Queering the Christian Table Part 17: Nothing to See Here: Co-opting Jesus on Behalf of Intersecting Oppressions

To start reading at the beginning of the series, click here.

The facebook started blowing up a bit this week after mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll posted more of his standard, inflammatory claims about the person of Jesus. It was just the typical, Jesus is a macho-man drivel that we’ve all come to expect. No one is actually persuaded to change their view of Jesus by such statements. We all just affirm our own opinions of agreement or dissent and enjoy a moment or two of seething satisfaction at our own superiority to the folks on the other side of the argument.

So why do I feel compelled to mention it here? Why waste the space adding to another conversation of hot air between the right and left aisles of the church? Because I’m pissed, that’s why.

I haven’t spent a lot of time dredging blogs to see what everyone is saying, but I’m annoyed that of the things that have been posted by folks on the left, ranging from just-war theorists to radical Christian anarchist pacifists, all seem to be missing the point. For the most part the responses seem to pivot on Driscoll’s phrase, “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist,” with the general consensus being either “nuh-uh” or “so what if he was?” (See here for a modest sampling).

Of these two responses, I’ll take the second over the first, however, I hope we can stop ceding the terms of the conversation to Driscoll.

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Allow me state my case: I am a pacifist. I am a feminist. I am a gay man. When I read the words, “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist,” I have a strong response. Namely, I’m infuriated that Jesus is getting dragged around in order to reify a system of privilege. The violence that pacifism seeks to work against is so much less about the acute violence of murder and war and is much more about the systemic oppression that allows for daily violence that culminates in events such as murder and war.

Can we step back and think critically for half a second?

Instead of arguing that Jesus opposes war, what if we simply examine the rhetoric in front of us. What if Christians on the left called Driscoll on his homophobic slur, addressing the issue of oppressive gender normativity that Driscoll is (and regularly practices) employing to essentially say that Jesus behaves like a privileged, white, western male?

The claim that Jesus wasn’t a pacifist only has any traction if we first grant the rest of Driscoll’s descriptors, namely that Jesus wasn’t a “pansy”–a homophobic and misogynistic phrase, meant to declare that Jesus was a powerful male character who behaves according to gender norms that parallel Driscoll’s own pageantry.

More, the kind of Jesus that Driscoll wants, and regularly charges the males  in his audiences to emulate is a stereotype of violent masculinity that can only be acceptably performed by wealthy white men. The kind of behavior Driscoll gets away with, and projects upon Jesus is only acceptable for (straight) white men. An African-American man behaving this way would immediately be charged as dangerous. A Latino emulating such a Jesus would be seen as a threat to USAmerican national security. An Asian-American man would be fetishized into a martial arts film. Any woman would be charged as violating all natural laws!

My point is, the problem is not the claim of Jesus as a war-monger, it’s the claim of Jesus as upholding a system of social privilege which elevates one group above all others. Incidentally, yes, this is a root of a lot of violence.

By accepting the use of the word “pansy” at the beginning of the conversation, Christian pacifists of all stripes are basically trying to cut down a tree by pruning the fruit.

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That’s why there’s really nothing to see here. We haven’t yet begun to change the conversation.

If we want to make a claim about Jesus’ stance on war and violence, then let’s stop trying to defend that Jesus “was not a pansy,” and dissect that this word is an oppressive slur designed to denigrate women and gay men by upholding an unhealthy masculinity as normative. Let’s act against the systemic violence happening in this very conversation and stand with those who are being oppressed by the premises employed in our very speech. This is where Christian pacifism begins, dismantling oppressive violence where it lives inside of us (also called repentance).

As a white, gay, Christian, male, feminist, I feel a lot going on inside of me when I hear the phrase, “Jesus is not a pansy.” The intersections of oppression within society, the church, and myself are laid across each other in a web that I am left to navigate. But I cannot navigate this web alone, because it does not simply live inside of me.

The use of the term “pansy” was a micro-aggression, and I call on (especially white/straight/male) Christian pacifists to deal with the roots of societal violence and aggression by learning to work against micro-aggressions–those daily systemic and insipid violences which happen against people of color, immigrants, women, children, persons who are LGBTIQ, people with physical and neurological disabilities and differences, non-English speakers, and other marginalized persons.

Repenting of violence begins with empathy; with teaching ourselves and our communities to see our participation in harming other people. Only when we become sensitized to our own participation in violence will we be able to put a halt to the fruit of such a violent society.

Of course, I’ll argue that Jesus was a pacifist, but first, I need to follow Jesus and stand on the side of those being oppressed in this very moment. Rather than arguing about how best to follow Jesus, why don’t we just start by trying to do it, by standing on the side of those who are being oppressed–and here I’m thinking particularly about the women, gay men, people of color, senior citizens, and children in Driscoll’s conversation–the people being told that Jesus is (good) like Driscoll and not (bad) like them.

And of course, I’m also standing up for myself and the other gay men (and others) who grew up in churches like Driscoll’s hearing the word “pansy” being wielded against us like a sword. I hope for the day when the first response from the church to such words is not the defense of a moral abstraction, but is to name and stand against particular oppression.

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Queering the Christian Table Part 16: National Coming Out Day and John 11

This post is part of the series Queering the Christian Table. To begin reading at the beginning of this series, click here.

My Coming Out Story

There’s a genre of writing, videos, and songs dedicated to telling peoples’ experiences of coming out of the closet. Some emphasize the long process of coming to love and accept oneself and begin to be honest with the world on the outside about who you are on the inside. Some of these stories focus more narrowly on a particular happy, funny, tragic, or terrifying moment when we first told someone that we were [Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, etc.].

Some people, myself included, have several of both kinds of stories. There are even a few folks who don’t have a distinct coming out story because they were able to grow up in homes where they were loved and accepted for who they were in a very open way—I’ve even heard stories from people who’s coming out was their own realization about themselves and that when they told friends and family, the response they got was something like, “yeah, we’ve always known that. Didn’t you?”

I have stories of coming out to myself, my former spouse, my classmates, my sister, my friends, my teachers, my parents, my boss, my coworkers, my church, my landlord, my students, my HR director, people on the bus, my trainer at the gym—GOOD LORD, I hope it’s clear: coming out is a reality that we deal with every day.

Whether or not people make assumptions about my sexual orientation from how I present myself, talk, dress, behave, who I am with, or how long they have known me, I can never just assume that people know that I am gay. And the reality is that LGBTQ people, to varying degrees, are always in a process of coming out of the closet.

The slant of the floor in the room we call society is angled in a way to slide us back behind that door.

Coming out to my parents was the hardest time for me–that is, after coming out to myself. The acute anxiety, the stress, and the tears surrounding my coming out to my parents is bundled up tightly into a weekend in July when I was 27. The process of receiving messages of shame from society, the church, and my family began at birth and, like the process of coming out, never stops. In November, I will have been coming out of the closet for 29 years.

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When I was an adolescent, I was a part of a church program where we did quiz-bowl-style tournaments on the Bible. Oh yeah.

In order to do well with this, I would sit on the floor of my closet, with an extension cord powering a desk lamp, and I would memorize chapters at a time of the new testament. In this same closet, I furiously scribbled depressing poems that I hid underneath the carpet and padding that I had pulled up from beneath the baseboards. I hid my writing as deep in the closet as I could. This was after my mother had found a hidden file on the computer where I’d written a poem that caused her to ask me if I had ever thought about suicide.

There, on the floor of the closet, with the door shut, I would sometimes turn off the lamp and just listen to the sounds of the house all around me; listen to the dull sound of my breathing and heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine ever being okay. I cried as I begged Jesus to forgive me for being attracted to other guys. I would sit for hours at a time in that dark space beneath the hangers filled with church clothes.

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I wish that I could say that while I was sitting in that tiny room behind the louvered doors, I memorized John 11 and began to hear the voice of God calling me to come out. But the story is never that simple.

It’s only years later that I have learned that Jesus was also weeping with me on the other side of that closed door.

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A lot of folks have used the reference to Jesus healing people with leprosy as a way to talk about how “we’re all broken” and the church can love gay people while condemning them to hell because Jesus loved sinners and lepers. Hmm. I could talk about what’s problematic here for about six ways till Tuesday.

Suffice it to say, there’s the problem of equating people with a medical condition, and then, equating sexual orientation (something everyone has, by the way) with something to be cured.

But somehow, even though death is kinda seen theologically as more closely tied to sin—as the enemy of God, defeated through the resurrection life of Jesus, we’re somehow more accepting of death. For this reason, I want to turn to the story of Lazarus as a way for us to talk about how Jesus loves LGBTQ people.

Because death, unlike disease (and even taxes, thank you very much, tax-evading CEOs), happens to everyone, it’s less likely to be wielded by the church as weapon of heteronormativity. And yet, the Christian narrative is that death’s annihilation of life is no match for God—God will not stand to let death cut off relationship between God and humanity in the person of Jesus. Holy Saturday is a reality that holds open a space of death, grief, and sorrow, and God’s Spirit hovers and honors that place of abandonment, witnessing the vacuum, even as God strains toward resurrection.

I do not know why, in John 11, Jesus lets his friend Lazarus die. The people ask him this very question.

I do not know why God allows churches and families and cultures to oppress people who experience their sexual orientation in different ways than the majority.

I do know that Jesus weeps outside of the graves of those he loves and Jesus weeps for those held within dark closets where they are told that there is no space for them to be authentically alive in the world.

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In John 11, Jesus is confronted and asked why he let Lazarus die. Jesus is moved to tears and demands that the tomb be opened. Jesus calls his friend by name, saying, “Lazarus, come out!” When Lazarus comes out, alive, it disrupts the order of things and the religious leaders want to see Jesus killed in order to preserve religious and political norms of power and stability.

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For those in the church who view homosexuality as a sin, there is a burden of proof laid against them—if God takes care of sin in Jesus, then why is it that we do not see people able to change their sexual orientation, no matter how ardently they pray and follow Jesus? Could the church treat homosexuality (indeed any sexual orientation) less like a disease (sin) and more like death (a given reality of being human, and a natural part of life that is being mediated by God)?

If so, let’s wonder together about the story of Lazarus and how Jesus works with death to bring about more life. Sin and death are God’s enemies when they each cut off relationship with God and others. When they function this way, they are enemies of loving God and neighbor. And yet, death is also a natural order of the cycle of life in the world.

Certainly sexuality can be twisted is selfish hateful ways (see: rape, incest, sexual addictions, pedophilia, sex trafficking) and certainly sexuality can be a place of intense pleasure, connection, love, and relationship. In the story of Jesus, when death encounters Jesus, it is catalyzed into resurrected life—into restoration of relationship. Jesus lets death happen (to those he loves and to himself) because it is natural, but he doesn’t allow death to cut off relationship, instead he enters the space of grief and, through it, gives life.

When churches, families, and culture keep people in the closet through shame and fear, it is an oppressive act of twisting a person’s sexual orientation against them and colluding with death against another human being–it’s twisting a natural part of life and using it to cut off authentic relationship. Jesus bears wit(h)ness to this death by weeping, demanding that the closet be opened, and calling each of us by name, saying, “Come out!”

For LGBTIQ folks to better love God and neighbor, we need to be able to live honestly in relationship with God and neighbor.

For heterosexuals in churches, families, institutions, and society to better love God and neighbor, they need to acknowledge the resurrection of Jesus at work to bring LGBTIQ people more fully alive. They need to learn to celebrate this life rather than oppressing people back into the closet.

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Of course, in John 11, the religious folks wanted to kill Jesus for messing up the norms of death. They didn’t have the imagination to believe that if Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life he might be able to bring them back to life as well.

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On this National Coming Out Day, I want to say to those still in the closet:

I don’t know why society, the church, or your family wants you in the closet, and I know that it feels like death, but I stand in the confidence of divine love, on the other side of that door, and I cry with you. And when you are ready, I will say your name and echo Jesus’ words, “Come out!”

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Know that you are dearly loved for who you are, that your sexuality and your sexual orientation are natural, and the only thing bad is that there are people who will work to use them against you. And while it is painful and hard to live with that reality, there is a deeper reality of you being able to be authentic and fully alive in the world. And that authenticity and life is worth so much more than the cost of every single time will you come out to someone.

Much love, and we are waiting here for you on the other side of that door,

Daniel

Queer Theology Synchroblog: Stop Trying to Be Like Jesus

The following post is part of the Queer Theology Synchroblog happening today. Click the link to see other bloggers’ posts on the theme “Queer Creation.” For my post, I’ve decided to write a letter to myself. You are, of course, invited to read my mail.

 

Dear Daniel,

Do us all a favor and stop trying to be like Jesus.

I know it’s a hard thing to hear, but really, just stop.

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The miracle of the incarnation is that God was fully God and fully human in the person of Jesus. And you are never going to be that.

You were never even meant to try it.

The whole notion of “being like Jesus” is royally flawed. The whole reason God came in the person of Jesus is that God wanted to be with us. If God just wanted a few billion copies of Jesus, God could do that with some divine miracle of Xerox. But that was never the point.

God doesn’t want you to be like Jesus.

The only way God wants you to resemble Jesus is that inasmuch as Jesus was particularly Jesus, God wants you to be you—God wants you to be different than Jesus.

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This is a difficult truth. It is harder to receive than being told that you will go to hell because you are different than Jesus. Sometimes being accepted is hard to accept.

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Speaking of queer things, it’s pretty queer of God to love and accept those who are different. It’s pretty peculiar to want friends enough to give them space to be entirely who they are apart from your own idea of who they should be.

It’s even queerer to open yourself up to be impacted by them and to grow to love whoever they become—as different from you as that may be.

If God wanted you to be “just like Jesus,” it would mean God re-absorbing you into God’s creative life. Instead, God wants to relate with you as a differentiated person so that we can enjoy one another in all of our particularities; God as generous lover and you as complex and unique person learning to be wooed by such generous love.

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I know that it’s more comfortable believing in a God who wants to annihilate your particularity in order to make you more like his ideal child. It’s more comfortable because it’s familiar and it’s what you’ve been taught to expect and call “love.”

Well, guess what, kiddo? You’re in for a surprise. God is secure enough to take your radical difference. God is not afraid of you. God is not in danger of annihilation from your otherness—in fact God is celebrating all the queer ways that you are unfolding into the particular wholeness of your life. 

So get out there and play. You’re going to have to be pretty damn creative to surprise God, but when you do, there’s no one who will be clapping louder or scheming harder to see you go even further than you’ve gone so far.

You’re special because you are not special; you are particular because the particularity of Jesus means that God comes close to all of us no matter who or where we are. There is nothing in the universe queerer than love this secure, this complete, this unafraid of otherness. The only way you should be like Jesus is letting this love settle in you as you become more you and thus, more capable of loving in this way.