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Queer Theology

Purple Diva

Purple Diva is a Queer Radical Christian and Womanist who serves as a deacon at Cosmopolitan Affirming Church (CAC), a church in Nairobi, Kenya that shares a message of love, faith and hope with the LGBTIQ+++ community. (CAC features prominently in the documentary Kenyan, Christian, Queer – see here for more information and the trailer.)

Purple is a writer and a poet who finds inspiration in her religion and sexuality.

Diva works with organizations in Kenya to seek social justice and equality for all.

Purple Diva’s main desire is “to ensure that every face has a genuine bright smile”.

But members of the LGBTIQ+++ community are vulnerable to gender-based and sexual violence – in Kenya, as in many other parts of the world. Purple Diva, for all her positive energy and ready smiles, is well aware of this. She can’t risk publicly to share her name or a picture that would identify her. 

Purple Diva and a friend, with the nom de plume CrucialArts, have co-written a poem, in dialogue form, about rape and its devastating effects. It is a powerful and a distressing piece, a scream for justice. If you wish to read it, please see here.

The Shiloh Project is committed to research, actions and art that explore the networks of connection between religious expression and gender-based violence. The purpose of this is to expose, resist and eliminate gender-based violence – from microaggressions to psychological, social, political, emotional, spiritual and physical forms of violence. We recognise the significance of intersectional forces at play in this endeavour, as well as the world-wide reach of the problems to be tackled.

We welcome participation in and contributions to the blog, as well as to our book series and podcast

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Premiere of Kenyan, Christian, Queer

Premiere of Kenyan Christian Queer: 5 Days To Go! poster.

This coming Friday (31 July 2020) is the world premiere of the film Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Struggle for Faith, Hope and Love, directed by Aiwan Obinyan. 

You can see the trailer here

For an earlier Shiloh post on the book of the name Kenyan, Christian, Queer, by Adriaan van Klinken, see here.

About this Event:

Is it possible to be African, Christian and queer? The members of the first LGBTQ church in Nairobi Kenya certainly believe so. The Cosmopolitan Affirming Community (CAC) seeks to promote an inclusive and progressive form of Christianity, in the midst of a rather conservative society.

The screening link will be live from 9am to 12midnight (Eastern Africa Time/Kenya Time) with a live Q&A at 2pm BST (= British Summer Time) / 4pm EAT (= Eastern Africa Time) / 9am EST (= Eastern Standard Time).

The Q&A will feature:

  • Aiwan Obinyan (Film Director)
  • Pastor David Ochar (CAC)
  • Bishop Joseph Tolton 
  • Prophetess Jacinta Nzilani 

Book your ticket now, to receive the link & password for the secure film screening and Q&A.

You can book your free tickets here https://www.eventbrite.com/e/kenyan-christian-queer-premiere-tickets-113871003236?aff=CACAdriaanTFAM

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Q & A with author Chris Greenough: The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men

Photo of Chris Greenough.

Tell us about yourself. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

I’m Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. I got my PhD from the University of Birmingham in 2016, under the expert supervision of the most marvellous Dr Deryn Guest. I’m interested broadly in gender and sexuality and how it interfaces with religion, including LGBTQ+ identities, and queer theologies. 

The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men is my third monograph. One of the texts I discuss in the book is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-29) and its legacy of being a text that condemns sex between men. The text is still used in an abusive way today in an attempt to bolster arguments against same-sex relationships or against gay marriage, for example. Religious teaching about the text has resulted in shame and stigma around same-sex relations, yet the passage is not about consensual, loving same-sex acts at all, it is about attempted male rape. 

The book came about when, originally, I was working with the brilliant Dr Katie Edwards on a similarly-themed book. We quickly realised there was a lot to cover and there was therefore a need for two complementary texts. Katie’s book is also forthcoming in the Routledge series. It was such a rewarding experience to work with Katie, and with the editors of the Routledge Focus series on Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible – Prof Johanna Stiebert and Dr Caroline Blyth. I’m ever so grateful for their support during the course of the book’s journey.

What are the key arguments of this book?

Within the first chapter of the book, I set out the importance of the topic for readers of the Bible today. 1 in 6 men have experienced some form of sexual abuse and the most prolific case of serial rape in UK legal history involved the rape of nearly 200 men. In the book, I argue how religion and society, while bolstering hegemonic masculinity and sanctioning heteronormativity, have contributed to a blindness to male sexual abuse in today’s world. I explore the reasons for shame and stigma that surround male sexual abuse, along with unhelpful myths that prevent men from reporting and seeking support. In Chapter Two, I examine passages from the Hebrew Bible that describe male rape or attempted sexual violence against men: Lot’s daughters who get him drunk and rape him in order to procreate (Genesis 19: 30-38); Potiphar’s Wife’s sexual advances against Joseph (Genesis 39) and the attempted rape of men (Genesis 19Judges 19). In Chapter Three, I turn the attention on Jesus’ enforced nudity at his crucifixion, and I examine sources that denote how such an act was a public humiliation and shaming of a man. The shaming was sexual. Reading Jesus as a victim of sexual violence remains a contentious issue in theology and biblical studies, as well as in wider faith communities. I explore why there is such stigma around these issues, which are undoubtedly connected to the fact he was a man. 

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

In general, critical studies into sexual violence experienced by men remain relatively scarce compared to scholarship exploring the rape and sexual violation of women. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that women experience sexual violence on a much greater scale than men. My aim is that the book generates an awareness of the lived realities of sexual violence against men, and that such an awareness will help debunk some of the myths that men cannot be abused.

I also hope that the book can serve a number of interested readers, including those who may be coming to explore the content of the biblical texts for the first time. For this reason, I wrote the book using a number of different critical approaches from theology, biblical and religious studies perspectives, while also exploring insights from the fields of sociology, psychology, criminology, as well as referring to legal cases and legislation, charity work and media-focussed articles. 

Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers want to go and read the rest.

“a blindness to the sexual violence Jesus endured has led to a blindness to sexual violence against men in general.”

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Adriaan Van Klinken

The first week of this lockdown I spent closely following the news with updates about the pandemic across the globe, which became depressing. I also felt sad about having to cancel a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe, where I had a friend’s wedding, a holiday with my husband, a conference and two book launch events lined up – a trip I’d been planning and looking forward to for months. After that first week or so, I decided to only check the news twice a day, and to take a distance from social media, especially WhatsApp where groups were constantly buzzing, and instead to make the most of “working from home”. 

I’m lucky that I’m on research leave at the moment – so I could ignore the many emails that the University sent about student education related matters, while feeling sympathy for my colleagues who suddenly had to experiment with online teaching methods. My planning for research leave has been greatly affected by the current crisis – in addition to cancelling the South Africa trip, I also had to postpone a trip to Kenya in May to launch an AHRC funded research network, not knowing when I can reschedule; I’m also uncertain whether or not I should start preparing for my inaugural lecture that’s planned for June. In recent days I spent quite a lot of time planning the sessions of the African Religions unit for the AAR annual meeting in November, with on the back of my mind the idea that the meeting may soon be cancelled. 

With all the uncertainty, I decided to prioritise a couple ofprojects I can actually easily do from home: preparing the launch of a documentary film, completing a book manuscript, and processing and analysing the data of a research project. Each of these projects might actually be of interest to Shiloh readers! 

The film is called Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and is related to my book with the same title that was published last year. The film features an LGBT church in Kenya and the work they are doing to create an affirming space for LGBT Christians in a mostly conservative society. The actual production of the film is done by Aiwan Obinyan, a British-Nigerian film maker who is a friend of mine. I’ve been giving feedback on drafts, communicating with relevant stakeholders, and preparing educational resources for using the film in classroom settings. Unfortunately the African Studies conference where the film was to be launched has been cancelled, so we’re currently making alternative plans. 

The book I mentioned is titled Reimagining Sexuality and Christianity in Africa, and I’m authoring it with Ezra Chitando, a colleague in Zimbabwe. It’s aimed at a non-specialist audience of students, religious leaders and activists, thus requiring a more accessible writing style than the typical academic monograph. The book seeks to interrogate the dominant narrative of Christian homophobia in Africa, demonstrating how Christianity also serves as a site to imagine alternative possibilities of sexuality in African cultures and societies. Thereto we discuss a number of African thinkers, ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to feminist theologian Mercy Oduoye, but also a range of creative and cultural expressions, such as novels, films and poetry.

Then, with my Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert I’ve been working for the past year on a British Academy funded project for which we work with a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees based in Nairobi, Kenya. It focuses on the life stories of participants, and how biblical stories can be used to narrate and signify their experiences, struggles and hopes. The group we are working with is truly amazing – in terms of their creativity and resilience – and so is Johanna as a very inspiring colleague and collaborator. Going through the transcripts of interviews and focus group discussions brings back many wonderful memories. The creative bible studies we did, about Daniel in the lion’s den and about Jesus and the “adulterous woman”, resulted in drama plays that have been video recorded. This project is also supposed to result in a book, and the lock down gives us the time to start working on it. 

So, after the initial setback I’m now managing reasonably well. I intersperse my working hours with gardening – hooray for the goldfish that we were able to buy the weekend before the lockdown started, which make the garden pond so much livelier –, with a daily run along the canal, and checking in with friends and family nearby and far away to try and help them cope with the current situation. The reports I get from friends and colleagues in Kenya and other parts of Africa do worry me – the lockdown there has an enormous impact on people’s livelihoods. The whole situation makes me aware, again, of my own privilege and makes me reflect upon what solidarity means in these times. As much as it’s true that the virus does not discriminate, the effects of the pandemic are felt most severe by communities that are already vulnerable and marginalised. (On that note: If anyone reading this is able to offer some support to the above mentioned group of Ugandan refugees, who really struggle economically in the current crisis, please get in touch.)

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Chris Greenough

Like many introverts, I think I’ve been practising social distancing for many years! But, as an academic, these aren’t times where you can knuckle down to work, wrapped in a comforting cocoon of your own reading, thoughts and writing. Coronavirus brings a real, present and threatening worry that breaks concentration, interrupts everyday activities and the anxiety is real. But, if anything, the social aspects of my life have picked up through making a conscious effort to stay in touch with people and check in on how they’re doing. Ironically, therefore, being connected and being in touch with others are helping me most.

While work sometimes pales into insignificance, there has been an urgent need to move teaching online, to stay in touch with students in new ways, to get to grips with technology I’ve never used before and to continue to supervise students. I’ve learnt that I’m less of a luddite than I thought. I’ve much appreciated and been touched by the genuine exchange of good wishes and the warm relationships we have with one another – whether we are lecturers, students or colleagues.

There have been some days where I’ve found research to be a helpful distraction, too. I’m currently finishing off my volume for the Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible series entitled The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men. Working with Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert as editors has been such a rewarding experience. The book examines social and cultural myths around sexual violence against men: that boys and men can be sexually abused, and this has nothing to do with their gender, sexuality or how masculine they are. At least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted. I’m grateful to feminist criticism in biblical studies that has drawn attention to sexual violence against men in the Bible, and in my work, I’m exploring Lot’s daughters’ sexual assault of him (Genesis 19), Joseph’s rebuttal of unwanted sexual attention from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) and the attempted rape of men in Genesis 19 and Judges 19. As it is Eastertide, it is relevant to mention how I am also looking at the stripping of Jesus as an act of sexual violence.

During the times I’m unable to concentrate or just need to stop, I’ve been able to benefit from the garden, the intermittent sunshine, my companion dogs and rabbit, my hilarious partner and wine.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 14 – Megan Robertson

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Megan Robertson and I have recently completed my PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. My doctoral research focused specifically on investigating how the lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) co-constitute the institutional cultures and politics of the Church. Since 2018 I have had the privilege of working at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, at UWC. The Centre seeks to contextually, theoretically, and methodologically challenge asymmetrical systems of power. It thus allows me a space to research and teach in ways which bridges the false binary between academia and activism and places justice at the centre of the work I do.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

The picture of me in this blog is taken in front of Church Street Methodist Church, the congregation which I was a member of until my late twenties. For me this is a site of my own identity negotiation and also the space which continues to drive the activism which is integral to my research. The church which I grew up in not only shaped my belief systems but perhaps more significantly provided me with a place to which I felt I belonged. As a teenager and young adult I became more involved in the broader provincial and national structures of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) and thus more aware of how the Church which provided a ‘home’ for me was also deeply patriarchal, heteronormative, racially segregated and hierarchical. I was also quite actively involved in the Church at the time when a minister, Ecclesia de Lange, was excommunicated for declaring her intention to marry her same-sex partner. Therefore, for me, the church and religion became both a place of significant belonging as well as a space for a great deal of injustice. These experiences inspire my research which explores how different people navigate religious belonging and exclusion and indeed transform those spaces in positive ways.

In my research I incorporate activism by exploring how politics of belonging, body politics and politics of the domestic and erotic are evident in the narratives and experiences of queer clergy who occupy positions of power and marginality in the Church. I argue in my work that the MCSA’s internal conversations around the inclusion of women and same-sex marriage are too narrow to do justice to queer experiences of exclusion, discrimination and violence in the Church. For the MCSA and other denominations seeking to become truly inclusive of queer, women (and all other) members, bringing lived experience into conversation with institutional cultures in research sharpens understandings of how the church can indeed be a place of inclusivity instead of rejection. In my work I am also interested in the activism participants themselves are engaged in as they inhabit the norms of the institution. In a complex religious context where gender-sex identities are contested I found that participants engage in activism in relatively covert ways through living their domestic and erotic lives, embodying clerical and Methodist identity and through silence. In illuminating these subtle forms of activism, the political project of my research explores the possibilities that varied ways lived experience can trouble normative powers of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

My fuel for doing research is activism. Before beginning my PhD and working in the Desmond Tutu Centre, I was disillusioned by academia and bought into the idea that dismantling social injustices and researching them were two separate tasks. However, I soon realised that the binary between activism and academia was a false and unhelpful one. It is my anger and frustration that continues to drive me to work towards a just and equitable society and it is in academia where I am able to make productive meaning of that anger and frustration.

Through the writing up of my dissertation, I have continued to be in conversation with some of the clergy who participated in my doctoral research. In these conversations we have begun to explore the ways in which my research findings can feed into the committees and activism work which they would like to pursue. Further, in my post-doctoral research I want to further explore the nature of queer activism in South Africa. My other passion is dance and theatre and I hope to explore the ways in which popular artists and performers in Cape Town interrogate the intersections of religion and sexuality on stage.

 

 

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 9 – Chris Greenough

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Chris Greenough and I’m Senior Lecturer in Religion at Edge Hill University. I research and teach on gender, sexuality and religion. My research to date has mostly focussed on LGBTQ+ religious and spiritual identities, queer theologies and queer biblical studies.

 How does your research or your work connect to activism?

As an academic, I engage and contribute to activism in various ways. When we think of activism we think of protest and the public assembly of like-minded individuals, collaborating to fight against injustices and for change. But, aside from this, we are all activists in our communities: in our classrooms, on social media and in our one-to-one interactions. I am a former secondary school teacher and part of my current role is initial teacher education and I work hard to ensure our future teachers are confident to work with LGBTQ+ issues.

Reflecting on how I am activist in the classroom, I have an article in the special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, edited by Johanna Stiebert. In the article, I explore the notions of risk, experimentation and failure, as well as of tackling specific issues relating to resistance of queer biblical criticism based on religious faith.

There are regular TV and media discussion panels debating questions about how LGBTQ+ lives and Christianity are seemingly incompatible. In conservative religious settings, we see how verses selected from the Bible are used to condemn same sex relationships/marriage, transgender recognition, gay and lesbian parenting or adoption and these form the positional statements of major Christian denominations. In this sense, my work is activism that speaks back to what is, in fact, really toxic theology. My first monograph, Undoing Theology, highlighted the harmful effects of traditionally dominant theology in Christianity on the lives of non-normative individuals. In his review of my book, Adrian Thatcher says, “We need to learn the pain that we cause. This is a bold, truthful book”.

Yet, being bold is not always easy. Activism comes with challenges and obstacles. Sara Ahmed puts this perfectly, “when we speak about what we come up against, we come up against what we speak about” (Living a Feminist Life, 2017: 148). As a queer scholar, I am undisciplined. That means I do not hold much allegiance to any of the traditional disciplines I work across: they each require a critical undoing of the powers and privilege which has produced and shaped them. As someone who writes on queer theologies and biblical studies, I am occasionally confronted with furrowed frowns as a reception to my work. If queer research makes people feel uncomfortable, it highlights the hegemony, gatekeepers and ‘methodsplainers’ at work in our disciplines. It highlights prejudice and discrimination to queer individuals. For me, resisting academic normativity in the pursuit of social justice is activism. I am entirely grateful to my academic scholars and friends at SIIBS and the Shiloh project for their support.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

The next twelve months are going to be busy! I’m delighted and incredibly proud to be working with Katie Edwards on a book for the Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’. Our title aims to explore contemporary reactions and readings to the naming of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse: #JesusToo: Silence, Stigma and Male Sexual Violence. In contemporary culture there is undeniably a culture of stigma associated with male sexual abuse. Despite this stigma, at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted: https://1in6.org/ . There are also numerous myths around male sexual abuse that need further discussion.

I’m also going to be Guest Editor for a special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies on Queer Theory and the Bible. The term ‘queer theory’ was first coined in 1990, so this seems a fitting edition to celebrate 30 years of queer!

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Celebrating all things queer

Last month I visited Nairobi to embark on a project together with my Leeds colleague Adriaan van Klinken. Adriaan has been conducting research in Kenya over a number of years but it was my first visit. Our project is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust and centres on a collaboration with the Nairobi-based initiative called The Nature Network.

The Nature Network is a community of LGBTQ+ refugees (the majority from Uganda) who have come together in Nairobi for solidarity, mobilization, community and survival. Kenya has been called a haven for LGBTQ+ refugees, but their lives are nevertheless far from easy.

The Nature Network provides support and community, advocacy, resources, advice, and a social justice platform for its members but, like other LGBTQ+ people and other refugees, too, they are a vulnerable community. Homophobia in all its insidious and often violent forms is very much present in Nairobi, as it is in very many other places. Added to that, like refugees elsewhere, community members are struggling in the face of economic uncertainties, poverty and all the vulnerabilities these bring with them. The range of members’ needs is complex and varied. Many suffer from unmet health problems, including mental health issues, and all live with various kinds of uncertainty regarding employment, economic security, and future prospects. Many are awaiting decisions from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and several are due to be resettled, as others have been before them, in the USA, Canada, or Iceland.

Our project is called ‘Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugee Life Story Project’ and it explores how life stories, or autobiographical accounts, in combination with biblical stories, can become both a means and a resource for activism towards social justice for LGBTQ+ refugees and for activist-inspired research. In doing so, we are mindful of and draw on established and important work in other parts of the continent of Africa. I am thinking here, for instance, of the many activities of the Talitha Qumi Center in Ghana and of the Contextual Bible Study projects of the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa.

Johanna at the Nature Network, waiting to conduct an interview

Adriaan and I conducted some interviews on our visit, but the bulk of the data is being collected by members of The Nature Network. The initial interviews have proved moving and inspiring and we are working towards a collaborative publication that will bring these stories and the method itself into wider circulation.

While I was in Nairobi, there were two other queer highlights for me: one was attending the loud, proud, and lively service with the Cosmopolitan Affirming Community, which again demonstrated creative and empowering deployment of religious motifs and biblical texts; and the other was joining in the vibrant launch of Adriaan’s extraordinary new book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa. What a fine party it was – with dancing, drag, fabulous outfits, a play, presentations, and above all, abundant celebration and joy. I am so glad I could be there.

Raymond Brian of The Nature Network holding Adriaan’s book

Adriaan’s book is being launched again in Leeds: at 4pm on 14 November 2019, at Claire Chapel, Emmanuel Centre, University of Leeds. The event is co-hosted by the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. All supporters are welcome.

Alongside the people and communities I encountered in Nairobi, and alongside Adriaan’s research and publication, there are yet more queer events to celebrate. First, there is the research of Sam Ross, a PhD candidate based at the University of Leeds. Sam is exploring queer readings of Hebrew Bible texts that focus on suffering, pain, and trauma; he features as our Researcher of the Month on the Religion in Public blog. You can read about his research journey here. What he does not mention is that he has had a paper accepted in the peer-reviewed Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Congratulations! Look out for the special issue on transgender and genderqueer perspectives coming soon.

And another shout-out for a queer celebration goes to Chris Greenough who has just had two books published (yes, he’s an over-achiever). The first, Undoing Theology: Life stories from non-normative Christians (SCM, 2018, reviewed here), has been invaluable as I reflect on and think ahead to the next stage of the project in Kenya. In this book, Chris takes up the call of Marcella Althaus-Reid who, in 2003, published the words, ‘At the bottom line of queer theologies, there are biographies of sexual migrants, testimonies of real lives in rebellions made of love, pleasure and suffering’ (The Queer God, Routledge, 2003, p.8, reviewed here). Chris documents his communications with three sexual migrants, or non-normative Christians: an intersex-identifying Catholic, a former ‘ex-gay’ minister, and a Christian engaging in BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism). The result is a moving testament from those who are sometimes seeking, sometimes demanding, and occasionally finding inclusion and spiritual fulfilment. What remains un-erased in the course of this book are the difficulties and traumas encountered by and inflicted on sexual migrants. The book is a remarkable blend of vivid personal accounts and incisive critical theory.

Chris’s second book is called Queer Theologies: The Basics (Routledge, 2019) and is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to come to grips with queer interpretation and queer theologies. Those who have tried to do so know it to be a rich and varied field with some hard-to-navigate ideas, theories, and terminologies. Chris’s book is accessible and written with clarity and flair. It also contains a helpful glossary and plenty of suggestions for further study and exploration.

There is so much queer to celebrate!

 

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LGBTI History Month: Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church

February is LGBT History Month, and this year, the central theme has been peace, activism, and reconciliation. To mark this, Project Shiloh is delighted to offer a blog post from Harriet Winn, who writes about the need and potential for reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the Christian Church. Harriet is an Honours student at the University of Auckland, whose research interests include queer theology and gendered histories within Christianity. Harriet is also an active member of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa, a student-led group campaigning to end campus rape, and Hidden Perspectives NZ, a student community that works to heighten LGBTIQ awareness and acceptance in the Faculty of Arts.

Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church

Harriet Winn

‘Theological ideas are powerful.’[1]

The queer community can understand the potent power of theology more acutely than many other groups. Historically, the church has contributed to the societal subjugation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer or questioning (LGBTIQ) people, appealing to destructive theologies that designated them “disordered” beings.[2] Yet, in recent years, some church denominations have begun to engage with queer communities in ways that hint at the possibility of reconciliation.[3] The issue of same-sex marriage, for example, has been considered or even embraced by a number of churches.

However, whilst theological engagement with issues such as marriage equality have value, true reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ people will not come from tokenistic gestures but needs to be deeply rooted in an embrace of queer theology. Queer theology presents a challenge to traditional methods of theology from the margins.[4] Through its rejection of essentialism, queer theology demands that the church dismantles and rebuilds its conceptualization of human relationships both with each other and with God, thereby articulating a theology of reconciliation which works both horizontally and vertically.

In this blog post, I will argue that for reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ communities to take place, there must be a process of unlearning normative theologies, followed by a reclamation of queer identity rooted in faith, and finally the finding of common ground between both groups.

Stained-glass window at Church of Our Savior MCC (Metropolitan Community Church, Boynton Beach, Florida.

The discord between queer communities and the institution of the church has a long and varied history. The conflict between these two groups does not necessarily follow a monolithic path, as there are certainly Christian communities who welcome LGBTIQ people into their fold unconditionally. Moreover, the approach taken by churches to queer people varies between denominations.[5] Overwhelmingly, however, the Christian faith has expressed hostility towards the queer community which has served to rob LGBTIQ people of their ‘fullness of human expression.’[6]

This pervasive hostility has manifested itself in diverse ways. At a scriptural level, verses of the Bible such as the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Gen. 19) have been torn from their original context to elicit condemnation over queer sexuality.[7] Legalistically, conservative forces who seek to discriminate against the queer community have used the rhetoric of church leaders to bolster their political arguments.[8] In their denial of marriage to LGBTIQ people, various denominations of church – most prominently Anglicanism and Catholicism – deny the queer community a fundamental human right on the basis that same-sex marriage disturbs the sanctity and stability of the heterosexual family unit.[9]

All of these objections to queer humanity contribute to a rhetoric of violence which has taken root in the institution of the church and led to the exclusion of queer people from its varying communities. And while this may not involve the total exclusion of LGBTIQ people, this rhetoric has certainly made participating in Christian faith a less-accessible, and oftentimes hostile, experience for them. The question of how to reconcile the queer community with an institution that has historically pushed them to the margins is, therefore, a loaded one.

In tackling the daunting topic of reconciliation, Gregory Baum recognizes that in order to be truly effective, the process must elicit a ‘change of mind and heart’ within its participants.[10] As confronting as it may be, this radical change of position will not take place without a period dedicated to the practices of listening and dialogue between queer people and proponents of theology that oppose their sexuality. It is in these spaces that the unlearning of normative theology and a reorientation of faith towards the inclusion of LGBTIQ people will occur.

Gay Christian Jeff Chu believes that if people simply stop and listen to the stories of queer marginalization, their minds will be ‘positively transformed.’[11] Here Chu gives voice to the immense value of the role of witness within queer theology. Baum adds nuance to Chu’s assertion when he states that the participants of the dialogue must ‘be willing to examine their own history critically’ and ‘recognise the distortions of their self-understanding.’[12] Therefore, passive acceptance of the other party’s position is not sufficient – each group must embark on a process of deep self-reflection. For those who oppose queerness, this will involve maintaining an openness to queer theology’s criticism of binaries. Queer theologians proclaim that these binaries – whether related to gender (man/woman) or sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual) – are arbitrary forms of socially constructed categorization which generate discrimination through the process of othering.[13] Recognition and acceptance of the fluidity of identity embodied by queer people is a crucial part of their reconciliation to the church – they cannot and will not be subject to restrictive classification.

Capital Pride Parade, DC, 2016, image courtesy of S Pakhrin, Wikimedia Commons

This may be an unsettling prospect for Christians who hold theologies which support the idea of gender complementarianism, but as Gerard Loughlin proclaims – faith should be unsettling.[14] Furthermore, this part of the process will challenge many Christians to acknowledge how sin manifests itself in ‘conformity with the status quo’; that collusion with homophobic theology is displeasing to God.[15] The commitment to listening and dialogue allows the process of reconciliation between queer people and their theological opponents to begin on the foundations of truth.

The next crucial stage of reconciliation sees LGBTIQ people reclaiming their identities rooted in faith. Liberation theology, arguably the predecessor of queer theology, presents the need for victims of oppression to find a ‘new self-understanding’ due to the internalization of hatred which can infiltrate their mindsets in an insidiously destructive way.[16] Reconciliation, therefore, implicates forgiveness of oneself as well as of others.[17] For queer Christians, the most profound affirmation of their identity can be found in the conceptualization of God as queer. Furthering the tradition of apophatic theology, which professes God’s transcendence of human understanding as being ‘above all essence’, Patrick Cheng argues that God is an ‘identity without essence’ much like, in its fluidity, queerness.[18] Queer theologians go beyond conceptualizing God as standing in solidarity on the side of the marginalized to contend that God actually becomes one with them; Loughlin believes that queer can be ‘offered as a name for God.’[19] This remarkable notion affirms LGBTIQ people’s sense of self in the most radical of ways as it expresses an unequivocal divine support for queerness.

A rainbow flag on Union Congregational Church in Hacksensack, Minnesota. Courtesy of Tony Webster, on Wikimedia Commons.

On a more pragmatic line of thought, reclamation of queer identity also occurs through the embrace of historic queerness. Lara Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan illuminate how both homosexuality, and same-sex unions, date back as far as heterosexuality.[20] They recognize the unproblematic, historic existence of same-sex unions in China, Egypt, within certain tribes of Native America, and in Māori culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.[21] Delving into the historical place of queerness illuminates how contemporary societal understandings of marriage and sexuality are entirely contextual and not ubiquitous across cultures.[22] Recognizing this offers the potential for liberation from the position of restrictive normativity which has often been the church’s default response to queerness. The reclamation of a queer identity rooted in faith is necessary for the establishment of justice within this process of reconciliation: it puts LGBTIQ people on equal grounding with their non-queer sisters and brothers in faith.

The restoration of justice for queer communities through their reclamation of identity is not the end of the reconciliation process. The next stage involves the growth of mercy between the two groups through the finding of common ground; as Baum has found, the ‘need for a common story’ is one of the most fundamental aspects of reconciliation.[23] In the same way that ecclesiastical endorsement of same-sex marriage will not instantaneously lead to the rooting out of all theological homophobia, simply existing on an equal platform within the Christian faith does not immediately bring about unconditional acceptance of queerness within the church. Therefore, it is vital that LGBTIQ people are able to show a sense of mercy, and patience, towards their theological opponents as they gradually embark upon the path of understanding and accepting queerness.

And conversely, theological opponents of queerness must root their discernment process of trying to understand queerness in the attribute of mercy. Reconciliation is a time-consuming process – not a one-off event; this sentiment is aptly summed up by Leah Robinson who conceptualizes reconciliation as ‘an inspired lifestyle.’[24] Due to its ongoing nature, mercy must undergird the process as it entails a certain sense of compassion which is ultimately conducive to the establishment of peace: the ultimate goal of reconciliation. The finding of common ground between both parties is a practical method of helping establish merciful attitudes and can be done within this context through illuminating the intersection of queerness and theology. By demonstrating the queerness inherent to both theology and Christian faith, queer theology could gently show its opponents that queerness is not a terrifyingly ambiguous and threatening concept, but something which has a long-standing place in the Christian tradition.

Chicago Pride, 2013. Image courtesy of Richie Diesterheft, https://flic.kr/p/eZv88z

The queerness of Christianity is widespread. It finds itself in defiance of the status-quo, and its seeking of the strange – ‘the unknowable in Christ’, just as the desire to deconstruct ‘traditional boundaries’ and binaries within queer theology demonstrates a commitment to uncertainty.[25] Moreover, the destruction of binaries is not a practice exclusive to queer theology. By existing as both human and divine, Jesus epitomized Christianity’s flagrant disregard for binaries.[26] If traditional modes of theology find the blurring of boundaries between humanity and divinity unproblematic, they should be able to conceptualize, and thus show mercy towards, the blurring of binaries within the human realm.[27] Mercy for the other can take root between the queer community and their theological opponents through the finding of common ground; the queering of Christian faith.

Reconciliation between the queer community and the church will only occur when queer theology is fully embraced by normative theology as a legitimate and life-giving source of faith. The road to peace between these two communities will certainly not be a smooth or swift process, as the hurt that has been wrought by homophobic theologies is deeply entrenched in the psyche of LGBTIQ people. However, through the practical steps outlined earlier – the establishment of truth through listening and dialogue, assertion of justice engendered by reclamation of identity, and the nurturing of mercy by finding common ground, peace becomes an exhilarating possibility. Amidst all the incongruous debate taking place about same-sex marriage and the place of queer people in the highest echelons of the church, queer theology presents the most hopeful way forward.

Image courtesy of Theoroditsis, ‘Jesus Loves You All’, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/h4tsB1

Queer theology transcends the bounds of theory to become praxis – it precipitates, and requires ‘authentic Christian discipleship.’[28]  Therefore, it requires sustained commitment, which is a crucial component to reconciliation and will aid the long-term inclusion of queerness. In order to avoid the disconnect between itself and society being further widened, all Christian theology must be undergirded by the declaration made by eminent archbishop and theologian Desmond Tutu that ‘he would rather choose hell than worship a homophobic God.’[29] Patrick Cheng proclaims the church as an ‘external community of radical love’,[30]  and now is the time for the church to fully embrace this role.

 

Bibliography

Ahmed, Lara Aasem, and J. Michael Ryan. “Same-Sex Marriage.” In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, edited by Nancy A. Naples, 1-2. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.

Althaus-Reid, Marcella, and Lisa Isherwood. “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory.” Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007): 302-314.

Aspin, Clive, and Jessica Hutchings. “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality.” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007): 415-427

Baum, Gregory. “A Theological Afterward.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 183-192. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

Cheng, Patrick S. “Contributions from Queer Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. New York: Seabury Books, 2011.

Dickinson, Colby, and Meghan Toomey. “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field.” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017): 1-16.

Endsjø, Dag Ølstein. Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

Kirby, Andrew, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper, and Shoba Nayar. “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy.” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017): 901-918.

Loughlin, Gerard. “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity.” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008): 143-152.

Robinson, Leah. Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology. Bern: Peter Lang, 2015.

Shaw, Jane. “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wells, Harold. “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 1-14. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

[1] Harold Wells, “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 1.

[2] Gerard Loughlin, “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity,” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008), 144.

[3] Jane Shaw, “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11-12.

[4] Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood, “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory”, Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007), 304.

[5] Althaus-Reid and Isherwood, 9-12.

[6] Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field,” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017), 10.

[7] Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 12-3.

[8] Dag Ølstein Endsjø, Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 165.

[9] Andrew Kirby, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper and Shoba Nayar, “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy,” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017), 908;

Lara Aasem Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan, “Same-Sex Marriage,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, ed. Nancy A. Naples (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016), 1.

[10] Gregory Baum, “A Theological Afterward,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 198.

[11] Dickinson and Toomey, 6.

[12] Baum, 190

[13] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[14] Loughlin, 143.

[15] Patrick Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 10.

[16] Baum, 189.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[19] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[20] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[21] Ibid;

Clive Aspin and Jessica Hutchings, “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality,” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007), 417-8.

[22] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[23] Baum, 190.

[24] Leah Robinson, Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology (Bern: Peter Lang, 2015), 35-6.

[25] Loughlin, 143;

Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 9.

[26] Ibid, 6.

[27] Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 11.

[28] Dickinson and Toomey, 4.

[29] Shaw, 18;

Ibid, 12.

[30] Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, 106.

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