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.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Wanting (Psalm 23)

The Lord is my shepherd;
   I shall not want.
God maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
   God leadeth me besides the still waters.
God restoreth my soul:
   God leadeth me in paths of righteousness for God's name sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
   for you art with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
   You anoint my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
   and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Psalm 23, KJV adapted

When we encounter Psalm 23 in its King James translation, we encounter what the writer and atheist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. described as the most perfect poem in all the English language. Of course for people of faith we encounter the 23rd Psalm as an evocation of trust in God's abiding care. As sheep trust a shepherd, as soldiers trust their commander so we can trust God to keep us safe, to set a feast for us in the midst of our enemies. 

Rob Voyle of the Clergy Leadership Institute is fond of reminding me that "Trust is the ability to make vulnerable what you value to the actions of others." The sheep make vulnerable to the actions of the shepherd their very wellbeing. Likewise the soldiers place their lives within the commander's hands. Being a person of faith entails, in part, making vulnerable what we value to the actions of God. 

The psalm celebrates God's action as trustworthy. It affirms that all aspects of our lives - the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly - can be entrusted to the action of God to redeem, to honor, to restore. The bedrock of faith is this relationship between Creator and creature, between God and us. The psalmist  reminds us that simple trust - child like trust as Jesus puts it - is at the heart of our relationship with the Sacred. 

Unfortunately for sexually and gender diverse people, we have experienced an almost opposite promise than that of the 23rd Psalm. We encounter in some of those who represent God a flow of hate and contempt that we would never open ourselves up to and be vulnerable to. We would never hand over the things we value to those who promise to stomp them into the ground. We do not trust such people. We do not trust the god whose these people represent. So we encounter this psalm with disdain, for Psalm 23 does not speak to our experience. We have been left wanting.

We could leave the psalm here, dangling in the midst of our mistrust of God. We could, if it wasn't for the phrase "green pastures." This is a phrase that echoes and mirrors the same wording which appears in the opening creation narratives of Genesis. 

Time out for bible-nerds-stuff. We seek to date various passages of the bible in order to better understand the circumstances which give rise to the statements and stories. The Psalms are notoriously hard to date as they typically carry little or no historical narrative. A few do, most do not. We can though, date the opening chapters of Genesis. They date to the Babylonian Captivity of the Israelites. So we know that a phrase echoed in Psalm 23 did not exist as a written phrase until Israel, as a community of faith, was faced with the extinction of their relationship with God. 

We cannot throw this psalm back in the author's face, for the author has also lived through the underbelly of faith. From the author rose a cry of trust when all the evidence was saying, "Your God has abandoned you." This is not the voice of a simplistic faith, but rather the earnest statement of one who has been through the grist mill of life and came out saying, "Even in the valley of the shadow of death, God is with me."

Our story is there in the second half of the psalm. While it is the more formal and distant "Lord" who shepherds, it is the more intimate and close "You" who prepares a table for me. Where? In the midst of my enemies. Note the painting by Davis where in the midst of a mountain of skulls and in front of an army Divine Presence is still found. This might be what we queer people need to hear from our ancient ancestor in the faith: trust in God does not take us out of life's vagaries, but rather trust in God helps us to persist in the midsts of life's vagaries.