Narrating our Exodus

Growing sick and tired of seeing certain groups – including the Catholic Church hierarchy – use Scripture to support their anti-gay bias, I felt it necessary to retrieve from the Bible a message that counters this poison because I know that, running through the Scripture texts from the Old to the New Testament, there is such a message. I dare say that the main, underlying message of the Bible is in fact subversive, often going against the established order in human society. Scripture is like a crowbar that rips open any structure not based on justice, love and respect for all persons. That is why I find the message contained in Scripture to be delightfully subversive. I would like to share with you a number of biblical narratives and themes that have been a source of inspiration to me, a Catholic priest who also happens to be gay. Will this be an attempt at “queering Scripture”? Perhaps. I’ll let my readers decide that.

 

sculpture made of shackles and chains at the I...

Image by Anosmia via Flickr

I thought of starting by presenting the Exodus narrative, partly because in a couple of days’ time we’ll be starting Lent, but also because the book of Exodus acts as a backdrop to the rest of the Scripture message. The Exodus (Greek: “coming out from” or “departure”) – the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land – is, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the mother of all liberation narratives, a constant source of inspiration for all those who seek to embark on a journey towards freedom and full emancipation. Even the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is rooted in this story. In one account of the transfiguration episode (Luke 9:28-36), the gospel writer says that Jesus appears talking to Moses and Elijah. They “were speaking of his departure (Greek: exodon), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”(9:31) Luke plays on the word exodon (from exodus) to link Jesus’ death/departure with a movement of liberation, that of all humankind from the oppression of sin and death, thereby completing the Exodus story prefigured in the Old Testament. For our purposes, the Exodus acts as a springboard for our own narrative as gay and lesbian Christians, our own deliverance from an oppressive state of affairs to one of freedom and emancipation. It is not my competence to give a comprehensive commentary on the book of Exodus. Rather, I will point to a number of salient features encouraging the reader to personalise the narrative through the use of his or her imagination.

1. The background to the narrative

The Israelites in Egypt were descendents of Joseph and his brothers, a population that lived in the land for four centuries and contributed to its economic and political power. The oppression started when Pharaoh failed to recognise that one of the ancestors of this people had been held in high esteem (Joseph had been a former Pharaoh’s right-hand man). Pharaoh played on the Egyptians’ fear and envy. The Israelites were not simply subject to slavery, but also extermination – through the slaying of all the male children. The importance of this background detail is that the persecution was on the basis of an identity, in this case, the fact that they were Israelites (i.e. racial/ethnic identity). That is why the Exodus is the archetypal narrative for any oppressed or persecuted group; it is this discrimination and punishment on the basis of identity that strikes a chord. As queer men and women we know the story all too well, because so many of us have been singled out for physical abuse, derogatory remarks, all forms of discrimination, and in a number of cases death simply on the basis of our sexual orientation.

2. A cry for help

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. (Exodus 2:23b-25)

This text resonates through the Bible, reaching its highpoint in the Gospel narratives. Those who quote Scripture to condemn LGBT folk had better remember that the major leitmotif in the Bible is namely this: God is consistently on the side of the underdog, those who are downtrodden, unjustly treated, whose rights and dignity are trampled upon.

3. The burning bush experience

I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up. … “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (see Exodus 3:1-4:17)

One of the most interesting features of the Exodus narrative – and of utmost relevance to all liberation narratives in the history of humankind – is the attainment of a vision. The work of liberation is in human hands – even in the story of salvation, Jesus became man to save us. The person (or persons) entrusted with the task of spearheading a revolution or any form of change needs to have a vision, a sense of where the movement is heading for. The burning bush experience, this encounter with God, is the Bible’s way of explaining the source of the vision, as well as the power behind it. The history of the gay liberation movement is witness to several persons who, through their actions, helped hammer away the stone wall that stands between us and our freedom. Stages on the journey include: decriminalising of homosexual activity, depathologising homosexuality as a mental illness, the recognition of various rights, as well as equality of treatment. As more and more gays and lesbians come out of the closet, and at a younger age, the actualisation of the vision for the LGBT community draws nearer – a full integration in the community. I understand that many gays and lesbians have lost their faith in God because of their mistreatment at the hands of established religion. And yet, I sense that even beneath this “atheistic” shell, there lies a spiritual sensitivity waiting to be tapped – a gay mysticism that leads to fruitful activity in pursuit of this vision. I should also add here that, without perseverance in a vision, one is easily tempted to give up when faced with opposition, setbacks and disappointments.

Moses and the Burning Bush
Image by Cree – The natural Change in Urban Architecture via Flickr

4. “I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army”

Three times in chapter 14 of Exodus (in verses 4, 17 and 18) the Lord states:

“I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army.”

I have oftentimes wondered (and complained to God): what purpose does Pharaoh serve? To put it in other words, why must one struggle against forces that seem incredibly powerful to obtain one’s freedom and rights? Why does God allow the Church, and numerous groups in society, oppose so forcefully the full recognition of our identity and rights as gays and lesbians? Hard as it is to understand (and believe me, I’m in the heart of the struggle as a gay priest) I suspect that, at the end of the journey, what is achieved is more highly valued than had it been obtained without effort. The figure of Pharaoh also serves as an eye-opener to those opposing this onward movement: one day they will realise that they are on the wrong side of history, and will need to account for the stand they have taken.

5.      Playing games with Pharaoh?

Following the burning bush experience, Moses is sent by God with a specific request to Pharaoh:

“Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” (5:1)

As it results, after an increase in the severity of the plagues (read: a show of strength) Pharaoh attempts to put various conditions on Moses’ request:

“Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” (8:25-28; see also other conditions in 10:8-11; 10:24-27)

Attaching conditions to a request for total liberation from oppression in Egypt finds many echoes in the history of liberation movements: one need only look at the women’s movement to see how long-drawn the process can be. As gays and lesbians we are only too aware of the conditional acceptance we receive. Consider the following: “It’s ok if you’re gay as long as you don’t say anything and just act straight.” “He wouldn’t have been bullied hadn’t he seemed so gay.” “She was ostracised by her colleagues because she was too butch.” “I’ve got no issues with gays being partnered, as long as they don’t hold hands or kiss each other in public.” “Why are they fighting for marriage rights? Aren’t they satisfied that we’ve given them the possibility of being united civilly? What more do they want?” “Why do we need to include ‘sexual orientation’ in our list of what constitutes discrimination? Why should it be included in the hate-crimes list, or anti-bullying laws?” Or how about this latest gem, courtesy of our dear friend Bishop Matthew Clark: If they [priests] are openly gay in terms of living a lifestyle that is incompatible with their basic commitments, we have to intervene.” [Italics mine] (See Terry’s excellent post here).

The point I’m trying to make here is that, even as we see advances in the quest for gay liberation, there are persons who persist in their attempts to hem us in again, to somehow convince us to be content with less, to trade-off a hard-fought identity with acceptance by others in society. I think the message is clear: we shouldn’t allow that which is oppressing us set the terms for our freedom.

6.      Crossing the Red Sea

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (14:28-29)

There is a long tradition (starting from the NT) that sees the Red Sea passage as prefiguring Jesus’ death and resurrection, as well as the rite of baptism. The key idea is that only through death of the old can something new come to the fore. The change is total whether it is abrupt or in stages. When it comes to narrating our own exodus, starting from the process of coming-out, to full liberation and emancipation as queer folk, it is worth noting this point. Resistance to change does not only come from outside, but is also an internal struggle. Some may prefer to continue to take up the victim’s role instead of facing the challenges required by any move towards liberation. The clearer it is in our minds that at a certain stage there’s no turning back, the easier it becomes to focus upon the way forward. Cutting the umbilical cord is the first of many steps towards freedom and full maturity.

In summary, I conclude my comments on Exodus by saying that there are as many narratives as there are persons, and the twists and turns to the story may be different, but it is my belief that, as we read the Exodus text, we can identify with its basic message of courage and hope.

Suggested reading:

Gay Theology Without Apology (Gary D Comstock)

We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (Gustavo Gutiérrez)

Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (ed Robert Goss)

The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? (Rev Peter Gomes)

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