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

The Courage to Be…Seen

The pain must have been debilitating. She had been living with it for a long time, at least twelve years. Gospel writers referred to her condition as a “hemorrhage”; they are likely describing frequent and uncontrollable menstrual periods, which would have made such a woman ritually unclean, and thus forbidden to appear in public.

Many Christians heard her story in church this past Sunday, from Matthew’s account of the Gospel (9:9-13, 18-26). The story features not only physical but also social pain—a woman who is isolated, without the comfort of friends and family. Both Mark and Luke, who also tell this story, note that she had spent all her money on multiple physicians, and no one had made her any better—so she is perhaps also a poor beggar.

“Healing Touch,” Robert Wright

And so this woman, who has run out of options, alone and dejected, reaches out as Jesus passes by, just to touch the fringe of his garments with a bit of ludicrous hope.

Consider what those details mean. She was probably crouched down by the side of the road; she wasn’t supposed to be seen and she certainly should not have approached a group of prominent men—not only Jesus and his disciples but also the leader of the synagogue and his companions.

And so she reaches out—in desperation, yes, but also with courage. Touching Jesus could have led to severe social consequences for her, and still she reaches out.

As many commentators have noted, the good news in this story is not only this woman’s physical healing but also and even more so the restoration of her dignity. Jesus made her visible with respect, brought her into the center of attention, not for shaming but to heal her shame. He does all this not merely tolerating her presence but actually praising her as an exemplar of faith.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, her story is paired with another poignant story—the one about the young girl who has died, the daughter of a religious leader in the community.

By pairing these two stories, these ancient writers show us something about faith. In each of the three versions of this story, Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

Given what she has just done, the meaning of faith here is not “certainty” but rather bravery. “Daughter,” Jesus could have said, “your courage has made you well.”

It is a bit strange but no accident that Jesus refers to this woman as “daughter.” Remember, he’s on his way to the home of a religious leader whose daughter has just died—these stories are intentionally intermingled.

Recall how often Jesus is getting into trouble with the religious authorities—“eating with tax collectors and sinners.” Just like this woman who reaches out with courage for healing, so this religious leader, heartbroken over his daughter, breaks ranks with his colleagues and courageously begs Jesus for help.

Paul Tillich, the great mid-twentieth century theologian, urged us to see faith as a form of courage, what he called the “courage to be.” For Tillich, the life of faith is a life in which we accept our own acceptance by God and thus live boldly, defying all the “principalities and powers” that would rob God’s creatures of their dignity and respect. I would add this: faith is also the courage to be seen, especially when we are made invisible by others.

It matters to think about such things during this LGBTQ Pride Month. We should note carefully that the Human Rights Campaign has for the first time declared a “national state of emergency” for LGBTQ Americans.

We are witnessing today an unprecedented spike in anti-LGBTQ legislation in state houses all over the country; more than 75 such pieces of legislation have been signed into law this year alone, which is more than double the number from last year.

This frightening trend is unfolding right where I live, in my own backyard. A far-right takeover of Ottawa County government by Christian Nationalists is making both queer people and people of color more than a little nervous. And along this otherwise “progressive” shoreline in West Michigan, I just recently overheard a conversation among some business owners in Saugatuck—an LGBT resort town. One of them said to the others, “I’m glad they spend their money here; I just don’t want to see them.”

It is high time that Christian communities ramp up our commitment to deeper solidarity with those who are unseen and kept invisible, whether because of sexuality, or gender, or race, or economics; all of these social categories are intertwined with each other. To see those deep interconnections would in turn help us to read stories from the Bible as not merely about ancient Mediterranean societies but also about us, all of us.

“If Only by the Hem,” Chris Cook

St. Augustine wrote in the fourth century about the passage from Matthew’s account of the Gospel. He invited us to see in the daughter of the religious leader a symbol of the ancient Israelites—who were being reborn and coming to life—while the woman with a hemorrhage stands for Gentiles, all those who are declared “unclean” on the margins of God’s people and who are now welcomed and embraced.

Gospel stories about healing are never just about the person being healed. They are also about the reader, about us. We are the ones who need to live right now with the courage to be in a world that is otherwise risky and frightening.

We are called to live this way not only for ourselves alone but also for all those who cannot imagine such courage for themselves—the gay teens who wonder whether suicide wouldn’t be better than a lonely life; women who live only as the objects of male scorn in a patriarchal society; people of color crushed under the weight of white supremacy.

Quite honestly, modern Western society has been in a “state of emergency” for centuries now unless you just happen to be a white, straight, cis-gender male.

Living courageously—living with faith—offers visible signs of hope to the unseen, coaxing them into a Gospel light.

This, I would venture, is a compelling way to read the story of Abraham’s calling in Genesis, which many Christians also heard this past Sunday morning. “I will bless you,” God says to Abraham, so that you will be a blessing to others (12:2).

Surely this is an enduring rationale for the existence of the Church—to receive God’s blessing for the sake of blessing others. And especially today, to be a place of compassion and safety where the invisible can be seen and loved. The time to do this is now.

“Such is the Kingdom,” Daniel Bonnell