On the first day, “God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness night.”
When I was reading some biographical notes recently about the Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid, I was interested to note that she began her career working for the church among the poor of Buenos Aires, applying the techniques of liberation theology to the “option for the poor”. Later, she applied those same techniques in slum communities in Scotland, before starting to apply the same techniques to the situation of the equally marginalized communities within the church itself, its sexual minorities.
I have never been engaged full time in this work, not worked directly with the poor, but in South Africa I did get involved as a volunteer in some of the activities of the Catholic Church Justice & Peace Commission, and attended several meetings and training workshops on the subject. A standard Scripture verse to open those meetings was the well-known words of the prophet Micah:
Do justice, love well, and walk modestly with God
I clearly remember one major workshop at which these words were elaborated as a paradigm for the very concept of justice, as as set of three related relationships: relationships with God, relationships with others, and relationship with oneself.
The Jewish lesbian Rebeccah Alpert expands on this idea in her contribution to Robert Goss’s “Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible“, and emphasises an implication to this injunction that I believe is a key to resolving the difficult choices facing us as lesbian, gay or trans people of faith – the importance of coming out.
To make this point, Alpert begins with the last of Micah’s exhortations, and elaborates on their meaning in Hebrew tradition – a meaning that has relevance also for people of other faith traditions. This phrase, “walk modestly with God” (hatznea lechet im eloha) Alpert interprets as about the way a person sees her place in the world:
Walking with God is a metaphor for the way each person approaches her own life. It is a way to conceptualize one’s innermost feelings and thoughts. …. To see oneself walking with God requires a vision of God as the most important value in life, that which is with the individual always and everywhere. … We can only walk with God if we know and accept who we are. Walking with God begins with self-acceptance and requires that we tell ourselves the truth about ourselves. This stance describes coming out, declaring oneself as lesbian, as a necessary prerequisite to walking with God.
Walking with God requires self-acceptance, and this in turn requires coming out. Initially this is in private, to oneself, but this is not enough. Coming out privately, she says, should be followed by coming out to friends and family, and ultimately also to the wider world. This may bring personal hardship, she admits, but will also bring wider benefits to the LGBT faith community as a whole – it is politically important. But this not the only reason for doing so. Coming out i public, she argues, is implicit in the same part of Micah’s injunction.
“Hatznea lechet” also requires us to be honest people: honest with ourselves about our sexuality and honest with others in our lives. Coming out publicly keeps us from having to lie – to doctors whom we sometimes do not visit because we do not wish to tak about our sex lives, to coworkers to whom we omit pronouns when referring to our partners, to acquaintances who want to introduce us to men. The lies we tell may be small ones, but they inhibit our ability to live openly and lead us into patterns of lying incompatible with walking with God. And they draw nonlesbians into our lie as well, requiring them often to deny what they see.
This obligation to being publicly honest about oneself is a personal obligation, which does not require the outing of others. However, it is important also to meet up with others in collectively out communities, such as the gay and lesbian Jewish Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), and its counterparts in other faiths. These congregations and their relationships with wider faith communities raise difficult questions, but they are important as public witnesses to a collective honesty.
Coming out then, privately, publicly and collectively, is a religious obligation implied by the requirement to “walk with God”. It is also a pre-condition for the fulfilment of the rest o Micah’s three-part injunction:
It is only those who come to self-acceptance, including a sense that they are loved by God and by the Jewish community, who can begin to work towards creating a world of love and justice.
The second part of the injunction is to “love well” (ahavat hesed), or forming right relationships with friends, family and community. She observes that this is often difficult for Jewish lesbians, who are faced with strong expectations and pressures from family and community to make a conventional marriage and raise a traditional family – but sound relationships must be formed nevertheless, and can only be done in honesty. How else can one deal, for instance, with issues like invitations to weddings or other family celebrations?
None of us lives in isolation. We all need community, to share in our joys – and for support during our trials. This is especially important at times of bereavement, when our faith communities are particularly important. We cannot provide proper support to others in their time of need, nor receive it in ours, if we have not established these relationships in honesty.
…… ahavat hesed requires hard work. In order to love well, we must take our responsibilities to others seriously and give careful consideration to the contribution we want to make that will enable the Jewish and lesbian communities to thrive. And in order ultimately to love well within the Jewish community, we must receive ahavat hesed from the community in return.
And so, after discussing the commitments to walking humbly with God, and to loving well, Alpert turns to the first part of the verse from Micah, the commitment to justice, asot mishpat. These three though, while treated separately, are not independent of each other but interconnected.
We cannot make a choice between accepting ourselves, caring for our circle of loved one, and doing justice in the world. These efforts must be woven into our framework.
We cannot begin to envision such a world (i.e., a world of justice)unless we have created the possibilities within ourselves and our community to work towards this plan. We begin with the idea that to walk with with decency with God is measured by our self-acceptance and willingness to be visible. This is the beginning of justice. For only if we speak out about who we are, can we create the opportunity for justice for ourselves.
But this alone is insufficient: love is also a prerequisite to justice. In relation to justice ahavat hesed means respect not only for those that we love particularly but for all humanity.
The search for justice is double-edged: we must seek justice for ourselves – but must also work together with others, to seek justice for those suffering other kinds of oppression.
Alpert’s reflection is quite explicitly from the perspective of a Jewish female, but I found no difficulty or sense of it being inappropriate in applying it equally to my situation as a gay man. I first began to prepare the above summary of it several weeks ago, and have been intermittently reflecting on it ever since, without quite getting to setting it out in full. I have been spurred into doing it now, because several other topics that I have been struggling with recently, including the question of a response to the problem of gaybullycides, and the question faced by gay Catholics in particular: to stay fully inside the Church, to form gay worshipping ghettos, to leave completely – or (as recommended by Dignity) to return and vigorously challenge the status quo, seem clearer to me when I think of Alpert’s reflection on coming out as an obligation imposed by Micah:
Do justice, love well, and walk modestly with God.
- Come Out to Save Lives – Megachurch Pastor Jim Swilley (queertheology.blogspot.com)
- “Coming Out”: A Gospel Command. (queering-the-church.com)
- The Raising of Lazarus and the Gay Experience of Coming Out (thewildreed.blogspot.com)
- “Speaking the Truth” on Catholic LGBT Inclusion (queertheology.blogspot.com)
Through the fog of millenia, foreign language, and unfamiliar cultural contexts, it is easy for Christians in the twenty first century to miss the specific relevance of some passages in Scripture, especially the books of the “minor prophets” in the Hebrew Scriptures, expecially the queer references. When, with the help of suitable guidance, we do explore these, we may find some powerful material for reflection. I have found precisely that in a piece by Michael S. Piazza, “Nehemiah as a Model for Queer Servant Leadership” (In “Take Back the Word” , ed Robert Goss)
The first likely question from those unfamiliar with the background (let alone even the basic story of Nehemiah), is what makes this a “queer” story? The answer depends on appreciating the cultural background, and in turn casts some light on several other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Nehemiah was one of many Hebrews taken to Babylon as a slave, where he was engaged as a “cupbearer” to the Persian king Artaxerxes (the Persians had replaced the original Babylonians as rulers) . The purpose of a cup-bearer was not simply to carry the wine glass – it included the responsibility for tasting and testing all the king’s food and drink, against the possibility of poisoning. As such, it was a position of great responsibility, and personal intimacy – and it was standard practice for slaves in positions of such personal intimacy in the Royal household to be castrated. It is likely, then, that Nehemiah was a eunuch. (According to one historian, cupbearers to the king were always the most attractive men). Living in such close proximity to the king, and sharing in his meals, also meant that he shared in a life of great luxury – almost as much as the king himself.
That’s the background. The point of the story in the Bible, is that some years after the first wave of Hebrew exiles had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, where the temple and the city walls had been destroyed. Without the walls for defence, the city was vulnerable to repeated attacks by its enemies. Nehemiah became convinced that the Lord was calling him, too, back to Jerusalem, to do something about it. Now, remember that Nehemiah was a cupbearer, used to luxury, and not a soldier, a politician, or a religious leader. Nevertheless, he responded to God’s call, and secured permission from the king to return.
When he returned, he was initially ridiculed for his presumption in undertaking such a preposterous task – he, who had not the skills or experience to undertake such a great project. But he set to regardless, and ultimately succeeded.
Michael Piazza, in his reflection on the story, uses it as a metaphor for the task that we as lesbigaytrans people in the church can face. There is asense in which the wider Christian church, having lost its way in rejecting its own people, and placing (possibly mistaken) biblical literalism above the more fundamental lesson of love, can be seen as a church which is broken and in need of rebuilding, just as Jerusalem needed to rebuild its temple.
Like the eunuch Nehemiah, we are sexual outsiders, and can easily be dismissed by the church for our lack of approved skills and insider accreditation as pastors – but we too are called by God to help in rebuilding God’s church. With application, prayer and God’s help, we too can prevail – just as Nehemiah did.
Adding to the power of Piazza’s telling, is his own record with the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, where he is the senior pastor. This was founded in Dallas in 1970 – hardly the most obvious place for a gay friendly church. But in the years since, it has become the world’s largest gay and leasbian megachurch. Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem against the odds, and the Cathedral of Hope defied its location and prospered as as church serving an LGBT congregation.
We can and will do so for the wider church.