In my last post, I discussed how the letters of Paul are not as clear on the issue of homosexuality as many in the Church would prefer—indeed, of the two primary pericopae often utilized by “Christian” heterosexist pastors and theologians, the language is in some places quite murky. In contrast, however, Paul does iterate multiple times the absolute necessity of unity, fellowship, love, and submission to one another in the body of Christ. How then do we illustrate this to our congregations? How can the quickly growing field of biblical scholarship and gender studies begin to turn around such an ambling, socially and culturally stunted behemoth? I suggest that this might best be done by “queering” the Church.
This term, coined by literary queer theorists and theologians in the 1990s, refers to the reappropriation by a marginalized group of a word or object that was previously used to degrade, demoralize, and dehumanize members of that group. Great theological strides have been made in recent years in “queering the Bible,” that is, reading and studying the Bible from an LGBTQ perspective. In this particular case, “queering the Church” refers to the act of making the Church—an institution whose most recognizable public trait is homophobia—into not only an institution which is unashamed and unafraid of its gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, but an institution which openly embraces them. But the term “queering” has another connotation, as well: the action of setting apart, or “peculiarizing.” This is a notion that has deep roots in the liberation theology of the Exodus: “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger in your midst, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In queering the Church, we should hope not only to become opened to the LGBTQ community, but stand out among our culture as God’s peculiar, inclusive people, for the simple reason that at some point in our long history, we knew what it was like to be despised, persecuted, “queer.” Is this not the greater mission of the body of Christ?
While it should be observed that no persecuted group has ever achieved justice with a magical catchall sermon or speech, I would here like to briefly outline five specific ways in which our congregations and faith communities might begin to push forward in this dialogue.
1. Begin the conversation
People fear what they do not understand. The more an issue can be discussed, however, the closer our brothers and sisters in the church can be moved toward understanding. David L. Tiede spells out the responsibility of church and seminary leaders to their congregations and students:
Those who believe that the prevailing mores are unjust or oppressive must either garner the authority of the institutions which articulate and maintain the moral standards of the community or they must challenge that authority. Institutions such as seminaries, congregations, and church offices steward their legitimate authority in these matters more by persuasion than coercion. They must listen to the arguments of those who believe the standards are inept for the many or unjust to the few.
Sometimes the best way to initiate revolutionary change is to be open with our questions, and not be afraid to push back a little against the presumptions of others.
2. Illustrate the inherent misogyny that underlies homophobia.
As mentioned above, when the Bible is appealed to as a source of wisdom worthy of the so-called “problem” of homosexuality, it may be helpful to very carefully frame the issue within the historical context of misogyny in the ancient world. Most (though not all) modern Christians recoil from the accusation of sexism, and upon further discussion it will become evident to our congregations that our heterosexism is actually just thinly veiled sexism. As Martin claims, “The ancient condemnation of the penetrated man was possible only because sexist ideology had already inscribed the inferiority of women into heterosexual sex. To be penetrated was to be inferior because women were inferior.” If we confront our churches and ourselves with the knowledge that our historical hatred of gays and lesbians is less about sin and morality than it is about deep-rooted assumptions about the superiority of men to women, we can then repent and begin to press beyond such social structures.
3. Be your faith community’s Paul.
The Apostle Paul was perhaps the very first Christian contextual theologian, and we admire him for this. Should we not fulfill the same role for our congregations and faith communities that are struggling to accept gays into the family of God? Paul wrote on Kingdom ethics from a specific cultural and historical context. We should, therefore, also let our culture and historical context influence how we perceive Kingdom ethics today. It makes little sense to attempt to plug Paul’s contextual theology neatly into our own.
4. Value experience.
Our congregations have too long sat in the festering stagnant water of bibliolatry. When experience ceases to inform reason, and when scripture is treated as a god and not as a tool for communing with God, the Church will lose relevance. To prevent this, we must open ourselves to the moving of the Spirit in our lives, not restricting it to the pages of a book. It is criminally myopic for a church to publicly condemn gays without having ever met one. Actual face-to-face encounters with the LGBT community help to connect faces with the growing number of openly gay Christians who are struggling for a place in the Church, and it is hard to hate someone whom you know and love deeply. We simply cannot afford to place the Bible in such high esteem that we alienate and devalue the experience of others. Our churches need to develop a sensitivity to the Biblical text which is not often seen among people absolutely certain of the truth of their perspective, moving forward with fear and trembling.
5. Love.Above all, we must love. Often, those claiming to be moderates circumvent the issue of
homosexuality by proclaiming that we should “hate the sin, not the sinner.” Unfortunately,
what we have thus far failed to grasp is that hate is the sin, as described by Paul in the
opening verses of Romans 2. It is easy to isolate two verses in 1 Corinthians 6 and read
what we want to hear from them, giving ourselves permission to discriminate and
marginalize by right of Biblical authority. It is a much more difficult task to take in the
entire letter through the pivotal locus of 1 Corinthians 13: unless we infuse our discourse
with openhearted love, we are but clanging cymbals. And now, perhaps more than ever, is
when the public needs to hear the melody of the Church ringing clearly, a song of freedom