A Queer-Centric Christology

Dear Friends,

I write an open letter given our recent conversation on Face Book in which, from one quip, a lot of misunderstanding abounded. What was intended as a witticism quickly became a concern for the correct, and shall I say “obedient,” understanding of Jesus on my part. 

Upon looking back, I do need to thank you for your correction, and concede that any remark about Jesus contains within it a nascent Christology or understanding of Jesus beyond the stated context. Still, we do need to acknowledge that context circumscribes and limits the extraction of Christological data from any given source. 

So where do I stand on Christ the central figure of the expression of the faith we share? That’s a weighty question deserving the hearing of a weighty answer.  

I suspect dear friends that you begin your reflections upon Jesus through the witness of the written record which we call the New Testament or Greek Scriptures. I start from another place, not to the exclusion of the biblical witness, but rather a place that helps makes sense of the mechanics through which the scriptures witness.  

Tom F. Driver noted that theology is but commentary on our experience of God. So it is for me that Christology is commentary on our experience of Jesus. I add that Christology is also commentary on the hope we place in Jesus. This holds true for the writers of the Greek Scriptures. Even if they had known Jesus personally, as some maintain, what the writers left are reflections on their experience of  and hope in Jesus, thus a christology-as-commentary. 

Their nuanced and beautiful commentary tends to be structured around the “titles” by which they sought to communicate the Jesus event to others and ultimately to us. Hence we have “Christ,” “Lord,” “Savior,” “Suffering Servant,” “Son of God,” and “High Priest” among others. By these titles they sought to witness to the particularity of Jesus.

Focusing on the four gospel writers, the favored title seems to be “Son of Man” – John may be an exception with the title Logos providing the ordering rubric of Christology.

"Son of Man" originates, as far as a written title, in the biblical book of Daniel. We can assume that the title had a history prior to and after its use here. In Daniel it is the “Son of Man” who shall come and prove the rescuer or savior of the Jews in the Diaspora by judging the foreign authorities which hold the Jews under their heel. The title has both religious and political overtones which we would expect in a time when the religious and political were one category and not separate groupings as they are today. For the ancients, God ruled through the ruler. For the faithful today, God rules in our hearts, regardless of the ruler.  

Did Jesus self-consciously use this title? Only a debatable answer can be given. What we do know is that the biblical gospels freely used this description. I assume this indicates the early church used “Son of Man” as a favored title for Jesus as well. It would make since given the Church’s experience of being a Diaspora Community under the heel of Rome and within the strictures of a Hellenistic endowed culture. For sure this description gave those “outlawed” ancestors of the faith an insight as to who Jesus was for them in their need, and thus was used as commentary on their experience of and hope in Jesus.  

As you know my friends, the title “Christ” is also used in the Greek Scriptures. The word is a Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah” meaning “anointed.” Here too is a concept freighted with culture and history from ancient Israel. Two major figures in Judah underwent public anointing, the king and the high priest. Muddling the political/religious ties are individuals (like the prophets) who declared a spiritual anointing directly from God.  

Which of these historical antecedents is the best way to understand the use of the title “Christ” in the Greek Scriptures? Do they all apply, as the "Offices of Christ" approach seems to imply? If so, are they equal, or is one slightly nuanced among the others? As a title that Jesus seems to have despaired, for his fear of it being misunderstood – and my friends this is the point of the messianic secret in Mark – can the title Christ/Messiah be appropriately mapped on the Jesus event post-Easter?

The use of this title also raises one of the more vexing questions in Christology: When was Jesus anointed? That is, when did Jesus become conscious of and claim the authority of being the messiah (if he ever did)? Do we point to his baptism as Mark seems to do? Do we push it back to his conception as Luke and Matthew indicate? Is it that John and Paul have the root of it with a sense of Jesus having been anointed for all time, as the eternal second person of the Trinity? 

While this dialogue remains unanswered in the scriptures - giving fodder for the Christological debates of later generations - the adoption and use of the title “Christ” spoke to the deep life and breath of early, emergent christianity. Certainly during the more imperial time of the Church in Europe this title, along with “Lord,” ascended to primacy and thus commentary of the Medieval Church's experience of and hope in Jesus.

No doubt these titles, whether consciously understood or unconsciously felt, feed many loving and faithful followers of Jesus today. A hardy "Here! Here!" to that.

But the titles given to Jesus are not evenly experienced.

Here is where my christology-as-commentary diverges from yours. For us who self-identify as queer – and my friends this is my primary self-identification, not “liberal” - Christ has not been experienced as salvation, rescue, or liberation. Rather Christ has been experienced as judgment, oppression, and condemnation. There is no light in this One, who through the auspicious of the Church, brings darkness and pain. Our experience is that Christ is against creation. 

Do not fret my friends, I know this is a reversal of the very life that Jesus seeks to offer. Yet, there it is. Christ is the bogey man. The One in whose name we have been tossed out of families. The One in whose name we have been denied partners. The One in whose name we have been tied to fence posts and left to die. This christology-of-terror is a stark commentary on the queer experience of and lack of hope in Jesus.

Let me pause here my friends to acknowledge that it is tenuous at best to speak for a group as widely diverse as are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual , and queer gender people. I further am aware of the pull of experience toward narcissism as has been aptly demonstrated among christian theologians throughout the history of the Church. Finally, I confess that as a gay man who celebrates and takes joy in a mix-orientation-marriage my experience is nuanced – although far from a singular occurrence – in the queer community.

Still, if I am to be Christologically honest, I must acknowledge the effects of christologies-of-terror on my own life journey and especially on my experience and understanding of Jesus - the rub of the Face Book conversation.

It should not surprise you my friends that some of the commentary I give to my experience of Jesus comes in the form of protest. For example, my little quip which started this conversation – Would Jesus, the one who opens up new life, seek to put Christ the oppressor, in Christmas? I know friends it was the shorthand version which you read, “Would Jesus put Christ in Christmas?” – it was Face Book after all.

From the queer point of view this is a laden question. It has nothing to do with secular celebrations versus sacred celebrations, which I think is where misunderstanding occurred. This question instead has to do with the queer experience of loneliness and ostracism from families and friends during the holidays time of the year due to the anti-queer stance of some expressions of the christian faith. The church has gifted many queers and straights alike with the carol, "Silent Night, Lonely Night."

That this was misunderstood, even after attempts of more precise articulation, speaks to the unexamined sway of the hetero-centric view of Christology among North American, middle class, white males. I found it curious that the females adding voices to the conversation on Face Book were more understanding of the issue being raised. (Is this the affirmation of protest by one historically ecclesiastically oppressed group of another such group?)

Protest by its very nature includes a critique of the status quo. I agree with other noted queer thinkers that one of the greatest gifts queers bring the wider community is protest and social critique. I disagree with my comrades as to the locus of the impulse for protest. It cannot reside within us. If that is its sole location it is too shallow, and all we shall accomplish is the replacement of one hegemony with another.

If protest is to be culturally transformative its source must be outside of us. Something or someone who calls us to a societal development that is inclusive, respectful, and holds us accountable for our relationships  As Jesus indicates, the love of our neighbors and our enemies.

I should say, that because of the teaching of my faith, I acknowledge this something or someone as Jesus.  But instead  I acknowledge this “someone” as Jesus due to my experience of Jesus as the One who loved me when I was unsure if anybody else did, and so gave me hope.

An example of Jesus-as-protest-and-critique is the scriptures tortured affirmation of slavery (Textual Harassment). I believe that slavery is wrong. I believe the bible is wrong in supporting slavery. I believe this because the crucified One stands in protest of the forces which deny life and subjugate dignity, even if the application of these forces can be argued from the bible.

My friends, the most succinct Christological statement I can make is: Jesus is the embodiment of God's kingdom. Through his healing, his teachings, his death and resurrection Christ embodies God's kingdom as protest against powers and empires which seek to marginalize and subjugate. The arrival of God's kingdom in Jesus among the ostracized and downtrodden is a cosmic protest against attitudes which tyrannize.

A discussion by Jakob Hero articulates both the protest and the salvation that God's-kingdom-among-the-marginalized offers. Hero builds upon the work of Grace M. Jantzen in distinguishing between a "language of salvation" and a "language of flourishing," noting that both denote and reinforce a particular understanding of the human condition.

"If we think in terms of salvation, then the human condition must be conceptualized as a problematic state in which humans need urgent rescue… The human situation is a negative one… " In contrast, if we think in terms of flourishing "We could then see human beings as having a natural inner capacity and dynamic, being able to draw on inner resources and interconnections with one another in the web of life, and having the potential to develop into great fruitfulness… (T)he metaphor of flourishing would lead to an idea of the divine source and ground, an imminent divine incarnated within us and between us."  ("Toward a Queer Theology of Flourishing" in Queer Religion, Vol 2: LGBT Movement and Queer Religion,  pg. 148.)

I disagree with Hero and Jantzen in that I do not think we can use the language of flourishing or the language of salvation to the exclusion of the other. Otherwise we fall prey to reducing the human experience to a one dimensional plane - a bit of a reversal of Pentecost where we hear the good news in the diversity of language, not by reducing all languages into one. However, I do agree with Hero and Jantzen that the church has traditionally emphasized salvation to the exclusion of flourishing. Those who have been oppressed by the anthropology assumed by the language of salvation can and do find valid liberation in the anthropology assumed by the language of flourishing.

I state that Jesus, as the embodiment of God's kingdom, brings salvation and flourishing as commentary on my experience of Jesus and the hope this experience gives rise to. The One who entered into genuine and authentic relationship with me, the One who said, “God created you gay, let no one call you an abomination, for you are complete in God’s sight,” the One who touched my deepest humiliation. This one is Jesus, the protest-and-critique of all things life denying, God's kingdom come.

Blessings unto you!

No comments:

Post a Comment