Sunday, April 25, 2010

Prior Questions - Hauerwas On The Church, Marriage, Sex, And Capitalism

Reading Stanley Hauerwas' account of his own vicissitudes on the United Methodist Church's Study Commission on Homosexuality in the early 1990's reminds me of my first encounter with my seminary advisor, Dr. James Logan, also a member. Logan was telling me of his own situation, leaving due to health concerns, but expressing his own frustrations at the hopeless divisions and lack of communication and common ground.* There is irony in one simple reality - had Logan sided with Stanley Hauerwas, there might have been the beginning of a real healthy discussion of the topic, one that might have transformed the entire process and made the Church's statement something worth reading.

The short essay Hauerwas includes in A Better Hope on his time on the commission is entitled "Resisting Capitalism", which should give the reader a clue that he is approaching the topic from a completely different angle. Indeed, early on Hauerwas insists that he attempted to frame the discussion not in terms the rest of the commission members were attempting - he even puts quotes around the description, "science" - and says that he tried, and ultimately failed, to turn to the discussion in to a theological statement concerning marriage, sexuality, promiscuity, and childbearing. His reasons were simple. If the members of the commission could formulate a distinctively Christian theological vocabulary about these topics, it might be possible to discuss homosexuality in the vocabulary that emerged. Instead, the commission seemed bound and determined to restrict itself to the question of scientific evidence on human sexuality and innate sexual preference.

What is interesting is that had such a distinctive theological vocabulary emerged, the church's ongoing muddling on the question of the place of sexual minorities in the denomination might just have become a model for others to follow, and been the beginning of a real breakthrough on all sorts of related topics (which was, I believe, Hauerwas' intent; he says at one point the church can't even muster a good theological discussion on marriage and divorce, promiscuity and fidelity, so it's no wonder it is at sea on the topic of sexual minorities).

One of the ways Hauerwas attempts to change the entire vocabulary of the discussion is to remove the question of sexual identity from the realm of "science" to the realm of the economic superstructure (to adopt some Marxist terminology). He quotes Nicholas Boyle's Who Are We Now?: Christian Humanism and the Global Market From Hegel to Heaney on the relationship between capitalism and identity:
Sexual preference, once detached from the process of bodily reproduction, loses touch with the necessities and enters the realm of play - it becomes part of the entertainment industry, a choice to be catered for, but not a constraint on producers. Indeed, worldwide consumerism makes use of homosexuality as a means of eliminating the political constraints which regulate sour role as producers: if marriage is redefined as a long-term affective partnetership, so that it may be either homosexual or heterosexual, the essentially reproductive nature of male and female bodies is no longer given institutional (and therefore political) expression. Bodies are seen as the locu only of consumption, not of production; production is thereby repressed further into our collective unconscious, and producers, particularly women, are deprived of the political means of protest against exploitation.

Hauerwas notes, immediately following this quote (on p. 50 of the text):
Capitalism thrives on short-term commitments. The ceaseless drive for innovation is but the way to undercut labor's power by making the skills of the past irrelevant for tomorrow. Indeed, capitalism is the ultimate form of deconstruction, because how better to keep labor under control than through the scarcity produced through innovation? All the better that human relationships are ephemeral, because lasting commitments prove to be inefficient in ever-expanding markets. Against such a background the church's commitment to maintain marriage as lifelong monogamous fidelity may well prove to be one of the most powerful tactics we have to resist capitalism.

In this context, then, the issue is not the science of human sexual desire as a part of an individual's genetic and developmental make-up. Instead, sexuality becomes subsumed under the issues of human agency in an age of increasing capitalistic exploitation. Seen from this vantage point, attempting to draw upon a theological vocabulary on matters of marriage and divorce, promiscuity and fidelity, cuts across old (and largely nonsensical) "liberal-conservative" lines, and attempts to draw out the implications of the church's endorsement of fully-lived, fully-human lives, under the shadow of the crucified and risen Christ with reference not to science, but to the church's witness in a world governed by the destructive logic of the global market.

Do I think this would satisfy many whose commitment to the issue of supporting sexual minorities in the life of the church? Probably not. Hauerwas admits this sounds like it supports certain "conservative" social positions, but insists this is not the case. He is correct. It does so only if one continues to think in the old, "scientific", sociological categories that even now dominate so much of the church's discourse on these and other topics. If one begins with the premise that the issue is the church's witness and fidelity to the God manifest in Jesus Christ, a whole and wholly different understanding of these topics can emerge that challenges all our presumptions, liberal or conservative.

*The report of the study commission, released prior to the 1992 General Conference, was a muddled affair, with the two sides, liberal and conservative, hopelessly divided. Nothing was resolved.

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