Border Troublings

Whose Millennium? Religion, Sexuality, and the Values of Citizenship was an interdisciplinary discussion where numerous borders were fruitfully troubled—the borders that lie between the academic and the activist, between religious traditions, between different analytic approaches, between those who exercise their resourcefulness and resistance inside religious communities and those who apply pressure and critique from without.

I want to begin with a little story about the last CLAGS event I attended, Esther Newton’s colloquium where she presented part of her memoir-in-progress. The seminar table was strewn with flyers for upcoming events, including this conference. “Oh, that’s that religious conference,” one person sniffed as she gave the program a sidelong glance. “I’m not interested in that one bit.” She pushed the flyer away, barely touching it with the edge of her fingernail. Her companion added, “Oh, right—that’s all the reverends and the rabbis. No, I’m not interested either.” Now, I mean no disrespect to these CLAGS members. But the moment reminded me that (borrowing the name of Thursday’s second panel) “religion” and “the religious” themselves continue to function as complicated flashpoints in their own rights. And so, a conference on religion, sexuality, and citizenship can be dismissed as “that religious conference” whose wide- ranging participants can somehow be reduced a gathering of “all the reverends and rabbis.” (No disrespect intended either to the reverends and rabbis at the conference!)

The irony was that, Esther Newton’s Life-With-Father-story- with-a-twist was completely enmeshed in precisely the terms that came into view in this conference: sexuality, religion, cultural citizenship. How these abstractions played themselves out in her negotiations with particular forms of masculinity, Jewishness, and radical left politics was central to the narrative. In the abstract, “religion” and “the religious” might still be dismissable as unredeemable—or, worse yet, uninteresting. And yet, in the concrete retelling of a lived experience, they end up being utterly compelling.

But to the task of conference reporting: The ghost of Saint Foucault haunted this conference, whispering in our ears, “Always historicize.” The specter of biblical Sodom also appeared and reappeared, as did the compelling figure of “the bed of Sodom”—not as the site of sexual sin, but rather the place where sameness is inscribed on recalcitrant bodies with a cool violence, damn the consequences. For those of us who take part, with varying degrees of (im)patience and agità, in disputes and resistances against efforts to impose a particular form of biblical ethics on our culture, the rhetorical force of this image will help to unveil obsessions and hypocrisies in the debate. We have been variously reminded that texts, traditions of interpretation, and ideas all have complex and multiform histories—and reminded of the danger inherent in allowing ossified or reified versions of these histories (in the form of timeless myth) to have the last word.

Meanwhile, Karma Lochrie’s historicized genealogy of “norms” and “normativity” reminded us that the very terms that we use as a kind of shorthand to say something else altogether can limit our historical and strategic thinking and potentially short-circuit what we think we can know. The insistence that “religion” and “culture” must be read complexly and in tandem coursed through the conference. And the work of the several contributors working in and on South Asia drew our attention to the ways in which genderized “sexuality” and sexualized “religion” intersect in the rhetoric of right-wing religious nationalisms and delimited notions of citizenship. The examples raised by these contributors and the example of Iran raised by Minoo Moallem came at the dictum, “always historicize” from a different direction—and reminded us that the religious othering of certain forms of sexuality sometimes mirrors the cultural othering of certain forms of religion (notably in the Christian West’s construction of “Islam” and “Hinduism”). Out of this came at least two crucial analytic categories: cultural citizenship and Paola Bacchetta’s dual categories, “xenophobic homophobia” and “homophobic xenophobia.” Renée Hill drew our attention to the racist responses to the Lambeth Conference in the summer of 1998 where consciously postcolonial appropriations of the Bible situated the “problem” for Asian and African Anglicans squarely at the door of America and Europe “We are quoting from the Scriptures,” one bishop reminded a New York Times reporter at the time. “Don’t forget that the church in America and the church in England took us the Scriptures, and we are not reading anything different.”

Meanwhile, different religious traditions have shown themselves repeatedly to be simultaneously part of the problem and part of the solution, offering up both languages of constraint and resources for thinking the matter differently: in the poetry and person of Miraji, in the logics of early modern rabbinic responsa literature, in the pierced and bloodied body of Saint Sebastian.

Numerous questions recurred:
—How do we build and sustain progressive critique and politics that recognize that “religion” plays a complex and double role—operating simultaneously as part of the problem and, in some social and political contexts, as one of the only influential social formations that challenges and critiques global capitalist hegemony? (Part of the answer to this question seemed to emerge in this way: it is crucial that we link analyses of attempts to legislate and constrain sexual identities and practices to analyses of other forms of legislation and constraint.)

—More basically, what do we mean when we use the terms “religion” or “values”? For some, these terms are, on their face, too tainted or loaded or overdetermined. For others, it seems crucial not to abandon them to our political opponents, since whatever else they might mean, they also operate in our society as foundational structures of authority for making political claims.

—How do we negotiate our different responses to languages of social critique and social change? Is the language of tolerance and acceptance along with therapeutic patronizing, as some would have it, or does its very utterance in certain (religious) contexts function as a radical performance?

In the end, I am increasingly attentive to the reality that everyone is working on many different levels and planes of intervention. I want to take this as sign of strength, not one of divisiveness. But I do still wish that the people who decided that they weren’t interested in this conference because it had to do with religion had attended anyway. The resulting conversation would have been illuminating, I think—for all of us.

Elizabeth Castelli
Barnard College