Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage
David Khalaf and Constantino Khalaf
(Westminster John Knox Press, 2019)
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Modern Marriage and a Queer Interpretation of Scripture
In Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, David and Constantino Khalaf invite the LGBTQ community to see marriage in a new enchanting light — that of an unorthodox, unbiblical, LGBTQ-affirming “Christianity.” In their elegantly crafted and overtly theological book of marriage advice, they attempt to make that case that queer “Christian” marriage is a healthy option for partnered gays and lesbians, and that, in many cases, it is a more functional version of its counterpart — straight marriage. While claiming that all consensual sexual unions are acceptable, they nevertheless hold up their own relationship — sexual and spiritual — as a model for marriage. To do so, however, they undermine and misinterpret the Bible, and undermine and reinterpret the biblical concepts of kinship and marriage.
What Is Modern Kinship? The Khalafs begin by defining “kinship” as “a bond based on shared experience and a shared identity that distinguishes you and your people from the rest of the world. Kinship is the commonality and sense of belonging that Adam expressed when he called Eve ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’” 1 Their experience of “kinship” — a term they use exclusively as an alternative to “family” — is rooted in their primary experiences of rejection within their own families of origin and faith communities. The pain of these rejections, and the deep longing that grew out of them, helped shape the category of “kin” that they develop throughout the book.
The concept of queer kinship arises out of the marriage between queer theory and kinship theory. Elizabeth Freeman writes, in her contribution to A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies, “The most obvious contribution that anthropologists of kinship have made to the project of ‘queering’ it (if such a thing is possible) is to recognize that kinship is a social and not a biological fact, a matter of culture rather than nature. This in and of itself may not be adequate to the project of queering kinship, but it is a founding gesture.”2 The unmooring of kinship from its biologically familial anchor is the starting point of the Khalafs’s marital paradigm. Being alienated from family and kin, they find “kin” elsewhere.
What about the Bible? The Khalafs express this exchange in biblically derived Christian vocabulary. They claim, for example, that “a person without kin is alone at a primal level — an aloneness God recognized in Genesis 2:18 as ‘not good.’ God gave us the gift of kinship as a cure for that aloneness, and typically it has taken the form of marriage and children.”3 Recast merely as a cure for loneliness, this view represents a seismic, though subtly articulated, shift away from the purposes for which God ordained marriage. God deliberately created Adam with a lack that He himself remedied by the creation of Eve, who was taken out of Adam. The creation of Eve was not merely “a cure for that aloneness” but a providentially arranged portrait of Christ’s ultimate relationship with the church, which is mystically incorporated out of His own body. Eve, in her simultaneous likeness to Adam and yet strange difference from him, is essential for being able to properly interpret God’s tableau of His own relationship to humanity. The Khalafs, however, fail to notice her appearance on the page.
Having experienced “the breakdown of kinship so common between LGBTQ people and their parents,” and “having lost the kinship” to which he was born, Constantino Khalaf had to ask himself if he was “worthy of God’s promised cure for loneliness.”4 Through study and prayer, he determined that he was and that his desire for same-sex marriage was “God’s call.” “Over time,” they write, “both of us separately heard that still, small voice from the Spirit say in no uncertain terms that God welcomed us to find a spouse — in the words of Genesis, a helper fit for us.”5 The “helper” — a theologically nuanced word that refers once to Eve and often to God — is torn up from its rich biblical soil and used to refer superficially to the person to whom they feel drawn, the person who “helps” them enact their own best versions of themselves.
The Khalafs move, rather ironically, from Genesis to Galatians, centering their vision of modern/queer kinship, “In a world inching ever closer to God’s kingdom — a world where ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female’ (Gal. 3:28) — modern kinship includes the marriages of LGBTQ couples.”6 They claim that “God wants the marriages of LGBTQ people, like all marriages, to bear his image. We believe a marriage in God’s image is trinitarian; it brings two people together with Christ at the center.”7 This desire of God is ultimately, they claim, eschatological: “As the continual revelation of God’s character encourages us to draw the circle ever wider, we hope to see a day when the entire mass of humanity is inside of that line, bonded by a common kinship.”8 Paul, of course, in Galatians 3 is not referring to marriage but to the justifying work of Christ on the cross and to the relationship of the law to the gospel. Paul employs the language of sonship on one hand, and slavery on the other. Anyone can come into His family by repentance and faith in Christ. But having once been incorporated into this family, those so joined are not free to believe or act out of disobedience, as if they were still enslaved to sin and death.
We see, then, that the effort to use the Bible to justify same-sex marriage begins with wresting biblical passages out of their proper contexts and continues with what I have elsewhere called a hermeneutic of doubt. The Khalafs, even as they rely on Scripture for their definition of “kin,” nevertheless claim, “What they [those who argue from Scripture that homosexuality is a sin] fail to see is that uncertainty is not a weakness but rather a core characteristic of healthy faith.”9 They go on to explain that “once we understand that God will never fully satisfy our questions about same-sex relationship (as well as many other issues, for that matter), we can stop pursuing our quest for answers. We can let go of the need to know.”10 How they know what God is saying in Genesis and Galatians while at the same time not know what He means in Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1 is not addressed at any point in the book.
This “knowing” by means of “not knowing” is then coupled with the well-worn claim that they read the Bible without having to take it “literally.”11 Part of their not taking the Bible literally — which, of course, is a specious claim, the Bible should be read with the nuance and intelligence that any text requires, genre and authorial intent determining the meaning — includes misreading Jesus’ parable in Matthew that “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” Rather than looking at the Bible as a way of judging the fruit, the non-literal reader of Scripture looks at his or her temporal happiness. Unsurprisingly, when personal happiness is the “good fruit,” it will be found on the “bad tree” where the desires of the heart are allowed to rule. The fruit test is then made the lens through which all other Scripture is read. The Scripture is not to be trusted on issues of sexuality, but it can be trusted to properly report the resurrection of Jesus, which is “proof that the body matters, and the body must be saved.”12Queer bodies in particular that have been “bloodied — many of us literally, having been led to cutting and self-harm — by sermons telling us that our yearnings are mere physical impulses that must be resisted for the sake of our spirit.”13
The Khalafs go back and forth between depending on Scripture for advice about marriage and denying its trustworthiness and veracity. God is speaking in some cases, but only those passages that align with their sexual desires and longing to be in relationship with those they are most drawn to. They manage to have their wedding cake and eat it too.
Holier Than Thou. Many inside the walls of orthodox, biblical Christian churches may grieve the fact that gay marriage, established by the Obergefell ruling in 2015, is the law of the land, but they probably don’t know that cultural acceptance of that fact is not sufficient for many on the winning side. Increasingly, LGBTQ relationships are expressed in terms of salvation — the queer person is a savior. “I argue,” writes Drew Heckman in Harvard’s LGBTQ Policy Journal, “that queer people are gifted with unique abilities to be peacemakers, organizers, and healers — whether through inborn differences or empathy-building experiences of exclusion, shame, and stigma. I argue that queer people are uniquely positioned to capitalize on these gifts by virtue of their societal embeddedness.”14 The Khalafs take up this thread in reporting on statistical studies developed by Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman of the Gottman Institute:
“What we saw is that [gay and lesbian] relationships tended to be a bit healthier than those of heterosexual couples,” Julie says. “Gay men tended to be much more direct. In terms of conflict management, there was much less physiological flooding. There was more humor during their conflicts. They were often good friends, and they could take much more direction about sex and therefore had more contented sexual relationships because they really understood each other’s needs. For lesbians, much of that was the same.”15
Heterosexual marriage is flawed, essentially, both in how unlike male and female partners are to each other, and because this unlikeness has been entrenched through complementarian and hierarchical cultural norms that trapped men and women in certain fixed ways of being. Same-sex partners can be a model for breaking out of these stereotypes. Indeed, they claim, the same-sex marriage should be considered in terms of Christian mission: “Marriage is a lifelong commitment to grow and work with one another toward what the Jewish tradition calls tikkun olam: the healing of the world or, the interpretation we like best, a ‘construction for eternity.’”16
Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh. Early on in the book, the Khalafs acknowledge one of the Christian critiques of same-sex relationships, the phenomenon of twinsies. Constantino writes,
In the evangelical world, where so much is made of gender complementarity, this ‘twinsies’ stereotype has ramifications. I’ve never bought into the notion that certain roles in marriage ought to be established based on gender. I think that stems from a simplistic and wrong reading of Scripture. But during our season of dating and engagement, I was very aware of the fact that there are people who would question the sanctity of my marriage to David because of our sameness.17
While not engaging with Scripture, he carries on to explain that same-sex relationships are actually very diverse and cannot be made to fit any particular stereotype. If one comes across “‘gay twin husbands’ in muscle shirts,”18 one must look past the sameness to the individuals.
This tacit acknowledgement of idolatry is a way into the heart of my primary critique of Modern Kinship. The Khalafs, insofar as they refer to the Bible, do not engage the core reason for God’s prohibition of the joining together of two men, or of two women. God made man and woman to say something about Himself. They are, together, made in His image. But God didn’t leave it there. The whole biblical witness works out the implications of this first divine act. Humanity, through sin — which is never mentioned by the Khalafs but is right in the chapter they turn to for their definition of Biblical Kinship — deforms and mars that original good image. Rather than being in a perfect and good relationship with God, to talk to Him as one might talk to a friend, Adam and Eve run away and disobey. The outflow of that sin is disastrous. The man and the woman are divided from each other, and, in some deeper sense, divided within their own selves. To have to say — as God does to Moses — that men and women are to love Him with all their hearts, minds, and strength is God’s own acknowledgment that the creature is divided within himself in a way he ought not be.
The restoration of kinship then, begins with God Himself, who, after that first sin, set Himself as its remedy. Adam and Eve ran away from Him, but He would get them back. And so, for hundreds of years, God revealed through the prophets and the law what had by sin been so obscured — His own nature. This revelation is intimate and devastating. When you eat bread, you are to learn something about the sacrifice God made to restore His creation to Himself. When you drink water, you are to see that He is the source of life. When you switch on a light, you see that He is the light. When you look at a child, you may remember that God overturned our rebellion by remaking that broken first image by taking on our image, our flesh.
Moreover, when you look at a man and a woman who join themselves together in marriage, you are to lift your eyes and understand that the occasion is not just about them, it is about the long, painful road of Jesus to the cross to claim for Himself a bride — the church — out of those who had run away. The alien and troubling nature of marriage between a man and a woman speaks both to the longing that we feel for each other and for God; the loneliness that is embedded in the core of every human being made out of Adam’s dust; and to the division between humanity and God. In joining them back together, God is saying that He does not accept our rebellion, our choice of ourselves over Him. He will restore, remake, and rejoin Himself to us.
Finally, it is a work that God Himself does. We participate in it, but our participation is a reflection of His primary action. And so we are not free to do as we like. When we do, we choose ourselves — again — over Him. We remake Him in our likeness, and, when we choose the mirror image of ourselves in marriage, which is supposed to reflect our alien and strange relationship to Him, we commit idolatry. This is why Paul, in Romans 1:24–31, singles out homosexuality as the icon of all human idolatry.
The Broad Road That Leads to Destruction. Modern Kinship is a careful study in Christian normalcy. David and Constantino have seamlessly interwoven their two stories into the biblical language Christians habitually use about marriage. It is “trinitarian.” It is “missional.” It has “Christ at the center.” It ought to conform to the standard sexual ethic of monogamy. The Khalafs themselves claim never to have slept together before they were married. They are repentant about previous affairs and unhealthy sexual relationships. They express patient kindness toward Christian communities that haven’t come along and understood the newly revealed plan of God — that He himself opened the door to them, through the whispering of the Holy Spirit, to same-sex marriage. When this tone of Christian normalcy is joined to the brilliant fluidity of their prose, and their authentic, vulnerable, “here’s what’s working for us” advice, the result is a warm and gracious invitation to accept same-sex marriage that will be impossible for many Christians to refuse.
It may no longer be the case that most Christians want — in their hearts — to hold the line on traditional marriage. The law has changed, and the culture has changed. There is no more cultural moral standing to be had by affirming “traditional marriage,” or by explaining, once again, that the Scripture is clear that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life. This book is exactly the kind of “proof” many will be looking for to make the leap. —Anne Kennedy
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith