Christian Kissing for an Emotionally Constipated Nation
Issue #20, April 1995
A Kiss Is But A Kiss
When religious conservatives like presidential candidate Pat Buchanan claim that they will return eternal Christian truths to American schools we have a pretty good idea of what they mean: school prayer, family values, abstinence, sobriety, thrift, and compulsory heterosexuality. There is, however, one Christian truth I don't imagine Mr. Buchanan or many other religious conservatives will want brought into the classroom: the Bible enjoins good Christians to kiss each other — quite a bit, actually.
Greet ye one another with a kiss of charity. Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen. (1Pet. 5:14)
Similar exhortations occur at Luke 7:45; Rom. 16:16; 1Cor. 16:20; 2Cor. 13:12; and 1Ths. 5:26.
There it is in the black and white. Word of God and all that.
I think we've been had.
The kiss in question, of course, is not the passionate spit-swapping of torrid Italian movies but the peck-on-the-cheek variety still practiced between same-sex friends, people of similar rank, and family members in much of the Mediterranean, Slavic, Muslim and Latin worlds. It acknowledges membership in a community and reminds community members that they should suspend aggression and practice active love for one another. Despite its desexualized character, however, the kiss of charity (caritas, agape) is nevertheless a kiss, not a handshake kind of an affectionate high-five to the glory of the risen Christ.
It is easy to understand why Biblical kissing might have gone unnoticed for so many years. Turning water into wine and casting out demons into Gadarene swine seem to have attracted more attention than the many affectionate brushes of the lips or pecks on the cheek recommended by Saints Peter and Paul. While the compulsory nature of same-sex kissing is a peculiarity of Christian writings, the practice is not entirely absent from Hebrew Scripture either. Throughout several centuries of burning bushes, wars of conquest and temple building, many of Hebrew Scripture's grimmest patriarchs and military commanders spent a small part of each day making kissy-face with each other.
And the LORD said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. (Exod. 4:27)
And all the people went over Jordan. And when the king was come over, the king kissed Barzillai, and blessed him; and he returned unto his own place. (2Sam. 19:39)
These are but two of many examples. In fact, if we were to use the Bible as our only source for the history of osculation, we might be tempted to deduce that same-sex kissing had always been the norm and that no actual man had kissed an actual woman since Jacob kissed Rachel at Gen. 29:11 late in the third millennium BCE.
Is a pattern beginning to emerge?
Let's look at the numbers.
Of the forty-six kisses registered in the Holy Writ, only six are between men and women in a non-family setting (Gen. 29:11; Prov. 7:13; Song 1:2; Song 8:1; Luke 7:38; Luke 7:45) and only two of those are demonstrably sexual (Gen. 29:11; Prov. 7:13). Of the remaining number, two are acts of worship to graven images (1Kgs. 19:18 & Hosea 13:2), one is between allegorical constructs of Righteousness and Peace (Ps. 85:10), one is a slightly puzzling act of self-osculation in the book of Job (31:27), and two occur between women (Ruth 1:14 & 19). Were left with twenty-nine kisses (including those in which Judas betrays Jesus) that involve men nuzzling up to express affection or respect, either partially or exclusively between themselves. The combined total of same-sex kisses is thirty-one, which renders a 67.39% ratio in favor of the practice including the seven (15.21%) that require it as a sign of membership in a Christian community.
The Bible is quite specific about the way to salvation: believe in the Lord (Jn. 3:16), don't eat weasels (Lev. 11:29), and give each other a kiss from time to time. Were Christians to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God (1Pet. 5:6) in this latter concern, the general increase in public displays of affection might even have the salutary effect of proportionately reducing levels of public and domestic violence. So why, I ask, is Pat Buchanan not promoting a programmatic revival of charitable kissing in the schools and society at large? The answer is quite simple. Mr. Buchanan's vision of Christian reform locates authority in earthly customs, not in Scripture. The real issue, especially here, is homophobia.
The term 'sodomy' is derived from the Genesis story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in which Lot must defend angels of the Lord from the depredations of Sodoms male residents (Gen. 18 & 19). Scripture does not detail what the residents of Sodom had in mind in their quest to 'know' Lot's guests, but the import is clearly sexual. We might consider what tradition of family values allows Lot's salvation after he offers to let the marauding Sodomites have their way with his daughters in lieu of his guests. We might also ponder whether the night visitors are punished for being homosexuals or for being rapists, or merely for being degenerate sexual predators prone to violating codes of hospitality.
Whatever the case, sodomy in common usage immediately implies homosexuality. While Sodom is a particular case history involving same-sex coupling, the Bible in general is quite specific in its condemnation of same-sex genital activity. There isn't much point arguing with Leviticus 20:13:
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them
or with Deuteronomy 23:17:
There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel.
or with 1Kings 15:12:
And he [Asa, king of Israel] took away the sodomites [male cult prostitutes] out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made.
Ambiguity does not seem to be an issue here. The condemnation of same-sex coupling authorizes government intervention against such practices tout court.
Defined in strictly modern terms, sodomy is any non-reproductive, penetrative sexual coupling between two people but is most usually associated with male anal intercourse, distinguishing it from Onanism (coitus interruptus and/or masturbation) which is also condemned (Gen. 38:9). Since the Good Book is firmly on the side of stances proscribing sodomy, if we are to condemn all forms of sodomy in those terms revealed by the Biblical divinity, then we must also include this passage from the prophet Ezekiel in our understanding and denunciation of sodomitic depravity.
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, *neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy*. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good. (Ezek. 16:49-50, my emphasis)
As we can see, godless buggery was not the only bit of wickedness the Almighty considered before blowing the cities of the plain to smithereens. Pride, idleness and mean-spirited stinginess factored heavily in that decision.
Given the definition of Sodom's sins in Ezekiel, would it be possible to deduce a broad-spectrum definition of 'sodomy' that could be used to vilify a conservative Congress for its recent welfare reform bill? Could a nationwide political front cite existing anti-sodomy statutes in labor disputes where employers or institutions refuse to bargain in good faith? Can we imagine a society where people react as violently to shameless displays of tight-fistedness as it does to lesbians eating fire to protest persecution? Would we protect the reputations of fiscal sodomites by instituting a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy when installing public officials, licensing business owners, or closing deals on rental property?
Probably not, but the issue does provide an interesting perspective for questioning the sincerity and the goals of conservative religious politics.
A Pro-Cuddle Gospel?
Conservative Christian reformers are right. The scriptures condemn what we now call 'homosexuality,' and the condemnations authorize state actions to discourage or completely eradicate such practices. Nevertheless, advocates of Christian values platforms that take ardently anti-homosexual positions are picking and choosing their way through the Bible in order to avoid some highly volatile tensions between contemporary human culture, divine will, active love and homophobia.
If we allow for a generous interpretation of condemnation, a mere twenty-eight verses in the Bible specifically condemn the city of Sodom or the sexual practices conventionally associated with it, even though only one verse alludes to what those acts might be (Lev. 20:13). This is a close contest when compared to the thirty-one verses encouraging (or at least not discouraging) same-sex kisses and the seven that specifically command salutatory smooching. Simple numerical superiority would seem to place compulsory kissing on the conservative agenda for national moral reform if only to maintain the ideological symmetry in which its advocates claim to participate. Whatever the Biblical case, fear, not caritas, seems to be determining conservative priorities in this instance.
Though it may not have an encouraging word for sodomites, the Bible, especially Christian Scripture, quite explicitly does command the faithful to express affection and community in the form of a public kiss. Moreover, a noteworthy passage in the Gospel of John indicates that the Divinity is considerably more generous in the matter of same-sex intimacies than we are commonly given to believe and authorizes somewhat more warmhearted exchanges than simple and potentially sterile pecks on the cheek.
John chapter 13 describes the events of the Last Supper. In this version, Jesus removes his clothes, girds himself with a towel, and washes the feet of his disciples. After taking up his garments again, Jesus speaks about the coming betrayal. The ensuing confusion causes people to ask one of the favored disciples for information.
There was at the table, reclining in Jesus bosom, one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.... He leaning back, as he was on Jesus breast, saith unto him, Lord, who is it. (Jn. 13:23, 25)
Cozy, isn't it? Soon after these events and the exposure of Judas Iscariot as the betrayer, Jesus establishes a sign of the true Christian community.
A new *commandment* I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to the other. (Jn. 13: 34-35, my emphasis)
There is some disagreement as to whether one should translate the preposition in verse 23 as 'in,' 'at' or 'beside' and different translations reflect varying degrees of proximity. Whatever the case, Jesus' 'even as I have loved you' does not exclude an extended embrace between men, and the primitive church does appear to have been decidedly, if not imperatively, pro-cuddle.
I think it would be an overstatement to deduce a pro-'homosexual' Christianity from this evidence alone as the verses do not link these affectionate displays with the acts of sexual coupling that fall under the category we currently understand as 'homosexuality.' These passages do, however, provide viable grounds for interrogating American conservatives' shibboleths about sexuality, the gender performances they tend to prefer, and the gender identities that will most likely be promoted in crusades to re-Christianize the education system. Without being disingenuous, I can foresee many arguments being raised by Christians (whether right or left) against compulsory obedience to God's verdict on kissing and against encouraging young men to love one another as commanded in John 13. Same-sex kissing is not culturally appropriate for Northern Europeans, men in particular. That's something 'sissies' do with each other. Our culture has so thoroughly genitalized and hierarchized expressions of affection or intimacy that a handshake (remember those Newman masses?) now substitutes for the kiss of charity.
But there is really no way to avoid the contradictions of this situation and still remain true to the written word. The people of the Book are risking an eternity in Perdition with the other Pharisees and Sadducees and hypocrites and whores of Babylon if they fail to confront our cultures ingrained homophobia and begin doing the Lords work among the nations. Above all, those people who invoke Biblical authority to discourage, condemn or eradicate homosexuality must apply the same forthright rigor to the kissing issue lest they be guilty of taking the Lords name in vain and contravening the Third Commandment. Be not deceived, folks; God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7).
Will Christians risk eternal damnation for fear that the Unregenerate might think they are queer? Will humble faith fall victim to human pride? How many souls will homophobia bar from the gates of the New Jerusalem? Can the glorious promise of salvation not move these hearts of stone to give a simple smack in the face of public taste?
A Smack in the Face of Public Taste
The conflict between anti-sodomy arguments rooted in Scripture and arguments advocating sexual liberties as permissible components of collective and individual identity may be irresolvable. But since arguments are going to be made on either end of the ideological spectrum anyway, I would like to offer the following agenda for consideration on a national level.
In order to live up to their claims of Christian election, Pat Buchanan and those who share his priorities should be challenged to bend their sinning hearts to the laws of their god and enthusiastically promote the kiss of charity among believers before engaging in any further political activity. I suggest that the level of humanity in this country would rise dramatically if religious conservatives and religious opportunists alike volunteered to confront their own homophobia in obedience to the Saviors commandment. The humility and dedication required to practice the kiss of charity in a violently homophobic society is not unforeseen in the Gospels,
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matt. 5:11-12)
And besides, the exercise would, no doubt, give Christian reformers some first-hand experience in the many ways hatred informs and regulates public (as well as private) spaces in this country. Only then, perhaps, should such conservatives be allowed to plan the programmatic implementation of a national sexual ethics more thoroughly rooted in Biblical tradition. If, on the other hand, the Christian right chooses to stay with the handshake, then its supporters would have to admit that they are willing to bend Biblical principles to suit their personal preferences concerning sex and sexuality, in which case the same privilege would have to be extended to the general population and the entire matter of sexual identity left in the hands of secular humanists who have fewer erotic axes to grind. Such changes might free national attention to focus on managing other issues of Biblical dimension, like our sodomite economic system (Ezek. 16:49-50), our sinful minimum wage (Deut. 24:14, Prov. 22:22), or even our nations unregenerate habit of subsidizing cannibal dictatorships throughout the world (2Kgs 13:4, Ps. 62:10, Ezek. 46:18).
The gauntlet is down. If Christian conservatives want to demonstrate their faith, if they want to prove that their stance against homosexuality is an act of devout submission to divine revelation and not simply opportunistic gay bashing, then the kiss of charity gives them an excellent opportunity to come clean with the American public and the Christian world. Let the men and women who wrap themselves in the Shroud of Turin and rush to the foot of the Cross every election year urge a pro-kiss initiative throughout the land as the first step to building a millennial reign of eternal Christian truths.
But until that great big wakin' up morning, pucker up America! It is, after all, the Christian thing to do.
Jeffrey S. Akeley is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. His dissertation, 'Self-Articulation and National Identity,' examines the role of national fantasy in identity formation. He is most noted for having first said, 'I don't know much about the objet a, but I know what I like.'