Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sermon: "The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port" (Delivered 12-12-10)

Back in October I traveled to Dallas to attend a church conference. I was a presenter there as was my colleague The Reverend Naomi King. We went out for dinner at The Happy Eggroll, a little non-descript Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. And, we each talked about the presentations we would be leading. Naomi’s was entitled, “The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port.” She told me that she wondered whether her topic might unsettle some people, to which I replied, “Oh, I don’t see why it would.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear Naomi’s presentation although I did seriously consider cancelling my presentation so that I could go and attend hers. However, Naomi kindly shared with me her amazing bibliography and helpfully pointed me in the direction of some on-line resources. Though I have taken the title of her presentation as my own, I don’t claim to be one tenth of the authority that she is.

So, what is this all about? This morning I am going to talk about Christology, a branch of theology that asks who Jesus was and what the figure of Jesus means. And, this morning I am going to introduce some of the radical new Christologies that theologians are thinking and writing about these days. And, as much as Christmas still has anything to do with Jesus, as much as we encounter accounts of Jesus’ birth in story and song, in crèches and pageants, it is worth our while to spend some time asking who Jesus was, how we should interpret Jesus’ life, and why any of this matters.

According to the Gospels, when Jesus was asked who he was, his response was coy. Jesus answered, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) Pontius Pilate’s answer was anything but coy. To the Roman authorities, Jesus was a troublemaker, an enemy of the state, and a threat to Rome’s security and hegemony. The price for his resistance to the absolute rule of the Roman Empire was death.

Two hundred years ago, in Germany, Biblical scholars made all sorts of amazing new advances in the field of New Testament scholarship. They used new forms of textual analysis, linguistic understandings, and new archeological evidence to begin to write about what they called the Historical Jesus. Then, 100 years later, along came Albert Schweitzer and turned this scholarship on its head. In his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung), Schweitzer argued that these scholars lacked objectivity and that they managed to fashion Jesus in their own image. Schweitzer used the image of peering down a dark well. He said that looking for who Jesus was entailed something like looking down to the bottom of a dark well and seeing a glimmering visage looking back up at you, a visage that turns out to be your own reflection.

Allow me to say just a few words about why Christology is important. We are used to thinking in terms of dualities. Often, we think in terms of either the classic Trinitarian understanding of Jesus or the classic Unitarian understanding of Jesus. In the Trinitarian understanding, Jesus is God’s manifestation in human form. In the Unitarian understanding, Jesus is not God and should be understood fully as a human being and not as divine. Now, our options are not limited to just A or B. There are all sorts of other understandings that are possible, but for now let’s just stick with these two.

If you are a Trinitarian, which is to say if you believe that Jesus was God taking a human form on the earth, Christology is clearly important. But, if you accept that Jesus is God, you might be troubled by the fact that God chooses to manifest in a male body. You might be troubled by Western representations of God-turned-man when those representations imagine Jesus as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and white-skinned, a Jesus with Anglo or Aryan facial features. Feminist theologians have long pointed out that male dominance and power is reinforced by imagining God as male. Theologians who consider issues of race and power have pointed out just how convenient it is to force oppressed people living under colonial rule to worship a white deity.

We’ve heard this before. But, Naomi expanded my thinking when she shared with me, for example, that in the deaf Christian community there is fierce debate about whether Jesus knew sign language. This may seem like an odd thing to think about, but from the perspective of a deaf person it makes sense. “Ok, so you’re going to tell me that Jesus is God, that God appears on Earth in human form, but that God appears on Earth in human form unable to communicate to me directly, that my only contact with God has to be mediated. As a deaf person I need to know: Is God accessible?”

I hope your compassion and empathy can extend to Trinitarian Christians who struggle with what it means for God to be imagined in human form in a way that reinforces their experiences of having their own humanity marginalized. But, why should any of this matter to us as Unitarians? It should matter for a couple of reasons. First, I think no matter what our theological identity is, it is important for us to take Jesus seriously. And, I think it is important for us to take seriously those who take Jesus seriously. In fact, I would say that it is when we take religion seriously that we are best able to critique and condemn religious expressions and actions that are evil and ignorant and ill.

As Unitarians, what is the answer we give when we are asked who Jesus was? Thomas Jefferson answered that question this way, writing,
To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
In this church, in this faith tradition, when we are asked who Jesus is for us, we are likely to respond with an answer that is somewhat like the answer that Jefferson gave. We answer that we consider Jesus to be a great moral teacher, a great wisdom figure. But, re-invoking Schweitzer, I would say that it is telling that we as Unitarian Universalists, we who belong to the most educated religious group in the United States, counting all the diplomas in this room, would look at Jesus and see a professor.

Indeed, like a lesser-known Christmas hymn (#238) goes, “Within the shining of a star we catch a glimpse of who we are; in every infant born we see the hope of our nativity.”

So, just maybe, we ought to take a risk and dare to see with new eyes, as those from lands and from circumstances that may be different from yours or mine have tried to see Jesus. Inspired by Naomi’s title, allow me to share with you the insights of those who have “queered” Christ and those who imagine a pirate Jesus.

When I talk about “queering Christ” I am not making a claim about Jesus’ sexual orientation. Authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ) and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) have imagined a heterosexual Jesus with a healthy libido. Scholars write about the homoerotic structure of the early Christian Church and point to things like the early church’s practice of nude baptism. There is also speculation about what we should make of that Mark’s Gospel includes mention of a nude youth fleeing the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus’ arrest. “All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14:50-52) Mel Gibson left this out of his movie.

But, that is not where I want to go this morning. I want to talk about “queer” in the sense that theologian and professor Carter Heyward, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses the term. Heyward writes,
The term “queer” as I am using it, let me be clear, is not simply a code-word for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other ways of being at odds with dominant gender culture. “Queer” is not simply a reversal of a negative epithet so often hurled against GLBT folks in homophobic culture. “Queer” is not simply a synonym for being “odd,” “unusual,” or “out-there.” […]

Queerness is public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. [Episcopal Divinity School] is, by the grace of God, a Queer seminary.
Minister and art historian Kittredge Cherry puts it this way:
The Jesus of scripture broke gender rules and gender roles. He befriended prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts. He challenged traditional family values at almost every turn, ignoring his blood relatives in favor of those who became his "brothers and sisters" by loving God and neighbor. Traditional iconography such as the Stations of the Cross and the Passion narrative are increasingly being adapted to address gay suffering, sometimes with references to AIDS. Queer Christian art enlarges the way people see God and makes it easier to recognize the image of God in oneself and in others, particularly LGBT people.
Such a queer reading of the life of Jesus can be done on a level that is sympathetic and pastoral and on a level that is political and activist. A sympathetic, pastoral reading might point to Jesus leaving his family of origin and creating a family of allies. The experience of having to create a new family is all too common among gays and lesbians who face homophobic rejection from their families of origin. Jesus’ ministry to the outcasts is read, properly, as the radical acceptance that it is. And, just as African-American Christians have made the connection between their people who have been the victims of whipping and lynching and Jesus’ own scourging and crucifixion, so to have GLBT Christians viewed the Passion as a hate crime. Matthew Shepard was crucified, was he not?

At the same time, “queering Christ” has a political dimension as well. Consider, for example, Robert Goss’ book Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto. Goss, like other theologians, finds a parallel between the subversive ministry and teachings of Jesus and activists today calling for radical equality in our society. In Jesus Acted Up, Goss even refers to Jesus’ resurrection as a coming out.

Naomi King’s bibliography that she shared with me included Christological scholarship concerning Jesus and disability, Jesus and body image, Jesus and gender, and more. These new Christologies keep coming. In October of this year, Xola Skosana, a South African evangelical pastor attracted attention by delivering a sermon series entitled, “Jesus had HIV.”

If this discussion of “queering Christ” is new to you, then hold onto your chair because we haven’t even begun to get radical. I am referring here to ministers and Christian thinkers who have re-imagined Jesus as a pirate.

Let me begin with a little digression. During my final year in college I did a lot of original research about understandings of religious freedom during the American Revolution. As a part of this research I wanted to get inside the mind of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the United States, so I read hundreds of pages of laws that Jefferson wrote for the State of Virginia. As I read the legal code Jefferson had written, I discovered that the punishment for piracy in the State of Virginia was significantly harsher than the punishment for the equivalent of highway robbery. This baffled me. Why would this be?

The basic answer is that highway robbery exists within a closed system; pirates live outside of the system and threaten the entire system. Highway robbery is a form of illegal commerce, but it reinforces the validity of commerce. Piracy is an attack on not only the material goods that are plundered, but it is also an attack on the idea of property. If a mechanic quotes you an exorbitant price to fix your car, you would accuse the mechanic of highway robbery, not of piracy.

In contemporary parlance, piracy has a new meaning. It refers to the duplication and distribution of music, movies, and software for free. We might contrast piracy, in this sense, with bootlegging, an old-fashioned crime that has new meaning today. Today, bootlegging refers to making an unauthorized recording of a performance and selling that recording for profit. The practice of bootlegging confirms that musical recordings have monetary value. Piracy denies that music is worth money. (It is not surprising that perhaps the world’s largest website providing illegal downloads is called Pirate Bay.) [See the appendix for an interesting example of this concept in popular culture.]

Thus, the T-shirt that you can buy on the internet: It features an image of Jesus holding a fish and a loaf of bread in his hands. The tag-line reads, “Jesus was a pirate. He made copies.”

Yes, pirates are thieves and criminals, but they also function outside of the dominant social and economic system. For this analysis I am indebted to British Christian blogger Kester Brewin and anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey. Brewin writes,
What pirates do, as a rule, is emerge from the underbelly of a ‘stuck’ orthodoxy and, by way of actions that are initially perceived as heretical, reinvigorate that practice… And this is what Jesus did. He saw a religion blocked – a temple which had access restricted by merchants and priests. And he set about plundering the booty in the temple, and setting it free for all to enjoy. This was the heresy of Jesus Christ.
We might say that Jesus is a pirate when he multiplies the fishes and the loaves, when he says that in order to follow him you must first sell everything you have and give the money away to the poor, when he overturns the tables and drives the moneychangers out of the temple, and when he overturns the law by pronouncing that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Parable after parable, Jesus’ teachings violate economic principles that we hold to be fair.

Brewin points out that Christians and pirates are the only two groups that have claimed a symbol of death, the cross and the crossbones, as their preferred symbol. They do this to demonstrate the absence of a fear of death. Michel Foucault said that “death is power’s limit.” Thus pirates and Christians each claim a radical power beyond the powers and principalities that pretend to rule the world. By renouncing life, the pirate and the Christian claims life. Hear the words of Paul. (2 Corinthians 6:8-10) He might just as well be describing a band of pirates as the early Christian church:
Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, alike are our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know; dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.
Brewin points out that the pirate is essentially the only criminal that we encourage our children to go as for Halloween. Children don’t dress up as arsonists, aggravated assaulters, or tax evaders. That pirates have such a mythology about them is perhaps due to their ability to occupy a space that is at once subversive and deeply imaginative. Of course, you might argue that it is wrong to confuse the pirates of fantasy with the pirates of Somalia. Indeed, there is nothing about the Somali pirates that we should aspire to. But, but, in the long view of history it helps to admit which side you are on.

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” begins the Marine’s Hymn. Montezuma refers to a battle during the Mexican-American War, a war of territorial expansion that netted our nation Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The shores of Tripoli refer to the war against the Barbary States from 1801 to 1805. The war was undertaken by the Jefferson administration to suppress the Barbary Pirates who were interfering with the crucial trade interests of the young nation. The war was urged with the rallying cry, “Millions for defense; not a cent for tribute.” This was the first but not the last time the United States would go to war against a part of the Islamic world for financial gain.

From an African perspective, this legacy probably is read differently. It is not hard to imagine a Somalian or a North African Muslim looking to Western Europe and North America and saying, “You come to Africa and enslave our people. You established colonies and stole our natural resources. You divided us up into oddly shaped nations without any understanding of or regard for our history. You overthrew the politicians we elected when you don’t like them. Who should be lecturing whom on respect for property?”

Jesus as pirate makes sense when you consider Jesus’ status as a subject of an empire that had its way militarily and economically with the conquered people of Israel. Jesus’ actions and teaching reverse the economic and political worldview of Rome.

All around us this season we are presented with saccharine, manufactured, culturally-safe images of a pasty white Jesus in a crèche. Too often, Jesus is made a slave to culture. I hope these images of a queer Jesus, a pirate Jesus, a disabled Jesus, an immigrant Jesus can do more than inspire us. They might allow us to rescue Jesus from his captors. They might allow us to save ourselves.

And, if this was not your cup of tea, come back next week when my sermon title will be: “The Transgendered Cowboy Buddha Skips to the Market.”


Social Network Addendum
In the movie The Social Network that came out a few months ago, there is an amazing scene that helps us to think about contemporary notions of piracy. In this scene the founders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, respectively) are having dinner at a trendy New York restaurant with Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. Sean Parker was the co-founder of the illegal music downloading site Napster.

In a brilliantly written exchange, Eduardo Saverin tells Parker that he lost, that Napster got sued for everything it was worth and then some and then had to declare bankruptcy. Parker counters by saying that he won; how would you like to buy a Tower Records franchise?

Parker’s reply disrupts Saverin’s notion that success means making money. To Parker, success meant changing the very landscape of the music business. Many parallel destabilizing reversals can be found in a radical reading of the Gospels.