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MLK: Minister of the Gospel

Images and reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr., are of course flooding our social media feeds today. While I’m grateful to see him referred to often as Doctor King, I am dismayed by how many stories omit the Reverend part.

King was an ordained minister of the Christian Gospel. This was not somehow incidental or accidental to his world-changing activism; what he did and inspired is rooted in the socially transformative power of the Gospel itself.

Thirty-three years into a life of ordained ministry, and I’m still trying hard to learn the lessons King can teach about what a friend of mine years ago called “spiritual activism.” After serving as a full-time parish priest for my first three years out of seminary, I decided to go back to school for doctoral work. I did this because I realized even more profoundly in my pastoral work that theology matters. How we interpret the world and view ourselves in it—which is one way to understand what theology is all about—makes a significant difference in how we live in the world and the kinds of communities we create.

That conviction eventually led me to study some of the key figures in the emergence of American pragmatism, a distinctly American approach to philosophy that stresses the practical consequences of our ideas. The meaning of an idea or concept, in other words, is defined by the way it shapes our behaviors. I appreciate this approach to theology because it embraces the importance of both ideas and action; one without the other is sorely inadequate even for just daily life let alone for the living of Christian faith.

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)

Among those key American figures was philosopher of religion Josiah Royce, who was convinced that the character of the whole universe is social and communal. For Royce this meant that evil most often takes the form of separation, fragmentation, and isolation, which then calls for the healing work of atonement, of re-uniting what has been torn apart. That healing work, Royce argued, is directed toward what he called “The Beloved Community.”

I was delighted to discover during my studies that Martin Luther King, Jr., also did doctoral work after seminary and that Josiah Royce had a profound influence on how King envisioned the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In short, Royce’s notion of the Beloved Community convinced King of the vital importance of bringing everyone to the table of healing, reconciliation, and justice.

That foundation later energized King to address even more directly the corrupting effects of militarism on the Western world (most notably at the time, the Viet Nam War) and the debilitating patterns of a global capitalism that consigned vast segments of the world’s population to permanent poverty.

In today’s world of entrenched animosity and hatred, I am reminding myself almost daily of King’s insistence that hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Christian love, he argued, “makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it’s directed toward both…seeking to preserve and create community. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.” I am astonished by that inclusive posture, which continually prods me beyond my own petty resentments.

King also practiced what he preached by building a community of organizers, preachers, artists, and musicians to collaborate on the strategies and postures of the Civil Rights Movement. This is often overlooked by (white male) commentators who apparently imagine King as single-handedly steering that movement as if he were a solitary captain at the ship’s wheel.

Just one among many counter-examples is the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who not only performed at many of the marches and rallies in the 1960s, not only advised King and others on strategy, but actually prompted King to “talk about the dream” during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963.

Royce described the galvanizing power of what he called the “Spirit” of the Beloved Community, a spirit that so clearly infused Martin Luther King, Jr., and equipped his many companions for the work of social transformation, the work of peace with justice, the work of deep healing and reconciliation.

And that is the work of Christian ministry.

Mahalia Jackson, March on Washington (1963)
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“That Nothing May be Lost”: The Hope of Anglican Queerness in a Fragmented World

Anglican Christianity qualifies as an inherently queer religious tradition. I find this hopeful for a deeply fragmented world in a great deal of pain.

By “queer,” I mean more than welcoming spaces for LGBT people. I’m thinking especially of queer theory’s critique of binary oppositions and a persistent (often contested) rejection of purity in Anglican DNA. And I’m pondering these things under a ludicrously big ecclesial “tent” made from rainbow canvas.

Can Anglican queerness offer any hope for a world that seems to be unraveling? I think so, especially as polarized oppositions and purity codes confront us throughout all the world’s broken pieces.grace_cathedral_2

“Queer theory” has accrued nearly as many definitions as “Anglican” over the last thirty years. In that jumbled mix, I find two interrelated features of queer theorizing particularly helpful: 1) a posture of resistance to regulated regimes of the normal; and 2) a critique of binary oppositions. The interrelation of these features matters as much as each of the features. Regulated regimes of the normal, in other words, are perpetuated and policed by means of binary oppositions.

Consider, for example, the constant refrain (spoken as if self-evident) that men and women naturally occupy categorically distinct spheres. Men are public, dominant, and insertive; women are private, submissive, and penetrated.

If that sounds terribly old fashioned, we might review any number of today’s policy initiatives, legislative agendas, or just town hall meetings and PTA gatherings—or the flood of #MeToo moments and the still (annoyingly) ubiquitous question about which of the two men in a gay relationship plays the “woman’s part” (i.e., the passive and dominated one). These regulated regimes of the normal, queer theorists say, are policed by means of the binary gender system.

Queer theory’s exposure and critique of these dynamics frames the messy history of Anglican Christianity. Very little seems “normal” about a church that refuses to land in a clearly defined ecclesial space. The sixteenth century English Reformation apparently wanted to have its scones and eat them too, embracing a Catholic heritage with Protestant verve.

Anglican polity swerves toward centralized decrees (where exactly is our English Vatican?) only to find congregational objections yanking us back toward compromises and local “exceptions.” Anglican prayer books are rooted in Catholic rites but always modulated with Protestant rebuttals. Episcopalians recently celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15th without ever mentioning, directly, the Assumption.

These peculiar Anglican spaces emerge from a persistent (and usually vexing) rejection of binary options: we are neither Catholic nor Protestant and still live somehow as both.

An invigorating and challenging posture sits at the heart of these religiously messy traditions: resisting puritanism. The emergent Church of England, we might recall, was rocked at its founding by Puritans (the ones who boarded the Mayflower and landed in “Massachusetts”), who insisted on “purifying” the church of all its papal remnants. These pious colonists longed to “drain the swamp.”

Right there, queer theory’s unrelenting interrogation of regulated normality meets deep Anglican commitments. The result is a catalyzing and healing vision for today’s seemingly intractable contestations and severely wounded communities. I mean this: the queerly Anglican refusal to be pure. We ourselves live in the “swamp.”

This queerness matters in more ways than even most Anglicans usually surmise. I’m thinking of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who fueled a world-changing socio-political movement with an image of the Beloved Community. The community he envisioned as beloved does not consist of people who agree with each other about everything, nor of people who look or act the same, nor of people who want to socialize with each other at cocktails parties—no, a truly beloved community brings a shockingly diverse collection of people together because of their shared destiny.

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The destiny we share as humans on a planet with many other creatures of God cannot be a “regulated normalcy,” nor a neatly classified society divided into distinct camps and parties, nor a singular community defined by the purity of its ideology or its membership. King’s insistence on a shared destiny runs far deeper—and therefore more challenging and upsetting and lifegiving—than conformity to rubrics or legislative agendas or parsed with skin color or economic class or the gender of a spouse.

That’s why, in part, I persist in casting my lot with Anglican Christianity. Not because it defines me in opposition to other Christians, much less to other humans or other animals, but because its queer sensibilities break me open to find love and purpose among all those many “others,” no purity required.

Indeed, no purity actually possible—we are all untidy, messy, conflicted, and multiple. Queer theorists insist on this and I encountered it first by plunging into Anglican traditions, which seem perpetually on the brink of falling apart for their whacky and wonderful multiplicity.

The “big tent” of Anglican Christianity is not a perfect space; it is deeply flawed in many respects. That’s another reason why I pitch my own little tent under its rainbow canvas. I can’t manage to be pure; no one can. Even when some of my fellow Anglicans insist we should be, the attempts always fizzle, thankfully. (If purity is your standard, you might want to avoid the Gospels and stay away from church conventions.)

Many years ago, when I worried and fretted over my own religious and sexual purity (one because of the other) a seminary professor said, “we’re not saved by being right; we’re saved by grace.” That’s not an excuse for either doctrinal sloppiness or moral laxity; but it is a reason for generosity and hospitality. That just might be a path toward healing, toward a shared destiny, toward—dare I say—salvation.

American society today faces a severe threat to one of its founding suppositions: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Christians face this quandary constantly, not least by wondering what in the world to do with John’s Jesus when he prays that we all “might be one” (was even his prayer ineffectual?) or how to mark the week of “Prayer for Christian Unity” every January without blushing and mumbling platitudes.

Queer theorists urge us to suppose that “oneness” has nothing to do with uniformity; even more, that uniformity is the great enemy of a flourishing community. As I struggle with all of this, I’m grateful for the Anglican witness to multiple answers to key questions, even when we’re troubled by our own responses.

Oddly, queerly, I return to the Apostle Paul in those moments of consternation. I have grown to love that vexing pioneer of Christian faith and his convoluted self, the one who insisted that the “body of Christ” consists of many diverse members. That conflicted champion of incorporating Gentiles into a Jewish movement, that “least among the apostles” who, like all of us, made claims he himself had trouble putting into practice.

A world fragmented by zero-sum games of planetary proportions is eager and desperate for some reassurance that there is indeed a destiny of thriving life that all of us—quite improbably, quite queerly—share.

Many Christians heard a version of this hope for a month of Sundays this summer as the lectionary led us through the sixth chapter of John’s account of the Gospel. After feeding a multitude of people, Jesus says this: “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (6:12).

John’s Jesus queerly spoke what Dr. King queerly tried to live, and this is still our queer hope today: a shared destiny.

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