporations such as Amazon and the seemingly untouchable beneficiaries of the tech revolution -global capitalism riding the winds of technologically driven change demonstrates its allegiance only to itself and not to the communities it exploits.

The rapidly growing threat to cyber security reveals our fundamental infrastructure vulnerabilities as largely resulting from putting corporate profit before technological innovation and security. We live with everyday reminders of this.

Samuel led a people living on a cusp of technologically driven change – much as we are today. Though the fallout was political and societal reorganization from tribal confederacy to centralized monarch the challenges were technologically driven as Israel began under David to embrace the new technology of the iron age – ending the Philistine Emergency.

As we know to our own cost, technological change always triggers political and societal upheaval. Can we learn the lessons of the past to with confidence and courage embrace the opportunities for a different future? Our attitudes towards technology; our ability to harness the fruits of technologically driven change in the service of the common good – will define our answer to this question.

We are living in a time of unprecedented change – on the cusp of a new age. We sense its coming with feelings of dread tinged with expectation and hope.

Being on a cusp between old and new worlds is a bewildering experience. The paradox is that the changes we long for are also likely to be the changes we strongly resist.

In today’s gospel portion from Mark – Jesus presents two conflicting horticultural images for the kingdom’s coming.

The first parable depicts a farmer scattering seed and then getting on with his life, minding his own business while the seed’s germination takes care of itself – it sprouts and ripens. Nothing is required of the farmer until harvesting. Here we find the kingdom presented as the outcome of the stable natural order of growth -between planting and harvesting the process of growth requires no human responsibility.

But then Jesus offers a second parable of the kingdom in the image of the mustard seed. It’s not immediately obvious to us, but it would have been glaringly obvious to his 1st-century Jewish audience – that no one in their right mind would plant mustard seeds in their fields or gardens. So, this parable must have raised a few eyebrows.

Mustard is a wild herb that thrives in the wild and must at all costs be kept at bay from invading organized garden spaces. For the gardeners amongst us – it’s like planting ferns or wisteria in our vegetable gardens. If you know anything about ferns and wisteria- which when living at our house on Burrs Lane I unfortunately discovered – once rooted – neither can be easily eradicated. Traveling through underground vine roots, they quickly take over any planted area of cultivation.

In his commentary on this text, Richard Swanson notes:

The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard. It grows and burgeons. It erupts where and when you’d least expect it. It is destructive to its own ends. It undercuts itself even as it grows. It is chaos and it is life and it is hope and it dissipates its own hopefulness. The question with a parable is not What does this mean?, but What does this do?” What does this make you think about?

The current meeting of the G7 captures the zeitgeist of our time. President Biden and the other leaders of the major democracies are signaling the need for change. But can they bring it about?

At this G7 we’ve heard the collective lamentation of failure to effectively address the global impacts of the pandemic from the leaders of the world’s major democracies. The G7 meeting takes place in the face of growing international tensions – forcing the world back into the dangerous fragmentation of tribal nationalisms.

In China and Russia, the old imperial dream revives. Chinese expansionism allies with Russian mischief making, and we watch helplessly as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin play dress up with the hitherto discarded mantles of Emperor and Tsar. The old totalitarian hubris lives on.

Western Europe is once again riven by petty nationalisms as the members of the Union squabble among themselves. Hollow dreams of Rule Britannia cloud British sensitivity to the destabilization of the post Brexit European order. Petty grandstanding by Boris Johnson – now threatens the hard-won peace in Ireland.

America is in no better position. We awaken to a post Pax Americana morning with the splitting hangover of unreconciled racism, gun violence, and social divisions which like old forest fires that have smoldered underground now reignite in a landscape overgrown with Russian instigated conspiracy theories and bereft of the natural protections of shared civic values and commitment to the democratic vision.

And the travails of the old-world order’s unravelling is but a side show alongside the center stage drama of fast approaching planetary ecological collapse. From the positive feedback from my comments in this week’s E-News Epistle about the need to think globally and act locally, at least this is one matter we find consensus on.

The coming of the kingdom of God is an image that heralds change. The kingdom is a metaphor for the reign of God in this world and it’s abundantly clear to anyone this is a reign yet to be firmly established. But it’s a mistake to see the kingdom’s coming as a metaphor for incompletion. Instead, the kingdom is a metaphor for judgment on a world where things are not as they should be – a world crying out for change to set things to rights. As we find ourselves on the cusp of a transition between the ordered world of a past now gone and the excitement and turbulence of a world yet to come – how does the metaphor of the kingdom’s coming speak to us?

There is a sense of hope in the anticipation of change? Yet there is also a desire to fiercely resist change -fearing disruption and loss. With change we fear that this time will we be the losers?

Will the coming new order result from the controlled arc of the moral universe bending slowly upon its axis towards justice? Or will the new world order come accompanied by upheaval and destruction amidst chaos and unpredictability. The experience of the pandemic and our failure of response has shown us some of what might still lie ahead.

Where the powerful never voluntarily give power up, it must be wrested from them. We are at this kind of cusp – between the old order and the new there is occurring a shift in power relations. Such changes bring both hope but as those who are having change thrust upon us – hope comes with a cost.  

Hope costs are words we should make into a fridge magnet and place them where we have to see them every day. We are a community that naturally embraces change as a moderated, well ordered process. We are a community who expects the kingdom to come in ways we can slowly absorb without too much discomfort.

The kingdom comes with burgeoning hope. But how will hope be realised? Will hope’s arrival be ordered and gradual or chaotic and unpredictable? Swanson again:

This parable [of the mustard seed] is only incidentally about how the dominion of God brings BIG things out of little things. More significantly, it makes it clear that the big things that God’s dominion brings will always shake anything that has (so far) passed for stability and safety. To read it otherwise is to tame it, and comfortable people will try anything to tame the dominion of God. If [w]e succeed, this parable becomes a religious affirmation of [our] own stability. And that is one thing the dominion of God never brings.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑