Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Just don't call us transgressive.

A while back, I found a few articles where the authors analyze polyamory in the context of Christian theology. I will most likely read more if I find them, but so far, they're depressing me.

I should probably clarify that these articles are supportive of polyamory. But the arguments boil down to a rejection of the concept of boundaries and limits. Sometimes the argument is an affirmative one: God loves us without limit, so the fewer limits we place on our love, the more like God we are. Sometimes the argument is a negative one: The way you know you're liberated as God intends is if someone tells you that you're going too far.

The affirmative argument erases the reality of difference. People aren't God, and that's a good thing. People also aren't like each other, and that's also a good thing. I've noticed this argument seems more popular among Catholic writers. If I had the patience, I would read more deeply in the literature (such as it is) and see if my hunch is correct that it's due to Catholic ontology that sees priest, husband, wife, man and woman as existential categories more than linguistic labels. I don't think I have the patience. "Polyamorous is nearer to godly" is exactly as aggravating as "celibate is nearer to godly," and if taken seriously, it probably has the potential to do a lot more damage in people's lives.

The negative argument makes an idol out of transgression and seems more popular among Protestant writers. I don't think I have to read more deeply to know that "the system is corrupt and keeps us from what is good for its own benefit" can be traced straight back to Martin Luther, or that pride in transgression has more than mere echoes of the sectarian idea-slash-comfort-blanket that the world hates (only) those who love the truth. Along with turning morality and spirituality into hipster endeavors, this focus on transgression has several tangible costs.

First is the simple cost of human health and well-being. It isn't that every transgressive act is inherently harmful, or that incidental harm may not be outweighed by the benefits for some individuals. But in a culture of transgression, harm is inevitable and, in the extreme, glorified. Donna Minkowitz captures an example of this perfectly in her memoir/essay Ferocious Romance:

Then novelist Bruce Benderson gets up...to read a marvelously lyrical passage from his forthcoming novel about the changes in Times Square...He is a wondeful prosodist, but what he celebrates make me nauseous. The teenagers he loves to see renting themselves out to adults are starving, and homeless. Most of them are on the run from sexual abuse at home...The romanticism of danger and ugliness in his piece is as great as any romanticism the religious right could make of marriage. (43-44)

If the suffering of others is necessary for you to feel liberated, you aren't the oppressed. You're one of the oppressors.

The second cost is the reinforcement of privilege. In a society where oppression takes the form of bullets and tear gas, death threats and harassment, lost economic opportunities and other impairments of basic life functions, it takes a serious amount of entitlement to lift any given sexual act or personal affectation up to that level. (Is it a coincidence that writers on transgression seem most commonly white, educated and middle-class-or-above? I don't think so.) It is certainly true that LGBT*, GRSM** and MOGAI*** folks--pick an acronym, any acronym!--can and do face immediately threatening oppression on a regular basis. But it happens when they're holding hands or interviewing for a job or wearing modest-but-"wrong" clothing or just sitting around doing nothing in particular, too. The kinds of behaviors sometimes dismissed as "assimilationist" by radicals aren't actually protective against bigoted people who want to disassociate themselves from, or punish, anyone who isn't straight and cis-gendered and monogamous.

The third cost is theological impoverishment. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God is among us. Liberal theology generally emphasizes the image of God present in all human beings, just waiting to be restored to wholeness. There is very little in the world that actually needs to be smashed for liberation to occur. It is true that systems and customs are capable of discouraging us from being in right relationship with each other, but they aren't capable of stopping us. And many people use established systems and customs fruitfully to  grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, no, my family is not transgressive. We are not part of any effort to dismantle monogamy or rise above social programming or maximize sexual expression. If other people feel called to those things and refrain from being jerks while doing so, then God bless. We'll be over here living our happily conventional life, polyamorous though we may be.

*LGBT: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

**GRSM: Gender, relationship and sexual minorities.

***MOGAI: Marginal orientations, gender alignments and intersex.


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