No matter how dismayed conservative Christians get by unconventional representations of the nativity scene, the Holy Family, with Mary the unwed mother and Joseph as the vicarious father, offers little in way of traditional religious support of a privileged position of heterosexuality. This is, instead, a definitely alternative, not to say queer, constellation, indicating that the most important is not what pattern we choose for our relationships but with what we fill these patterns. And, there, is simply love.
Pictures of a distinctly untraditional nativity scene from suburban Los Angeles, where Baby Jesus is watched over by two Josephs, have roamed social media this season and instigated an outcry among conservative Christians. Most prominently, the Catholic Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, Thomas Tobin, has called it “sacrilege” and an “attack on the Christian Faith”. A few years ago the student group Young Conservatives at the University of Texas presented a similar nativity barn with no Mary, but Gary, Joseph and an empty cradle, as a statement against “homosexual marriage” and how “the far left are out of touch” with mainstream values. The underlining point in both this criticism and presentation of unconventional same-sex nativity scenes is that the authentic Holy Family ultimately exhibits the unique role heterosexual marriage allegedly plays in God’s divine plan for mankind.
Turning to the Holy Family in order to promote the prerogative of traditional heterosexual family values is, however, not as straightforward as it may seem at first. For Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus are, of course, anything but the typical traditional nuclear family. This should be no shocker. Here is the unwed single – and virgin – mother, accompanied by her fiancé who is not the father of her infant son. Not only is the child conceived out of wedlock, but in a way contrary to nature.
If we really are to compare the Holy Family with the exclusive heterosexual family ideal, it stands out as distinctly alternative, not to say queer. The parallels in today’s society to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, are rather to be found in the more novel family constellations, with single parents, divorced and remarried parents with various stepchildren, and with gay and lesbian couples conceiving children without sex.
Leaving aside how “queer” also may be used as a derogatory term, the general meaning of this word translates to something that diverges from the dominating norm of sex, gender, and family constellations, regardless of what that norm may be. In today’s Western societies, the current norm is still represented by the heterosexual nuclear family. Although it no longer provides the sole norm for how to organize a family, the nuclear family remains the dominant model everything is compared to – even by those who champion the equality of other family constellations. All other ways to organize one’s family may thus be defined as queer in relation to the traditional nuclear family.
Where you go, I will go
The very idea that the Bible as a whole is a text generally promoting the exclusive value of the heterosexual family ideal cannot be based on anything but wishful and heteronormative cherry picking. For Joseph, Mary, and Jesus do in no way represent the only queer constellation in the Bible. Again and again we find the positive presentation, even celebration, of strong and caring relationships that are entirely different from the heterosexual ideal of today’s conservative Christianity.
“Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Where you die, I will die.” How better to express your complete devotion? But this declaration of absolute love has originally nothing to do with heterosexuality, regardless of how often it is interwoven into traditional wedding vows. These words of faith and fidelity were first spoken by the newly widowed Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law. There is nothing in the text about a sexual relationship between the two women, but it is impossible not to acknowledge that this is a question of a profound love.
An earlier version of this article in Norwegian was first published in Aftenposten 17 December 2006.
When prince Jonathan met the young David, the future king, “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself.” They even “made a covenant”. How intimately physically the two of them express their love is left unsaid but, at least, they kiss , weep together, and “Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.” When Jonathan is killed, David exclaims in his grief in a way that leaves heterosexuality lacking: “Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women.”
In the New Testament, a centurion, a high ranking Roman officer, breaks protocol and goes in person to seek out the itinerant preacher Jesus in Capernaum, just because his “young man” – not his son or his slave – is seriously ill. What kind of relationship there really is between the officer and his companion remains unclear although a sexual aspect to it would have been normal in contemporary Roman society. The officer nevertheless clearly demonstrates his deep love for his “young man” when coming to Jesus.
Choose your own family
After having grown up in his unconventional family, Jesus continues to promote untraditional family values. For him family may be a great variety of things. It is, for example, his faithful followers he hails as his real family: “Behold, here is my mother and my brothers! For whomsoever shall do the will of God is my brother, and my sister, and my mother.” As for his own most intimate devotion, John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
None of these idealized relationships falls into the norm of the heterosexual family. In the way they differ so fundamentally from most family structures in both ancient Palestine and today’s society, it falls, again, logical to sum them up as just as “queer” as the Holy Family.
It is not that the typical heterosexual nuclear family is not found in the Bible. It is there, too, and, of course, not infrequently. But it is at same time remarkable how often this is presented as distinctly dysfunctional. In the very first straight family ever, Eve entices her husband into partaking of the forbidden fruit, after which their firstborn son, Cain, murders his younger brother. Noah curses one of his own sons and his descendants for eternity, while some generations later Abraham exiles his eldest son to the wilderness and is willing to cut the throat of his most cherished son, as if he were a sacrificial lamb. Abraham’s nephew Lot offers an enraged group of men to rape his two unblemished daughters, instead of attacking two guests. The mob declines the offer but a drunken Lot later sleeps with his daughters himself. Rebecca fools her husband Isaac and cheats her eldest son of his patrimony, Jacob is offered a handmaiden by his wife Rachel, in order to conceive more children in the disturbing manner later put into use in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale, while the war hero Jephthah kills his only child as a sacrifice to God.
The many dysfunctional straight families of the Bible may, of course not, be understood as meaning that the heterosexual nuclear family is contrary to Scripture. There is also a number of exemplary straight couples, like Esther and king Ahasuerus, John the Baptists’ parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Paul’s good friends Priscilla and Aquila. It is therefore not possible to take the idealized queer relationships of the Bible as meaning that one really should break traditional patterns of gender and family constellations. This would only be an example of heterophobic cherry picking. But how, then, is this to be understood?
“The greatest is love,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians. This is not only an unambiguous message but perhaps as close as one may get to the very core of the Christian gospel. For the Bible is full of love. Love is what characterizes all the relationships that are presented as exemplary. There is Ruth’s love for Naomi, Jonathan’s love for David, Zechariah’s love for his wife Elizabeth, and the Roman officer’s love for his “young man”.
It is when love is no longer there things go awry. What we really see in all the malfunctional relationships is the absence of love.
The Christmas gospel with Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus cannot be seen as a message of any limited family values. This is a gospel of unlimited love. It is the love of the unwed mother for her child, it is the love of Joseph for these two people that God has put in his way, the single mother and the child who is not his. But most of all, it is God’s absolute love to mankind to whom he gives his son, born out of wedlock.
If we see the Gospel’s message of unconditional love in connection with all the queer relationships in the Bible, we find that it is hard to identify any particular family pattern as exemplary. But with Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and the disciples, and, not least, with the Holy Queer Family, the Bible tells us that what really matters when it comes to our most intimate relationships. The most important is not what pattern we choose for our relationships but with what we fill these patterns. The most important is love.