Critical polyamorist blog
Subverting Empire in Our Hearts and in the Bedroom: A Christian Polyamorist Perspective (by T.B. Livermont, guest blogger)
by T.B. Livermont, Guest Blogger
Critical Poly Note: Dear readers, I feel truly privileged to know and learn from T.B. Livermont and honored that she is allowing me to publish this guest post. While I am not a Christian, I am moved by her theological reckoning with ethical non-monogamy, and her expansive and pragmatic vision of love.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
St. Paul in Galatians 5:19-23 (NRSV)
In considering my duty to Jesus Christ and to the Church as a Christian who has recently found peace in embracing an ethical non-monogamous lifestyle, I must consider how Christians have failed to liberate our theology from old political understandings. In many ways, Christians are still like our Hebrew forefathers who, having escaped Pharaoh and empire, cried in the wilderness and clung to the remembrance of the comfort of captivity. The message of Jesus Christ from the beginning was that of mercy, love and the establishment of a political entity ‘not of this world.’
Why in a post about the structuring of romantic relationships am I talking about empire and governments? Like my blog host, I was also born and raised in the Heartland of America and am a tribal member of a plains tribe. I am also the daughter of pioneers. In fact, when I, my mother and my children stand in her family cemetery, there are seven generations of pioneers. I believe that Americans such as myself have inherited much from ideas of feudalism, even while we supposedly reject much from such systems. In practice, we have a love-hate relationship with democracy.
Almost the entirety of the Bible is framed in relation to political structures and mores, including the Gospels’ recording of Jesus Christ’s analogies and parables in which he illustrated the relationship between God and man. The Gospels record him using those now outdated political structures as analogies that in his time invited and challenged listeners to reimagine what loyalty could mean. Jesus often posed questions to his followers that asked them to think critically about the empire in which they lived. He rarely answered these questions directly, but instead the parables and analogies he used coaxed people to imagine new ways of thinking, thereby tipping the usual patterns of slavery and serfdom of his day upside down.
What is the lesson for Christians’ romantic relationships in the 21st century? While few of us really take issue with the idea of duty, Americans get queasy with feudal ideas of lords over subjects, not just because they invoke various patterns of ownership akin to slavery, but because as those living in a democratic republic, we blanch over ideas of hereditary rights over others. Unfortunately, our marriages, while somewhat more modern, are still closely tied to the old power-down structures of king and country. Monogamous marriage (or polygamy way back) was necessary for inheriting titles, land, power and prestige. Those in power would make sure their male subjects could hope for and thus be controlled by that hope as they aspired to and engaged in their ‘king of my own castle,’ practices. These included marriage, control of women’s sexuality and reproduction, land ownership by and for men, etc. Modern American marriage (and divorce) laws and practices are still directly tied to these ideas.
Now that we no longer live the king/subject model of government, how do we begin framing new relationships, between those we love and, for Christians, between ourselves and how we understand our duty to God and the Church. We Christians have purposefully (or by force in boarding schools and other institutions) been immersed in the Bible’s history and allegories subsequently filtered through an American cultural translation of old feudal political models. We must now make a new accounting. How can our families and romances more fully reflect our realities as Christians and non-Christians living in a democracy? Much of the pressure from the Christian Right on ‘saving the family,’ actually reinforces outdated models of marriage and family mores that have much more to do with maintaining and establishing patriarchy and a specific brand of Christian thought, that of American Evangelicalism, than from any honest theological wrestling with the Bible.
Other types of Christians read the Bible in a progressive way. God wasn’t trying to sell kings and feudalism as the only means for human government under him. Even in the Jewish Bible, God warned the Hebrews that he didn’t want them to have kings, but they kept insisting because they wanted to be like the nations around them. In the Book of Judges, a time period before Israel had the great kings we now think of, the greatest judge was a woman. The judge model is really the foundation for the love of neighbor Jesus brought us, and the freedom that comes with it, rather than the fear and subservience of a feudal model. Why shouldn’t we also reconsider our models for sexual relationships and families based on this earlier, freer and more loving model?
Poor study of the Bible and much prooftexting on marriage by American Evangelicals, coupled with our confused American relationship with monarchy (vs. democracy), cause us to lose focus on how subversive many of the Gospels and Biblical narratives were. Christian polyamory (and again I can’t state it enough--this should not be confused with patriarchal polygamy) can be understood as naturally stemming from a progressive reading of the Bible. Think of how easily “Lord” and “Savior,” enters the language? While such terms reflect the loyalty we should give Jesus Christ, such terminology is also limiting. For a very long time, I have also identified Christ in light of other Biblical descriptions of him: “The Firstborn of Creation.” He is also the “The Word of God Made Flesh,” and more simply, “Emmanuel, God with Us.”
If the Bible is both true to history and a rather faithful witness to the political realities in the times in which each book was written, two things can be said: 1) the sacred texts have sometimes been used by governments and powers to force behavior and actions that would prop up oppressive governments. 2) Christians can also trust the witness of the Bible in its own right, provided we understand thoroughly the feudal relationships woven throughout books written in that time and their interpretations later by those living similarly in monarchies and feudal systems. These particular histories and interpretations continue to shape how we in the U.S. in the 21st century interpret the Bible.
American Christianity: Times are a changing
Several years ago, as America had the opportunity to vote for the first African-American president, a group of Christian Anabaptists published a book called, “Jesus for President.” This book was in direct response to the hyper conservative and what they see as an ungodly prostitution of the church that would erode separation of church and state and further political and social injustices in our country. There was a presentation on YouTube that is the guts of the book tour, which I suggest to anyone who is interested in the idea that empire and Jesus are not two peas in a pod. The book and video go to great lengths to retell the entire Biblical narrative in a Christocentric way, so that every loving thing Christ said about those in power and those of the lowest station in the first century is highlighted as the subversive, anti-empire activity it really is. Much of the subversion in the Jewish Bible includes God inspiring and pulling to the forefront simple people. For example, putting a slingshot in a shepherd boy’s hand to kill the giant. The boy then became a king. Or God had Emmanuel born in a stable to a young woman, who could have been stoned to death for being pregnant before marriage.
I am sure the main author of “Jesus for President,” Shane Claiborne (who was celibate until marrying a couple years ago), would be horrified for me to piggy back his community’s work with polyamory. I want that to be clear to those who have hated Shane’s message of peace and reconciliation and who would use anything they could to disparage his efforts.
However, I bawled through Shane’s works because they affirm the love within my heart, infused by the Holy Spirit, for my neighbors. At the same time I have felt ashamed and confused for loving more than one person romantically. I am trying to reconcile an over-flowing of love with the idea that love is scarce and should be saved for only one. I believe Christian polyamory can help address this contradiction. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people follow Christ for license to cheat on their spouses or commit fornication (the objectifying of humans for sexual release). This is not what polyamory is. Polyamory literally means ‘more than one love,’ and love does not seek to do harm, but instead open the door for ethical sexual relationships filled with communication, honesty, and yes, a peculiar notion of loyalty. Nor am I suggesting that all Christians should become polyamorous. I write this because those of us who find ourselves following Christ as polyamorous people may have an unique witness that adds much needed diversity to the world of polyamory and a more democratic understanding to Christianity of the Hebrew carpenter that would become So Much To So Many.
A recurring theme in the New Testament, and especially the letters of the New Testament attributed to St. Paul, is that we cannot do whatever we feel like now that we live in the freedom of Christ. His advice for Christian life must be seen as a response to the incredible freedom people felt when given the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Women specifically felt great freedom in the Gospel. St. Paul’s concern was that if church leaders didn’t provide this new people with a way to express this freedom, non-Christians would disparage the message of Jesus Christ and might also see it as a form of dangerous political rebellion. Sudden philosophical or religious freedom can cause all sorts of unforeseen structural issues in society, so I am cautious to not utterly abandon scripture and even tradition.
New Christian ethics for relationships, including ethical non-monogamy
Rather than tossing St. Paul’s words to the wayside like some progressive Christians, his concerns resonate with me deeply as I navigate polyamory. Many Christians would criticize me for choosing ethical non-monagamy, no doubt assuming that someone who would choose to refashion herself romantically and sexually in this way is simply wanting to have sex with everyone, forgetting a sense of duty or loyalty to a partner or to herself. I have actually had the opposite happen. In not seeking to ‘replace’ my previous loves (whether we remain romantically and sexually involved or not), I am free to continue caring deeply for the good of those I love. There is nothing more Christian than that and this gets to the core of fidelity and natural duty. Recently, while walking into a church event, I had the sensation for the first time that I was not a ‘fallen woman.’ While I’m sure the little old ladies would be horrified to know how I order my bedroom and heart, I walked in feeling honest, knowing I am not promiscuous in the negative definition of that word. Rather, I am confident that I can now treat more people with more love and ethical consideration than is possible within the confining mores of feudally-inspired monogamous marriage.
As a Christian, I do believe I have certain restraints upon me as a follower of Jesus Christ. St. Paul once remarked that deacons (church leaders) ought not to have more than one wife. This remark has been used as reason not to divorce and also as an argument against polygamy. Oddly enough, it is the only place that I’m aware of that tied the male gender to the role of deacon, despite Paul himself referring to specific women as deacons (which is washed out of the English versions of those letters to some degree). At any rate, what is important to add here is the rest of what Paul said, and to note the societal conditions within which the “one wife” command was given. In that society, a man’s wealth was most easily seen and shown off by having more than one wife and by having many children. Not only were multiple wives and children a status symbol, but they were also the vehicles by which a man gained wealth and power. More children meant more workers--especially for agrarian peoples, more strength of arms against enemies and overall provided a type of ‘investment’ we can’t relate to today. As followers of Christ, those new Christians were to eschew wealth and power. In the Book of Acts, it actually says they lived and shared everything in community. So, accumulating possessions--and in that culture women were possessions--was frowned upon. Paul was advocating that men specifically who sought to lead in the Church must not be so concerned with accumulating wealth, but to take care of their families, and beyond that to serve those in need. Paul was not advocating a limit on love.
Conclusion: Understanding the pitfalls while walking with love
Like the new Christians in that era, I know that I must maintain a lifestyle in which I can take care of myself and my family before I can hope to help others. I know that I only have so much time and so many resources.There are thus natural laws (material reality) that govern what I can do. I also find that as a Christian it is best if I divorce my ideas of duty and fidelity from outmoded laws meant to govern wealth and power in another time and place, and instead place my sense of duty and faithfulness squarely in the plane of Christ-like love and second from a place of personal loyalty. Loving more than one person romantically in ethical ways does not objectify them if we keep to our ethics and love them first with Christ-like love. Monogamy has done as much if not more in objectifying humans as sexual objects and creating a culture of fornication, since in our culture of serial monogamy, we must cast aside lovers and sometimes even the parents of our children once we begin having sexual relations with another. This seems to place sexual relations ahead of love in defining what relationships should be. Most Christian leaders would say ‘sex outside marriage’ is fornication. I have had trouble with that definition my whole life. How, when I follow Jesus, am I to put more stake in following the marital laws of the country I live in, than the intentions of my heart? I still struggle with that. I know that St. Paul wanted Christians to find a measure of peace within the governments they lived under. He is often lambasted for this by Christians, especially today, but I believe that there is a certain element of practical truth in that advice. Mostly though St. Paul was worried that “whatsoever you don’t do in faith is sin.” Obviously a piece of paper from the government about a marriage does not protect those people from hating each other, from abuse, from dishonesty or anything else. It may make things easier for women bearing children so that they have a degree of safety in being provided for during vulnerable times in their lives, but yet, that is no guarantee either. So, how then do I make peace with words like fornication? Adultery?
Can I truly, as a Christian, go have sex with whomever I like? Can I get falling down drunk at a local honky tonk and participate in hook up culture and one-night stands? In fact, I feel freer now that I’ve come out as polyamorous to not engage the usual means for finding and securing monogamous relationships and marriage. I am in no hurry to ‘replace’ people and to make choices that in my past (serial) monogamist practice may have caused me to have sex with someone too soon or to jump into relationships too quickly. Biblical admonitions against fornication specifically address the objectification of other humans to fulfill one’s own needs sexually, and I would suggest emotionally. With this understanding of fornication rather than an understanding that conflates it with sex outside of legal marriage, I must ask myself to the best of my knowledge aided even by prayer, a) do I want to enter a relationship of any type solely for my own benefit or do I truly love the other person first in Christ-like love and b) am I able to hold both love and fidelity for them based on their needs of me, as well. As for adultery, if they are involved in a monogamous relationship, especially if they are married, does my relationship with them meet the previous criteria, plus an added openness and honesty with their current partner. For my own loyalties and fidelities, I must also ask if a new relationship will cause me to abandon my other loves and relationships and cause heartbreak and instability.
Polyamory is not for everyone. I grieve, though, at the way marriage today still chains us to the past and not always in traditions that inspire and teach us, but in ways that make us become subjects to be lorded over. The Bible has been much maligned, especially by those in tribal communities, and I’m sure in sex diverse communities as well, because of how so many Christians have clung to the law rather than the spirit in which it was written. While “Jesus for President” has begun decolonizing the American Christian mind, I pray that we might also allow Jesus Christ to decolonize our loves and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in our hearts and bedrooms while also guiding us away from unloving actions against self and neighbor.
T.B. Livermont is a recovering Evangelical living in the Northern Plains. An enrolled tribal member, she works everyday to love God and her neighbor and to bring up her children to walk well with the rest of Creation.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to ethical non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly