“Can gays, lesbians and transgender people be evangelical Christians? ” is a question asked at Huffington Post, introducing a preview of a forthcoming cover story at Maisonneuve magazine: “Gays for God: The Queer Evangelical Movement is Coming out of the Closet”. The simple answer to the question is of course “Yes!” - LGBT evangelicals do exist, in great numbers, in organized groups for every denomination, in all regions of the world, and have done since the 1970′s. There are more important and more interesting questions to be asked (and to be fair to Maisonneuve, it appears to be these that the article in fact addresses, not the rather simplistic one presented by Huffpost).
In it’s own publicity material (see below), the magazine presents these questions as:
- Was Jesus gay?
- Why should it be controversial to portray Jesus as a gay man?
- How can we explain the paradox of the evident existence, and growth, of the LGBT evangelical movement?
Was Jesus gay? That’s the implicit question posed by our cover, which depicts the Son of God wrapped in a rainbow shroud. The image, photographed by Kourosh Keshiri and designed byAnna Minzhulina, is arresting and provocative. But that raises another key question: why should it be controversial to portray Jesus as a gay man? Christ is love, after all—and, as Clancy Martin reports in “Gays for God,” Maisonneuve’s Fall 2012 cover story, a growing movement of queer evangelicals seeks to permanently banish homophobia from the American religious right. Although many liberal churches promote gay rights, this movement is uniquely ambitious: it challenges conservative evangelism from within the faith, putting itself on a collision course with the country’s most right-wing religious leaders. As the US presidential election approaches, cultural issues like same-sex marriage have galvanized voters on both sides, but gay evangelists offer a third way: it’s possible, they say, to be both queer and Christian. After all, God made us who we are.
As the article has not yet been published, I’ve obviously not yet read it. They are important questions though, for Catholics and other Christians as well as for evangelicals, and I offer here my own thoughts in response, prompted by my current reading of some thought – provoking books dealing with them, directly or indirectly.
Was Jesus gay?
As I’ve argued several times before, it’s entirely inappropriate to claim that he was “gay” in any modern sense, which is completely anachronistic for Biblical times. It’s also completely inappropriate, as Dale B Martin points out (Sex and the Single Savior), because we simply have no firm evidence of Jesus’ specific sexuality. Martin believes that he was sexually ascetic and so celibate, Theodore Jennings (The man jesus loved) argues that he had a sexual relationship with the “Beloved Disciple”, others have argued that he had an intimate relationship with Mary of Magdalene. The fact is though, these are arguments in support of propositions, not conclusive evidence that can settle the matter one way or the other. It is no more valid to state categorically that he had sex with men, or with women, than it is to insist that he was totally celibate. We just don’t know for certain.
However, by adjusting our terminology, there is something we can assert with great confidence: to adopt a modern term, Jesus certainly may be thought of as “queer”: in both queer theory and queer theology, the whole point of the concept is that it moves beyond thinking of people in simplistic terms of fixed identities – beyond a male/ female dichotomy, beyond gay/lesbian / bi or straight, beyond ethnic, religious or class labels. A prominent theme coming through José Pagola’s “Jesus: an Historical Approximation“ is that this is one dominant lesson in the Gospels, evident in both Jesus’ example and explicit teaching. One could argue that issues of sexuality, or specific sexual behaviour, are simply irrelevant to him.
As queer theorists and queer theologians like Susan Cornwall observe (Controversies In Queer Theology), “queer” is a much broader term than just that covered by the acronym LGBT – or LGBTQI, or any other, which by specifying what is included, automatically excludes all others. Indeed, it is perfectly possible for a conventionally married heterosexual to identify as queer (just as Cornwall herself does). No matter what sexual pigeon – hole we try to force Jesus into, whether gay, straight and sexually active, celibate or asexual – we would still have to think of him as essentially queer, in that he simply looks beyond all arbitrary labels, to treat all people equally, and demands that we do the same.
Can we portray Jesus as a gay man?
It follows immediately that even leaving aside Jesus’ personal sexual orientation or practice, we can and probably should think of him, and so portray him, as queer – and the rainbow flag denotes all queer sexualities, not only the familiar four “LGBT” variants. At Jesus in Love blog, Kittredge Cherry offers another example, where she wrote recently about the artist Carlos Latuff’s portrayal of Christ wearing a rainbow flag instead of the more usual white loincloth. The point, she notes, is not to suggest that Christ was gay, but to show his solidarity with the oppressed:
He created the digital artwork to show Christ’s opposition to religion-based prejudice against queer people. “I support LGBT movement 100 percent,” Latuff told the Jesus in Love Blog.
Latuff’s gay Christ is related to liberation theology, which states that God sides with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience. By becoming one with oppressed people through Jesus Christ, God feels pain wherever people are attacked and humiliated. The gay Jesus embodies God’s solidarity with queers.
But there is also a strong case, at least for gay men, for portraying him not only as queer, in the sense of a straight ally looking beyond sexual identities to the person within, but even as specifically gay in the modern sense. This is because in portrayals of Jesus, we are not necessarily attempting to present an authentic image of who the historical Jesus really was, but also we are presenting how we think of him in our prayer and relationship with him, or for other theological reflection. If thinking of him as gay helps in this, we should use it.
This may sound offensive to some people, but there is excellent precedent: Dale Martin demonstrates in “Sex and the Single Savior” how so much of the conventional image of Christ is in fact based on heterosexual assumptions. If there is no conclusive evidence that Jesus was gay (either celibate or sexually active), there is equally no conclusive evidence that he was straight – either celibate, or otherwise.
If this is difficult to accept immediately, there is another important precedent, which will be more immediately recognizable. In “Christology from the Margins“, Thomas Bohache traces the development of a specifically queer Christology, by considering the earlier examples of Black and feminist Christology. When Black artists and theologians began to portray or write about Christ as Black, there was an outcry from those who had come to think of him automatically and necessarily as White – just as many centuries of European artists had portrayed him. This Eurocentric image however, was clearly inaccurate for man from the Middle East, who would certainly have been ethnically Semitic rather than Caucasian. And so, portrayals of a Black Jesus, or a Black Madonna, are at least as valid as their “White” counterparts – as in Lawrence Scully’s “The Madonna and Child of Soweto“, which hangs in the church of Regina Mundi, Soweto.
In similar vein, others have prepared portrayals of Christ which clearly do NOT represent the historical figure, but which are nevertheless valuable in their own way – like the “Christa” images promoted by some feminist theology (see “Female Christ in Arts” for a selection).
Queer and Catholic
In spite of the poor messages coming out of the Vatican and strenuously promoted by their loyalists, the sexual rule book is not central to Catholic teaching or values. Service to others, including a commitment to justice, equality, and the preferential option for the poor, is – just as these ideas are pervasive throughout the Gospels. On the other hand, Christ had almost nothing to say about sexual ethics, beyond criticism of divorce and adultery. In considering them in cultural context, however, Pagola shows clearly that this criticism is not because they are sexual offences, but because Jewish law was so one-sided in favour of the man. Men were given substantial freedom to divorce their wives, which would often leave them destitute, but women had no similar recourse against abusive husbands. Adultery was punished as a crime of property against her husband, and in the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery, it was the woman, not her male partner, who was threatened with stoning. So, Christ’s words on these, says Pagola, had more to do with equal treatment of women and men than with puritanical standards of sexual behaviour. We may deduce further, that just as Christ was promoting equality between women and men, and between a range of other social categories without passing judgement on any of them, he would have promoted equality of treatment between all sexual identities, without distinction – a very queer outlook.
In the development of first gay and lesbian theology, and later queer theology, it is striking how many Catholic theologians have been prominent. The Jesuit John McNeill was one of the first, with “The Church and the Homosexual“, Richard Cleaver’s “Know My Name: A Gay Liberation Theology ” was one of the first as gay theology took on board the ideas of liberation theology, and another Jesuit, Richard Goss, in “Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto” and “Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up” pioneered the transition from gay liberation theology to queer theology. Significantly, Goss rooted this transition firmly in a fresh emphasis on Christology. Later notable Catholic contributions to queer theology include Elisabeth Stuart (“Religion is a Queer Thing“ and Gerard Loughlin (“Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body ”), among many others.
So, it is easy and even necessary to accept that queer (in its broadest sense) and Catholic are perfectly compatible. But to be specifically gay or lesbian is also compatible with Catholicism. Our counterparts have featured throughout Church history, as saints and martyrs, popes, bishops, abbots and abbesses. Contrary to popular belief, there is no biblical evidence against loving same – sex relationships, and a substantial amount in favour. Most ordinary Catholics are more supportive of LGBT equality than other people, and reject the Vatican prohibitions – just as they reject the Vatican rules on contraception, cohabitation and masturbation. A substantial proportion of professional Catholic theologians (possibly a majority of those not directly dependent on the Vatican for their livelihoods) agree that the doctrine must be changed. Even some bishops are now promoting a shift in emphasis from genital acts, to the quality of relationships.
Queer and Evangelical
For evangelical Christians, the challenge is more difficult, with the pressures substantially greater: whereas Catholic support for equality is greater than for the population at large, research consistently shows that Evangelical Christians are the most hostile. This puts huge pressure on those who identify as both LGBT and Christian. Maisonneuve’s editor-in-chief Drew Nelles notes that
They identify with the broader evangelical movement in the U.S. But it’s a huge problem because the evangelical movement is arguably the most powerful homophobic force in the country.
Although many liberal churches promote gay rights, this movement is uniquely ambitious: it challenges conservative evangelism from within the faith, putting itself on a collision course with the country’s most right-wing religious leaders.
It’s not an easy road for these activists, as Martin explains in the piece. Their sexual orientation makes them targets within their church and their religious beliefs make them distrusted among the LGBT community. Martin also writes about the differences of opinion that exist among LGBT evangelicals on matters as thorny as religious doctrine and how they should relate to other gay activists and other Christians.
They call themselves LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) evangelicals. They are among the kindest, gentlest people I know. They are also among the most unwanted and unrecognized. But they are determined—and their numbers are growing.
-quoted at Huffington Post, Canada
This growth, in the face of so much hostility, would seem inexplicable – until we recognize that as with the Catholics, the hostility comes from people in the churches, not from fundamental evangelical principles, which point in the other direction. My (admittedly limited) understanding of evangelical faith is that it is strongly grounded in a firm commitment to Jesus Christ, as personal saviour and model – exemplified in the familiar question “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD), and faithful adherence to the biblical message, through personal reading and study.
“What Jesus Would Do”, on LGBT inclusion, should be clear, as already discussed above. The man who had almost nothing to say about sexual matters, who famously went about with prostitutes and tax collectors, who warned against judging others, and who deliberately sought out the most marginalized people in the community, would certainly not have excluded us. So it is that in addition to LGBT people themselves, a growing number of evangelical Christians, especially from the younger generation and from groups that have experienced discrimination themselves, are concluding that the clear example of Jesus Christ himself overrides their own personal misgivings on gay marriage, and have instead become straight allies.
At Everyday Citizen, an article by Angelo Lopez on Evangelicals for Gay Rights bundles together quotes from a wide range of sources dealing with the subject, including:
To Latino evangelicals, says Mr Salguero, caring for the poor and “the stranger among us” are moral and religious issues, and collectively they trump similar issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, on which they might find common ground with white evangelicals. “We’re a pro-life community,” Mr Salguero says, “but when we talk about being pro-life, we’re also talking about quality of life, which includes quality of health care, standing against the death penalty, against torture and against pre-emptive war.”
- Economist, “Lift Every Voice“
So what it is that would bring someone from a place where he once declared himself a “Jesse Helms Republican,” a man who condemned homosexuality as a threat to children and society, told his own son that being gay is a ticket to hell, to travel from Hickory, N.C., to the West Lawn of the Capitol building on Oct. 11, 2009? How can one travel from the seemingly impossible road of bigotry to one of acceptance and love for our LGBT brothers and sisters? The answer is one that I hope religious leaders such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson (and most importantly, their followers) will hear.
It’s because something deep inside told me that I needed to step out in faith onto a bridge of knowledge and understanding. I didn’t know where this bridge would take me but something was telling me it was a path I needed to walk. My own mother challenged me in 2003 to look at my beliefs and the true intent behind the teachings I held in blind faith. “Do you think your views are Christ-like?” she asked me. Her question was dead on: once I walked away from the Church’s teachings of rejection and condemnation, my relationship with God transcended to a higher spiritual plateau. I realized an unparalleled sense of spiritual clarity when I opened my heart and mind to a genuine expression of love, compassion, and acceptance of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Evangelical Christian Brent Childers, in Newsweek
…We who are Christians must love our homosexual neighbors. We must treat them as we would want to be treated. We must remember that as we do to them, we do to Jesus (Matt. 25:31ff.). We must oppose their harassment and bullying in schools, churches and clubs—everywhere. We must rebuke any Christian who speaks or acts hatefully toward gays and lesbians. We must teach Christian parents of gay children to communicate unconditional love and under no circumstances evict them from either their hearts or their homes, no matter what they believe about the moral significance of homosexual inclinations. We must seek opportunities in the church to build relationships with those who so often have encountered Christian hatred.
-David P. Gushee, professor of Christian ethics , for the Christian Century (June 2, 2009)
This change can be seen in the growing number of Evangelical Christians who are supporting gay rights. Several Evangelical groups, like Soulforce, Faith In America and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists are dedicated to fighting religious based bigotry. On February 25, The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and The Alliance of Baptists began its “Many Voices, One Love” campaign by hosting three LGBT marriage equality conferences throughout the country. Last year the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) began a serious conversation on homosexuality within the Baptist church. Faith In America has recently called upon Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to apologize for incendiary speech that compared affirmation of gay and lesbian people to Nazi propaganda during World War II.
-Angelo Lopez, Evangelicals for Gay Rights
- Bakker, Jay: Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society
- Bohache, Thomas: Christology from the Margins (SCM Press, 2009)
- Cleaver, Richard Know My Name: A Gay Liberation Theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
- Cherry, Kittredge: Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More (AndroGyne Press, 2007)
- Cornwall, Susannah. Controversies In Queer Theology (SCM)
- Gomes, Rev Peter: The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart
- Gomes, Rev Peter: The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?
- Goss, Robert: Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (Harper & Row, 1993) 240 pages
- Goss, Robert: Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up
- Guest, Deryn, Mona West, Robert E. Goss, and Thomas Bohache, (eds).The Queer Bible Commentary . London: SCM.
- Jennings, Theodore W. The man jesus loved (Pilgrim Press)
- Loughlin, Gerard, (ed). Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Pub
- Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Pagola, Jose: Jesus, an Historical Approximation (Kyrios)
- Rogers, Jack Bartlett. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Stuart, Elisabeth: Religion is a Queer Thing: A Guide to the Christian Faith for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People (Cassell, 1997)