Christ is risen! A Call for TRANSformation

By Queerly Christian contributor, Jakob Hero

To celebrate Holy Week, I gathered with a small group of friends and an excessive amount of nail polish for a “We aren’t supposed to paint our fingernails” party. The idea came from a conversation with a transmasculine, genderqueer friend about the harsh reality of gender policing.

As a post-transition female to male transsexual, I am often “helpfully” informed by others that because I am now male, various things that might potentially link back to my female birth sex are off limits. So a small group of queer folks, most of us male or masculine identified, got together the night before Easter and painted our fingernails. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

So here I sit at my keyboard, with fingernails that just happen to shine with an iridescent purple and green (with a top coat of glitter), and I tell you shamelessly and with no uncertainty: there is such a thing as resurrection. Christ really did die on that cross. And he truly came back from the dead.

Why do so many of us on the liberal side of the Christian spectrum get squeamish at the mention of miracles, particularly this big one at Easter? Christians of a particular stripe can become terribly complacent about the radical and bizarre foundations of our faith. Why is it so hard to believe that Christ’s death and resurrection actually happened?

Christ conquered death! That is incredibly queer! I don’t know of an embodied act that is more peculiar, strange, or odd than Christ coming back from the dead. It isn’t just the oddity of this that makes it queer. This is a story about love. Christ died and came back, and he did this for his beloveds.

We must not let this incredibly queer story be co-opted by fear-based and exclusionary theologies. Please do not let the misuse of the Cross take away from its queer power. Yes, this story has been used to frighten many of us into submission and conformity. Yes, too many have been told, “Christ suffered for your sins; believe in that or burn in hell.” Yes, this story has been used to justify hatred of the Other, and particularly to fuel Christian anti-Semitism. Yes, it has been used to create the “us versus them” rhetoric, and yes, that has led to a tragic rejection of many from the very table where Christ’s death and resurrection is commemorated.

No wonder so many prefer images of bunnies and brightly colored eggs for Easter! Look, the whole idea of a rabbit laying an egg (not to mention the cross-species copulation that would require!) is totally queer. But much more than that is this: Christ’s death and resurrection is the craziest and queerest love story ever told!

Jesus came back, not to utopia but to the people who betrayed him. These are the ones who couldn’t even stay awake long enough to pretend that they were in solidarity with him. But he came back to them, to the ones who had turned away in fear and deserted him in his hour of need. Even then, the ones who loved him most greeted this return with doubt, fear, and incomprehension.

Jesus did not cross over from death to life to give us a morality lesson. He crossed over for love, with love, and to give love. It was a transformative love, as the gospel writers so clearly portray.

Those of us who live queerly transformed lives know exactly what this means. Those of us who have experienced transformation in our own bodies are especially able to testify to the power of this queer calling to love. This blessing will not be silenced, shamed, or hidden.

Far too often trans-people are left out of gay and lesbian advocacy movements for fear of “diluting” the message. Progress requires instead a more “respectable” presentation of queerness. I remember clearly when this point was raised at a gathering of lobbyists and how the wonderful trans-activist, Kate Bornstein, declared: “I did not have my peepee cut off so I could dress and act respectably!” Now there’s a declaration everyone could cling to in our journey toward queerly Christian transformation.

As a man who used to be a girl, I have wasted way too much time worrying about the expectations of my own embodiment. You want to talk about queer performativity? Great – let’s read the Gospels.

Jesus broke the rules of life and death! Right there is the queerly good news for progressive, liberal Christians who may have shifted uncomfortably in their pews on Easter morning. You don’t have to feel awkward. You don’t need to feel obliged to explain away the resurrection of Jesus as allegory or fantasy or legend. Your faith doesn’t need respectable packaging.

Resurrection is not about conformity or respectability.  Resurrection is our call for radical change, fearless acceptance, and queer love. It’s a call for TRANSformation!

Let us proclaim the Easter announcement with a queer sense of joy, now and always: Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

And don’t forget the “alleluia!”

The Morning After

Christ is risen – but the clergy are dead tired.

That’s one version of an old joke about the grueling schedule of Holy Week services leading up to Easter morning. Not just clergy, of course, but choir members, flower arrangers, brass polishers, administrative assistants – just about everyone dealing with Easter preparations can feel a holy hangover coming on the morning after.

In the wake of all the liturgical fuss – and I do love the fuss – I start to reflect on what everyone was thinking. Kind of like hoping everyone liked the New Year’s Eve party while you throw out the empty champagne bottles. How many different views of resurrection, we might wonder, resided in our various congregations this Easter Sunday? Did they believe “it” – I mean, really?

I, for one, can believe nearly anything in a beautifully decorated church with an angelic choir providing a divine soundtrack to an inspiring sermon. But what do I really believe in the still, quiet aftermath?

Resurrection is difficult, much more so, it seems to me, than incarnation. Proclaiming “God with us” at Christmas feels good, especially with a cuddly baby as a prop. A battered, tortured body that won’t stay put in the grave where we put it feels, well, unsettling.

Other than the inevitability of taxes, Easter breaks the one rule everyone is taught to accept as inviolable: the finality of death. Few find that rule pleasant, but at least it maps out the playing field with tidy boundaries. Human life stretches from cradle to grave; that’s it. For the fortunate among us, the span between those two borderlines is long and full. But blur those boundaries, even just a little bit, and the queerness of Christian faith starts to shimmer.

For me, the queerly good news of Easter is just this: it dissolves certainty.

If we really can’t count on death like we used to, then the playing field expands toward a new horizon over which none of us can presently see. For me, that’s unnerving and exhilarating at the same time.

Among the queerest of the queer biblical stories are the ones about Easter. Consider the account in Luke 24. There we read about two grieving disciples who encounter a stranger as they travel to a village called Emmaus. After inviting the stranger to share a meal with them, they finally recognize him as none other than the risen Jesus; and in that very moment, he vanishes.

Road to Emmaus #2, Bonnell

No reunion hug. No war-story swapping. No debriefing of all those betrayal moments. No orchestral swell of music for the Hollywood ending. Jesus instead slips through their fingers. There’s no “there” there. Nothing to hold on to.

And that, it seems to me, is queerly good news.

If we know something with absolute certainty, we can be tempted to take it for granted; ask no more questions; set it aside; move on to something else. We might believe that we can control and manipulate it; use it; own it.

The risen Jesus will have none of that – no shrines, no monuments, no treatises, no creeds, no liturgies, no institutional gate-keeping. The risen Jesus instead starts sprinting away from us over that inscrutable horizon, egging us on to follow, giving us no compass points to do so.

I’m a full-throated Easter Christian – I believe death was not the final word for Jesus. And because I believe that, I believe that death is not the final word for any of us. But I have no idea what that means or what it looks like. That faith (which is not certainty) expands my playing field well beyond a game and into something like an adventure, where the next chapter is always waiting to be written – always.

That’s not a hangover you’re feeling; that’s the tug of morning-after energy. It’s urging you to step into life. New life.

A “Foot Note” in Holy Week

What Jesus did and what he lived through in this most holy week on the Christian calendar is utterly, shockingly, and wonderfully queer in many ways. Not least among those queer moments is when he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-5) – an act that many Christian communities will re-enact today, Maundy Thursday.

But I worry that many of those re-enactments will fail to capture the subversive character of that moment in John’s gospel – the only one of the four gospels to include that story. Not for any fault of the communities engaged in the ritual, but for a much more pervasive problem – sentimentality.

Just to be clear, I’m not squeamish about feet and I do appreciate the tenderness and intimacy of washing someone’s feet or having my own feet washed. But if the point of this story is intimacy, I fail to understand why Peter so strenuously objected to what Jesus was doing (John 13:6-8). There’s more than just a hint of scandal in this story, which is easy to miss today.

For the vast majority of modern western people, the only time we ever wash feet is just once a year, in church, on Maundy Thursday. In first century Palestine, by contrast, people did have their feet washed quite regularly, by servants or slaves. We don’t – and that makes the scandalous subversion of John’s story difficult to grasp.

The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is different. While contemporary western society is slowly losing the significance of eating food together (one in five meals in the U.S. is eaten alone in a car), we haven’t lost entirely the power of sharing meals. Jesus eating a final meal with his disciples thus has at least some traction in western cultural life today. Washing feet? Not so much.

Stanley Hauerwas, theologian and ethicist, once remarked that the greatest danger facing Christianity today is not heresy but sentimentality. Sentimentalizing the power reversal that Jesus performed by taking on the role of a slave is a good example of Hauerwas’ caution.

So let’s find some creative ways to perform the kind of social revolution and queerly good news that the writer of John’s gospel seemed to have in mind. Many Christians live that queerly Christian life already (by subverting social hierarchies, or eradicating poverty, or resisting an imperial military-industrial complex, or dismantling racism, to name just a few ways) but they rarely if ever do so by washing feet.

I dream of finding some kind of ritual that’s faithful to the queerness of Jesus and which also has some traction in today’s social, ethical, and political quandaries. Making that dream a reality will likely mean ritualizing Christian queerness in multiple ways and not just one.

A good place to begin might be talking about the effects of social power in a multicultural, globlalized world. If more Christian faith communities did that, we’d help to ensure that the scandalous Jesus isn’t just a footnote in holy week.

What’s So Peculiar about Christianity?

Christianity itself is really quite peculiar, and always has been, though not always in the same way in every time and place.

The peculiar character of Christian faith never occurred to me in the Evangelical, nearly fundamentalist subculture of my childhood. And it didn’t occur to me when I came out as a gay man, either. The wonderfully peculiar and transforming character of Christian faith has been unfolding in my thinking and living over the last 20 years or so.

To be sure, most Christians today in the North Atlantic rarely think about their faith as “peculiar.” Most of the time, Christianity just blends in with the wider culture and occasionally surfaces among political candidates as a kind of litmus test for elections. This seems rather far removed from the personally transforming, world-altering character of the Gospel that shaped the first few centuries of Christianity and which can still inspire renewal and transformation today.

I never really thought about it that way growing up in the American Midwest. Even though I heard and read the gospel story many times over my life, I can’t quite imagine why I missed just how peculiar it is.

Just to recall, the story of Jesus  that inspired the gospel writers was a story about a Jewish prophet living in a conquered, backwater province of the Roman Empire; about an unmarried, itinerant teacher in a society constructed on marriage and family relations; about the scandalous practice of sharing meals and daily life with the ritually unclean and socially misfit; about a humiliating, public execution at the hands of an occupying army; and reports from hysterical women who seemed to be talking about grave robbers and an empty tomb.

Now, really, that’s a pretty strange, odd and, well, very peculiar story.  It’s out-of-the-ordinary, culturally unwarranted, socially unreasonable, religiously radical, philosophically suspect, and politically dangerous. And precisely for all of those reasons, the gospel writers insisted that this story is “good news.”

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about human sexuality in that account. Given some of the academic work I do at the intersections of sexuality and religion, one might expect to read a bit more about that here. But I believe the Christian Gospel is already quite peculiar all on its own without any help from all the debates around sexuality and gender with which so many churches live today. To be sure, those debates can help highlight some important issues and questions, but they only scratch the surface of the Gospel’s potential for renewal and transformation.

Given the ongoing legacy of the “wedding” between Christianity and western cultural values, I would say we need to retrieve that peculiar Gospel energy to address the social and political mess we find ourselves in today regarding race, ethnicity, economics, class, and a planetary environment on the brink of collapse.

The biblical writer who wrote the first letter of Peter was on to something by referring to Christians as “peculiar.” The whole biblical book of Acts provides story after story of the wonderfully transforming energy of the Gospel. As Luke (presumably) described it in Acts, those early Christians “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

I’m convinced that the Christian Gospel still carries that potential today — to turn the world upside down with a peculiar faith, that inspires hope, and transforms the world with love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

A Strange Book — Thank God!

I mean, of course, the Bible. I don’t mean that the Bible is “strange” in the way that should make anyone avoid it. To the contrary, the peculiar character of the Bible itself is one of the reasons that keep me firmly planted in Christian traditions. Let me explain.

I am not a biblical scholar; I’m a theologian. But I do read the Bible and I do read what others have written about the Bible, both historically and today. I used to do all that reading as a way to defend myself against arguments from atheists or skeptics or those who believed that gay people should be condemned.

I no longer read the Bible that way, that is, with a defensive posture. What I have come to appreciate over the last 15 or 20 years of doing theological work is that defensive postures are dead-ends and soul-killers. Or as a colleague of mine used to say: You can’t do Christian theology from a place a fear; the only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.

By doing that myself, I have come to realize just how wonderfully peculiar the Bible is and how peculiar Christian history is. I mean by “peculiar” that it carries transforming insights, world-altering perspectives, and thankfully disorienting “good news.” Or as Flanney O’Connor was once reported to have said, “You shall know the truth and it will make you odd.”

There are so many examples I could offer, but here’s just one place to begin: the ongoing exhortation by the so-called “religious right” in the U.S. to return to so-called “biblical family values.” Let’s notice what some of those “values” were:

Abraham’s use of his slave, Hagar, to sire a child, and his subsequent banishment of her and the child to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) would be considered unspeakably callous by today’s standards. Yet according to the family values of his day, Abraham was acting completely within his rights. When Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, the Bible describes it not simply as an act of brotherly betrayal but as a necessary part of God’s will for God’s people (Genesis 27). Even more severe is Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter to fulfill the terms of a hastily made vow (Judges 11:29-40) or Onan being put to death for refusing to impregnate his late brother’s wife (Genesis 38:9).

That’s just a short list of the kind of biblical family values that we certainly don’t want our children to adopt today.

Not every biblical family relationship is quite that dysfunctional. But strangely enough, when biblical figures act virtuously, they often do so outside the bounds of what even ancient Mediterranean cultures considered the “traditional family.” The story of Ruth and Naomi is an account of same-sex devotion often read, ironically, during heterosexual marriage ceremonies (Ruth 1:16). David and Jonathan’s relationship is presented with a tenderness lacking in most biblical marriages: David admits that his love for his friend “surpassed the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). Those are just two stories in which the biblical writers themselves were subverting their own cultural standards.

The gospel writers did much the same thing. Set aside for the moment how they appear to present Jesus as unmarried and childless – that alone was a culturally and religiously subversive position in his own society. Even more significant is how the gospel writers chose to portray his teaching. According to Luke, Jesus turned to a large crowd that was traveling with him along a road and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, [and] brothers and sisters…cannot be my disciple” (14:26). According to both Matthew and Luke, to a man who wished to be his disciple but wanted first to attend to his father’s funeral Jesus said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead”(Mt. 8:22, Lk 9:60). According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, when told that his mother and brothers wanted to see him Jesus pointed to his disciples and said “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:48, Mk 3:33, Lk 8:21).

To put it mildly, Jesus does not appear to care much for marriage and biological families. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christian communities took that posture to heart, displaced the biological family with the “faith family” and created their own micro-economic system. Rather than establishing individual household units, Luke writes, those first Christians did not claim “ownership of any private possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). Paul seems likewise to have been shaped by this radical, first-century reassessment of what family means. Paul worried that marriage was a distraction from the more important work of Christian ministry (1 Cor. 7:32-39). In his view, marriage was, at best, a last-ditch solution for those who could not otherwise control their lust (1 Cor. 7:9).

I’m not suggesting that the Bible is so out of touch with today’s world that we can’t read it anymore. To the contrary, my point is just this: precisely because even biblical writers seemed committed to subverting their own cultural standards for the sake of divinely good news, we can find the hope, the energy, the inspiration, and the divine cheer-leading to do the same thing today.

We could do that, not just about the highly-charged notion of “family,” but about all sorts of questions and issues we face today — concerning economics, race and ethnicity, caring for the environment, transforming despairing loneliness into communal hope and affection — and so much more!

I’m eager to continue reading the Bible with others, in community, who seek ways to transform our world with a peculiar faith, an inspiring hope, and a transforming love (1 Corinthians 13:13). I believe the wide world is not just ready but eager and desperate for Christian communities to do precisely that. And it can begin, oddly enough, by reading the Bible together.

The Bible is truly a peculiar book – thank God!