Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Celebrating the Queer Child Within (Isaiah 9:6)

To explore this symbol completely, we must acknowledge that the "child" points us to a deeper yearning and desire which is best captured in the symbol of "before."

For to us a child is born,
     to us a son is given,
     and the government will be on his shoulders,
And he will be called
     Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
     Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
                                                                  Isaiah 9:6

There is something innocent about childhood. Little wonder that when the prophet Isaiah wanted to renew the flagging hope of his people, he wrapped the Sacred's message of expectation and audacity in the metaphor of childbirth and all things new and unadulterated in childhood. Children represent our potential future, a future which may actually break with all the miring mud of our present human duplicity. 

Part of the christian celebration of Christmas is the spiritual journey to find the Christ child in our midst, if not within us. The symbols of the season - evergreens, candles, gift exchange - point to anticipation of all things made new, as when a baby is born. It is the reason why this Isaiah passage is often lifted up in worship this time of the church year. "And he will be called…" is another way of saying, "And our future can become…" For christians we enter this time ready to renew our allegiance to the promised future of God's Christ.

This is the symbol of the child not only in christianity, but in all faiths which acknowledge the renewing work of the Holy in the lives of both individuals and communities. To explore this symbol completely, we must acknowledge that the "child" points us to a deeper yearning and desire which is best captured in the symbol of "before." The innocence and purity of childhood exist before the alienation we encounter in adulthood - before the path of betrayal and disillusionment; before the duplicity of separation from the self just to live with our self; before the ego entices us to abandon the "we" for the "I." 

Hence the emphasis of the world's spiritual traditions to become child-like in faith as the way out of alienation and separation. Baptized, to use a word from my tradition, out of the duality of our world into the single reality of life where separation is but an illusion and alienation a distant memory. The realization that God is among us and in us and, in the mystery of Sacred, a part of us. If we cannot recognize the Sacred in us, how can we recognize the Sacred in others and live into our true roles as co-creators of this world?

Those of us who are sexually or gender diverse know full well the pain of alienation. The dawning realization that we fall under the queer umbrella is also the dawning realization that we are separated from confirming with the wider community. This separation has led others to fail to recognize that God is indeed within us as well. The damage that has been done is immense and continues to claim the lives of wonderful queer people, especially queer youth.

The symbol of the child reminds us that we are not beyond redemption. The potential of a renewed future begins today for those poised for healing. Redemption is at hand for those who can celebrate the rebirth of the child within. And when it happens our name becomes wonderful counselor, mighty god/goddess, everlasting father/mother, prince/princess of peace.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Fear of Being Gay (Luke 1:26-29)

To become aware that you are queer is to step into the liminal space between who we are and who others think and want us to be. 

     Six months later, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman named Mary; she was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, "Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!"
      Mary was deeply troubled by these words and wondered what the angel's greeting meant. 

At what point did you figure out you are queer? Don't get me wrong, I believe that we are born this way, but living in a heteronormative world it takes a bit of figuring out that we do not fit the "norm." At what point did the figuring out happen for you? I know that for some self-awareness comes early in childhood while for others it takes longer. 

I was thirty-six before I finally found the courage to name and own who I am. The dynamics of my sexual orientation were always with me.  As a youth I repressed and turned a blind eye to them. While it pains me to say so, I was fearful of being gay - or at least fearful of the attitude shown toward those who were queer. Anything that would identify me as one of "them" was immediately suppressed. 

I can understand Mary' s sense of fear and troubled soul in front of Gabriel. For while the angel calls her "favored one," what the angel is asking her to do will cause her to be cursed and despised in her village. There is a correlation between our capacity to be made whole and our willingness to be vulnerable. True wellbeing comes from the place of our deepest pain. The place of pain for Mary was being pregnant out of wedlock. For me it was being gay. 

My fear of being gay had little to do with sex acts and much more to do with my fear of rejection with an almost radical alienation from friends and family. From my perspective, and your's may differ, it is the Christ within which makes us profoundly human. To have my gay-Christ-within rejected would be a life long invitation to walk this earth as an exile. Stott's dark and wounded painting above, gives a visual reference for what I thought life portended for me.

When the Christ within came and named me gay, like Mary, I was scared and confused. To become aware that you are queer is to step into the liminal space between who you are and who others think and want you to be.  I clung to what I knew, for fear of what I did not know. I knew I was not enough and I feared that any friends - queer or straight - I make along the way would not be enough either. 

Like Mary, I trembled. For too many years of my life, through repression, I kept my place of pain tightly sealed - fearful of what lay hidden within escaping, should I ever crack the door. What I didn't have was Mary's courage to trust in a loving and providing God. Then came the day that I was exposed to myself for everything I was and everything I was not. Just as I dreaded, God named it. For Mary the name was "blessed among women." She was the mother of Jesus. I was running from how God created me. There are many names that fit me, most deserve to stick. Imagine my surprise when I heard the Heart of the Divine name me "beloved child of God."

Mary teaches us to be open and ready for God's new thing. Make no mistake, it will emerge out of our deepest vulnerability yet, in its wake, bring wholeness and wellbeing.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

God's Pound of Flesh (Psalm 100)

"This is me, and I’m interested in you enough to show you my flaws with the hope that you may embrace me for all that I am, but, more important, all that I am not."

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth.
     Serve the Lord with gladness;
          come before God with joyful songs.
Acknowledge that Adonai is God.
Adonai made us, and we are God's -
     We are God's people, the sheep of God's pasture.
Enter God's gates with thanksgiving and God's courts with praise.
     Give thanks to God and praise God's name.
For Adonai is good, and God's love is eternal;
     God's faithfulness endures through all generations.

                                                                                                 Psalm 100 (HCSB)

This psalm is a powerful invocation of trust in the goodness of God. We are the sheep of God’s pastures and God's steadfast love endures forever.  In the presence of such a God we have gladness and song. Out of such joy flows our thanksgiving and praise for the One who made us and claims us as beloved people.

Here before us is a summarization of the essence of a rightly aligned relationship with God. A relationship characterized by joy and gladness, thanksgiving and praise on our part and acceptance and love on the part of God. In these five short versus we plumb the depths of faith characterized not as obedience, but rather as joyful acknowledgment of the ground of our being: that we do not live in and unto ourselves, but rather we live in relationship to the One who is the channel of life and the bestower of compassion. This is the nature of faith, to enter into a caring and supportive relationship with the Sacred reality which sets at the center of our being. I applaud this psalm, its certainty and its boldness speak to the heart of what faith is all about. 

Yet, at the same time there is a warning, that if I failed to raise up, I would fail to honor both the psalm and you. The psalm is absolutely correct: God’s steadfast love endures. What the psalm doesn’t tell us is the pound of flesh this steadfast love requires of us. For there is no true relationship of acceptance and compassion that does not call for vulnerability from us. All relationships of depth make us susceptible to being wounded and hurt. 

As people of sexual and gender diversity we have spent much energy in protecting ourselves from a sex-negative society. We have toughened our souls to withstand the onslaught of homophobia and the violence - emotional or physical - it spawns. My concern is that the price of becoming invulnerable is the subjugation of all those who we fear will take away our resources and make us susceptible to being wounded and hurt.

This is the pound of flesh which God’s steadfast love requires of us: that we let go of this madness and frenzy action to be invulnerable and to open ourselves up to God and to God’s creation, all the while knowing the risk of being wounded and hurt. I cannot be christian and declare that the cross is only for Jesus, but not for me. 

The actor, Ashton Kutcher is quoted as saying: “Vulnerability … (is) the art of being uncalculated, the willingness to look foolish, the courage to say, ‘This is me, and I’m interested in you enough to show you my flaws with the hope that you may embrace me for all that I am, but, more important, all that I am not.’” 

The experience of this psalm, the experience of our faith, is that God’s steadfast love is infinite and inexhaustible and does embrace all that we are and all that we are not. No longer do we need to hide. No longer do we need to pretend. No longer do we need to hang on to baggage of ineptitude or shame. God loves us infinitely, not incrementally, but infinitely. 

A minister friend of mine, found himself at his first church where there was a young woman who was sleeping with all the men of the congregation. The church janitor was next on her list and the janitor went and talked to my friend about the predicament which was proving a very real temptation for him. My friend went and talked to the young woman, understanding there was a history of incestuous abuse behind her behavior. This was his advice to the woman. “The next time you're in bed, causing a married man to be unfaithful to his wife and family, and you’re in the sweaty throws of sex, I want you to remember that God loves you. God has always loved you and will continue to love you, no matter how many men you sleep with.”

Suffice it to say, the young woman stopped her more destructive behavior toward others. She stopped not because a minister talked to her. Rather, she stopped because she became vulnerable to God in all her flaws, in everything she was and with everything she was not. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Exploiting Queers (Job 24;1-12)

The heteropatriarchic complex needs us to feel bad about ourselves in order to justify the psychological pain they inflict upon us. Through acts of bullying and threats of terror this unholy complex seeks to keep us in a state of confusion and uncertainty which robs us of our dignity and leaves us feeling less than complete. 

Why does the Almighty not reserve times for judgment?
   Why do those who know Him never see His days?
The wicked displace boundary markers.
   They steal a flock and provide pasture for it.
They drive away the donkeys owned by the fatherless
   and take the widow’s ox as collateral.
They push the needy off the road;
   the poor of the land are forced into hiding.
Like wild donkeys in the desert,
   the poor go out to their task of foraging for food;
   the wilderness provides nourishment for their children.
They gather their fodder in the field
   and glean the vineyards of the wicked.
Without clothing, they spend the night naked,
   having no covering against the cold.
Drenched by mountain rains,
   they huddle against the rocks, shelterless.
The fatherless infant is snatched from the breast;
   the nursing child of the poor is seized as collateral.
Without clothing, they wander about naked.
   They carry sheaves but go hungry.
They crush olives in their presses;
   they tread the winepresses, but go thirsty.
From the city, the dying groan;
   the mortally wounded cry for help,
   yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
Job 24:1-12

This passage from Job invites us to examine the exploitation and oppression of the weak and vulnerable. The folks over at Theology of Work have a good insight into Job's complaint: "People appropriate public resources for personal gain, and they steal the private property of others… They exploit the weak and powerless to gain outsized profit for themselves… The arrogant get their way at work, while the honest and humble are ground into the dirt… The poorest have no opportunity to earn a living and are reduced to scavenging and even stealing from the rich to feed their families… Others work hard, but do not earn enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor." 

What strikes me about this passage is how contemporary it sounds. The exploitation of the developing world by the more developed world, the grinding of the 99% by the 1%, the "starvation wage" of the minimum wage job, the outsized profits of corporations. These dynamics are well at work in our world today. We should also add to this list the continued bullying of queer folk by the heteropatriarchy system which favors straight people at the cost of sexual and gender minorities.

Within the matrix of this examination of power structures we begin to understand the full threat which queer people bring to the heteropatriarchy complex. An empowered and embolden queer network not only calls into question deeply held ideas of sexual relations, but also unmasks the oppressive nature of a heterosexual society which benefits from a subclass of sexual minorities. This exploitation takes on both an economical and an emotional dimension. 

The economical exploitation takes the form of blackmail. Not so much in use in countries where LGBTQIA folk have gained some legal protections, blackmail is still a weapon of exploitation in countries that have strong anti-gay sentiments and laws. The threat to expose and go public, with the promise of silence at a price, places upon certain queer communities financial strain which only benefits the exploiters. 

The toll of the emotional exploitation is great and covers a wide range of response such as fear, depression, and suicide. The heteropatriarchic complex needs us to feel bad about ourselves in order to justify the psychological pain they inflict upon us, note the titillating explanation of "dyke relationships" on the book cover. Through acts of bullying and threats of terror this unholy complex seeks to keep us in a state of confusion and uncertainty which robs us of our dignity and leaves us feeling less than complete. 

In this examination of exploitation, the book of Job raises the uneasy question of the role of God, or more precise the lack of action from God, in the midst of this oppression. From the bible we are accustomed to hearing a charge of the people forsaking God, here in Job, we hear a charge of God forsaking the people. The weak and vulnerable suffer while the exploiters and takers work with importunity. The passage ends somewhat pessimistically, "From the city, the dying groan; the mortally wounded cry for help, yet God pays no attention to their prayer."

While it is uncomfortable I think we need to live in this tension. Human society is still built upon systems which favor one group over another. God does not intervene and the exploiters seem to live a charmed life, untouched by the misery left in their wake. I offer no resolution here, for that would violate the tension which the text creates. Rather we must boldly act on the invitation to understand the power structures of the world for what they are: exploitive, oppressive, and unopposed. Then we must ask of ourselves - how do I wish to live knowing the true nature of this reality?

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Sacred Imprint of Sexual and Gender Diversity (Matthew 22:15-22)

LGBTQIA folk have been "occupied" for countless centuries as we are the objects of the imposition of the wills of Caesar and the Church

     Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to trap (Jesus) by what He said. They sent their disciples to Him, with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know that You are truthful and teach truthfully the way of God. You defer to no one, for You don't show partiality. Tell us, therefore, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
     But perceiving their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing Me, hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the tax." So they brought Him a denarius. "Whose image and inscription is this?" He asked them.
     "Caesar's," they said to Him.
     Then He said to them, "Therefore give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away.
Matthew 22:15-22

     Our queer ears perk up when we hear that religious and political leaders (the Pharisees and the Herodians) were seeking to trap Jesus. We are rather familiar with religio-political traps. The plight of sexual and gender minorities in contemporary Africa is festooned with such traps. The history of other societies are not any better. When we hear these words we need to understand that Jesus is being targeted just as we are often targeted.

     The ruse of entrapment is a question about taxes. This question is not neutral or an invitation to a general conversation of the role of government in the life of its citizenry. No, this question is laden with the deepest repugnance of Judea. For it is not a question about taxes. Rather, it is a question about corroborating with the occupying forces of a foreign government. Occupation is the brutal attitude still inherited from colonialism. It means we come in and impose on you our will. LGBTQIA folk have been "occupied" for countless centuries as we are the objects of the imposition of the wills of Caesar and the Church (as well as synagogues, mosque, and other religious expressions).

     Jesus asks for a coin and returns the question put to him by asking a question of those gathered. "Whose image is this." When a person of the Jewish faith begins to talk about images we know that this is not a simple question about portraiture and likeness. Israel has been enjoined by God to never make a likeness of the divinity for fear the likeness will be worshiped in place of the true God. So it is then that Jesus seems to tip his hand. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar."

     Then Jesus presses on, "… and give to God the things that are God." This is the part of the answer which leave us amazed. While the coin in imprinted with the image of Caesar, according to Genesis 1:26-31 our lives are imprinted with the image of God. By contrasting the two, Jesus draws our attention to what Caesar demands of us and what God provides for us. Where Caesar demands a pound of flesh, God provides love. Where Caesar demeans and institutionalizes discrimination, God provides dignity and value. Where Caesar seeks to rob us to further his gain, God sustains us to further our gain. 

     Queer folk dance with a nasty and ugly Caesar. The collaboration between religion and politics in our time to delay equality, to deny dignity to our loving, to question our humanity in the light of our sexual expressions continues to buttress the attitude of occupation of our loving and our living. Jesus calls us to ignore Caesar and remember who imprinted us to begin with. An imprint that bears in us the mark of sexual and gender diversity. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Blurring Faces (Exodus 3:1-6)

So it is with queer spirituality, any encounter with God is first and foremost an encounter with Self-love that leads us into honoring and calling as worthy all which we were told to fear and even loath about ourselves.

     Meanwhile, Moses was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed. So Moses thought: I must go over and look at this remarkable sight. Why isn't the bush burning up? 
     When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush, "Moses, Moses!"
     "Here I am," he answered.
     "Do not come closer," (God) said. "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then (God) continued, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
Exodus 3:1-6

     Gazing at the picture of Nick Field I am brought into some mystery. His hidden face both reveals and conceals who he is. He's a performer, possibly gay given the context of the website I originally found the picture on, other than the fact that he happens to be Caucasian and bald there is little else I know about him. All else is hidden. Is he content with his life? What brings him joy? What makes him sad? How heavy are his anxieties? These are hidden away. To be honest a picture of Nick without his mask would tell me no more than the one above. I would need to enter into a friendship with Nick to understand what makes him tick.

     The call of Moses follows a similar path. Upon encountering the Sacred, Moses wants to hide his face. Through a series of exchanges which follow this passage, the Holy in Moses seeks to motivate him toward the task of liberation. At each turn Moses demurs pointing out a fault within himself that prevents him from acting on these inklings and prodding of the Spirit. An entire people wait in slavery to be liberated but Moses is busy hiding his face.

     The temptation to blur our faces when times are tough and ornery is strong. Concerns over being rejected and over personal safety cause us to pause. One does not exit the closet without calculating the risks. Although attitudes are changing, people still treat us differently when they become aware of our place in sexual or gender diversity. Certain religious voices still teach that how God treats queers is very different from how God treats straight people. So it is natural that we might hide our faces, blurring them, as on some amateur video, so our true identity is concealed.

     It seems that the Sacred will have none of this. One way of understanding the symbolism of Moses removing his sandals is so he might be grounded in his own holiness. A holiness not created by Moses, but rather of which he partakes as he enters into all that is sacred - even sacred about himself. The call of Moses is a call to Self-love, to honor and see as worthy that which he has feared and loathed about himself. So it is with queer spirituality, any encounter with God is first and foremost an encounter with Self-love that leads us into honoring and calling as worthy all which we were told to fear and even loath about ourselves. 

     There is a strain of spirituality that indicates that to know God is to know ourselves for there is no exploration of the Sacred outside an exploration of ourselves. For many a queer person that exploration has been denied us due to our sexual and gender diversity. The story of Moses is an invitation to move beyond the voices of this world and to listen to the voice of the Heart.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Beautiful Fag (Exodus 12:1-14)

In practice, the metaphorical blood of sexual and gender diverse people is regularly used to swab the doorways of houses of worship as a sign of obedience to God's "natural plan."  

   The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: "This month is to be the beginning of months for you; it is the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they must each select an animal of the flock according to their fathers' households, one animal per household. If the household is too small for a whole animal, that person and the neighbor nearest his house are to select one based on the combined number of people; you should apportion the animal according to what each person will eat. You must have an unblemished animal, a year-old male; you may take it from either the sheep or the goats. You are to keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembly of the community of Israel will slaughter the animals at twilight. They must take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses where they eat them. They are to eat the meat that night; they should eat it roasted over the fire along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it ray or cooked in boiling water, but only roasted over the fire - its head as well as it legs and inner organs. Do not let any of it remain until morning; you must burn up any part of it that does remain before morning. Here is how you must eat it: you must be dressed for travel, your sandals on your get, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in a hurry; it is the Lord's Passover. "I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both man and beast. I am Adonai; I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. The blood on the houses where you are staying will be a distinguishing mark for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
     This day is to be a memorial for you, and you must celebrate it as a festival of the Lord. You are to celebrate it throughout your generations as a permanent statute.
Exodus 12:1-14 HCSD

Blood, expectation, and speed are the driving symbols of this passage. It is written with an emphasis on being ready. Things are about to change - be ready. Death is coming - be ready. Do not take time to properly clean the animal for cooking - be ready. God's justice is moving - be ready. Restlessness marks the passage. Fear mingling with expectation marks the moment. Either we will be liberated or our slavery will continue.

As a queer person of faith I approach this passage with some trepidation. From the point of view of the sheep and the goats this is a terrifying passage. Death will happen, blood will be spilt, judgment will be rendered, sacrifices will be made. In practice, the metaphorical blood of sexual and gender diverse people is regularly used to swab the doorways of houses of worship as a sign of obedience to God's "natural plan." So yes, I approach this passage with trepidation, as I once approached the slur "fag" with fear and trembling.

Yet this reading which seeks to render me a victim is, in the end, a poor and grotesquely malformed understanding of the story. The night of exodus from Egypt is not a story of being hounded, bound, and sacrificed. No, this story is about the ritual of coming out. 

From this vantage point the symbols speak deeply to our experience: blood, food, travel clothes, alertness. Detractors and friends alike enter the memories of our own sexual exodus from condemned to beloved. God also enters these memories and He or She who was once experienced as oppression now becomes, through Sacred intentional action toward us, our haven of safety and our source of liberation. Just as the slur fag in the image above is transformed from a message of shame to a message of beauty and strength.

This passage with all of its wonder, reminds us in its emphasis on being ready, that the time to taste freedom is now. Liberation comes today and is no longer a hoped for future horizon. Today  the Sacred transforms within us what was meant as hate into moments of love and acceptance. This focused action of the Holy challenges the forces which treat us as "less than" and seek to bind us in fear. This passage reminds us that we are not sheep and goats, but rather beloved and honored children of the living God, liberated and set free.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Tyranny By Definition (Romans 12:9-21)

Become the good you want to see in the world.

     Love must be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone's eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God's wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. But
     If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
     If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
     For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.
Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.
Romans 12:9-21 HCSB

     In this passage the apostle Paul seeks to describe what genuine love is. First and foremost, love hates and detests what is evil. Already I have a problem. My problem is not that love is the antithesis of evil. Rather, as the meme above indicates, my problem is with who gets to define what is evil.

     Part of the history of the church is that when it tends toward tyranny it does so by defining who is a sinner. The infamous Salem Witch Trials are a good example of tyranny-by-definition. The present "gay hunt" in some African nations is another example of abuse by those categorizing who is favored by God and who is loathed by God.

     Paul is part of a minority group which itself is defined as "evil" by the wider majority. Paul and his kind are the target of tyranny-by-definition. As a person caught up in the active persecution of the nascent Christian movement, Paul understands that one of the cruel outcomes of being picked on and victimized is diminishment of our personhood. When Paul writes to the congregation in Rome, he does so already headed to the great city in chains as a criminal against society. Which means, that Paul's ideas are not born out of abstract and theory, but out of shackles, bloodied lips, and angry jailers. Centering himself upon the teachings of Jesus, Paul grounds himself not in giving out hate, but in giving out good.  

     As a queer person of faith, this passage has snared me. What does it mean that I should not return angry spiteful hate with angry spiteful hate? According to scripture, the answer is not that I don't get angry, but that I turn my anger over to the Sacred. Yet, as one who has suffered under the tyranny of being defined as "sinner" I am compelled to cry out: We have suffered pain, who is to answer for that? 

     The deep insight of the Christian faith is that pain is taken into the very being of God through the execution of Jesus. In my humble opinion the Maori Christian tradition holds the most sacred name of God: Pain Bearer. This name recognizes that the evil of diminishment strikes even the heart of all that is Holy and grieves the very Center of Existence. God bears our pain and we are free to bless. 

     Blessing is an active verb in scripture and operates in opposition to cursing. Where cursing diminishes, blessing amplifies and strengthens. Notice the very ways of blessing in the passage. If our haters are hungry - feed them. If our haters are thirsty - give them a drink. By choosing to bless we become the good we want to see in the world and overcome evil.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Haters (Jonah 3:10-4:3)

Should we forgive God for not hating the same people we hate?

    When God saw what (the Ninevites) did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring them the destruction he had threatened. 
     But Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. He prayed to the Lord: "Please, Lord, isn't this what I said while I was still in my own country? That's why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster. And now, Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
Jonah 3:10-4:3 HCSB

Angry Jonah

The root of Jonah's anger is an inability to forgive God for not hating the same people Jonah hates. Jonah's point is good: justice demands retribution on those that liquidated ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. But God did not choose justice by retribution. God chose forgiveness, that is justice by reconciliation. Here's the knot: Jonah believes retribution is the higher value, God believes reconciliation is the higher value. We discover that God is the one who is willing to take the risk and break the rules of tit-for-tat retaliation. God smashes they cycle of retribution by introducing into human communities all that God is: gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment. It is little wonder that Jonah leaves the city, the arena of God's mercy and tenderness. East of Nineveh Jonah sulks for life has been chosen over destruction.

The Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, shares his story of being in a concentration camp. While there he was taken to visit a severely wounded young German SS officer. The officer, within hours of death, wanted to confess his mistreatment of Jews and his entanglement in the policies of the Nazis. When the officer asked for Wiesenthal's forgiveness, Wiesenthal got up and walked out of the room. Wiesenthal wrote about this incident in his memoir The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, asking the question, did he do the right thing?

Subsequent editions of the book included responses from leading thinkers around the world. The majority responded that they would not have forgiven the SS officer and the officer had no right to expect such forgiveness. Some pointed out that bitter resentment helps victims hold onto a sense of self-worth and resist future attacks. The renowned Catholic priest John Pawlikowski stated that Wiesenthal was correct in not administering "cheap grace" to the dying soldier. Jewish author Dennis Prager maintains that while God may forgive a murderer, living people cannot for the only person empowered to forgive the killer is dead. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and minister of armaments, wrote that he can never forgive himself, nor can anyone else remove his guilt. 

A minority responded yes, they would forgive. The Dalai Lama noted that one should forgive those who harm us, but one shouldn't forget the harm in order for future safe guards to be developed. Dith Pran, victim of the Khmer Rouge, wrote that he could not forgive Hitler and his cronies. Yet, he could understand and, therefore, forgive the soldiers, ordinary men and boys, who were brainwashed into committing the actual atrocities. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame declared that he would forgive "because God forgives."

Among those that provided an ambiguous "yes, but" response is Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner acknowledges that in the Jewish tradition Wiesenthal had neither the power nor the right to forgive the German soldier. In general, however, Rabbi Kushner recommends forgiveness because continued resentment causes too much harm to the victim.

In another setting the Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner wrote: "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback, " say Buechner, "is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you." 

Which returns us to our haunting questions: Should we extend forgiveness to the hyper-heterosexual coach, the school principal who turned a blind eye, the teacher who disappeared behind a closed door? Can we show mercy to the minister who proclaimed us vomit in God's mouth, the Sunday school teacher who rejected us, the congregation which condemned us to hell? Can tenderness be spoken to friends who continued the hateful tirade after we came out, to family members who abandoned us, to employers who sabotaged us? Should we forgive God for not hating the same people we hate?

How do you answer?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

In Praise of Divine Caprice (Jonah 3:1-10)

The act of personal repentance neutralizes the forces of our own dark past and opens a new way into the future.

     Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." 
     Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city, proclaiming, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown." The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest, put on sackcloth.
     When Jonah's warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued to Nineveh:
     "By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from (God's) fierce anger so that we will not perish.."
     When God say what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring them the destruction he had threatened.
Jonah 3:1-10 HCSB

Do our detractors deserve mercy? Are those who pick on and bully sexual and gender diverse children worthy of a second chance? Should we extend forgiveness to the hyper-heterosexual coach, the school principal who turned a blind eye, the teacher who disappeared behind a closed door? Can we show mercy to the minister who proclaimed us vomit in God's mouth, the Sunday school teacher who rejected us, the congregation which condemned us to hell? Can tenderness be spoken to friends who continued the hateful tirade after we came out, to family members who abandoned us, to employers who sabotaged us? Do homophobes and hetersosexists deserve our mercy? 

By giving Jonah a second chance, God also invites Jonah to give the Ninevites a second chance. The Jewish scholar Chaim Lewis writes: "The Assyrians were the Nazi stormtroopers of the ancient world. They were a pitiless power-crazed foe. (U)prooting entire people in their fury for conquest. They extinguished the northern Kingdom of Israel to leave us only with a tender memory of the ... lost ten tribes. For Jonah Nineveh then was no ordinary city; it carried doomladen, tragic memories; it stood as a symbol of evil incarnate." Can the Assyrian's be forgiven for the cruelty of their self-serving foreign policy? Should they be forgiven? We are now caught in the central tension of the parable between the justice we want to befall the evil city and the mercy we hope God will offer Jonah. 

The charge against the city is that they have "violence in their hands." Reconciliation for Nineveh means coming to grips with their past of genocide and brutality and acknowledging their guilt at inflicting wounds on innocent lives. The only thing that can overcome a society rooted in violence is a reorientation from death and decay to life and respect for others - the repentance of the people. 

The quick repentance and reorientation of the Ninevites stands in contrast to the stubborn refusal of Jonah to deliver God's message: a manifestation of the tension of wanting justice brought to Nineveh and mercy to Jonah. Still, the idol-worshiping city attends the ways of God better then Jonah. As a result the Sacred acts mercifully toward the evil city. It seems the lesson - if such a thing exists in this parable - is that the act of personal repentance neutralizes the forces of our own dark past and opens a new way into the future.

Can we who have suffered - some more than others - the violence of anti-gay bigotry lay aside our wounds and indignation, step away from the tension of Jonah, and grasp the power of forgiveness? If we can, then should we? If we should, then will we? 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Our Own Sacred Identity (Jonah 1:17-2:2, 10)

Now the Lord had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights.
   Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish:
   "I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.
   I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol (land of the dead);
   You heard my voice…

Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah 1:17-2:2, 10

Says Pieper of his artwork, "I created this three dimensional encaustic/mixed media piece to spotlight God's love for all humankind…" Jonah's perplexity is that of a person who cannot forgive and therefore rejects the God of mercy and forgiveness. As a consequence of this rejection Jonah devolves from a child of God into a tortuous creature of revenge and retribution.

Scholars are eager to note that the verb "to swallow up" never has a positive connotation in the Hebrew Scriptures. Pharaoh and his chariots were swallowed up by the waters of the Reed Sea (Ex. 15:12) and the rebellious Korah was swallowed up by the earth (Nu. 16:28-34). The threat of being swallowed up is always a possibility for those who self-identify as a sexual minority (or for any minority group). The pressure to "confirm" to sexual expectations has included legal, social, and religious sanctions. This is nothing new for those who are forced to deny our inner compass and to see ourselves as something less than whole.

Yet this swallowing into oblivion is not what Jonah's story points us to. Jonah's swallowing is transformational. The literary critic Janet Howe Gaines notes, "The fish is … awesome but not horrific. It represents our internal struggles, our daily battles that we are capable of overcoming." Gaines' insight helps us understand that the fish does not annihilate the prophet, but rather serves as a holy place where the prophet is reestablished. 

To be reestablished Jonah surrenders an extremely valuable commodity - his wounds and his righteous indignation. Many of us can talk of the wounds we receive because we are queer. Everyone has a story of their journey. Sometimes this story becomes so strong that we begin to identify ourselves not by our skills or passions or loves, but by our wounds. We encrust ourselves in the scabs that we, in part, will not let heal, for we pick them afresh each day. 

The heart of Jonah's prayer is verse 7: "As my life was ebbing away / I remembered Our God / and my prayer came to you / in your holy temple." What is being alluded to is what the anthropologist and philosopher Madronna Holden has noted - what determines the outcome of our lives is not our physical power, but our spiritual alliance. Jonah's story at this junction implies that the path to wholeness/reestablishment leads us into the belly of our own beasts so we may discover, or rediscover, our own sacred and God-given identity. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Naked In Public (Jonah 1:4-12)

     Then the Lord hurled a violent wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart. The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship's cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep.
     The captain approached him and said, "What are our doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won't perish."
     "Come on!" the sailors said to each other. "Let's cast lots. Then we'll know who is to blame for this trouble we're in." So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah. Then they said to him, "Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we're in. What is our business and where are you from? What is your country and what people are you from?
     He answered them, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship Adoniah, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land."
     Then the men were even more afraid and said to him, "What is this you've done?" The men knew he was fleeing from the Lord's presence, because he had told them. So they said to him,"What should we do to you to calm this sea that's against us?" For the sea was getting worse and worse.
     He answered them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea so it may quiet down for you, for I know that I'm to blame for this violent storm that is against you."   
Jonah 1:4-12 HCSB

The American Jewish literary scholar, Janet Howe Gaines says, "The book of Jonah is a gateway to solving the perplexing dilemma of how to forgive our enemies." With Gaines' insight on the theme of Jonah we begin to understand that the request to forgive shakes us out of our status quo and into a new challenge and undertaking. 

At this early point in the narrative Jonah has chosen to refuse the request to forgive. Instead he has made the choice to hang onto his anger, jealousy, and hatred. He will not forgive the Assyrians for their liquidation of the ten northern tribes of Israel. And why should he? They have neither shown contrition nor asked for reconciliation. It is only the Sacred that seeks to grant what has not been sought after by these perpetrators of degradation and death. Even by our standards today, Jonah has every right to wish his foes ill and work for their undoing.

Part of the "perplexing dilemma" is that by holding onto his sense of righteous outrage Jonah denys who he is. With the storm threatening to sink the ship he finally speaks up and says, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship Adoniah, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land." Which is Hebrew Scripture speak for "I am connected to the source of life." Even then, he holds back his identity as a prophet of God. 

Jonah's determination to run from who he is and to suppress his self-identity has made its way into modern psychology parlance as the Jonah Complex or Jonah Syndrome. Abraham Maslow defines the complex as a fear of success which prevents self-actualization and the realization of our potential. The complex is aroused by the dread of taking on the responsibility that attends self-understanding. Maslow believes that knowing ourselves might force us to make fundamental, unwanted changes in the way we view our lives. It is like being stripped naked in public, but instead of fearing the faults in our bodies, we fear the intensity of our beauty.

There is a correlation here between Jonah's perplexing dilemma and the lives of queer folk. To name ourselves as "queer" or some other term within sexual and gender diversity is also to take on the responsibility which attends this naming. Once we name ourselves publicly we open our lives up to the full onslaught of the queer experience from hate and rejection to love and acceptance and all the nuances in between while still to negotiating the experiences common to all humanity. 

Here's the enigma: until Jonah owns up to who he is and what he can accomplish then his life, the life of the crew, and by implications the lives of all those in Nineveh are in jeopardy. Honesty in this story is rewarded. For queer folk it is often honesty around our sexual orientation which leads us into jeopardy, not away from it. Hence like Jonah we may be tempted to bury deep down our core self-understanding. 

Jonah owns up to who he is, yet still seeks to keep distant from the responsibility that attends his self-understanding. Without a connection to his core being, and the God who placed that core within him, Jonah is doomed. The passage ends with Jonah's body slipping beneath the waves, plunging into the abyss.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Nothing Runs Like a Queer (Jonah 1:1-3)

     The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because their wickedness has confronted Me." However, Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the Lord's presence. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, from the Lord's presence.
Jonah 1:1-3 (HCSB)

Exploring the image above we can begin to dissect hatred toward those who are sexually or gender diverse. The queer (I am assuming a male) is portrayed in stylized stereotype with limp wrists, a more effeminate prancing, and clothes that are form fitting. His head is turned to those who are chasing him. Apparently only queers run in this fashion - that is the sting of the tag line. For those outside the US this image is a parody of a well known farm and lawn equipment manufacturer whose tag line is "Nothing runs like a John Deere."

Those chasing the queer are more masculine looking. Their clothes look more acceptable, even jean like, their bodies a bit more muscular, their shoes present as more sturdy. Most importantly they carry weapons - apparently a viral male is never without a weapon. The image also heightens another quality of homophobia - the straight boys are numerous while the queer is solitary. 

The image is inflammatory. It provokes homophobic anger by promoting that might and right are on the side of anti-gay attitudes. It also promotes a sense of isolation for the queer youth who might be looking for community with other sexually and gender diverse persons. It builds on stereotypes between the feminine and the masculine indicating that queers are less than or other than because "nothing" runs like a queer. The image is demeaning and seeks to rob les-bi-trans-gay-asexual-intersexed-queer identifying persons of our dignity and humanity. 

This is the horn of the dilemma for Jonah. As a prophet of the God of Israel he is called upon to "cry against" the city of Nineveh - the dark heart of the Assyrian Empire. But he does not. Instead he seeks to run in the opposite direction to the other end of the world. Tarshish was a settlement in what is now the cost of Spain, the last known town before entering the Atlantic Ocean and the end of the world. Jonah's actions leaves us a little perplexed. God is ready to condemn Nineveh. It seems that Jonah would jump on the bandwagon even as we would jump at the chance to condemn whomever produced the image above. So why did he run?

Jonah's motivation comes to light toward the end of his story. After waiting on God to make good on the edict of judgement, Jonah cries out: "O God! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshis at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (4:2). Jonah's concern is that to speak God's protest against Nineveh is also to invoke God's grace and forgiveness should Nineveh heed the protest. 

To forgive someone the wrongs they have done to us is to restore that person to community, whether that community be a family, a circle of friends, or the relationship between you and the person. Forgiveness also requires that the one forgiving relinquish the desire of revenge and risk the chance that the perpetrator will get away without being held accountable for his/her actions. These are high stakes not only for God's prophet but also for us. 

There is more to Jonah's story, but let us pause here. Are we who are "faggots" and "dykes" and "trannies" and allies willing to pay the price of restoring our detractors to community? Can we, or more personal, can I forgive the person who developed the tag line "nothing runs like a queer"?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

God After Midnight (Psalm 89:46-52)

How long, Lord? will you hide yourself forever?
     How long will your wrath burn life fire?
Remember how fleeting is my life.
     For what futility you have created all humanity!
Who can live and not see death,
     or who can escape the power of the grave?
Lord, where is your former great love,
     which in your faithfulness you sword to David?
Remember, Lord how your servant has been mocked,
     how I bear in my heart the taunts of all the nations,
the taunts with which your enemies, Lord, have mocked,
     with which they have mocked every step of your anointed one.
Praise be to the Lord forever!
Amen and Amen.
Psalm 89:46-52 (NIV)

One of my guilty pleasures is ABBA. I enjoy their music and even own a copy of the movie Mama Mia. One song particularly stays with me, Give Me, Give Me, Give Me. The end of the chorus is rather simple, "Give me, give me, give me a man after midnight. Take me through the darkness to the break of the day." In spite of what one might think about this song running around in a gay man's head that is not why the song remains with me. Instead, through the twists of my life journey the lyrics morphed a bit and became, "Give me, give me, give me a God after midnight." This morphing has helped me to understand that while the God of light is dazzling and fantastic, it is the God of shadows which attracts my spiritual interest. Now to be sure it is the one and same Sacred Reality - even the scriptures attest that God is lord of both day and night. 

This Psalm invites us into the shadows of uncertainty and angst. "How long God? Will you hide yourself forever? (v. 44). Instead of the Promised Land, the psalmist has found the shadowlands. Groping in darkness, hands are extended with the hope that something solid will emerge out of the swirling mists. But all that is found is the disappointment of shadows folding into shadows. 

The sculpture by Ana Maria Pacheco is not a queer themed work of art. Rather it is a political themed work. The artist, now residing in the UK, is originally from Brazil and the piece represents the experience of the Brazilian death squads of the 1970s. Says Patricia Vieira in her book Seeing Politics Otherwise, while reviewing this and other works by Latina/Latino artists, "The experience of torture also lies beyond the mediation of interpretation, and the trauma resulting from the victims non-mediated encounter with reality does not lend itself to symbolic deciphering." In short, one can never make "sense" out of torture. 

Pacheco's sculpture cannot be interpreted even as it fails to interpret the reality to which it points. By what words or images can we relay the terror of indifference that leads to brutality and death? How could we ever explore the inner dialogue of the victim as her/his life is viewed as expendable? Can we, or should we seek to plumb the thought process of those who kill indiscriminately? We could try, but in the end we will fail. Only our own personal encounter with such reality can help us understand. 

All queer people wrestle with the issue of how to interpret or mediate our experience to straight people. In some way we will always fail for our experience lies beyond what can be shared as no word or symbol can carry the full load of what it means to be sexually and gender diverse in a heteronormative world. As we observe the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots we can understand that those gathered acted out, because speaking up could not help "decipher" the experience of oppression. 

This becomes more problematic for queer people of faith as we seek to share our stories in what has traditionally been heteronormative houses of worship. From such worship centers the label of "sinner" has been (and in some cases still is) used to torture all those who do not conform. Our spiritual landscape of the shadowlands lies beyond interpretation. Those who have experienced the underbelly of faith can talk to each other, but those who have not tend to scratch their heads and pass over such spiritual reality as less than faithful. I find it interesting that our psalmist simply ends the psalm without any resolution. "They have mocked every step of your Messiah (anointed one)" is abruptly followed by "Praise be to the Lord forever," as if the psalmist realizes the futility of seeking to explain the shadowlands of faith. 

William James, the father of American psychology and a deeply spiritual person in his own right, described this dynamic as being either "once-born" or "twice-born." The once-born are those for whom God is the parent who keeps them safe and from harm. No concerns have ever arisen to shake their faith. The twice-born are those for whom God is no longer the almighty parent. Twice-born people have wrestled with disappointment in God to find a deeper and more penetrating faith. God, for the twice-born, is One who walks with them through the shadows of a less than perfect life. Or to misquote ABBA, the "God after midnight." 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Queer Spirituality (Acts 17:22-31)

     Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.
     "Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it - He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so they might eek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.' Being God's offspring then, we shouldn't think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination. 
     "Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead."
Acts 17:22-31

A fanatic dressed only in a toga stands at the center of debate. His arms saw the air. His voice projects to the back of the amphitheater. He is certain of the dynamics of which he speaks, but many shake their heads no, followed by hoots and hollers. There is resistance to his message. A stiff arm is given this interloper with his new sense of reality. Some hang around, but most leave after the air sawing is done. It was not Paul's finest hour. He was at Athens, the cultural center of the Hellenistic world and that culture judged him, found him wanting, and rejected him.

Paul's argument both built upon and deconstructed the religious sensibilities of the time. He builds upon one of the underlying fears of polytheism - the forgotten or unknown god. Paul uses this chink in the cultural construe of his time to deconstruct that very construe. Paul agrees that there is an unknown God, and that this unknown deity is actually well known. 

Paul begins his construction of God as the creator, the maker of heaven and earth. Paul lets us know that all of us, in our shared humanity, naturally grope for this God, and in finding the creator come to realize that we are children of God. That this God has sealed our fate in the resurrection of Jesus as a sign of the new life which attends God's transformative touch at the level of the soul.  At this juncture Paul builds upon the sensitivities of the people.

Then Paul begins to deconstruct. This God is not found in shrines, nor brought into existence by gold or stone. You do not serve this God by working in a temple to help satisfy an omnipotent clothing choice or meet a divine dietary need. Rather, this God is known directly through acts which take place in human history such as the creation of life, the rescue from bondage, the raising of Jesus. 

It strikes me that the Gay Rights Movement is the work of God in human history. As God raised Jesus, so God works to raise queer people of all stripes from the tomb of heterosexism sealed by the stone of homophobia. And like the message of Paul, so too the message of queer people of faith deconstructs the present religious sensibility. 

Queer spirituality, although far from a monolithic understanding, has in my mind brought into question some of the woefully inadequate spirituality of our own society. Queers celebrate a sex positive God, as opposed to the old sex negative deity of Victorian christianity. Queers celebrate a more fluid, shape-shifting God rather than the old static image of staid religion. Queers offer up a God who takes joy in the eroticism of creation instead of seeking to punish it as an evil by-product. Queers celebrate the God of camp who takes seriously the systemic evils of human culture and lampoons them with a holy humor which only the underbelly of society can truly laugh at. Queers are redeemed by the God who calls us to flourish as creation's children and not to fear the flesh and its desires. 

Queer spirituality resists any notion that seeks to subjugate us into "out" and "in." Queer spirituality treats with suspicion all ideas that classify some as "worthy" and others as "unworthy." Queer spirituality calls evil all that rejects mutual relationships in favor of hierarchical relationships. Queer spirituality refuses to acknowledge as "healthy" the rejection of sons and daughters, of friends and co-workers based on innate markers embedded deep in one's being. Like the crosswalk in Sydney, queer spirituality splashes color across a dab and grey religious culture.  

As with Paul, many will reject this new sensibility. Also like Paul we will continue to spread our understanding, casting the light of knowing onto the God who is still largely unknown.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Refusing the Meaninglessness of Death (Acts 7:55-60)

But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God's glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"
     Then they (the religious leaders) screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul (later known as the christian convert Paul). They were stoning Stephen as he called out: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin!" And saying this he fell asleep (died).
Acts 7:55-60 HCSB

     It is easy to miss that Stephen's death is brutal. The text has so romanticized the event we might be tempted to view it more as a beatific vision than a cruel loss of life. Stephen's vision of heaven sends the religious leaders into a tizzy, yet brings him peace. He is drug outside the city gates to be stoned to death, all the while remaining calm and serene. He dies with a prayer of forgiveness upon his lips "Lord, do not charge them with this sin!" An echo of Jesus' own prayer from the cross, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:24).

     Let us not deceive ourselves. As Wettlaufer painting, The Murder of Matthew Shepard, visualizes, martyrdom is brutal violence at the hands of others' hate and bigotry. Stephen died not as a blessed martyr. Stephen died as a punishment for being a perceived threat to order. What was so dangerous about Stephen was his understanding of Jesus as the Son of Man at the right hand of God. So destabilizing was the perception of his message that the religious rulers themselves picked up the stones and battered him into silence. His broken, lifeless body would have been considered a good thing for the sake of the people.  

     Similarly we sexual and gender diverse people are perceived by our detractors as a threat to order. It would seem there is little difference between the dynamics that allowed for Stephen's death and the dynamics that allowed for Matthew Shepard's and countless other queer deaths at the hands of hatred and bigotry. 

     Elizabeth Castelli in Martyrdom and Memory understands martyrdom to be a contest between domination and submission. Violence and marginalization are tools used by those seeking to dominate. I would add that fear and threat are also tools used to this end. The "queer closet" can only function when fear and threat hold sway over us. Of course the failure of fear and threat gives rise to violence as the means of domination. In Stephen's case, the failure of threats against the emergent christian faith gave rise to death by violence in a public setting. According to Castelli, martyrdom requires an audience. I am not so sure that it is martyrdom which requires the audience, although it does require memory, as Castelli rightfully notes. 

     I am more inclined to think that it is domination which requires the audience. How can we project threat and marginalization if no one witnesses our brutality and cowers appropriately Here I think of the need for the US government to be public concerning its "coercion" tactics with terrorists.

     Still, there is in Stephen's death something more than just the sheer brutality of domination. From a christian perspective, we do not remember Stephen for his violent end, rather we remember and celebrate Stephen as the first of many martyrs who surrendered their lives, but not their faith. Castelli has a wonderful insight, "Martyrdom can be understood as one form of refusing the meaninglessness of death itself, of insisting that suffering and death do not signify emptiness and nothingness…" (emphasis hers). By remembering and recalling those who died for their religion, their politics, or their community we turn the chaos and meaninglessness of brutality into the narrative of justice brought about, in part, by an unjust death.

     What I like about Castelli's insights is that she takes us out of the binary realms in which we tend to view brutal deaths. For her work, the binary categories are Rome and Christian. For us the categories are Straight and Queer. As Castelli notes, we should understand that the true categories are Dominate and Marginalized. Which in itself proves to be a destabilizing view. As a gay man I can count myself among the marginalized and justify my behavior as one fighting for right relationships. Yet, I'm also a white male heavily embedded with authority in the faith community I serve. In Stephen's story I could fit quite nicely with those who "screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears…" At what point do I work for justice, and at what point do I dominate? 

     It might be that what I need to emulate from Stephen and from Matthew Shepard is not their deaths. May be what I need to emulate is their lives. There is a primal call from the Author of Life not to die, but to live! To live so that our lives are on the line for what we hold dear. And if we honor in our living what we hold dear, then our deaths, even if brutal, have meaning for our living has meaning.