Jesus Had a Penis

SpotlightJonathan and I recently saw “Spotlight,” the film about how the Boston Globe exposed the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. It is a magnificently done film, a strong reminder of the absolute necessity of a free and responsible press, and a powerful indictment of secrecy in church and society.

Indeed, it is the push I needed to begin this new blog.

As I sat in the theater watching the film and talking about it with Jonathan later, I realized that I had been treading water about my desire to write and publish this blog about sex, bodies, and spirit–mostly out of fear of what “people” (church people, professional colleagues, family members and some more traditional or conservative friends, perhaps even neighbors, maybe others) would think.  I had been keeping my own secret in deference to unspoken social pressure–exactly the combination that had caused the Boston Globe and community leaders, as well as the church hierarchy and ordinary members, to keep for many years what really was an open secret in Boston.

Fr. Michael Shanahan
Fr. Michael Shanahan

So, here I am today, out in the open, feeling the fresh air and sunshine of telling the truth as I see it. And hoping others will respond as they feel moved, disagreeing or agreeing or simply sharing information. We just need to talk more about sex, bodies, and spirit!

Two days ago, Fr. Michael Shanahan joined the conversation in a very public way. On February 1, Fr. Shanahan, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Chicago, came out as a gay man in an article in The Washington Post (click here to read the article).

He is not the first Catholic priest to come out, far from it, but for me his courage is an important affirmation of what the Boston Globe and its work did earlier–breaking open the dangerous silence in the church about things sexual.

Homosexuality and Social Justice by Kevin Gordon
The author of this 1986 book, the late Kevin Gordon, was my neighbor and friend at Union Theological Seminary, and he, along with the late Fr. John McNeill, showed me and many others about the presence and beauty of gay and lesbian people within the Roman Catholic Church.

The truth is that there are many gay priests (and at least one Bishop) in the Roman Catholic Church (I have known personally quite a few over the years). No one knows for sure how many, but studies indicate it could be as high as 50%. Others say 10%, but either way it seems the priesthood may be one of those vocational homes known to be especially “gay” (like hair stylists and florists, etc., at least so goes the conventional wisdom).

As more and more priests, and sisters, too, come out, it may be hard for the Vatican to maintain the official teaching that homosexuality is an “intrinsically disordered” condition.

Of course, I believe the disorder lies with the church and its teaching, and not just about homosexuality but about sexuality in general. And this is true of more than the Roman Catholic Church. So much of Christian doctrine about sex seems intent on locking it up in tight boxes, compartments that deny that our spirituality is intimately connected with our bodies and sexuality, indeed that we can learn about God and from God through our bodies and sexuality.

According to the Washington Post, Fr. Shanahan “doesn’t disregard” the church’s teaching on sexuality, but he thinks most important is the teaching that sexuality is an expression of the divine. He wants people to pray and discern how to express that divine part of themselves, for themselves.

That sounds a lot like Jesus to me, not much interested in rules handed down by those who think they have been called to run things (and other peoples’ lives), and much more concerned with helping people open up to the divine inside each and every one of God’s offspring (us).

The church wants people to open up, but only to the approved, standard, versions of the divine. And one of those versions is of a sexless Jesus–the Jesus who was born without the messiness of human intercourse (and how often have we heard about Mary’s labor?), the Jesus who (although fully human and divine) appears not to have had body parts, or sexual or romantic interest in anyone, male or female.

Crucifixion wooden Michelangelo in Naples
Michelangelo, wooden Jesus on the cross.

But Jesus had a penis and a scrotum–we do know he was circumcised–and may well have had erotic feelings for the “beloved disciple” or Lazarus or Martha or Mary or Mary Magdalene. Or maybe all of them. He was a young man, after all!

And most likely, because the Romans wanted not only to kill those on the cross but also to shame them as a form of torture–grisly sexual abuse and violence–as a reminder to the public to stay in line, Jesus and his two cross-mates were naked for all to see.

It may be considered in bad taste to show Jesus naked on the cross, but that has more to do with our notions of what people, including children, should see than it does with what actually happened on Calvary. And do we really think children would be harmed by seeing a naked Jesus? I think they might like it–and it surely would help them know he was a real, flesh and blood, breathing, human being.

And it could help us confront and overcome sexual abuse and violence. As the Rev. Wil Gafney says, “The reason the Church has such a hard time thinking critically and talking about sexual violence is because it has a hard time thinking critically and talking about sex.”

Crucifixion of Chrsit Max Klinger centrosangiorgio com
Crucifixion of Christ, Max Klinger

Michelangelo did not shy away from the truth of Jesus’ embodied humanity, nor did the late 19th-early 2oth Century German Symbolist painter Max Klinger. What of course neither showed was the horror that would have been visible on the bodies after having hung for a few hours (most likely at least grotesque swelling of the arms from hanging with body weight pulling on them). If they had, we would know more about the horrors of sexualized violence.

It might even be that if we, as a culture in general, were less uptight, less secretive, about bodies, including naked bodies, our society might be far healthier about sex, and more open to talking about not only the beauty of our bodies but also the truths they can help us learn.

Then, we might stop keeping priests, and many others, in tight boxes, we might even do more to stop sexual abuse, and oh my, we might even begin to claim the full joy and power of sex as God intends it for all.





6 thoughts on “Jesus Had a Penis”

  1. I wouldn’t go as far as showing a naked picture of Jesus on the cross, to me, that approaches sacrilege.

    HOWEVER, given the Bible’s description of the crucifixion, as well as well-documented Roman and Jewish custom at the time, the image of Jesus hanging naked from the cross is almost certainly a more accurate visual depiction of what happened. The fact that we won’t tolerate viewing that image, or even really discuss the fact that Jesus was naked during the crucifixion, is probably central to our hang-ups with nudity.

    I strongly agree that if we had a healthier attitude about our nude bodies, that we’d have a healthier attitude about sex.

    1. My friend, I am glad to hear from you. I hope I have not offended you. I love Jesus so very much and would never seek to dishonor him. Showing him in a representation as naked seems not at all a dishonor to me, because his unclothed body, like yours and mine and everyone’s, is a beautiful gift from the very God he called Abba and I seek always to love and serve (if often unsuccessfully). Saying that, I also remember your distinction between naked and nude and recognize that on the cross he is naked not of his choosing, so vulnerable and at great, ultimate risk. I would prefer to see him nude, by his choosing, to celebrate his embodied holiness, and not naked as the victim of violence and hate. I honor your own journey in regards to nudity and your openness to its beauty and power. And I am grateful for your agreement about healthier attitudes toward nudity helping us be healthier about sex.

      1. I believe that you love Jesus, probably in purer ways than I do. I wasn’t offended by your post of the naked Jesus… taken aback, certainly, enough to point out that it’s not a move I’d make… or condone.

        At the same time, I’m compelled to point out that images depicting a naked Jesus on the cross are probably the most historically accurate (read: truthful), and I have to acknowledge that the fact that we can’t tolerate the image of a naked Jesus nailed to the cross, when our own Bible and historical analysis reveals this as the real truth of the crucifixion, that this is symptomatic of an unhealthy, and probably unnatural, revulsion of nudity.

        Our inability to see the truth of Jesus’ nudity on the cross is a reflection of our own unhealthy attitudes towards nudity.

  2. Thanks! I know I was uncomfortable doing so, but feel it necessary to open things up. I am sure as i go forward on this blog I will touch on some uncomfortable areas for many. I really appreciate your honesty and directness (which is also evident on your own blog!).

  3. Thanks Robin for your post. I enjoyed it and am so glad you have embarked on this new creative venture and excited you have chosen to break out in challenging some traditionally taboo areas…Jesus humanity, nudity in general and sexual violence as well.

    You touch on a subject that I wrote about in a sermon a few years back, in which I postulated that the ‘beloved disciple’ was not John, but Jesus friend Lazarus. I loved the thought of Jesus having a genuine loving relationship and speculated that the death of Lazarus was Jesus first experience of what I have come to refer to as ‘intimate death’…that moment when death is no longer an abstraction, but a reality that comes crashing into our existence and can no longer be avoided. I’d like to share with you and your readers a poem I wrote, which to me speaks of the quality of the relationship that Jesus shared with his ‘beloved’ and which reflects a level of human intimacy and relational depth that I think the church has chosen to deny or in the very least not acknowledge.

    “The Promise of My Friend.”
    (Based on John 11:1-45 – The Raising of Lazarus)

    One day I fell asleep and thought it was the end
    This journey now complete except to see my friend
    I’d hoped He’d come, I waited as long as I could fight
    Waited once again to embrace and hold Him tight

    I longed to hear His voice, once again to hear Him say
    I am the truth, the light; to God I am the way
    I loved Him and I miss Him, I hoped that I might see
    The fulfillment of the promise through this one from Galilee

    My sisters, they will miss me, I know He loved them too
    And in time they will see, what I said of Him was true
    He came to free the captives, to comfort those who mourn
    May He comfort them in sorrow, make whole their hearts now torn

    What was it that He told me, the night I saw Him last
    Though my travels take me from you, to your friendship I hold fast
    Remember what I told you, no matter what lies ahead
    We will see each other again, in our journey from the dead

    Good-bye my sweet, sweet teacher; I fear to go to sleep
    But in your words my comfort, my soul is yours to keep
    To you I cast my cares, my hopes, my dreams they end
    I turn to you now trusting, in the promise of my friend

    Timothy G. Agar
    March, 2008

    Thanks again Robin for sharing. Grateful for you and our shared journey, Tim

    1. Thank you, Tim, for your encouragement and support, and for the lovely poem. I have often wondered about their relationship, as have others I know, and I am grateful that you have explored it so evocatively. I will read it again and probably more than that, and ponder. Thank you.

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