Guest writer and Biblical scholar, Jo Henderson-Merrygold, takes a look at the stated reasons behind Tim Farron’s resignation as Liberal Democrat leader.
As a researcher, there are few things in life more enjoyable than seeing the relevance of your work in a new context. I would like to start by saying thanks to Tim Farron for the opportunity to discuss the Bible and sexuality, and to reiterate my invitation to him to come to Hidden Perspectives at the University of Sheffield to explore what the Bible really does and doesn’t say about LGBTQ+ people. I hasten to add that I think it largely falls into the category of ‘I don’t think this means what you think this means.’ So, let me briefly introduce myself; I am Jo Henderson-Merrygold and I’m a PhD researcher in queer biblical studies. This involves reading the Bible closely and asking questions about what preconceptions influence the ways we approach and engage with the text.
I’d like to invite Farron to ask himself similar questions because, in his resignation statement, he cited his commitment to biblical teaching as incompatible with leadership of his liberal political party. There has been much discussion of the continuing presence of religion in political discourse: the vicar’s daughter Prime Minister, the liberal Muslim mayor of London, the traditionalist protestant Christianity of the DUP used to justify homophobia, climate change denial and anti-choice stances, the Scottish protestant Tory leader and her Irish Catholic fiancée, and the mostly atheist leader of the Labour Party. Yet Farron’s claims seem out of kilter with not only the political climate but with the complexity of Christian belief and practice. Over the last four days, I have heard condemnation of Farron for bad Christianity, bad politics, and bad PR. That condemnation is at the core of his self-declared incompatibility for leadership of the Liberal Democrats: it is a question of integrity. He grounds his sense of integrity in the Bible, and that must be core to the way his politics and theology are undertaken. So let’s look again at the biblical teachings which ground both his politics and theology, and ask whether it’s possible to approach them from an LGBTQ+-inclusive stance with integrity. In doing so, we must go back to the question of what assumptions and preconceptions underpin our reading before asking what the texts may say to us today.
Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that sexuality, as we understand it today, is a relatively new concept. Michel Foucault identified this in his History of Sexuality, and argued that homosexuality emerged in the late nineteenth century as a discrete identity. Bisexuality was quantified not long after, and more recently, attention was paid to what it means to be heterosexual. These designations, and the identities associated with sexuality and those which continue to emerge and gain recognition, do not have automatic historical counterparts. So let me make the implications of this abundantly clear: there is no heterosexuality in the Bible, no homosexuality, no bisexuality. It does not and cannot exist in the text. Instead, we have a collection of stories of relationships and moral teachings with afterlives. They have legacies and meaning is placed upon them, which in turn are used to justify and reinforce androcentrism, patriarchy, rape culture, homophobia, cisnormativity, heteronormativity.
There has been much discussion of the continuing presence of religion in political discourse: the vicar’s daughter Prime Minister, the liberal Muslim mayor of London, the traditionalist protestant Christianity of the DUP used to justify homophobia, climate change denial and anti-choice stances, the Scottish protestant Tory leader and her Irish Catholic fiancée, and the mostly atheist leader of the Labour Party.
Specific texts, like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (from which we get the term ‘Sodomy’), have become synonymous with God’s condemnation of homosexuality so that the texts themselves end up barely distinguishable from the meanings they’ve acquired. It shows how the Bible is far from a benign text, entirely divorced from wider society, and it warrants considered analysis. It is therefore all the more important to articulate the distinction between what a text says, and what it means. So when Tim Farron, and others, suggest or imply that the Bible justifies their stance, they have a point. Stories like Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3) are used to justify the gender and sex binaries and to deify heterosexuality, especially through the model of complementarity – the idea that men and women are different but equal and is most effectively expressed with male headship and female subordination. Queer biblical scholar Ken Stone describes this story as the heterosexual contract, because that it what it has come to mean and how it is used today. It is no surprise at all, therefore, that the assumptions of heteronormativity, cisnormativity and male supremacy predominate readings of the Bible. What I would like to emphasise, however, is that it can be read differently: the conclusions about gender and sexuality are not foregone.
Challenging these perceived norms is an ongoing and contested field of work, partly because it is so difficult to admit the impact of such preconceptions on the way we read. That doesn’t diminish the importance of doing so, and Farron’s resignation statement highlights exactly why such work is so important. The biblical texts themselves, which Farron values so highly, provide indications of alternative readings if only we are willing and able to see them there. We rarely stop to ask whether it is in any way anachronistic to identify heterosexual and model relationships amongst cisgender characters in the Bible, so why shouldn’t we consider the possibilities of homosexual/homoerotic relationships and trans characters.
In the recently published Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Studies by Teresa Hornsby and Deryn Guest, Guest explores how the creative spirit of God (Tehom) is genderqueer/nonbinary and is described in both male and female terms. Guest argues that this has repercussions for those who identify outside the gender binary. The assassin Jael (Judges), depicted in art as a femme fatale, similarly is described using both male and female terminology. These examples are far from isolated, and form part of my current research project, but offer insight into gender diversity and complexity rarely acknowledged in the majority of biblical scholarship or acts of worship. The patriarchal families of Genesis headed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph include myriad examples of gender and sexuality (Genesis 12-50). Joseph – of the amazing technicoloured dream coat – could consider that coat as a beautiful princess dress. Jacob performs drag to convince their father they are their hypermasculine twin brother, Esau, while Esau comes across as a ripped and muscular bear. Beyond the patriarchal narratives, David and Jonathan – whose love is described as beyond that for a woman (2 Samuel 1:26) – and Ruth and Naomi have long been recognised as queer role models for LGBTQ+ religious practitioners. Ruth‘s words of love to Naomi (Ruth 1:15-18), and her commitment to follow Naomi wherever she will go, are regularly used in (different-sex) marriage services.
Stories like Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3) are used to justify the gender and sex binaries and to deify heterosexuality, especially through the model of complementarity – the idea that men and women are different but equal and is most effectively expressed with male headship and female subordination.
These stories are all found in the biblical canon, and using our contemporary understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender we can demonstrate just how resonant these stories can be today. Far from being anachronistic or irreverent, these readings apply on well-established research methods and draw out themes which are masked through the perception that heteronormativity and cisnormativity are beyond scrutiny and question. If that is the case, then it is cisnormativity and heteronormativity that are praised and valued far beyond the biblical teaching which Farron references as so essential to his politics and theology: what a sad and disappointing state of affairs! Perhaps that is exactly why he is suspicious of the scrutiny placed on what he believes and who his faith is in. So, as religion and politics finds itself once again in the public consciousness, and the Liberal Democrats try to find another leader, let us intentionally place politicians under scrutiny and question their – and our own – integrity. Let’s ask: what and who do you believe in, and how are you going to enact that in your politics and, if appropriate, your theology?
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