How LGBTQ love saves Christianity: A priest explains

Christianity challenges us to "queer" the lines that divide us. It should not be hostile; indeed, it's queer itself

Published June 4, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

 (<a href=''>ehrlif</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(ehrlif via iStock/Salon)

Pride begins first and foremost with the ability to see oneself. Self-perception can be challenging for any human being. If you carry inside of you an identity or an experience that is disparaged or shamed by others, the challenge is magnified. Many people, not just queer people, know a lot about these dynamics. But not seeing your true self creates a problem. If being seen by others is a prerequisite for a relationship of trust, being able to see yourself is certainly a prerequisite for self-trust, which is fundamental to a consciously chosen ethical life.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow writes about the importance of self-perception in the essay “Up from Pain,” in which he names his experience of surviving childhood sexual assault and explores with nuance his awareness of his bisexuality:

Daring to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do, because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked you are vulnerable. But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one.

Taking this step helps Blow begin at last to come to terms with his childhood trauma, and it opens a window of possibility for a freer life. Having begun to acknowledge the truth of his identity and desire, Blow rapidly begins to carve out the parameters of his own value:

I had to stop romanticizing the man I might have been and be the man that I was, not by neatly fitting into other people’s definitions of masculinity or constructs of sexuality, but by being uniquely me—made in the image of God, nurtured by the bosom of nature, and forged in the fire of life.

Shedding all of the “other people’s definitions” with their projections onto our bodies and souls, letting go of the “man I might have been” in order to “be the man” I am, a queer person searches inside himself in order to declare:

I exist.

 This is not a minor declaration of the patently obvious. There are entire theologies dedicated to the idea that we do not exist as a people. The whole “love the sinner; hate the sin” trope is based on the premise that queerness is about what you do, and that it flies in the face of who you actually are. That’s why it matters to conceive of queerness as an identity marker: it is essential that we refuse to capitulate to queerphobic attempts to treat our relational lives and our sexual encounters as something separate from our deepest knowledge of ourselves.

I exist; I am queer; my queer self exists.

Very often the catalyst for that moment of self-understanding— I exist—is the perception of someone else’s queerness. This is why our visibility as a people is so vitally important. These two awarenesses sometimes cascade upon each other so rapidly—I am not alone; I exist—that it can be hard to determine which one comes first. They may, in fact, be two iterations of a single thought.

John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask explore these dynamics in their extraordinary musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. A punk rock meditation upon the ideas of love and sexuality, selfhood and relationship posed by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, the show features Hedwig, the “internationally ignored song stylist” whose male to female sex-change surgery goes horribly awry. The surgery allows Hedwig to marry an American GI and escape communist East Berlin, but it deposits her in a territory of sexual identity that is unrecognizable, thus unnerving to many of the people she encounters.

From the moment the show opens, Hedwig’s existence is thrust defiantly in our faces. Hedwig’s man, Yitzhak, introduces us to Hedwig by equating her with the Berlin Wall, running down the middle of a split city, despised yet weirdly clarifying. Quoting Paul, Yitzhak identifies Hedwig as a dividing line between East and West, between slave and free, between male and female. Standing like a wall between these binaries, Hedwig calls attention to our impulse to enter and demarcate the spaces on either side of her. People become attached to these demarcated spaces, identifying with them. Losing the divide, however loathed it may be, is confusing. It pisses people off.

But Hedwig is quick to note that a wall bears an uncanny resemblance to a bridge, illuminating not just the demarcation but also the connections between the two sides. In Yitzhak’s list of binaries, Hedwig occupies both sides, but neither fully. This both/neither location is the essence of the bridge and the wall that she is for us.

What I love about the image of the bridge is that it shows what is constructive in the rupturing that queer people do in our daily lives, both for ourselves and for others. We confront binaries to which people are deeply attached, to which they look in order to understand themselves. Sometimes this is liberating; sometimes it is confusing. This poses an interesting question to each of us as witnesses of such queering: what is it exactly that we want to tear down, the wall that divides, or the bridge that by its very existence offers—and perhaps demands—new ways to understand ourselves? Both Hedwig and Charles Blow trace the crucial movement from “I exist” to “I have value.” This dawning awareness is the movement into what queer theologian Patrick Cheng calls “healthy pride.”

Healthy Pride is an inversion of one of the conventional notions of pride. Colloquially the word “pride” can refer to an excessive level of self-esteem that keeps people from engaging other people. It can also refer to a determined, isolating self-sufficiency: someone can be “too proud” to receive assistance from someone else.3 But queer Pride isn’t like that. Queer Pride demands and depends upon relationship—which is to say, an individual’s Pride is bolstered by immersion in community. It involves a reciprocal dynamic in which one’s sense of self-worth feeds and is fed by relationships with others.

Hedwig totally gets this. Her journey is largely toward a self-conception in which she knows that, although she stands in a divide, she is whole unto herself. Being “whole” doesn’t erase her wounds, but it doesn’t keep her isolated, either. She does not suddenly become an utterly self-sufficient person who doesn’t need others. By the end of the show, Hedwig’s ability to see herself as a complete human being leads her to invoke a community of other provocative musicians like herself and stand to join them.

Hedwig then sings a mantra that becomes nearly a mystical chant, calling us to lift up our hands. The audience in the show hardly needs to be told twice to get our hands up. The song is called “Midnight Radio,” a reference of deep significance to the power of music in Hedwig’s life. Hedwig encourages each of us to understand ourselves as transmissions of infinite worth, and to share that understanding with one another, transmitting, receiving, our hands raised in the air to amplify the connection between us.

Evangelicals will recognize this gesture as one in which a person lost in the ecstasy of communal worship instinctively lifts up her hands to invite the sacred into her body and soul. Lifting up one’s hands can be a way to connect to something bigger than oneself, something that might even be transcendent. Whether Hedwig intentionally invokes the religious aspect of the gesture or intentionally subverts it, it is no surprise that a show so thoroughly queer would grab people’s hearts (and, yes, our souls) with such power. In that moment, the audience members become the people to whom Hedwig is singing: me, you, all of us acknowledging our brokenness, each of us called to know ourselves, know our self-worth, and help each other to know it, too.

Pride is exactly like that. Pride is a statement of personal affirmation that extends out to others. Pride calls us together. In this way, Pride becomes a posture that makes ethical living possible. In fact, it makes ethical living not only important, but often riveting, substantive, worth the price of admission.

Reaching deep inside the individual soul/psyche, reaching out to connect us to each other, Pride is very like what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 when he writes about love as the glue that binds a community together. That’s what Pride does for LGBTQ community. It binds us to one another. And true to Paul’s description, Pride is very like—and may in fact be—love enacted.

Progressive Christianity and Healthy Pride

 If you were to try to sum up in a single word the difficulty of being both queer and Christian, the word “pride” would pretty much do it.

There may be no concept more sacred to queers than “Pride.” But look in Christian scripture and hymnody, and you’ll see “pride” condemned as a glaring and destructive human sin. Disparagement of pride is rampant in Christianity, and don’t for a moment think that queer people fail to make this connection. When the word “pride” shows up in Christian liturgy, it is usually synonymous with hubris. Conventionally, pride can refer to the valuing of the self over and against the other. When defined this way, pride is a manifestation of a deeply imbalanced relationship between Self and Other. Calling people to account for harboring this kind of pride is one of the ways that Christianity pays attention to this imbalance, which in a way is a good thing. Aggressive, hubristic self-aggrandizement absolutely can and does come at God’s expense, resulting in a stubborn refusal to participate in God’s vision for humanity or even to recognize God’s transcendent power.

But we need to be careful with our language. Defined like this, “pride” becomes the exact opposite of queer Pride. The two concepts are not only definitionally opposed, but also energetically opposed. Hubristic pride is the antithesis of healthy relationship.\ That’s why in Christian theology pride is in no small way the essence of sin: hubristic pride makes relationship with Self, Other, and God nearly impossible.

By contrast, queer Pride is all about a healthy relationship with Self, Other, and for many of us, transcendent reality. Awareness and celebration of Pride thus involves a complex understanding of Self, of Self-in-Community, of Self-and-Community, and of Community itself. The complexity of these dynamics makes many of us queers keenly aware that our Pride is born of something deep within that connects us to one another, and also to something bigger than all of us. For some of us that “bigger than all of us” points to God; for some of us it points to big-picture truth and meaning that is authentic if not divine; for a great many of us it suggests and at times demands moral decisions, speech, and activism.

Progressive Christianity is often lacking in this kind of self-understanding. One seldom hears progressive Christians talk about Christian identity at all. Many, perhaps most progressive Christians consider their faith to be an affiliation rather than an identity.

An affiliation is not a bad thing. Since it often focuses on one’s relationship to a community (“I belong to such and such church . . .”), it may have some good Christian stuff going on. But an affiliation doesn’t get you very far down the path to a healthy kind of Pride, because it doesn’t necessarily contain the layers of connection that exist inside identity. Identity involves something going on deep inside of you—a knowledge of yourself. That deep self-knowledge is connected to something going on inside of a bunch of other people—a knowledge of ourselves. Our corporate self-knowledge is connected to something going on inside the community as a whole—a knowledge that was given to us by the One who created us. The sum of all of that self-knowledge is what propels us out into the streets to proclaim the truth of our identity, build a better world, and open those doorways to the sacred.

Looking to queer experience might help progressive Christians perceive both an identity in our faith and a way to feel a healthy kind of Pride in that identity. If we are going to ask queer people for help with this, however, we need to establish safe space in which we can work together.

In times like these when people are sensitive to the ways that words can do harm, it makes sense to lift up Christian disparagement of pride and ask churches to cut it out. We have no business asking queer people for whom Pride is a life-and-soul-saving concept to stand in a church and disparage the term. It would be useful if Christians could begin dismantling and rebuilding liturgical components such as prayers and hymns and replace the word “pride” with language that more accurately characterizes the problematic posture or behavior.

This is right in line with other language choices we make all the time. But it is not enough. It would be a big mistake to approach our relationship to Pride as a matter of mere political correctness, something that can be rectified with the tools of linguistic switcheroo. Something important is going on—and being communicated —in the respective relationships that the LGBTQ community and the church have with the word “Pride”/“pride.” We are better off digging into these dynamics and seeing what work, what promise, is here for us.

For more than half a century feminist and other liberation theologians have confronted the problem of equating sin with self- aggrandizement. Valerie Saiving launched this important movement in 1960 with the publication of her essay “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,”   now considered a foundational text in feminist theology. Judith Plaskow, a Jewish theologian, followed with the book Sex, Sin, and Grace in 1975. The premise of these works is that any definition of sin that discourages people from asserting their own value and needs does vast harm to people whose value and needs are already being actively denied. Defining sin as pride, as hubris, may be appropriate for people of privilege—and especially for those who hoard power or who profit by appropriating resources from others. But for those who have been colonized, dehumanized, demonized, and in myriad ways robbed of life and livelihood, this definition works to extend and exacerbate their oppression.

Imposing such a definition of sin on human beings is one of the biggest hammers in the ideological toolbox of empire that Christianity was born to dismantle. This is ironic, because you’d think that defining pride as aggression and hubris would serve to contain imperialistic tendencies. I mean, that’s what theologians would say is the whole point of defining pride in this way. But in practice, universalizing this definition of pride is one way the privileged Self absorbs and renders invisible all those less-privileged Others. Demonizing Pride is, in fact, one of the most effective ways that Christianity has ended up serving those who conquer and dominate, contributing to the disempowerment of people the world over.

Once you begin to see the ways that nominal Christianity has been warped to maintain rather than rupture  binaries, it is also possible to see how easily the weaving unravels when one simply tugs on the bright threads of a consciously queer Christianity. One of the brightest of those threads just begging to be pulled is the one we call “Pride.” The fact that Pride is now lived out so colorfully, so vibrantly, so visibly by queer people all over the world makes it a thread that is fairly easy to locate and grab hold of.

It is a legitimate question to ask if this notion of Pride actually squares with the Christian tradition. Where in the tradition can we actually see someone claiming a healthy, balanced kind of Pride?

Some of the most prominent figures in Hebrew scripture begin their work by giving voice to healthy Pride. They are people whom God calls by name. When they hear their names, these people sit bolt upright and respond with the Hebrew word hineni! Which means, “Here I am!”

God calls out, “Abraham!” And Abraham says, “Hineni. Here I am.”

God calls out from the burning bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses says, “Hineni. Here I am.”

God calls out to the child Samuel, serving in Eli’s temple, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel jumps up with a child’s energy, ready for anything: “Hineni! Here I am!”

Hineni is a vital concept in Jewish theology. It is the prophetic response to God’s call—a call that is issued to individual, vulnerable human beings. When God calls people by name, big things are about to happen. Abraham is about to prove his faith in God’s promise. Moses is about to liberate the Hebrew people from slavery. Samuel is about to restore integrity to the priesthood and, eventually, anoint David to be King of Israel.

The person who says “hineni” is basically saying two simple things:

Yes, it’s me, the one you are calling;

I’m right here.

Hineni is thus a statement of identity and presence. That’s why hineni is a declaration of healthy Pride. The person names hirself, declares hirself to be present. And all of that happens well before the person has a clear sense of what ze is supposed to do. As we try to walk this path of queerly Christian virtue, our first step is simply to cultivate an awareness of ourselves, while declaring ourselves present to God. We are essentially giving God someone to work with.

Hineni is the response of one who is wide open, poised for action. The prophet never has any idea what is about to happen, but he stands ready. And it’s worth noting that the prophet isn’t standing there, hands on hips, imagining himself to be some kind of superhero. After the prophet’s brave response, God usually explains the task: “Moses, my people are suffering. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring them out of Egypt.” At which point the prophet does a total double take and begins to backpedal like crazy. “Wait . . . what? You want me to go to Pharaoh? I think you meant to call my brother, Aaron, the charismatic one who can talk. Really, you can’t possibly want me for this job.”

God always just rolls Hir eyes and insists, “I called you, Moses. By name. You. Not Aaron. You. I’ll be right there with you. We are going to do this. Together.”

Moses’ reticence may be familiar terrain for you. Perhaps you know what it is to enter into a project, or take a new job, and after plowing enthusiastically into some morass, you find yourself asking, “Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?”

You need to know up front that the ability to tolerate discomfort is a requisite component of Pride. Healthy Pride can feel awesome, but it is not about entering a “feel good” zone and nesting there. Pride acknowledges fear so great that it threatens to paralyze even a guy like Moses. Pride demands courage. When God shows up and calls you by name, you may be slogging through some very hard stuff. Abraham declares, “Here I am,” in the midst of the story of God demanding that he sacrifice Isaac. The aural backdrop to Moses’s assertion, “Hineni,” is the anguished groaning of the enslaved Hebrew people. Samuel is just a kid who initially thinks he is being called by his mentor Eli; but the message that God hands him is one that “will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle,” and when God says “tingle,” Ze does not mean “with delight.”

Hineni isn’t prominent in Christian theology, but one of the few instances where someone gets the assignment, processes it, and then says, “Here I am,” is in the Gospel of Luke. It’s the story of Mary being visited by the angel. Gabriel appears and tells her she will be impregnated by God with a child who will be holy, who will be called “Son of God.” Mary remains remarkably composed through this entire ordeal. Angels are notoriously terrifying, but Mary merely tilts her head with cautious curiosity. She listens, and ponders, and when the angel asks what she thinks, she tells him.

This is a foundational story in the Christian tradition, and not just because it is the story of how Jesus is conceived. The fact that the angel talks with Mary, calls her by name, and waits for her to decide whether or not she wants to be part of this little experiment in divine/human comingling is revolutionary. Women just didn’t expect to be treated with such respect back then. Thus the encounter foreshadows Jesus’s high regard for women, which was radical in its day. It also signals a shift from other hineni stories: the one being called by name responds not with fear but with conviction and hope. While the process Mary is about to undergo may be terrifying— and the social stigma truly awful—there is also immense joy embedded in the outcome of her pregnancy, which Mary seems immediately to perceive.

Mary takes in all of this complexity, and she rises to the challenge. Her response is calm, self-possessed, measured, deliberate. The NRSV translates it as, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The King James Version translates it as, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord . . .” Both translations point toward Mary’s strong sense of herself. She stands in her Pride, knowing herself, able to meet this angel in conversation and engage her God in whatever extraordinary encounter is about to take place.

Pride should help you to stand with confidence. It’s important, therefore, to consider what Pride means to you. Remember that we are talking about a healthy kind of Pride. We are talking about Pride that points to something deep inside you, something that is of immense value, something that connects you to other people and to God. As Christians, our fundamental identity—the thing we are supposed to know to our core—is that we belong to God. God created us, and we are dependent on God for our very existence. Very importantly, our tradition teaches us that God created us for the sheer joy of it, out of love. Take a few moments to ponder that. Then take a few moments to ponder the word “Pride” in that context. One of the images that comes immediately to me is how proud I am of my children. That’s one of the healthiest kinds of Pride I know, rooted so strongly and so obviously in the joy and love I feel for my kids. I’m not proud of them only when they accomplish something amazing; even when I am so mad that there is smoke coming out of my ears, I am crazy about those boys and proud of them beyond belief. Take a few moments to ponder what it means, what it feels like, for God to feel that way about you.

Pride in that sense is rooted in a commitment to believing that you are truly valuable. This is neither simple nor easy. Cultivating a sense of your own worth can be hard work. Queerfolk will tell you: for us, rooting out all the internalized homophobia/biphobia/ transphobia/queerphobia is a lifelong endeavor.

And honestly, Christians have a trickier path here than queers do. Cultivating Pride is tricky for Christians because we must embrace our value as children of God while simultaneously rejecting all the triumphalist, militaristic, hubristic crap that still pervades our tradition. If you grew up singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” practically every other week in church, you know how hard this is. We have to be queering those imperialistic interpretations and tendencies, constantly. If we are going to “Lift High the Cross,” we need to be very clear: it’s not an act of conquest, nor a proclamation of superiority to others. You and I both know that’s just not what Jesus was about. Lifting up the cross is a way to say that we aren’t afraid of love. Standing there, knowing the violence that gets directed at love, we affirm the Christian premise that though our bodies may be killed, our souls cannot die.

Ditching all holier-than-thou inclinations and trappings is only one of the challenges Christians face in claiming our Pride. Here’s another: healthy Pride should not be hidden under the bushel of faux meekness and humility. The cross has an “in-your-face” quality to it, which we Christians are supposed to own. The inherent scandal of the cross is a huge part of its power. The cross should provoke people to question our attachment to—our investment in—the power of death. Our challenge, therefore, is to cultivate a kind of Pride that is akin to what Hedwig eventually internalizes for herself: Pride that is based on a deep appreciation for the divide in which we stand. Like those who dance into the streets to join queer Pride parades, we join those who are scandalous in a gutsy procession designed to tell people that we aren’t afraid to be implicated in the scandal that God’s love essentially is.

This is a narrow road, and it is challenging to walk. But it is no harder than the immense challenges faced by the prophets. Hineni is the response of someone who is about to stand up and look an extremely difficult situation in the eye. Pride is the self-awareness that gives you the strength to do that. And honestly, the key is that Pride takes your entire life seriously, all of it: the good and the hard, the joyful and the agonizing. Pride is able to be fully present to your toughest loss. Pride resides even in the places where you have been most badly hurt. Pride gets you through not by denying that the hurt is real, but by validating the pain and helping you to survive it. And Pride brings you into authentic relationship with other people precisely by equipping you to do the same thing for someone else: validating another person’s pain, and standing strong with that person as ze faces it.

Healthy Pride makes it possible to feel good about yourself in a way that empowers you to treat other people better. It is entirely possible to cultivate a kind of self-love that makes you more compassionate, more sensitive to the lives and experiences of people around you. It is entirely possible to feel your own strength in a way that helps you be part of the solution when your community is trying to figure out how to navigate a difficult situation and move forward into a healthier place. It is entirely possible to be Proud in a way that encourages (en-courages) you to be vulnerable, and invites others to be vulnerable—and Proud—too.

If we are to use queerness to help us understand our own identities and Pride, Christians must become aware of and resist the impulse, conscious or subconscious, to deny the existence of LGBTQ people. Nominal Christianity is a principal enforcer of heteronormativity in the world today, and that enforcement is very often literal, used to justify the most severe punishments meted out to queer people all over the world—whether by vigilante perpetrators of hate crimes or by agents of state-sanctioned hate. This is one of the most virulent and visible ways that Christianity is currently being warped to maintain rather than rupture insidious binaries.

It matters that progressive Christians reject attempts to use Christianity to justify hateful teachings and violence. I hope that’s obvious. But our Christian call demands something deeper of us. Our attempts to proclaim a more authentic Gospel will not go far enough unless and until we become conscious of heteronormative impulses within our tradition and work to dismantle them. These impulses are on glaring display in what often passes for Christian sexual ethics; so if you want to observe and discuss how our tradition views heterosexual relationships as normative, sexual ethics is the easiest place to start. Responding to the advance of marriage equality, some denominations are now engaged in conversation about what marriage signifies, and what makes a marriage “Christian.”

If you belong to one of these denominations, perhaps this is a conversation you can join. Sexual ethics and marriage are not the only places where heteronormativity is plainly visible in our tradition, but if you are just wading into this stuff for the first time, they aren’t bad places to dive in and get your bearings.

If you are going to do this, you need to know going in that it will at times be unsettling work. It may also feel profoundly liberating. Regardless of how it feels, it will demand a lot of you. You will need to develop an ear for the queerness in our tradition. That may challenge you, and if you come out of the closet with whatever you hear, I can guarantee it will challenge people with whom you converse. That’s why Lisa Isherwood and Marcella Althaus-Reid assert that “queering theology requires courage.” They write, “In the same way that people sometimes need to renounce a beloved who has ill-treated them, we face here the challenge of renouncing beloved sexual ideologies, systems of belief that even if built upon injustice have become dear to us, especially if associated with the will of God.” This work, they write, is not different from theological work to liberate our tradition from “former ideological abusive loves, such as racism, sexism, indifference towards the poor (if not active collusion in their oppression) and colonialism.”  It’s hard work, but so worthwhile, because what we are talking about is bringing our tradition into authentic dialogue with the truth of people’s real lives, and real souls.

 We queers exist, and many of us have lives and sensibilities that don’t fit neatly into heteronormative constructs. And honestly, that’s a good thing. Our perceptions of our relationships and ethical obligations are at times of a different hue from the perceptions informed by heteronormative Christian ethics. Far from an ethical deficit, that difference is often shot through with valuable insight.

Pride doesn’t come easy. It requires courage. It demands honesty and self-assessment that is at times quite rigorous. You see, Pride isn’t just a feeling. As something that is connected to your identity, it also draws you out. It makes demands of you. The good news is that you can practice it. You can start with small steps, practicing and building the courage that Pride requires. One of the most important steps is the one you take when you come out to others.

Excerpted from "Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity" by The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman, (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.



By Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman

The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman is an Episcopal priest and a political strategist who has been expanding people’s understanding of faith and sexuality for over twenty-five years. She has worked on the most pressing contemporary issues in the intersection of religion and sexuality, serving as an inner-city hospital chaplain to people with HIV/AIDS from 1989 to 1995 and helping to craft political and communications strategies for marriage-equality efforts. She lives in New York City.

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