Friday, June 11, 2010

Jesus Was a Sissy

Today the Roman Catholic Church honors and celebrates not the mind of Jesus, not the brawn of Jesus, but the heart of Jesus.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for this idea of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – and not just because of the decidedly queer-looking depictions of the sacred-hearted Jesus. Actually, as someone who was ridiculed as a boy for being a sissy, my attraction to the Sacred Heart of Jesus turns out to be quite appropriate. How so? Well, according to Dr. David Rankin, Jesus was a bit of a softie himself. In fact, he too was a sissy.

I’ve had a cassette tape of Rankin’s talk, “Jesus Was A Sissy,” floating around for years. I can’t recall when and how I obtained it, and an Internet search for Rankin provides little information about him or when and where he gave this particular talk. Listening to it again this evening I realized that it actually dates back to the 1980s, as Rankin mentions that Ronald Reagan is president.

Regardless of all of this, I found much of what Rankin had to say still very pertinent, and so thought I would share it on this day that we honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A fraud

Rankin begins his talk by noting that perhaps, in a sort of secret way, we have always known that Jesus was a sissy. All efforts to align him with soldiers, marching, battles, banners, and wars (as, for example, in hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers”) are part of a widespread fraud – “a pious, well-intentioned fraud,” says Rankin, “but a fraud nonetheless. For Jesus was a sissy.”

Rankin himself was taught from an early age that male success was synonymous with aggressive physical behavior. Indeed, he internalized this message so well that he became a professional fighter – “Rocky Rankin”! “Violence was rewarded,” he remembers, and all his teachers were proud of him.

He has since learned that human behavior has been “arbitrarily categorized as masculine and feminine,” that societies have “carefully defined sexual stereotypes that lead to victimization,” and that “according to our own particular stereotypes, Jesus was not a ‘soldier marching to war,’ but an honest-to-goodness sissy.” To insist otherwise is to feed into a “dangerous and damaging fraud.”

Such are the norms

In our culture, Rankin notes, women are permitted the display of emotions – crying, screaming, giggling, sighing, raving - all of which are associated with the female norm. “Every honest and spontaneous emotional reaction is accepted and even expected from the female of the species,” he says. But the range of emotions that males are expected to feel, let alone express, is much more circumscribed. “A weeping male is quite unseemly,” Rankin reminds us. “A screaming man is very unstable. A masculine giggle is completely unacceptable.”

Women are also decreed by our society to be naturally intuitive – that is, they are moved to belief and action by the heart and not the head. Men, in contrast, are supposed to be empirical and scientific. “While female logic leaves much to be desired,” says Rankin, “the feelings of a woman are a very valuable commodity. And while male logic is the very essence of rationality, the feelings of a man are hardly worth mentioning. . . . Men teach classical philosophy, while women teach home economics. Men are popes and bishops, while women are nuns and witches. Men are men, and women are women. Such are the norms.”

Rankin points out that the stereotypes we’ve developed and maintain are not always favorable to men. For example, with regard to aesthetics, “women embody and are responsive to beauty in all its forms while men are crude,” with the basic masculine responses always being functional and utilitarian. With regard to ethics, women are judged to be sweet, kind, pure, and gentle, while men are judged to be crass, selfish, disloyal, rough, and unbending. Thus, concludes Rankin, women are soft, compassionate, and tender-hearted, while men are hard, cruel, and war-loving. “Such are the norms.”

Given such norms, Rankin declares his thesis absolutely inescapable: Jesus was a sissy. After all,

Jesus was able to feel and express a wide range of tender emotions. He wept without shame, even raved and screamed and moaned and won no battles. He was an intuitive thinker, often the victim of wild imaginings and flights of fantasy. He responded to beauty, embracing the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He nurtured little children, relating to them in the manner of a mother. He freely touched other men and kissed them.

“Does Jesus really fit the American ideal of manhood?” Rankin asks. Can we imagine Jesus as a United States Marine? As a linebacker for the Detroit Lions? As the Marlboro Man? “By almost every standard in our culture,” concludes Rankin, “Jesus was a real live honest-to-goodness sissy.”

But does this matter? Rankin believes so. Indeed, he argues that it affects almost everything in our lives. In his talk he brings up the issue of the environment. Remember, he delivered this talk in the 1980s. Yet given recent events in the Gulf of Mexico, his remarks remain as relevant as ever.

When we look at this issue as an economic, political, or aesthetic problem there is always this sense that we really haven’t touched the heart of the matter. For in the final analysis, the environmental crisis raises fundamental questions about ourselves and the world. And it poses a dilemma of our attitude toward man and nature. I purposely emphasize man and nature for a large part of the environmental crisis is due to the influence of the male stereotype and those masculine norms decreed by our culture. In other words, the very phrase ‘man and nature’ implies some kind of basic opposition, whereas ‘Mother Earth’ implies a basic underlying harmony. So you see a commitment to the conservation of nature presupposes certain values largely incompatible with the male stereotype. And since men dominate our social and political institutions, the agency of government functions with a virtual disregard for the kind of attitudes which are ultimately the solution to the problem.

‘My God, lady, it’s just a bunch of trees,’ said a puzzled businessman to a woman objecting to a new supermarket on 28th Street. Now that is more than an economic opinion. It is crass, hard-nosed, and functional. In short, it is exactly the kind of response we have learned to expect, indeed programmed from men, and it is seen as masculine.

Rankin observes that women have rightly objected to the oppressive female stereotype. “It’s no honor to exist on a pedestal,” he says, “when there is no power or meaning.” Yet men are also victims he insists.

A little boy interested in poetry rather than sports is looked upon as strange, as odd. A young man resisting the call to arms is considered weak and cowardly, as un-American. A teenager unwilling to be a sexual predator is ostracized by his peers and labeled a loser. A long-haired youth protesting injustice is dismissed as a radical, as crazy. So the male becomes a victim. In defining the male and female stereotype in fairly specific forms, he has been stripped of those attributes that would complete his own humanity. Like the woman, he is lacking options. He is a crippled creature. He is less than human.

A revolutionary conception

Rankin’s solution to this predicament is to sound the call for male liberation! For if men follow their sisters in redefining their role in society, such liberation is “nothing less than a revolutionary conception of what it means to be human.” He envisions for his own sons this revolutionary conception.

I do not want my sons to be hard, cold, domineering, repressive. I do not want my sons to be hurtful, to destroy the landscape, to kill for pleasure. I do not want my sons to be muscled dummies, sexual predators, military mannequins. I want them to cry when they’re sad. I want them to scream when they’re mad. I want them to laugh when they’re happy. I want them to feel when they’re thinking. I want them to love with a genuine commitment, with a deep and ardent devotion, with the yin and the yang in proper balance.

Along with teachers who cheered his fighting skills, Rankin also recalls others who “represented another model.” They were open to emotion, softness, and sensitivity. “Although I still have much to learn,” admits Rankin, “I will always be thankful for their encouragement. Perhaps it will blossom in my own children as it develops more fully and completely.”

Rankin is also hopeful that a healthier model of the masculine norm is slowly stirring into human consciousness – a model that will “liberate little boys from the damaging expectations of the past.”

Yet the macho image remains pervasive – a fact that compels Rankin to ask: How can the American male learn a better way to be human?

He recollects his Sunday School teachers and their efforts to instill that fraudulent image of Jesus as a warrior. “They were right in saying we should be more like Jesus,” he says, “but their reasons were wrong.”

The Jesus we should emulate, Rankin insists, was a sissy:

A man who walked around the countryside without position, without possessions, searching for the meaning of life. A man who lingered lazily in the fields in order to study the flight of a bird and the petals of a flower. A man who embraced the lowly and the outcast and the leper and the stranger while protesting their condition. A man was so physically frail that he could not even carry a wooden cross to the top of a hill. A man who suffered a humiliating defeat while blessing the enemies who had arranged his death. A sissy. One of the greatest models in religious history was an honest-to-God, real live, long-haired, soft-bodied sissy.

Rankin concludes his talk by pondering what it is about the word ‘sissy’ that threatens our egos. “It is only love, affection, gentleness, tenderness, compassion, sensitivity,” he says. “It is that part of ourselves as men that yearns to be liberated.”

A kind of bridge

So where do gay folks fit into all of this? As I listened and transcribed Rankin's talk this evening I found myself recalling what Matthew Fox says about the gifts of homosexuality in his book The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine.

Homosexuals offer humanity certain vital gifts that society would be foolish to refuse. [One of these is] a flexible perspective on gender [which] provides a kind of bridge between men and women. Heterosexuals in particular can become stuck in their society-created gender roles, and homosexuals remind everyone that sexuality exists in the realm of metaphor and not literalism. When one’s sexual role is not determined by one’s body parts, life, imagination, and passion come alive. David Deida observes that “the gay and lesbian community is acutely aware that the sexual polarity is independent of gender. But you still need two poles for a passionate play of sexuality to persist in a relationship: masculine and feminine, top and bottom, butch and femme – whatever you want to call these reciprocal poles of sexual play.” Gays and lesbians have much to teach the straight world about sexuality and about restoring passion to relationships. . . . [Also] there is a long history in many cultures of homosexuals as spiritual leaders. Many years ago, a Native American woman took me aside and said to me that it is well known among Native Americans that gay persons have always been the spiritual directors to their great chiefs. Homosexuals, it seems, don’t just bridge male and female worlds, but human and spiritual worlds. A homophobic society deprives itself of a deeper spirituality. This same woman (who was also a Catholic sister) said: “When I give retreats to gay people, it is always a deeper experience than just giving a retreat to a mixed and mostly heterosexual crowd.”

So lets hear it for the sissies - gay, straight, and everywhere in between . . . Jesus included!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Wild Gaiety of Jesus’ Moral Teaching
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay, But Definitely Queer
Rockin’ With Maxwell
The Gifts of Homosexuality
In the Garden of Spirituality – Adrian Smith
In the Garden of Spirituality – James C. Howell
In the Garden of Spirituality – Toby Johnson
The Cosmic Christ: Brother, Lover, Friend, Divine and Tender Guide
Jesus: The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
The Essential Christ
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
The Sexuality of Jesus
The Passion of Christ
Why Jesus Is My Man
The Sacred Heart: “Mystical Symbol of Love”
A Quiet Visit and An Exhausting Conversation (Part 2 of The Journal of James Curtis)

Recommended Off-Site Link:
Sacred Heart of Jesus Icon – Sister Juliet (Seeking Sophie, March 6, 2008).

Image 1: Artist unknown.
Image 2: Artist unknown.
Image 3: Nancy Oliphant.
Image 4: Alan Flattmann.
Image 5: Stephen B. Whatley.


Mareczku said...

This is very interesting. I never understood the concept behind fighting. I don't see why someone would get please from seeing someone being hit in the face. I was never in a fight as a kid. In Catholic school we were taught that fighting was a sin. Jesus was a kind, peaceful and gentle person. I was in a discussion about this. One man said, "You seem to be saying that for a boy never to be in a fight is a virtue. I disagree strongly." Some seem to think that agression and violence make one more of a man but that was not Jesus' way.

Phil said...

This was a fantastic piece. I especially liked the part about reminding people that sexuality exists in the realm of metaphor, not literalism.

crystal said...

That "sissy" stuff is what I like about Jesus.

Craig F San Francisco said...

David Rankin was the head minister at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, MI when he gave this sermon. Before that he was the head minister at the San Francisco Universalist Unitarian Church in San Francisco. Foutain Street Church is an independent liberal church.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Craig, thanks for that information about David Rankin.



Deiter said...

A great piece of writing, bro: Thanks for going to the trouble.

I'd argue that this construction of Jesus, while perhaps a sissy, is certainly no coward. I suppose anyone who's clearly stands in the indeterminate margins of gender and sexuality is courageous, a warrior even. Your implication of the "soft bodied" needn't include softness of mind or heart.

I also suggest that the creation of Jesus may've been (an incomplete) attempt to bring the goddess back into the religion of Abraham, which had been "cleansed" back at the dawn of Yahweh's ascent to monotheism. Pre-Torah, the supreme God once had a female consort. This Asherah, like many Mother Goddesses, was once supreme Herself and had many cults of her own. The mother-hating patriarchy of those formative Hebrews would force her out. Jesus was a way of reinserting the feminine, and in a limited way, righting a wrong. Judging from recent advances in Conservative Christianity, this attempt at gynophilia has been an abysmal failure.

You cover many interesting points in this piece. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.