I ask the question ‘Was Jesus heterosexual?’ as a challenge to the hetero-normative assumption that he was, an assumption that I also shared. I assumed that Jesus was heterosexual, that is, until my spiritual director asked me twenty years ago whether I was able to imagine Jesus as being the same as me – gay. It hadn’t occurred to me to make that direct identification before. I had already learnt from the reaction to Hugh Montefiore’s 1967 speculation that Jesus might have been gay and James Kirkup’s 1976 poem that this was a dangerous thought on which it was taboo to speculate.
In a paper read at the Modern Churchmen Conference in 1967 Hugh Montefiore, bishop of Birmingham, offered a controversial interpretation of the early life of Jesus. He suggested we might need to look for a non-religious reason to explain the celibacy of Jesus. If Jesus were homosexual in nature (and this is the true explanation of his celibate state) then this would be further evidence of God’s self-identification with those who are unacceptable to the upholders of ‘The Establishment’ and social conventions.
In 1976 James Kirkup wrote a poem published in Gay News, The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name, which portrays a Roman legionary fantasising about having sex with the body of Christ and suggested that Jesus had also had sex with Pontius Pilate, the disciples and John the Baptist. It was. It wasn’t a great poem, but it led to the last successful blasphemy trial in the UK.
Both Montefiore and Kirkup were subjected to an outpouring of abuse from Christians for daring to suggest that Jesus might have been gay.
The environment in which I think about Jesus’ sexuality now has changed radically. In the last forty-eight hours, I found myself asking the alternative question: was Jesus heterosexual? I looked at the limited evidence available to suggest one way or the other, gay or straight. There is no evidence that Jesus had a girl friend or was betrothed in his youth. So far as we know, Jesus wasn’t married and he didn’t have children. The markers of heterosexuality are not present in Jesus, those elements gay people knew they needed to adopt to cover their sexuality in post-war society. So where in the Gospels is the proof that Jesus was heterosexual?
In heteronormative, white, male-dominated societies, it has been and is assumed that Jesus was heterosexual and had to be male because he was both fully human and fully divine and God was a male figure. In his life, Jesus allowed equal levels of intimacy with men and women, with “the disciple Jesus loved” to whom Simon Peter signalled at supper in John’s gospel and with Mary, who anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wiped them with her hair.
If Jesus, the image of God, can only be identified as male, heterosexual, and until recently, a white Caucasian, in what ways are other identities and constructs able to relate to and fully identify with Jesus – women, black and brown people, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people? Are they not able to fit in, re-modelling Jesus’ identity to reflect each person’s particular identity? Or is it impossible, taboo, for Jesus to be created in the image of human diversity as well as in the image of God? If so, is Jesus not fully representative of the diversity of human beings and is not each of us gloriously made, reflecting the image of God? Is the theological, orthodox, traditional construct of Jesus as fully human and fully divine a flawed construct? Is the traditional construct of Jesus as a heterosexual male unable to be developed and expanded in response to evolutionary developments? Have we not learnt, thanks to Darwin and to those prophets, theologians, and mystics who have dared to explore the idea of God in the context of Darwin, that God is intrinsic to evolution and evolution is intrinsic to God?
Could the Jesus figure have been lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, bisexual, female? What do the visceral, hostile, angry reactions mean of those who believe that to say or write this is the most outrageous scandal against God?
What does it mean for Jesus to be able to ‘represent’ or incarnate the identity of every member of the human species? We might do this, as some have, by writing about or painting or sculpting a female, or black, or characteristically gay or lesbian Jesus (whatever those characteristics might be).
Breaking through the taboo of how we are allowed or disallowed to create images of Jesus also has implication for how we conceptualise or construct God – and this relates directly to the ways in which human beings construct their own identity – and whether or not we live in a family or society or church that offers us real freedom to live as ourselves.
This is a question I am faced with every day in conversations on Facebook or through events that are reported by the media. It is a question we, campaigning for justice and equality for LGBTI+ people in the Church must put to the bishops, the ultimate authority figures. They are going to produce a substantive teaching document in early 2020. If they do not address the identity of Jesus alongside the identity of LGBTI+ people, they will have neglected underlying assumptions that fuel prejudice and discrimination against us.