Things that can make you go woof

Silke 50% Golden RetrieverA few days ago I was at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, where I attended a session on “Queering Debates on Animal-Human Relations”. These relations were defined more precisely as existing between “human and non-human animals”. Several theologians have started to reconsider the theological significance of non-human animals and have critiqued the anthropocentrisms that traditional western theologies suffer from. The scholars presenting their papers in this session have daringly addressed these issues from a queer perspective.

Both Ken Stone and Jared Beverly (professor and PhD student respectively at Chicago Theological Seminary) argued that conservative equations of homoeroticism and bestiality – as well as the radical distinctions between the two that liberals make in response – is a technique that appears in certain debates in the US around homosexuality. Both strategies are based on a definition of what is ‘proper sexuality’ and ‘properly human’.

Beverly focused on Ezekiel 23, in which Jerusalem is accused of lusting after the lovers’ animalized sexuality: “whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions” (Ezek 23:20 NRSV). Here one of Israel’s racial others, the Egyptians, are depicted as exceptionally sexual by attributing to them large sexual organs. This rhetorics is similar to modern myths on Black/African men being ‘hung like a horse’ (although in such myths this can also be valued positively).

Stone employs Derrida’s notion of ‘carnophallogocentrism’ which glosses the exclusion of women (cf. ‘phallo’) and animals (cf. ‘carno’) from Western subjectivity and ethics. He explicates this through a queer reading of Judges 3, in which the Moabite Eglon (whose name means ‘calf’) is killed by the Benjaminite Jehud. The latter takes his sword (a phallic symbol) from under his cloth and penetrates (symbolic rape) Eglon’s belly (symbolic womb). So Eglon is depicted as a ‘failed man’ who is feminised (as ‘raped’) and animalised (as ‘calf’). Stone concludes that particular experiences among gay men (bears, wolves, pigs, dogs) challenge any argument based on distinguishing ‘the properly (hu)man’ from animal others.

According to Jay E. Johnson (lecturer at the Pacific School of Religion), the queer practice of “Leatherdog” sexuality (a subset of the gay BDSM subculture) can be seen as a ritual undermining of the animal/human dichotomy and as a spiritual practice of compassion and gratitude toward all animals, human or not. He also argued that (certain) animals can be human’s ‘soulmates’ and the human experience of this relationship can challenge the idea that animals do not have a soul.

These scholars did not intend to provide a legitimisation of bestiality, but rather intended to challenge some of the presuppositions underlying both the prohibition of bestiality and the equation of homosexuality with bestiality. One of the arguments against bestiality is the absence of consent. However, the problem of consent is already at play in the areas of the meat industry and animal laboratories. Maybe western critiques of bestiality aim to distract the public’s attention from such exploitations of animals.

Theologically, human superiority over (non-human) animals is related to anthropologies that are based on the belief that only human beings are created in God’s image. Yet I am hesitant to let go that notion altogether. One reason might be that I am aware that as a consequence this would mean we should all become vegetarians or even vegans. And to relate this back to the topic of some of the papers, although some used erotic practices and experiences of bears, pigs, puppies and wolves to challenge arguments based on distinguishing the human from the animal, I wonder whether the involvement of leather in some of those scenes is itself grounded in the exploitation of animals. Another reason is that I think – or hope – that it should be possible to develop theological conceptions of ‘humanimality’ that value the notion of imago Dei. We continuously need to reconsider our anthropocentrisms with respect to the responsibility we have towards non-human animals. Such a responsibility is – or should be – an essential part of our socialisation as human animals. Yet if we live in close harmony with non-human animals, we might discover that responsibility and compassion can be learned from them as well.

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