Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series
“Queer Virtue 101”
An hour-long teleconference with
Rev. Elizabeth Edman
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
1 to 2 p.m. ET
Mary E. Hunt: Good afternoon. We welcome you to the first 2018 WATERtalk. My colleagues, including our newest intern, Rachel Beaver, recent graduate of Randolph College, join me at the WATER table.
Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction.
Elizabeth Edman is an Episcopal priest and political strategist. She is the author of Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press, 2016). Liz has lived and worked on the front lines of numerous salient issues where religion meets sexuality, serving as an inner city hospital chaplain to people with HIV/AIDS from 1989 to 1995, doing campus ministry, and helping craft political and communications strategies for marriage equality efforts. In 2017, she partnered with Parity to create Glitter+Ash Wednesday, a project to increase the visibility of progressive, queer-positive Christians and to explore Christian liturgy through a queer lens.
Her writing has been featured in Salon, The Advocate, LGBT Nation, and Religion News Service. She has been interviewed for feature and news articles in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, and Religion Dispatches. She lives in New York.
Elizabeth Edman: One of the queerest stories I know begins not in a fabulous city, not on a glittering dance floor. It begins in a tiny backwater town. Actually, this story starts in a barn.
A young woman is traveling with her husband to be. She is very pregnant, and were it not for the generosity of her fiancé—who is not this child’s father—she would face a perilous future as an unwed mother. A lot of people are on this same road, and the inn where they try to get a room is booked up. Or so the innkeeper says. Maybe he just takes one look at this woman, knows she is about to go into labor, and doesn’t want to deal with the bloody, fleshy, wet mess that her body is about to churn out. Maybe he doesn’t want to hear her groans, her cries of pain. But the guy has a heart. Gesturing with his thumb, he offers, “You can stay the night in the barn out back.” She gives birth that night in a stall, surrounded by donkeys and sheep, and her afterbirth will land in hay, easily swept up in the morning along with whatever the animals have not so delicately excreted in the middle of the night.
You know this story. We all know this story. This is how the Christian narrative begins. Christians proclaim that this baby, this bloody, illegitimate bundle of quivering flesh, is God incarnate. It never ceases to amaze me that this tradition will warp into a movement famous for demonizing desire and flesh. We Christians openly preach that the power of God infused a human form, while violating the most basic sexual conventions of the day. The essential premise of the faith is that somehow in this extraordinary mix of flesh and spirit and scandal lurks the promise of ultimate spiritual health for the human race.
I am a queer priest. What draws me into this faith tradition is precisely this story, this God who doesn’t hesitate to enter into a body just like mine, just like yours, rupturing everything we might tend to believe about how bodies and souls relate to each other. What draws me into this faith tradition is precisely the fact that I am queer, that I have lived my life among people who understand that yes, we are carnal beings, and yes, we are called to make transcendent beauty visible to the world.
So it frankly bewilders me whenever someone cites religious belief to justify treating LGBTQ people like crap. I find it viscerally confusing. But even more than that, it breaks my heart. Queerphobic religion is the biggest drag on our movement toward justice. And wow does it take a toll on queer souls.
Let me tell you another story. A young person, probably a teenager, goes looking for a spiritual community. This person finds an evangelical Christian group and joins it, feeling a sense of welcome and of home that rivals anything they have ever experienced. Then the person comes out as queer, and finds themself being spiritually disemboweled by the same community that once promised “unconditional” love. This is a painfully common narrative in queer life stories. The spiritual bait and switch is not just sad; it does immense damage. In one fell swoop it erodes a young person’s ability to trust themselves, their community, and God. In some queer people it breeds despair that is literally suicidal. And there is not a question in my mind that the theology behind this bait and switch is rooted in blasphemy.
In recent decades, many progressive churches have made strides toward celebrating the lives and ministries of LGBTQ people. What those of us on the religious left have seldom done is explain to the world why, theologically, we know this is right to do. This creates the appearance of theological dissonance. It makes our proclamation of the Gospel sound tepid and weak, and worst of all, it makes us boring. Small wonder that so many people have stopped coming to church. I tell you: the church would not be in decline if we were more often preaching a gospel that is exciting, robust, and that speaks truthfully to people’s real lives. My work is an attempt to address all of this. I am convinced that a theology that is good for the queers will also be good for the church.
I refer to this theology as “Queer Virtue.” It has two basic premises:
- Queer people possess virtue according to terms that Christianity itself sets
- Christian communities could learn a lot from queer people about how to live our faith—how to BE the church more effectively and with greater consequence.
This is how Queer Virtue works:
My work draws on the academic discipline of queer theory. In queer theory, “queer” becomes a verb. To queer is to rupture false binaries. Put another way, queer theory works to disrupt black and white thinking. Particularly, LGBTQ people constantly rupture—or queer—the idea that male and female are two distinct categories. Queer people may be androgynous in our dress; our marriages often do not include “one man and one woman.” Intersex people tell us plainly that there is no such thing as a simple biological binary; and growing numbers of transgender people reject any neat conception of themselves as male or female at all. By rupturing the false binary of male and female, queer theory establishes conceptual space for LGBTQ people to inhabit.
This queer approach to binaries has helped me think in a new way about Christian faith. What I see in Christianity is a relentless rupturing of false binaries. For instance:
Was Jesus Divine or Human? Well, the tradition says he was both.
In his resurrection, Jesus utterly disrupted basic human conceptions of Life and Death. And in the healing narratives, Jesus constantly ruptured conventional notions about what was sacred and what was profane.
Jesus was a master storyteller. One of his most famous parables is the story of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who Is My Neighbor?” Jesus responds by asking the lawyer to imagine that he is traveling down a road and is robbed and beaten nearly to death. Two of his colleagues see him and cross the road to avoid having to deal with his crisis. A third man comes by—a man that the lawyer would have identified as his inferior, and worse, as a moral degenerate. You may know this story: it’s third man, the degenerate, who helps him. So Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer: “You tell me who your neighbor is.” Jesus challenges this lawyer to think anew about who he is, and who the Samaritan is, and how God demands that they relate to each other.
One of the biggest binaries Jesus challenges his followers to rupture is the one between Self and Other. Jesus constantly demands that we upend simplistic notions of who “I” am in relation to “you,” or to that person over there who is despised, or the wrong sex, or sick, or ritually unclean.
Jesus got this movement going, but it was Paul who worked his butt off to create communities that would follow Jesus. Paul was the chief architect of the theology and ethical path that would guide these churches.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul continues this business of rupturing the binary of Self and Other. He writes: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
These were the biggest binaries in Paul’s churches, and he ruptured every one of them.
These rupturings—these queerings—are not peripheral to Christianity. Both theologically and ethically, they are the very heart of the Christian movement. Therefore, I argue that authentic Christianity is and must be queer.
It is clear to me that the church could learn a lot about its mission and purpose by looking to queer experience. To understand what I mean by this, let’s take a moment to consider what queerness entails.
Queer experience often, not always but very often, looks something like this:
- You have to discern an identity that affects how you perceive yourself in the world, how you relate to other people, and how you will navigate your most intimate relationships.
- You have to get honest with yourself about that identity and tell the truth about it to others even when doing so puts you at risk.
- You have to touch others—by which I mean you have to connect with others who have discerned a similar identity. This is a touch that can be physical or spiritual or both.
- You have to build community with others, creating what is essentially an adopted family.
- And then queer people have a strong record of looking to the margins to see who is still struggling, and doing something about that.
This is the path of Queer Virtue. It is important to note that these steps are
- Not in a fixed order
- Not one and done—these demands interact with each other, exacting more precise demands all the time. A queer person lives them over and over.
- I call this a path of “virtue” because, in the Aristotelian sense, this is something that people get better at the more we have to do it.
- BUT—None of us walks it perfectly, and some queer folk refuse to walk parts of it at all. Still, it constantly impresses me how dedicated my community is, overall, to this path, and how hard we work to stay on it and make it accessible to others.
What I have long observed is that this path bears a freakish resemblance to the ethical path that Christians are supposed to follow. Christians also have to discern an identity—an identity as people created by God who depend on God for our very being. We are supposed to tell others about that identity—that’s the true essence of evangelism. We are supposed to engage with others, build community, and look to the margins to see who is struggling and do something about that.
It is not an accident that these two paths are so resonant. Once you understand the extent to which Christianity is about rupturing false binaries—about queering—it makes perfect sense that queer and authentic Christian ethics are so similar. What is perhaps noteworthy is that what this priest knows about Christian virtue, about Christianity as a path, I have learned primarily from walking this queer path every day of my life.
This is one of the most significant things I have learned: The importance and the effectiveness of both of these paths is rooted in their relationship to scandal. I want to talk about this for a moment, because Christians hardly ever talk about our relationship to scandal, except when some church leader has been engulfed in it. And queers have kind of inched away from scandal as we have gotten traction on marriage equality and other signs of societal acceptance. But the simple truth is that both queerness and Christianity are deeply scandalous, and this scandalousness is a vital part of both movements’ power.
It is relatively easy to see the scandal in queer experience. Our identities and relationships, our overt carnality and open embrace of sexuality—these are all scandalous, an affront to many people, still, especially people who consider themselves to be respectable members of society.
Of course, a great many people who consider themselves to be respectable members of society identify as Christian. But Christianity was never meant to be a respectable religion. Jesus entered into scandal every chance he could, starting nine months before that moment in the barn that we just discussed. Conceived out of wedlock, his entire life on earth was a deep dive into experiences that offended arbiters of social and religious propriety. It was a scandal whenever Jesus touched someone who was considered ritually unclean—a key part of his healing ministries. He scandalized people every time he defended adulterers, or allowed women to touch him, or called people on the margins of society by name and told them how much God valued them.
The epicenter of Christian scandal is the cross. Crucifixion was deployed by Rome to keep people in line. It was a public spectacle designed to cast a bright spotlight of shame on its victims. Christian faith centers on the claim that Jesus was crucified—that he really died on that cross—and that he was resurrected—that he really came back from the dead. The whole point of this narrative is to shake up conventional notions about life and death but also, specifically, to disrupt conventional notions about how power works. Jesus was mocked and strung up to die in a hideous manner. When he is resurrected, he doesn’t just beat death; he also beats every violent, coercive strategy that is designed to strip human beings of our dignity.
These power dynamics are the reason that this conversation matters so much right now. I love that you begin these WATER teleconferences by remembering that your mission is to change cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. Right now, a healthy dose of binary-rupturing proclamation would be good not just for the queers, and not just for the church, but also for the world we live in. The human race desperately needs to make meaning in this complex and globalized world. In the midst of division and fear, we need to know how to move forward with health. If the Christian Left is to offer anything of value, we must cultivate a theological framework to guide our vision. We need lenses that help us make sense both of the theological tradition we have inherited, and the world in which we now live. For me, queerness has become such a lens. It is simple without being simplistic, and I find the clarity it provides to be consistently refreshing, whether I am thinking about theology, politics, or interpersonal dynamics, including the dynamics of what goes on inside a church community.
Queer experience offers daily lessons in how to do the most essential work of Christian ethics. Queer people know what it is to discern an identity and find a healthy kind of pride in it. Queer people know how to come out, witnessing to our identities and to our dignity. Coming out could be an extraordinary model for Christian evangelism: telling the “good news” not by threatening people with damnation but by witnessing to something that is actually good. Christians could learn a lot from queer people about how to foster power dynamics that allow all of us to be our full, authentic selves, facilitating healthier relationships, and breeding stronger, more vibrant communities.
Finally, queer experience could help Christians comprehend what it means to enter willingly into scandal and why it matters so much to do so. Many Christians take seriously our call to reach out to people on the margins. What we often fail to appreciate is that this kind of outreach is shot through with scandal. Christian hospitality isn’t about being nice to people, it is about helping people perceive their God-given dignity by upending systems that do violence to people’s bodies and souls. This kind of disruption scandalizes, and if it doesn’t, it isn’t doing an important part of its job.
This kind of disruption is queerness incarnate. It is at the heart of what Jesus was trying to get his followers to comprehend, to be, to do. Many queer people understand these dynamics viscerally. Christians could regain enormous credibility simply by opening our eyes to see the virtue that queer people model every day. But Christians could gain so much more if we would truly value the gift that queerness is, celebrate it, and determine to learn from it.
Q & A
Comment: I am totally awed. This is one of the best things that I’ve done for myself. My first thing is I’m going to go out and get this book. Where I have learned most about unconditional love is at the transparent meetings I attend. I want to affirm you, you are on the right track.
LE: Thank you for that, those comments are very meaningful to me.
Question: What I was thinking during the talk was that, as a graduate student in social work, I’m often challenging my perceptions of different populations. I think this is so important for everyone, especially in the church or as a queer person. So, I never really connected the dots between those three things and I think that’s really important. Thank you for that great realization.
LE: Thank you for that comment. People will ask me sometimes if my essential message is that queer people are special. Of course, I think that queer people are special, but we’re not the only people that are special. I really believe that within corporate experiences, experiences that different kinds of people share, there is wisdom to be drawn on about who we are as human beings, who God is. It’s my hope that we will continue to draw on different levels of expertise. A queer identity isn’t the only identity that has lessons for us. I believe our faith communities would be much stronger the more we hone our ability to listen and draw lessons.
Question: I love the phrase in the book about us being God’s music. I think it’s an inspired phrase. I wondered if you had a sense whether or not the music comes in various keys and genres, and various rhythms. I wondered, too, if you were thinking there that we try to move the various melodies into a symphony, or do we let them sing one at a time. Might we need to find some ways for our lives to sing in some sort of particularity as we learn to live with difference?
LE: I love that you’ve drawn that metaphor out so beautifully. Different keys and musical genres might be a marvelous and helpful way to think about different kinds of human experience, as we were just discussing. One could argue that the church is richer and stronger when it is able to comprehend, present, and respond to myriad genres, to rhythms other than 4/4. You know, my mother was a singer. Sacred music was the great passion of her life. She became her best self when she was singing, especially in her church choir. Sometimes I’d hear her on her own, sometimes in the midst of others. So drawing on that as a metaphor, I think the answer to your second question is that it’s both. Even symphonic music is a blend of instruments being called to sing together with moments where there’s a solo instrument that gets lifted up. It seems to me that this is precisely the ethical challenge of our times—understanding how it is that we are called to be in musical relationship with each other, which may at times be harmonic, or at times dissonant. And, at the same time, not everything is a symphony. There are moments when one is singing one’s own song. We have to understand this balance :when you are called into the symphony, when you have to join it, and when you have the space or must step out of it to sing your own song. I love that metaphor.
Question: Such a joy to listen to you, Liz. I just started your book yesterday and I can’t wait to finish it. I’m just wondering about any reflections you might have about the relation between prayer and action in the LGBTQ Christian community, given the fact that queer Christians, or queer people of any faith or ethical foundation, struggle to connect with our own deepest goodness for a lot of our lives. We are born in a war, so out of that struggle to be in relation to the Holy, however you define that, what gifts might you see arising for our capacity to be fruitful in action for justice, for ourselves, and in solidarity with other marginalized people?
LE: Thanks for your question. You’ll see that in the second half of my book, I take up these ethical implications. If Christian communities took this path seriously, what are the ethical implications of following it? Where does the rubber hit the road? I’m an Episcopal Priest, but I also am a political strategist, so I care deeply about how our relationship to the sacred translates into action. Those chapters in the second part of the book are born of my attention to thinking about how queerness itself as an ethical practice encourages and informs activism.
I had a remarkable conversation last week with a rabbi that I’ve been doing some work with. We’ve been comparing our experiences. She has been a hospital chaplain working with people who are in the midst of gender confirmation surgery. She talked about the number of people who she knew were part of faith communities that were affirming. I thought back to my time as a hospital chaplain to patients with HIV/AIDS in the 80s. The patients I knew, not many of them were part of faith communities. It was rare to find religious communities that were affirming. It goes back to your question about how might this inform LGBTQ activism and organizing, how can we cultivate a deeper and deeper sense of our own spiritual value, and how we are backed up by communities of faith?
Question: Does Christianity have anything to teach queer communities? Do you see parallels or cognates in Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam where the queer community has a lot to teach the religion, but can religious communities inform the queer community as well?
LE: Christianity helped me gain insight into one of the most puzzling paradoxes of the queer experience. It’s my experience that queer people are often highly attuned to spiritual realities. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but this is my experience: we are often highly attuned to the sacred. We have such a deep awareness of our embodiment, and we draw so much of our knowledge of who we are and who we’re called to be in our carnality. That carnality can be explicitly sexual, but it’s not just sexual. To me, I’ve always found this to be a paradox: Our carnality often comes out — when we’re being campy, for instance. It’s not unusual for queer people to express fierce carnality at exactly the same time that we are gesturing toward the sacred. .
It was really pondering the Christian idea of incarnation that helped me understand the paradox, to see these connected. Something in the relationship between spiritual existence and carnal existence expresses precisely the power of our human, embodied, spiritual condition.
You ask how this is playing out in other traditions. I’ve been of late hanging out at the LGBTQ synagogue in New York, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. CBST has its own prayer book that has been developed over the years; the community has been around for decades. I find the prayer book moving, largely because this is an understanding of Jewish tradition and teaching that has emerged from and been filtered through a lens of queer experience over a course of years. Honestly, it’s one of the best liturgical resources I know for understanding the power of queerness in understanding spiritual truth. This is where I see queerness being brought to bear: in interpretations of scripture that stand power dynamics on their heads; in discussions about the meaning of liturgy; in traditional reads on the text that point out where conventional thinking has been disrupted, etc. I think bringing queerness to bear is a rich opportunity for any faith tradition. I’m fascinated by the potential there.
Question: You bring to mind Sharon Kleinbaum, who is the longtime rabbi at that congregation. I have admired her for a long time.
I want to ask what’s coming up for you, what’s Ash Wednesday going to be for you, more glitter? And do you have any next steps that might be interesting to our listeners?
LE: I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Glitter+Ash this year. We wanted to shift our focus to Mardi Gras, but I’m not sure if that will get off the ground this year. We will post some liturgical resources for congregations that want to participate again this year. I’m participating in the Trinity Conference February 2 and 3, called Values in Action. I’m honored to be joining some remarkable people in this conversation. Michelle Alexander will be speaking, the author of The New Jim Crow. It’s a wonderful group of people.
Mary, you alluded earlier to Lent. I’ve got a study guide that is about to come out for Queer Virtue. It’s tailored to a five-week program. I think queerness is a fascinating way to enter into Lent, partially because it does get into this deep dive into scandal. It confronts the scandal of Jesus’ ministry that led to the crucifixion. I think it’s a great way to prepare oneself for Lent. Part of my goal with the book is to strengthen faith communities. This is work that requires discipline and introspection, willingness to repent when you get it wrong. Those are all hallmarks of the study of Lent, so it’s a great time to ponder the book in community. You can go to www.queervirtue.com to find links to the study guide.
Finally, I’m delighted to be part of a conference coming up in Chicago the last weekend in March before Holy Week. It’s called “Be the Hope” and it’s about queer theology. Parity is the sponsor of that.
WATER thanks Elizabeth Edman for her work. We look forward to continued collaboration.
Our next WATERtalk will be on Wednesday, February 7, 2018, 1 PM ET with Rima Vesley-Flad. REGISTER HERE.