Book Review: Ellison, Erotic Justice
Nancy Myer Hopkins, consultant on congregational healing
andcharter member of the ISTI Board, is the guest reviewer.
Ellison, Marvin M, Erotic Justice: A liberating Ethic
of Sexuality, Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1996,142
pp, $17.00 (ISBN 0-664-25646-5). The author is professor of
Christian ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary.
Those with the courage to read this book will find it a most valuable resource. Ellison reframes the debate about the crisis in sexuality and family life, placing the problem not in sexuality itself, but in social injustice: " ...the crisis in sexuality is properly located in the eroticizing of dominant/ subordinate social relations and in the distortion of love by racism, sexism and other injustices (p 1)."
Ellison takes aim at both the conservative and liberal views of sexuality. Those on the right are at once fearful and obsessed by all things sexual; yet, they see nothing wrong with playing on people's deepest fears of not being attractive as a way to sell goods. Sex thus becomes one of the powerful engines which drives the capitalist economy. Sexuality also is connected to the human propensity to put negative projections onto those who are in any way different or a threat. This arises out of a dualistic mind-set, a massive and collective split between the body and the mind or spirit, assigning negative values to the body, positive values to the mind and spirit. The female, men who are "not really male" (gay), or those who have no need of a male (lesbian) are assigned the negative aspects of sexuality. Elaborate rules for controlling the body (especially the dangerous female body) serve to bolster the defenses.
The liberal tradition gets a grateful nod from Ellison for his own formation, but he also finds deficiencies there. Although less sex-negative, liberalism engages in another kind of split, of the public from the private: "Liberalism's presuppositions, especially about female nature and a naturalized family structure, replicate a nineteenth century white bourgeois world view that divides social reality into man's (public) world and woman's (private) space.... The privatized zone of non-freedom includes sexuality, reproduction, and the care of children, matters judged inconsequential - and typically rendered invisible in liberal social theory - in relation to the 'real' (read 'manly') concerns of war, politics, career and empire-building (p 7)."
Writing out of his own perspective as a gay man, Ellison credits feminist and liberation theologians with providing the corrective understandings to the traditional liberal one. All the 'isms" of our society, ageism', disablism, racism, sexism and heterosexism are political and cultural concepts that stem from contempt or fear or ignorance of the body, resulting in extreme alienation. Patriarchal social patterns of injustice undergird the whole.
The building of elaborate hierarchical ordering of all differences generates fear of anyone who is different, and thus perceived to be either above or below oneself in the order. The fear of the actual difference itself becomes stronger than the fear of either domination or overthrow. One way this plays out is that 'sexuality in black people is viewed as chaotic, a power outside white control and therefore something both deviant and mesmerizing (p 46)."
The equation of dominance and control for the male with submission for the female is the great turn-on in the culture. 'Mutual respect or sharing power is not considered very sexy." Furthermore, "Sexuality conditioned by male gender supremacy eroticizes power inequalities, bolsters male control, and increases peoples comfort level with oppression (pp 51)." This is so endemic to our culture that we really have to have it illustrated for us. Once our consciousness is raised, however, we can never go back to seeing things in the same old way.
Ellison's treatment of heterosexism follows logically: 'Homophobia is the fear of homosexuals, but also the fear of loving someone of the same sex and of being gay or queer oneself - that is someone who loves others who are the same or equal to themselves" (p 54, emphasis added). Thus, homosexuality represents a major challenge to normality of dominant/subordinate gender roles.
In order to change, we first need to understand historically how we arrived at this place. Then, we must be asking the right question, which is not, what does our religion say about our bodies and sexuality, but how can we fully engage with all those who have been on the margins in a transforming dialogue? Such a dialogue will honor each other in a living faith tradition and with a living God to arrive at a new way of determining responsible and ethical moral choices. Only a radical turning inside-out will suffice. Giving voice to the voiceless (and then listening to them!) is a necessary step.
When interpreting Scripture, Ellison quotes Fiorenza's memorable
phrases for detecting the patriarchal threads woven throughout - "a hermeneutics of suspicion,'
and also "a hermeneutics of remembrance" - recovering stories of
resistance to injustice and claiming them for our own (p 71). For instance, the Song
of Songs is largely ignored, but it is not only a beautiful love poem which
celebrates sexuality. It is also a subversive document when read through the "new
eyes" of a liberationist, who finds nonnormative lovers engaging in
cultural resistance. Even in such an ancient document, it is possible to find the personal
Turning away from sex negativity means embracing erotic joy, but tempered with a profound commitment to right relationship. The four central value commitments are: 1. The goodness of the body ... capable of giving and receiving pleasure.... 2. Bodily integrity and self direction ... body right means freedom from control and manipulation from another.... 3. Mutuality ... persons, not mere body parts, meet and touch.... both parties must show up and be accounted for, together.... good touch requires consent. 4. Fidelity ... makes durability, substance, and hope possible within relationships (pp 81-83).
If I have a quibble with the book, I would have liked to see the relational aspects of making ethical choices expanded. However, there are plenty of opportunities for Ellison and other new Christian ethicists to write another book; there will be plenty of opportunities for all of us to engage in the essential dialogue which will be much enhanced by this book. NH