Oh, the questions … from “what does it mean to queer something?” to “What is Lent about, really?” to “Isn’t that about giving up something? Why should queer people have to give up something for Lent when we are already excluded from so much?”
Good questions all. I’ll offer short answers to the first two questions on the way to exploring my real interest: thinking about queering Lent. A caveat: this is one woman’s thinking out loud. I would more than welcome – in fact crave – others’ thoughts on the topic.
“Queer” in this context can be a noun and a verb: sexual minorities in some times and places have reclaimed “queer” from its use as a pejorative phrase, and turned it into a badge of pride, that there is beauty, value, wisdom and truth in the queer life that is not available in straight life. Hence, to “queer” something is to look at, think about, present, write about, live into reality in a way that takes the lived experience and critical perspective of queer folk into account. Notably, there’s a field of study called queer theory in the academy that grew out of feminist, gender and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender studies. I’ve read a little of it … and think it would be cool for queer folk not in the academy to be claiming what we think, feel and know, too.
Second, Lent. Lent is a season in the Christian church’s liturgical year (based on a calendar of religious observances and providing resources for worship) that leads up to and offers opportunities to Christians to prepare for Easter. Different folks think of this preparation in different ways, some of which are based on the stories of Jesus’ own preparations for his final journey to Jerusalem. These preparations include prayer, fasting, penitential actions, and sometimes giving up worldly pleasures or taking on particular spiritual disciplines. The Lenten season culminates in observance of Holy Week, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, the great celebration of God’s resurrection power, evident in Jesus’ life.
Third, why queer Lent? Many queer folk have no use for Christianity, given its disdain for, discomfort with or outright oppression, demonization and exclusion of us. Why spend queer thinking on this archaic tradition in an oppressive religion that doesn’t want us around, anyway?
Because we queer folk need not to be limited to appearing where we are wanted. Because some of us are both queer and Christian, and we have a right to claim and re-enliven both traditions. Because we queer folk are helped by the hope and accountability Christianity offers, at its best. Because Christian folk would be helped by embracing the radical love and openness and hospitality of queer folk, at our best.
Hope. Accountability. Love. Openness. Hospitality. These sound to me like an interesting bunch of ideas to throw into the queer Lenten stew. Let’s check back after awhile and see if they have reappeared. I want to start where Lent often starts, with Jesus heading out into the wilderness. In Luke’s version of the story, while Jesus is praying and fasting in his wilderness experience, Satan offers several alternatives for Jesus’ consideration.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
One way to read this story is that Satan first tried to tempt Jesus to shape his ministry into one that satisfied his own and other people’s hungers (physical/literal and otherwise). The second approach was for Jesus to take/be given all the glory and authority the world had to offer. The third approach was to test God and the angels to see if God would allow Jesus to be hurt. Jesus rejected all three strategies, refusing the bread-and-circuses approach, the all-power-all-the-time approach, and the play-it-safe approach.
We queer folk face similar temptations, I think. (Not saying we’re Jesus; just saying we have something to learn here.) I think we are tempted to:
- Covet or emulate heterosexual, masculinist, race or class privilege;
- Think all solutions come through political power; and
- Exhibit self-destructive behavior, as if we are bullet-proof and can not hurt others or be hurt.
Let me explore each of these in more detail.
Coveting/emulating privileged status or behaviors. The most visible lgbt activism at present centers on gaining equal marriage rights; but marriage rights activism is critiqued in some quarters as the primary concern of rich white queers who focus on marriage because it is the one “right” they lack. Already having stable incomes, living conditions and employment, wealthier gays and lesbians agitate for the additional societal acceptance and financial benefits to be achieved through legal marriage. For queers of color facing racism in addition to heterosexism, and for queers living in poverty facing unemployment or homelessness, marriage rights are not the key concern. Lifting the economic embargos enforced by race and class are far more important. Do we white queers understand and/or care about and/or work against racism? Do we gender-queer folk covet patriarchal forms of societal and economic power? Do we middle-class queer folk think there are no poor queers, or that they are not our concern?
Let me get personal. There are times in my life when I feel more powerful, particularly when I am leading (leading an intellectual discussion, leading on the dance floor, taking the lead in an intimate setting) and particularly when I am engaged in a physical activity requiring strength or dexterity. Why do I also associate those times with feeling that I am expressing a more masculine side of my self? True, I have been enculturated all my life to think of leadership and strength as masculine traits, but these feelings of masculinity go deep, and are not unpleasant. So, I ask, what am I associating with masculinity that imports sexism into my queer life?
Here’s another personal question: what color is my masculinity? My snap answer is that it’s white. Why? Because I’m white? Or because of the preliminary association of masculinity with power means it’s a white masculinity? Intellectually I know I believe men of color are powerful; but I also know I am ignorant of what it would mean to embody a person-of-color masculinity. That makes me sad, and ashamed. And, I wonder, is my performance of masculinity also patriarchal and colonialist?
Thinking all solutions come through political power. Not only is the most visible queer activism these days occurring around marriage rights, but that activism is focused on political solutions – legislative and judicial. These are important avenues of change; but I wonder what other avenues we may be neglecting. After all, it can be argued that the reason the legislative and judicial changes brought about by the civil rights movement came as a result of a sea change in the way U.S. whites saw U.S. people of color: the non-violent revolution occurring in the South raised a high moral standard of thought and behavior, which inspired a transformation in the way white people perceived and felt about people of color.
Perhaps we queer folk need to think about what other avenues are available to us for the transforming of how straight people feel about us. Engaging in a deep and committed exploration of our morals, ethics and desires might spark a revolution in our various queer communities, a revolution of love that could inspire straight people to rehumanize their view of us, to see us as the loving, welcoming, compassionate people that we are, at our best.
I am questioning at this point in my life, as a lesbian, what is the source of my ethical sense? Are my ethics so shaped by an androcentric academy and patriarchal society that they do more to police my behavior than free me to seek justice? Where is my radical commitment to the economic well-being of all poor people? How am I in solidarity with the ongoing, centuries-long struggle of people of color?
What is the source of my desires? How can I trust the compass in my heart? How do I account for my hope, do I still dream, and what difference does my queer embodiment make? Where do I find the connections that prove I am loved, and not alone?
There needs to be a balance between what I seek from the world and what I can only get from God: as I seek legislative and judicial changes that will result in my full enfranchisement as a gay parent and spouse, don’t I want to live like the child of God I am, the graced recipient of God’s tender mercy and tough love?
As I attempt to prove my place in the working world as a writer, teacher, preacher, who happens to be gay, don’t I want to remember the true source of my worth, the good creation that I am part of, the redeemed community I am engaged with?
As I struggle to live into my highest and best self, knowing I am sometimes a token for the whole queer community, don’t I want to remember I am free to love as God made me to love, with no defense required other than the recollection that God calls us to love, always more profligately?
Exhibiting self-destructive behavior. I have noticed something among my queer peers … some of us seem to have taken the notion that because straight people judge us always and already immoral, we internalize that same belief, somehow thinking that the rules don’t apply to us because we are not allowed in the game.
Well, I can see where this thinking comes from; and I don’t really want to sit in judgment of it. But I recognize that sometimes we are – as my father used to say– shooting ourselves in the foot. Crying into our milk. Peeing into the wind. In other words: only hurting ourselves.
Just because the straight world won’t let us into their game, does that mean we have no recognition of what it means to live a moral life? No, it does not. Queer people are in fact establishing our own ethical and moral sense(s); the problem is, for the most part, we are doing it in disconnected pockets, with too many of them behind the gates of the academy. I would love to see more of us getting together to talk about what makes for a good, healthy, sane, loving life, as queer people. I feel quite sure we have wisdom to share with each other, and could teach straight people a thing or two about a thing or two.
Let’s face it; queer life is a wilderness. We are many of us still wandering, still looking for our column of cloud by day, our pillar of fire by night. We need to sit down, right here on the trail, and build ourselves a fire out of whatever we can find. Open our hearts to each other, and re-member ourselves as God’s created, God’s beloved, God’s own, with an ability and calling to define a new ethic of love, for love.
The truth is, we have more to offer this tired, heartbroken, benumbed world than it could ever ask or imagine. Our ability to love in spite of castigation and abandonment, without societal, legislative or economic support, is a marvel. We would do well to commit among ourselves to living into the highest and best of what we know, live into that love out loud, shining a light so bright that neither prejudice nor hate can find anywhere to hide.
What does it mean to queer Lent? It means hoping for and believing in the power of resurrection in a Matthew Sheppard world. It means accepting responsibility for working for that resurrection, that new life, for all marginalized and hurting people. It means being accountable for the way our actions hurt us and others, and refusing to allow oppression in one area of our lives – our sexualities – excuse privilege in others – our skin color, class or gender.
It means accepting that “Don’t test God …” is tantamount to saying, “Trust God.” It means, once again, praying like it’s all up to God, and working like it’s all up to you.
It means learning that God’s gift in Christianity is waiting for you, in the arms of the Beloved Community we are all called to create. It means being hospitable: offering the love you yourself want, creating the community you yourself need.
So, sacrifice whatever you need to, drop whatever baggage is holding you back, and come into these waiting arms. There’s a new dance just waiting to be learned.