The Seattle Pacific board recently announced their decision to stand by what they call their “Statement on Human Sexuality”—a dated, harmful, and theologically sloppy document that they use to justify employment discrimination and prevent the full inclusion of queer people—despite broad pushback and sustained advocacy from a large majority of faculty, staff, and students. I find some hope in the strong and forceful responses coming from all sectors of the community, and I take comfort in the fact that the MFA program has been thoroughly welcoming and empowering. I’m still questioning whether I want to finish my degree here, given the board’s resistance to change, but in the meantime I wrote this.
To the Board of Trustees at Seattle Pacific University:
First, Jacob sends his wives and children across the river—what will happen next is not for their eyes. Then he waits, alone in the ebbing light, listening to the rustle of water and the quiet of incoming dark. When the stranger emerges from the twilight, cloaked in the mist blowing off the river, all at once Jacob knows this is why he’s here, why he stayed behind without his family, why he’s had the distinct sense that he is on the verge of something vital.
Without a word, and long before they even exchange names, Jacob and the stranger lace their bodies together, wrestling themselves into a writhing human knot. The two men grapple through the night, their tangled limbs and heaving torsos all touch and lunge and thrust.
Can you picture them? The desert night is warm, but a breeze slides in from the river and cools the sweat slicked on their skin. When they pause for breath, still wrapped together, Jacob feels such a chill that he finds himself leaning in and resting his head against the panting stranger’s muscled chest, which somehow feels foreign and familiar all at once.
It’s surprising, this need for warmth in the middle of a desert, but maybe that’s what Jacob’s been looking for all along: someone else to help guard him against the cold, someone whose arms and legs he might mistake for his own when they’re caught up together, no longer two bodies but one, wrestling their way toward a blessing.
I don’t know about you, but when I imagine this story—when I allow myself to settle into it, beyond the level of Sunday School felt boards—my palms start to sweat and my stomach goes all fluttery. Because I have known love like that. Love that must be hidden from the gaze of others, love so fierce that I emerge limping, love that leaves me saying breathlessly, like Jacob, “I have seen the face of God.”
* * *
I recently learned that nitric oxide, a chemical emitted by the production of lightning, plays a crucial role in the process of growing an erection. In the human body it’s a messenger molecule, more reactive and mobile than other molecules, and it transmits vital signals to systems throughout the body—including the signals that relax muscle cells in the penis, making it easier for blood to surge in.
It might just be one of the many happy accidents present in nature, a reminder that everything we see exploded out of the same mass of stars and space dust. But if you, like me, are prone to looking for design in creation, it can also seem a bit poetic, if you let it. When I look at another man and am sparked into arousal, the electricity flowing through my body is akin to the light that flickers across the sky. And when I watch the approach of a summer thunderstorm, when the air grows static and tingly, I feel in the world around me an energy that I know intimately in myself.
The currents of my desire are woven into the fabric of creation. For those with eyes to see, there are no accidents here.
* * *
“Our sexuality is intended by God to reflect the whole of our sensual and relational createdness,” you say in your statement. I wonder if you mean it, and I wonder who gets to find themselves in your our. That line makes me think of another story, this time from the prophet Samuel—one of my favorite portraits of spiritual, emotional, and sensual union between two men.
A young shepherd is summoned into the presence of the king. He’s scrappy and beautiful, the overlooked runt of his family but still quite charming, with his music and his poetry, and in the course of one day he’s become a legend: the shepherd boy who slayed a giant. His skin is bronzed by the sun, his hands hardened by work, and his eyes dance with mischief and passion. Maybe he even still carries the head of the goliath, the enemy champion no one else would face.
Somewhere in the royal entourage is the king’s son, a renowned warrior who is immediately smitten as he watches the approach of this unassuming but captivating stranger. The shepherd and the warrior lock eyes, and in an instant—I’m sure you’ve heard this story before, or even experienced it yourself—everything else goes hush. The king is talking, maybe people are applauding, but these two young men see only each other, hear only the racing thumps of their own hearts.
A little bit later, after they have rushed away and hidden themselves from prying eyes, the warrior strips off his robe, his tunic, his belt, everything—slowly, one at a time—and lays each article in front of the shepherd. His bared skin glistens in the lamplight as he kneels before the shepherd to pledge his love.
Their bond is deep and timeless, even though they’ve just met, and the next step is almost instinctual: right then and there, with clothes piled on the ground beside them, the warrior and the shepherd enter into a covenant together. Their two spirits become one, says Samuel: “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.”
Your statement affirms “the authority of the biblical witness,” but you have yet to affirm what Samuel invites us to witness here: a same-sex union that is both physical and spiritual, maybe the closest the Bible comes to portraying a marriage ceremony. You’re missing out when you choose not to see that, because it’s a pretty great love story. The least likely son of the least likely family and the celebrated son of a king, drawn together despite all odds, their love immediate and ravenous and—like so many epic poems of forbidden desire—destined for tragedy.
The king sees this love and cannot tolerate it. He plots to kill David, and he rages at his son Jonathan, telling him that he’s brought shame on their family. No son of mine is gay! But the warrior and the shepherd still burn for each other, a flame that won’t be snuffed out. They sneak away and reaffirm their love, stealing kisses in the dark as they try to find a path back to being together.
I wish I could press pause and keep them there forever: clinging to one another when danger is all around, trading illicit touch, their tears mingling on each other’s cheeks.
But time inevitably marches on, and when David learns that Jonathan and his father have both died in battle, he pens a song of lament and makes everyone in the realm learn it. “Your love for me was wonderful,” he sings of Jonathan, “more wonderful than that of women.”
I wonder if, even years after he becomes a great king himself, David sneaks off now and then to somewhere private, a hidden place that only he knows, and pulls out Jonathan’s old robe. I can picture him lifting the worn and mothy fabric to his face, closing his eyes, and breathing deep, clinging to memories of the warrior prince standing naked in front of him.
* * *
In Michelangelo’s rendering, David’s penis seems almost like an afterthought, just a brief sliver resting on a sagging pouch and crowned by an artful tuft of hair. I love the statue’s other details—the muscles etched into David’s chest, the concern knit across his face, the grace and strength in his posture—but, as my gaze travels south, I am always disappointed by that little dollop of flesh, which captures none of the flushed energy and vitality I imagine when I read David’s story.
Studies have shown that there is little to no correlation in size between limp and erect in the human penis. Some can shrivel up to almost nothing before standing quite tall when the mood hits, some start small and stay small, and still others maintain much of their length whether hard or soft. So it’s worth noting that, no matter how artfully chiseled, a flaccid image of David reveals nothing about what it might have looked like if his nitric oxide was running high.
I guess now is a good time to tell you this: I really, really like penises. I like looking at them and touching them, I like how they taste and how they fit in my palm and how they feel inside me. I even like the sounds of their anatomy—just listen: corpus cavernosum and corpus spongiosum—and making another man grow hard will never fail to thrill me.
I want you to know, though, that this isn’t just disembodied phallus worship. Because more than anything, as much as this might bother you, I hope to someday find a man to settle down with, to fall in love and maybe even get married and never stop looking for ways to send lightning through each other’s bodies. I hope to find that mind-body-spirit union you say you value, the kind of union that threaded Jonathan and David together.
That’s been true for as long as I can remember, though I’ve only been able to admit it for a few years now. In fact—and this is admittedly a little ironic—enrolling in SPU’s MFA program was the first time I entered a new community as my full, unapologetically gay self. I was nervous about it at first, because I’d heard that you’re not very welcoming to gay people. But you should know that with few exceptions, I have felt embraced and affirmed here from day one, even when I write about painting my fingernails or falling in love with men or daydreaming about muscled chests and hairy thighs and how much I like penises.
It turns out that the institution you serve has moved on without you, and you’re missing out.
* * *
Now we come to David’s most famous descendant, who, in a moment of excruciating tenderness, looks down from the cross and sees his mother, Mary, standing near John, the disciple whom Jesus loves. “Woman, here is your son,” Jesus says to Mary, and then to John, “Here is your mother.” From then on, John looks after Mary like his own mother, bonded to her in grief and in their mutual love for Jesus.
It’s a gorgeous and heartbreaking scene, in some ways the tragic culmination of the relationship between Jesus and John. Of course their most iconic moment together occurs a little bit earlier, at the Last Supper, where John spends the meal leaning against Jesus’s chest, trying to keep him as close as possible for as long as possible.
No sweaty palms for me this time, just a whole lot of swooning. I love John for his tenderness, for his unabashed affection even in front of all his friends, for how he continues to care for Jesus by caring for his mother. John often seems gentle and sweet in the presence of Jesus, like a bashful young man with blushed cheeks who just wants to be near the man he’s head over heels for. But he’s got a spark in him, too, a reckless energy that prompts Jesus to nickname him one of the “sons of thunder.”
In other words, like me, John is bonded to lightning. It makes me wonder how often nitric oxide surges in his body when he’s near Jesus.
I promise I’m not trying to make you squirm—at least that’s not all I’m trying to do. Because I want you to be able to picture this scene: Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, slowing down when he reaches John and lingering just a little bit longer. I want you to see them staring into each other’s eyes, speaking to one another without saying a word as Jesus grips John’s feet, bathes them with water, caresses them dry.
Later, when they’re reclined together back at the table—I like to picture John reaching up to run a hand through Jesus’s hair as he leans into his chest—I want you to listen as closely as you can. Try to hear the two of them whispering their affection to each other as the rest of the disciples argue amongst themselves. And try to imagine even a glimpse of how much it grieves Jesus to know what comes next. To know that, soon, he will no longer be able to touch the man he loves.
* * *
I imagine that your rebuttals are all lined up and ready to go, your bullet points about how we don’t really know who the beloved disciple was, or about how chaste you think David and Jonathan’s friendship was. And just so we’re clear, I’m not asking you to believe that Jacob or David or John or Jesus were gay, at least not in the way we understand it. While I do think it requires some fancy footwork to dance around all the queerness in the Bible, I’m not even sure that’s a helpful exercise, transposing our modern ideas of gender and sexuality onto centuries-old Middle Eastern relationships.
What I am asking you to believe is this: When I read their stories, I can see myself. My whole self, the self that sometimes flickers and burns at the sight of another man, the self that you would not hire unless I pretend to be someone I am not. Can you see me there, too? Do you dare look?
Your statement claims to value “the positive celebration of who we are as created beings,” which is a lovely sentiment that you haven’t yet embodied. But it’s not too late for you to live up to your words. If the stories of Scripture are big enough to hold queer love, maybe the story of SPU can still strive to do the same.
** If you’d like to get involved, SPU Alumni for LGBTQIA+ on Instagram is a good way to stay in the loop. You can also donate to Professor Jeaux Rinedahl’s legal efforts as he challenges employment discrimination at SPU.
*** Lastly, it’s worth noting that I’m not doing anything new or radical in these takes on Scripture—especially since I’m only focusing on love between cis men. In fact, there are long and robust traditions for celebrating the broad spectrums of gender and sexuality through Biblical texts. Qspirit.net and Dr. Wil Gafney’s teachings (such as “a God who transcends gender”) have been helpful starting points for me, but there is so much out there. You could even just turn to Google—maybe, say, “Were Ruth and Naomi lesbians?”—next time something piques your interest.