Queering church, churching queers

Queering church, churching queers

Robin Hawley Gorsline

The debates about Christianity and sexuality rage everywhere today. Among many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people – those I’m calling queer – inside the church, the conventional wisdom is that the loudest voices are those which claim to speak with complete doctrinal and biblical authority in condemnation of sexual variety, and especially against the morality of homosexuality. On those occasions when the story of an individual queer within the church becomes public it is usually over the matter of same-sex unions or ordination, and the focus is often on the struggle between, on the one side, the “orthodox” claiming to uphold the Bible and the tradition, against, on the other, straight liberals (also claiming to be within the tradition) and their gay allies, each struggling to prove the other wrong.

Queers outside the church often cite these media portrayals of the church as proof that it is the most homophobic institution in our society, and as support for their view that the sooner queers get out of church, and the sooner it loses its remaining power to shape sexual morality, the better. These critics often exhibit impatience with queer Christians, sometimes going so far as to assert that remaining in the church is a sign of deep-seated internalized homophobia. Sometimes this connection between religious belief and internalized homophobia is accurate.

There is more to the story than these media-based views would suggest, however. Indeed, there are distinctively queer voices within the church, and two recent books go far in showing the creativity now energizing queers within Christianity. In the process, they also offer views of Christianity which differ in important – dare we say fundamental – respects from those who oppose a queer presence in the church, as well as those who argue for Christian tolerance of queers. Neither work is without significant limitations, but each offers important resources for queer Christians and those among their allies who are willing to entertain the possibility of a Christianity not only tolerant of the sexually different but also a Christianity changed, indeed made better and more whole, by the contributions of queers.

Kathy Rudy, an assistant professor in women’s studies at Duke University, offers the more daring book. Her Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality, and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999, 240pp., $22.00 [cloth]) offers several arresting arguments which can help the reader think carefully about several kinds of religious orthodoxy, both the Christian right-wing variety and its liberal, tolerance-based relation. The first argument, namely that for the Christian Right gender is the first organizing principle of theology, is not exactly radical, having been articulated by many feminist theologians, but it grounds the entire book. From here, Rudy describes the contemporary right’s reliance on the traditional family, its resulting fervent opposition to alternative visions of family, and the deleterious effects of both. She also shows how liberal Christians, and other promoters of tolerance, fail to combat this insidiously genderized theological vision and, indeed, reiterate it themselves.

Rudy is consciously sex-positive, a position sure to earn her the enmity of the Right (and probably others). She argues that “sex is ethical when it opens God’s world to others.” In her view, the way to evaluate sexual acts is not whether they are based on same-sex or other-sex attraction and activity (she is very critical of genitally based sexual ethics) but rather whether they are based on hospitality and what she calls “unitivity” – i.e., how much they help us “welcome the stranger into our church and into our life with God.”

Thus, unlike most Christian observers, including many queer and feminist theologians, she refuses to interpret non-monogamous queer sex practices – activities which, especially among men in pre-AIDS days, took place in bathhouses, public rest rooms, and parks, and today find expression in sex clubs and house sex parties – as merely desperate attempts at sexual gratification in a hostile world. Instead, she contends that these activities are often, although not always, essential elements in community building and that at least some queer practices of “communal sex” may be pleasing to God.

Even more daringly, she makes an explicit connection between these communitarian activities and the traditional Christian emphasis on building up the Body of Christ, contending that the church could learn much from a group of people who, because they are so often without family support, base their social and emotional existence on membership in community. In this regard, her critique of the heterosexist model of family as a privatizing, anti-communitarian institution is particularly acute.

Despite her pro-sex attitudes, however, Rudy will not please many queer Christians with her argument that identities such as “gay” or “lesbian” or “queer” – even “male” or “female” – should be cast aside. “Our primary identification is and ought to be Christian; any identification that takes precedence over our baptism is to be avoided.” She bases this contention on an insight most clearly articulated by queer theorists, namely their critique of the categories “gay” and “straight” – and even “bisexual” – as natural and fixed. By siding with queer theory in this regard, she stakes out a position at odds with that argued by other queer Christians and their friends within mainline Protestantism and liberal Catholicism – namely that these categories are ordained by God. Accepting the fluidity of sexual categories and identities advanced within queer theory, Rudy argues that Christians are first and foremost called to be people of God – to eschew, following Jesus and Paul, the labels and histories which divide us – and take on, through baptism, new life in Christ, to become “new people, with a new and radically different ontology.”

Rudy would have done well to develop her themes more fully, but she has achieved much in these pages. Especially valuable is her continuing critique of the narrowness of theological worldviews based on gender. Further, her positive view of queer “communal sex” is an important addition to a generally one-sided debate about the morality of non-monogamous sex practices. However, she fails to account for the many queer men who do not find their communally based sex lives emotionally or spiritually satisfying. At the same time, her claims about the need to jettison all identities save that of Christian appear not only unrealistic but even counter-intuitive in the present age. Certainly, the Right would like queers to stop talking about sexuality, to stop practicing same-sex sex, and indeed simply to go out of existence. Rudy’s proposal could easily be transformed into a denial of human difference instead of her desired outcome of greater hospitality. One can almost hear the eerie echoes of many critics of early “gay liberation” who decried the fact that the love that dared not speak its name seemed unable to shut up. Further, by failing to consider the impact of her anti-identity theory on the victims of U.S. white supremacy, she has perpetuated the racial myopia of much queer theory.

The contributors to the other book, Religion Is a Queer Thing: A Guide to the Christian Faith for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People, edited by Elizabeth Stuart (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1998, 152pp., $15.95 [paper]), don’t recommend giving up queer identity. Theirs is a collection of short essays unapologetically determined to help queer Christians find our own theological voice – a voice which, in the words of Elizabeth Stuart, will “destabilize the notion of what constitutes Christianity and a Christian by refusing to accept on trust that a white, straight, male Christianity is the sole Christian truth.”

Stuart and her four colleagues, all from Great Britain, ground their essays in the traditions of liberation theology and especially in feminist theology, although they do not do so uncritically. The short essays touch on a wide variety of theoretical and practical matters. No scholar will find new facts or interpretations here, but nearly anyone with an interest in theological queer liberation would be buoyed by the authors’ commitment to liberation and optimism about its achievement, even in the face of intransigent opposition from the Christian Right and often lackluster support from Christian moderates and liberals.

I said above that Rudy’s book is the more daring, but no one ought to deny the courage of the essays offered by Stuart and her colleagues. In fact, its best use would be as a sourcebook for a Christian adult education series on queer theology – and that would take considerable courage in most churches on a Sunday morning!

Both works reveal a theological sophistication within queer Christian circles that moves us well beyond the important early works of John McNeill and others who argued, from a necessarily defensive posture at the time, for tolerance of gay men and lesbian women. Now, instead of tolerance, these authors are talking about how the growth of a distinctively queer theological sensibility is changing the church and the world. Regrettably, both books largely ignore racial and class divisions among queers, a reflection of the white supremacy which continues to contaminate queer politics and theory. At the same time, the carefully reasoned critiques of salient points in the theological work of Carter Heyward, Gary Comstock, and Robert Goss show that theologizing within the queer communities is gaining maturity and impact.

That most church leaders, and certainly the religious and mainstream secular media, have not yet registered the changes happening within queer Christendom – indeed that there is a queer Christendom, perhaps one could say, a “Queendom of God” – is yet one more sign that insurgencies often achieve a great deal before those supposedly in charge even notice. These two books help us to continue to “act up” theologically.

ROBIN HAWLEY GORSLINE is completing his doctoral dissertation on the life and work of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde for anti-racist, pro-same-sex theologizing (at Union Theological Seminary [New York]).

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