By Elyse Ambrose
While my entry into Christian religion supported the foundations of a transformative faith journey with God, it also marked the inception of an antagonistic relationship toward my body(1) and sexuality that has taken years to begin undoing.
As a black queer woman, who once understood myself to be “delivered from homosexual desire,” I have struggled to be reconciled to my body because in Christianity, I learned to reject desire, pleasure, my sexuality, my body. While a like message was received through my experience of black southern culture, the codification of this rejection through scripture made it all the more authoritative. Though our bodies long for connectivity and an experience of belonging, Christians are taught to repress desire as evil or as a hindrance to our experiencing God. Our bodies must be disciplined “into submission” (1 Cor 9:27), and “a temple” of the Holy Spirit must be kept undefiled, pure (that is until one presents themselves a virgin to be married heterosexually). Whether or not these words are preached each Sunday, their harm surfaces as teenage girls are shamed for expressing themselves sexually, decried by pastors, peers, and parents alike. The words resound as congregations suffer through fasting, denying their bodies in the hope that God might be moved by our hunger. (2) The message persists each time someone is verbally or physically abused for being LGBTQ. These false words reside in my body, reminding me that my body is innately at war with my spirit, and therefore with God; my body, desire, pleasure, sexuality is not good.
Then, there is the particularity of being a black woman. My body and sexuality have long been objects of the white heteropatriarchal imagination since the arrival of enslaved Africans on these lands. My black women ancestors endured the white gaze—from white women enslavers whose very word could result in our demise; from white men enslavers who simultaneously lusted as they pillaged black bodies (sometimes calling it “love,” but what is love without consent?) while viscerally hating as whips unrelentingly latched onto bodies, until it was disciplined into submission. My ancestors’ memories reside in my body, reminding me that my body is not safe amidst white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.
This is my inspirted flesh/enfleshed spirit (3) in the United States of America. This is my enfleshed spirit/inspirited flesh in Christianity. Often Christianity works to reify the oppressive “-isms” of our broader society as it is unwedded from the desire to center and preserve an ideal of whiteness, cis-maleness, straightness, wealthiness, etc. at all costs. We who are pushed to the margins know this experience and it resides in our bodies, deceptively reminding us that our bodies and sexuality must be “washed white as snow,” then perhaps we can be closer to the moral ideal, closer to God.
Rejection and repression have real-life implications. Therefore, this may mean our struggle is for LGBTQ inclusion, and for a body-affirming, pleasure-embracing, desire-accepting way of relating to our sexual selves and all other sexual selves. We need a sexual ethic that allows us to heal from the damage Christianity has done to us all in the name of holiness. We need a sexual ethic that celebrates us as wholly holy—not just our spirits, but also our bodies. We need a sexual ethic that actively resists racism, sexism, genderism, classism, ableism, ageism and more. Such an ethic must begin with loosing the chains of our own repression and creating space for others to do the same.
(1) Terms borrowed from Olivia Busby.
(2) Often fasting is framed in harmful ways. For more on a liberative framing of this practice, see Isaiah 58.
(3) Terms borrowed from Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.