Friday, April 15, 2011

Celibate Gandhi

I'm generally not a fan of the Gandhi-worship that pervades much of activist Christianity and new age spirituality in our time. While in Malaysia, a retired professor of missions and cross-cultural engagement reminded me of the the blindness of the West's idealism by pointing out that for most practitioners of Dalit-centered theology, Gandhi is the arch-villain of India, seen as a source and perpetuator of their oppression and marginalization. I do admire Gandhi's notion of "experiments in truth," and have put it to my own pastoral uses as a way to conceive of engaging "radical" discipleship from the ground up, one step at a time, particularly among suburban Christians for whom small steps are the largest and most difficult. And certainly, no one can deny the power of his willingness for self-sacrifice and service. But on the whole, I've never bought into the Gandhi craze. Gandhi belongs to India. I belong to the Church.

A recent article by Aravind Adiga seeks to put Gandhi's masculinity and sexuality in perspective, particularly in light of allegations in his latest biography that he may have had homoerotic relations as a younger man. Adiga notes that for himself, as an Indian, Gandhi stood primarily as a model of Indian manhood, of strong masculinity in a society ruled by women whose dominance was itself the product of male negligence and machismo. Then, writes Adiga, "there was Gandhi:"

He had spoken of peace,
 nonviolence, and was sympathetic toward Muslims—a sin for which he 
was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist in 1948. Yet he was tough.
 No one could deny that, not even those who despised him. Look at that 
lean, fatless body of his, that could apparently go without food for 
as long as he ordered it to, when fasting for a political cause. This 
grinning old man with the missing teeth had been sent to jail by the 
British again and again: but he had never been broken. If this wasn’t
 manliness, what was?

Striking is Adiga's pointing to Gandhi's masculinity as embodied in his self-control. Gandhi did use his physical body as a weapon with which to afflict, but rather, as an instrument of change and in the service of others. Christians may debate about the nature of that service, but speaking as a male as well as a would-be activist, I think there is something profound in Adiga's identification with the Mahatma in this regard. True and exemplary masculinity as self-control in the service of others. Now there's something to which men everywhere need to pay attention.

Andiga also strikingly holds up Gandhi's celibacy as exemplary. Earlier in the article, the writer recalled reading Gandhi's "The Story of My Experiments with Truth," and feeling liberated by the Mahatma's lavish descriptions of his love for his wife that "ast a small thin light in between
 the darkness of small-town sexual taboos on one side, and pornography
 on the other." Describing Gandhi's later celibacy, he reminds us that

For the second half of his life, Mahatma Gandhi was not straight, gay, 
or bisexual: He was, by choice, celibate. Influenced by the Hindu
 notion of “brahmacharya” (morally guided celibacy) Gandhi gave up sex 
in his mid-thirties. In doing so, he was also emulating one of his heroes, 
Leo Tolstoy, who late in life renounced sex as part of his revolt 
against the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian imperial state. 
Freud’s influence on our thinking is such that we now see all forms of sexual renunciation as repression and neurosis. The 
world is full of normal, well-adjusted men and women, enjoying normal sex lives: And look what a mess they have made 
of things. Tolstoy and Gandhi—two very strange men—made it a better
 place for all of us to live in.

I am not a celibate, as my forthcoming second offspring attests. However, I think Adiga's adroit observation is utterly subversive against the shabby alliance in our society between a bullying form of Freudianism and an irresponsible use of freedom which, as Andiga notes, have hardly made the world into the kind of mecca of peace, love and justice promised by social gospels of liberation or new age visions of universal harmony and oneness. The idea that true masculinity, indeed, that true sexuality, means "love and do what you want" has proven again and again that what most people want has very little to do with others - or with true love. Yet, we persist in the myths that legitimate our selfishness, and truth and love are the inevitable casualties sent like Uriah to the front lines for the sake of our self-deceit.

The obvious biblical passage lingering in my mind here is 1 Corinthians 7.1-16, though Jesus' own exhortation in Matthew 19, which in many ways is far harder for us than the story of the rich young ruler that follows. When we were growing up, Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye was still frustrating hopeful suitors like me by taking beautiful women like my future wife and teaching them to put off not only sex and marriage, but dating itself. Yet, my wife's own reasons for adopting this quite radical stance (especially for a teenager!) have always inspired me. Saying "not yet" or "no" to something is also saying "yes" to something else. By foregoing one pleasure, space is opened up to use one's body and one's spirit for the sake of God and for others. One can only be a fuller and more abundant gift to give one's partner, and to all of one's neighbors, as a result. There is far greater liberation, and in almost all regards, a deeper "finding of myself" then in most of the abeyance of commitment that is the foundation of postmodern society. In this sense, while celibacy is certainly not a vocation to which everyone is called, provisional celibacy, and the use of one's body in self-control for others, is a vital aspect of the Gospel echoed in the life of the Indian saint who we do not have as our own - as well as in the quiet, and often scorned and derided lives, of the every day saints in the community we do have. Would that more of us men would have the courage to do the same, for our own sakes - and especially for the sake of others.

(Nota bene: Even so, Joshua Harris, I still don't like you!)

1 comment:

  1. "Freud’s influence on our thinking is such that we now see all forms of sexual renunciation as repression and neurosis."

    Except Freud never believed that; he characterized celibacy as sublimation, rather than repression. He characterized St. Francis of Assisi as someone who found inner, emotional peace through celibacy, and who exchanged loving an individual for a universal love for all mankind.

    One can also be repressed whether or not he has renounced sex. Ultimately, what Freud considered healthy was a feeling of self-control -- repression exhibits a lack of self-control due to internal emotional conflict -- indecision, ambivalence.

    Remember, Freud was writing in the context of two groups who were active in the social discussion. The first group were the prudes, who wanted to bar discussion of sex from public discourse and control how people dressed. The second group were people who felt that men could not control themselves and always needed an outlet for their sexual drives -- and this is why prostitution existed. They were both part of the problem. The prudes helped create repression; but the people who needed to 'let it out' were in fact the repressed ones.

    Emotionally healthy people, according to Freud, should be able to say no to sex without any consequences.