The Sword-Wielding Jesus at the Stonewall Rebellion

This past Sunday, many Christians heard a troubling portion of Matthew’s account of the Gospel (10:24-39). Jesus apparently disavows peace-making, takes up a sword, and promises to divide families.

Like so many others, I have struggled with this passage for many years. To be clear, wrestling with the texts and traditions of Christian faith can be a very good thing indeed, but Jesus is certainly pushing against the edges of our comfort zone in that particular text. He is, it seems to me, provoking us to consider seriously what it means to live authentically and openly, truthfully and with vulnerability—what is hidden, he says, will become known, and what is only whispered in the dark will be shouted from the rooftops.

In this last week of June, of this LGBTQ Pride Month, what Jesus describes and its consequences resonates in some startling ways with the Stonewall Rebellion.

Recall this: back in the 1960s that gay bars were secretive places, often unmarked, where respectable people should not be seen. These taverns were routinely raided by the police, their patrons arrested, and many careers and whole lives ruined as a result.

One of those bars, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, the Stonewall Inn, was a gathering spot for those on the margins of this marginalized population, like transgender youth.

The Stonewall Inn, 1960s

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, those who had gathered at the Stonewall resisted arrest and fought back against the police—they were tired of hiding in the shadows and had grown weary of whispering in the dark. For their own self-respect and God-given dignity, they started shouting their lives from the rooftops. This led to several days of unrest on the streets of New York and energized a brand new chapter for LGBT civil rights; that’s why we have “Pride Month” in June.

Many of those on the streets that night had been rejected by their biological families; more than a few of them were homeless—and this still happens today. Out of necessity they created what many of us would later call “families of choice.” They had to re-learn how to care for each other, what it means to love each other, and to cultivate relationships that would redeem for them the very concept of family.

With still more biblical resonance with modern society, many of us also heard a heartbreaking story this past Sunday about redefining “family” in the ongoing saga of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:8-21). The surprising birth of Isaac suddenly made their household a rather awkward place for Hagar, their servant, with whom Abraham had already sired a child, Ishmael.

“Hagar and Ishmael,” Abel Pann

Sarah insists that Hagar and her child be put out, cast off, and sent into exile. In that ancient Mediterranean society, Sarah was likely well within her rights to demand this—Hagar was their slave, and Ishmael would have been Isaac’s rival. Abraham and Sarah might have done these things believing they were cooperating with God’s own promise of blessing.

Even so, let us not fail to notice how God cares for Hagar and Ishmael nonetheless, sending an angel to ensure their survival in the wilderness. This is of course a recurring thread in biblical traditions: regardless of cultural norms, God cares for the cast-away and the abandoned ones—both the queer youth and the single mom alike.

Not long after the Stonewall Rebellion, and not surprisingly, more than a few religious leaders started calling for a return to “biblical family values.” Quite honestly, I have to wonder whether any of them actually read the Bible.

Ancient Israel’s patriarchs often lived with more than one wife—or sired children with their slaves; the biblical story about wise King Solomon suggests that one of the reasons we know he was blessed by God is that he had over 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).

In the Christian Testament of the Bible, Jesus himself is apparently unmarried and childless—a very unusual social status in that day for a religious teacher, a rabbi. St. Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to remain single, just like he is; if you really have to get married, he says, that’s acceptable but certainly not ideal (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

So which of these family values in the Bible are we supposed to adopt today?

That’s entirely the wrong question to ask, of course. We should be asking today’s religious leaders directly what they mean by “biblical family values.” In my experience, that religious rhetoric is coded language for two interrelated things: rejecting gay and lesbian relationships, and keeping women in the home, where they are subservient to their husbands.

Let me underscore that these coded aims are interrelated. Resistance to gay and lesbian relationships has never been about whom human beings can love; the resistance has always been about gender, and especially maintaining (white) male privilege. Today, transgender people are bearing the brunt of this violent resistance rather acutely (75% of transgender youth, for example, feel unsafe at school). More succinctly put: homophobia has always been rooted in misogyny.

Rather than wondering how we might adopt so-called “family values” it’s high time the Church devote its entire attention to cultivating “Gospel values”—how we sustain a community of courage as we strive for peace with justice; a community of care by embracing the outcast and marginalized; and a community of compassion as we try to ensure that no one ever again needs to be afraid or alone on the streets of our towns and cities.

Without question, Matthew’s Jesus would applaud that list of Gospel values. But, he would also say urge us to notice that there’s something missing from that list: truth-telling.

Whatever is covered up, he says, must be uncovered; whatever secrets you harbor, must become known; and what I say to you in the dark, what is now only whispered, you must proclaim from the housetops.

Telling the truth about our lives, our communities, our politics, our economics—this is what will free us, and save us, and lead the whole planet toward healing and thriving.

Needless to say, truth-telling is challenging when denial feels easier in a society committed to superficial harmonies. Surely everyone knows what it’s like to keep the peace with polite avoidance. Matthew’s Jesus is clear this morning: he wants nothing to do with that kind of “peace.”

I have come, he says, to inspire the courage of truth-telling, which will feel like wielding a sword. Telling the truth, coming out, taking sides, standing in solidarity—these are risky endeavors, all of them, because they will cost us something. They might cost us some friends, our reputations, a few family members, our positions of comfort, our favorite seats at the restaurant, perhaps even our lives.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re straight, white, black, queer, trans, indigenous, lesbian, gay, bisexual, none of these or all of them depending on the day of the week—whoever you are, the sword-wielding Jesus at the Stonewall Rebellion is urging all of us along a path of courageous truth-telling in a society devoted to lies and deception.

To be sure, that path can be scary; that’s one of the many reasons I’m grateful for the Eucharistic Table, where Christians can gather with each other and find the grace and love and support we need to live the truth.

Yes of course this is scary; but also worthwhile. It might actually be worth absolutely everything, which seems to be the point of this deeply troubling and still hopeful passage from Matthew’s account of the Gospel: when you lose your life by following Jesus, that’s when you find it.

“It was Beautiful (Stonewall),” Doug Blanchard