Tag Archives: LGBTQ

The Love of the Queer God

This post is my contribution to the Anarchist Reverend’s Queer Synchroblog 2012. For more information and others’ contributions, follow this link. Of course I alone am responsible for the content of this post.

“The problem is that it is easier to live without God than without the heterosexual concept of man. They need to be undressed simultaneously.” –Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology

This is, by all indications, a pretty good time for queer folk in North American Christianity, especially by historical standards. There is a tremendously long way for us to go towards widespread recognition, acceptance, and embrace in the church. Yet there are several quarters, including my own local congregation and the mainline Protestant denomination of which it is a part, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which are making great strides as we speak in the USA. Beyond the walls of institutional Christianity, LGBTQ equality, recognition, and acceptance continue to make great strides in American life.

Yet, as impolitic as it may be to say so, there are a lot of reasons we queer folk should be careful about this success. The diversity and fluidity—not to mention ambiguity—of sexualities, gender identities, and gender expressions exceeds any neat scheme of labels or norms. The rainbow flag doesn’t have room for enough stripes on it, and in any event the stripes tend to bleed into one another upon close examination. This isn’t to say that no language can give tentative expression to the complex mix that is desire, embodiment, action and expression as they condition one another in the context of concrete lives and bodies. It is just that when that language answers to demands that are essentially juridical—that arise from an interest in classifying and ordering our bodies, sexualities, and genders with a view to how these map onto the controlling expert discourses of law, science, politics and religion—that we are put at risk of losing ourselves in them. These discourses unbraid the braided cord of queer lives and knot it back together in ways that do violence to them in the name of normative purity, no matter how that purity is constructed (and by whom).

Attempts at LGBTQ-affirming discourses, especially those that attempt to reconfigure historically heteronormative ones, are of course welcome developments. It is utopian, after all, to expect that we might do away with controlling discourses altogether. They become a problem, though, when they become yet another means of production, manufacturing our lives and sexualities and inserting them into a reconfigured economy of symbolic and material exchange. Nothing exemplifies this tendency to me more than the struggle over same-gender marriage and marriage equality. For the record, I am not against marriage or against marriage equality—not in the least—although I do have critical reservations about marriage generally (I discuss those reservations here). I only mean to call attention to the fact that, absent a radical reworking, from its material basis up, of marriage, the movement for marriage equality, to the extent that it takes over as the central preoccupation of advocacy and activism, threatens to reinscribe queer life back within the same sexual economy that already produces heterosexual sexualities. A latter-day Marxist critique of late capitalism, if we pay attention to it, would caution us on just how resourceful  and durable existing modes of production and exchange have been in reabsorbing resistance, modifying it and manufacturing it for profit. The “new normal” that emerges digested through the gut of late capitalism ends up looking pretty much like the old normal, with the same wedding gifts and picket fences and tax credits, only with two tuxedos or two wedding dresses.

Where, in all of this, is God? Does God, can God, be located in it? Or is the very notion of trying to localize and normalize God part of the problem?

The interesting thing is just how much we seem to be able to live without God. This is the “problem” of which Althaus-Reid speaks in the quote that introduces this post. We do a fantastic job of configuring, regulating, and normalizing human life without any palpable trace of God having anything to do with it. Of course, a lot of this normalizing is done in the name of God—or at least in the name of a patriarchal, regulating, normalizing God. But doing it in God’s name doesn’t mean that God has anything in particular to do with it, even if it happens to be wildly successful. Of course that is up to God, not me.

But this is not the God I encounter in prayer and Scripture and tradition, or at least not the only one. There is the queer God, the God who is bigger than all boundaries. The queer God—not really a different God than the “straight” God, but instead God “queered,” God seen through the lens of queer experience and queer bodies—is a reminder that God refuses to be localized and subsumed under our controlling narratives. The queer God is the God whose love cannot be domesticated, whose love cannot be reabsorbed into an economic system. God may allow God’s name to be minted on the currency of normative sexual exchange in the form of marriage and sexual purity narratives, but the coinage is not God. The only gift that God has to give us that isn’t already given to us, by God or by ourselves, before we are in a position to acknowledge it as such, is that of the love itself, given naked and without any other exchange value beyond the love we return. The encounter with Jesus, stripped of theories of atonement and their preoccupation with historical economies, gives us the wine-swilling vagrant, the guy who should have settled down ages ago but instead roams around Palestine with a bunch of men and women of questionable character tweaking the noses of the authorities and mobilizing the poor and the sick and doing God knows what else. Some people say he is married, but he steadfastly denies it.  

The queer God’s love is love without a safety net, love without insurance policies of vows or joint bank accounts, love that survives solely on our ability to trust it without any ability for us to hold it accountable if it should fail us. The queer God is the lover we can never marry, the one who can’t acknowledge us in public, the one with no money, the one who loves us fiercely but who has no desire whatsoever to settle down with just us and no intention of doing so. The queer God is the one who can’t go to church with us but whose text messages we read and cherish in the pew. The queer God is the one who makes us feel like the one and only, yet we know that God has lovers all over the place with bodies of every description. The queer God is the one who lies sick and dying with no lover by their side; and yet the queer God escapes even death and separation itself, since their love was never bound to just here and now and you in the first place, and it is always with you no matter what happens.

I will leave it up to keener minds than my own to figure out what this love might yet do in the world, how it might yet end up respectable, how it might in fact coax us in the direction of a world that turns on something more important than respectability. That is up to God, though, not me. The best I can do is to say that I follow it the best I can, knowing it can hurt and wound, knowing that it might just be the death of me. But if it is, I shall die with joy in my heart; and it is a joy that all, queer or otherwise, can share.

Won’t you join me?

OTHER POSTS! READ ALL OF THESE AMAZING FOLKS!

The Anarchist Reverend shares his thoughts on the Queer Christ over on the Camp Osiris blog.

Peterson Toscano shares “The Lost Gospel of Thaddeus.”

Shirley-Anne McMillan writes about Mother Christ.

Adam Rao shares why he is not participating in today’s synchroblog.

Kaya Oakes writes about God, the Father/Mother.

Brian Gerald Murphy talks about A God Bigger Than Boxes.

Clattering Bones writes about The Queer God.

Daniel Storrs-Kostakis writes writes about An Icon of God.

Jack Springald writes about Avalokitesvara and queering gender.

Amaryah Shaye Armstrong writes about Inclusion and the Rhetoric of Seduction.

Jamie-Sue Ferrell shares Love, Us.

Unchained Faith writes about The Breastfeeding Father.

Harriet Long writes Re-membering My Body – The Queer God, The Queer Christ & Me.

Grace writes about What the Queer God Means to Me.

Church, Queer Inclusion, and Relatedness: Four Reflections

A few days ago, Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), published a pastoral letter addressing the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. You can read the letter here.

Watkins’ letter has many virtues, but it is a bit disappointing in that it does not take a decisive stand on any of the first-order issues of theology, ethics, Biblical interpretation, and sexuality that divide individuals and congregations in the CCDOC. Instead it attempts to strike a note of reconciliation among Disciples on all sides of the issues, emphasizing (in true Disciples fashion) that the communion table welcomes everyone. It is a position that manages to be so inoffensive that it is fated to satisfy no one completely. It sends people with an investment in clear theological and political ground home empty-handed, and it annoys all of those people who wish that the conversation would just turn towards anything else but this. Making statements like these is a thankless task, and the discussion I have seen of it bears out this fact.

For me, Watkins’s letter occasioned a fourfold set of thoughts that I will share here in no particular order. I don’t know how to bring my thoughts under a single guiding principle, much less to a point where I can give a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessment of what Watkins says. My thoughts are more complicated than that.

So, in all their messiness, here are my four reactions.

1. The False Divide

There is a tendency throughout discussions of Christianity and LGBTQ folk to paint the following picture of how they relate to one another. On the one side is the church, with its internal struggles over the attitude it should take towards LGBTQ people, and on the other are LGBTQ people themselves, who are implicitly depicted as excluded from and marginalized by the church. From within this picture, we might expect statements like Watkins’s pastoral letter to bridge that gap or otherwise communicate across it.

This picture itself, which frames so much of the discussion of LGBTQ concerns in the CCDOC and in the wider church, bothers me far more than anything the letter did or didn’t say. While it is true that a lot of churches have marginalized and excluded queer folk, we are nevertheless here in church in worship and service, and I think we always have been. The picture of the church and the queer community on opposite sides of a gulf, with a debate on whether and how to bridge it, is just inaccurate, or at least overly simplistic.

That picture is also counterproductive and dangerous, in that it implicitly and presumptively identifies the church with straight people and straightness. This sets up a dynamic in which (presumptively straight) Christians appear to be debating one another over whether to share their blessings, privileges, benefits, and fellowship with poor, shivering, lonely queer folk outside. It’s a rather patronizing attitude when you think about it. It defines queer folk as victims, deprives us of agency, and fails to recognize that God may be– that God is– at work blessing us and the lives we already lead. There are those of us who want to live in Christian community with straight folks, who see it as our Christian calling to seek a wide community, but that can’t happen in a meaningful way if we are perpetually viewed as passive recipients of moral and theological charity. Community doesn’t work like that; at least not Christian community as I understand it. No one gets to occupy a seat of untouched moral privilege and come away from encounters completely unchanged and unchallenged. That goes for queer folk as well, of course. This point is intimately bound up with the transformation and redemption God seeks to work in us and through us all in community– the “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) in us through God in Christ.

2. Justice, Power and Abuse

Much of the advocacy in support of full LGBTQ inclusion in church is done in the name of the church’s social justice concerns, and specifically in the name of speaking with a clear voice on equal civil rights for LGBTQ people. Many compare the current struggle for marriage equality to the civil rights movement and seek for churches to take the prophetic stances now that so many churches did then. If the church’s investment in LGBTQ concerns is supposed to be first and foremost as a matter of social justice and civil rights, then Watkins’s letter probably doesn’t further that cause appreciably. It may even be part of the problem to the extent that it fails to acknowledge that the current state of affairs within the church is frequently unjust.

Part of my above point that queer folk are already in and associated with church is that the issues of welcome and inclusion at stake are as much about what happens in our churches as it is about the face we present to the outside. The tragedy of LGBTQ people and churches is not always that the church doors are shut to us, but that often we started out in church but experienced breathtaking abuse there at the hands of our Christian brothers and sisters. That has not been my personal story, I’m glad to say, but it has been the story of too many others. In that context, Watkins’ conciliatory tone in her pastoral letter rankles a bit, almost certainly without meaning to do so. Christian communities are notorious for using the language of forgiveness and reconciliation to which Watkins appeals to turn a blind eye to abusers’ misconduct, officially erasing it, and then telling the abused and violated that the abuse is their fault and that the moral and spiritual burden is exclusively on them to reconcile with their abusers. Too often, when the powerful abuse the less powerful in church, it is the abused who are saddled with the exclusive burden of reconciling with their abusers. This is a pattern of (mis)conduct in the church that goes far beyond its treatment of queer folk, but the experience of many queer folk in churches is like this.

Let me be absolutely clear that I am not accusing Sharon Watkins herself of any such attitude, nor of condoning or approving it in others. I am just highlighting how, context considered, the language to which she appeals can have precisely the opposite effect than the one she intends. Christian churches need to look their history of spiritual abuse square in the face, own up to it, and exercise far more sensitivity to the contexts and power dynamics at play when they deploy the language of forgiveness and reconciliation. Everybody, queer folk included, has to be ready to engage in difficult, painful conversations to make a wider Christian community work, but it can’t happen authentically if queer folk have to bear all of the risks and the burdens in those conversations.

3. A Broader Conversation About Relatedness

If one expects the church to exercise a voice in the public debate over LGBTQ rights and in issue advocacy, Watkins’ letter doesn’t do that. It doesn’t address the issues prevalent in the wider public debate, foremost among them marriage equality, and it doesn’t position the CCDOC clearly in that coveted position of an alternative Christian voice to the conservative Christian voices that are clearly against equal rights for queer folk.

I have a hard time being critical of Watkins on this score, however, because I find so much of the politics surrounding this expectation confining. This is the part where I say some things that many people, including many queer folk, may find impolitic or misguided. I crave your patience, though, because I feel like this is an important and underserved point.

Let’s take the focus on marriage equality for a moment. Marriage equality is a matter of equal rights under the law, this is true, and so there is a pure civil rights and social justice case to be made for speaking out in support of it. Churches should have something to say about marriage equality. But access to marriage is not the only equal rights and social justice issue for the LGBTQ community. The nice gay couple may not be able to get married, and some churches are saying good things about why that’s a problem. But why aren’t more churches talking about (to pick but a single example) the issues of our trans* folk who run the risk of harassment and discrimination over simply using a public restroom? Some Christians and some churches are having those conversations, but not enough. I for one would love to have that conversation in church, and I would love to have it in a context that was prepared to give pride of place to trans* folk and their experiences.

Even if we stick with marriage equality for the time being, which is the big advocacy focus right now, it’s unclear to me why the actual rights at stake in that debate, especially the civil and economic rights that are bound up with the equal rights and equal protection issues, are one and all best respected by shoehorning same-gender couples into state-sanctioned marriages that mirror those of opposite-gender couples. This is one way to do it, obviously, but is it the best way, all things considered? Why is it important or in the best interests of queer folk to level the playing field that way? Why not instead reduce or eliminate the special rights that marriage confers on anyone, straight or queer? What compelling state interest does the state have in promoting marriage for anyone, and might those interests be better served in some way other than marriages? And (to come back to the church for a second) just what stake does the church have in the institution of marriage as it currently exists anyway? Have we even had that discussion? What would we learn about the historically contingent heteronormativity of the church if we had that discussion, especially if, as I argue to anyone who will listen, marriage is a thoroughly heteronormative institution as it currently exists? Is marriage an unalloyed good for either queer folk or for the church? Why do we seem to think we know the answer to that question before it is even asked?

A lot of you probably find my line of questioning here naively speculative or too radical and unrealistic. I admit that it is the road less traveled, and that in the short term, at least, marriage equality is the LGBTQ issue that has the best chance of gaining widespread traction. But at the same time, I am thoroughly convinced that there is a broader social conversation brewing of which the current discussions of marriage and family and gender roles in the nuclear family that dominate in Christian circles are only a symptom. It is a broader conversation about all of the forms of relatedness: a conversation about family (biological and chosen), about love and sex and gender, about community, about friendship and kinship and membership and everything else in between. All of the ties that bind are fluid and under reexamination. They always are to some extent, I guess, but my gut tells me that there are big shifts on the horizon. Yet not enough voices in the church (or in the broader social discussion) are speaking to that looming conversation; we are still on that small piece of it called marriage and family and sweating the question of what to do with that.

I think our faith has deep resources for speaking to this broader fluidity in the forms of community and kinship, partly because the church has lived through so many structural transformations in social institutions over the last two millennia. Churches are one of the last institutions to lay claim to a form of historical consciousness that extends further back than one or (maybe) two generations. Church is where we can encounter the living God who seeks to carry us forward into a better future.
For much of the American public, though, church may also be their most accessible point of regular access to historical memory and meaningful reflection in the form of art, song, poetry, and ideas. Think of the untapped spiritual and historical resources we could offer to help guide reflection on life in community and relationship if we apply ourselves to the task! That is a conversation I want to be a part of.

4. The Messy Work of Relationships

My final thought occasioned by Watkins’s letter is that it is possible to pin too high a hope on official proclamations from senior authorities. Those proclamations are, when they are robust and stake out much-needed moral territory, quite valuable and welcome. But I am not sure that they change anyone’s mind by themselves. They may be the occasion for the conversations and encounters between actual people that lead to real change. Or they may be a wedge that drives people apart and into enclaves where they go to gripe about how unreasonable the “other side” is being. They may do both.

I am convinced that the way forward for all of us lies less in the quality of our public pronouncements and more in the quality of our communities and relationships. Perhaps I think this because I am good at pronouncements and terrible at relationships, and we sometimes most value what we ourselves are not. What I do know is that, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, my Christian community and relationships have borne me up and saved me in a way that no proclamation ever has. It has done so by allowing me the space to be fully honest, or as near to it as I can manage, and giving others the space to be fully honest with me. If churches are able to be anything like this place of honesty for people, we shall ultimately not go far wrong.