Liz Edman: queer pride vs. Christian empire

Liz Edman: queer pride vs. Christian empire August 8, 2016

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This June, I had one of the most epic conversations of my life in a Wall Street coffee shop with Liz Edman, the author of Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (YOU NEED TO OWN THIS BOOK!)After we talked, Liz said we need to do this as an event so other people can be part of it, so that’s what we’re going to do this Saturday from noon to 4 (lunch provided) in the Bronx at Riverdale Presbyterian Church. I am super-excited. As I was continuing to read in Liz’s book last night, I found a section that is super-important in describing how queer pride is actually an important check on the imperious harm that Christianity does when it posits a generic “one-size-fits-all” humanity. So here are some excerpts with my commentary intertwined.

If you were to try to sum up in a single word the difficulty of being both queer and Christian, the word “pride” would pretty much do it. There may be no concept more sacred to queers than “Pride.” But look in Christian scripture and hymnody, and you’ll see “pride” condemned as a glaring and destructive human sin… When pride shows up in Christian liturgy, it is usually synonymous with hubris. Conventionally, pride can refer to the valuing of the self over and against the other… Defined like this, “pride” becomes the exact opposite of queer Pride. The two concepts are not only definitionally opposed, but also energetically opposed. Hubristic pride is the antithesis of healthy relationship… By contrast, queer Pride is all about a healthy relationship with Self, Other, and for many of us, transcendent reality [God]. [113]

This summarizes why queer identity is such a scandal to Christian thought, because it insists on forcing us to concede the reality of human particularity. Just as the same word does not have the same meaning every time that it’s used, our bodies are not generic, neatly gendered mannequins that can be mass-manufactured into a single version of Christian discipleship. I don’t know if you buy into Edman’s argument here, but it’s fascinating. Bad pride is self against all others. Queer pride is self in solidarity with others like you.

I think the way that queer pride can be translated into Christian thuinking is to use Henri Nouwen’s phrase that I discovered in my queer Bible study in 2002: becoming the beloved of God. To have pride in this sense is not to be filled with an insecure, volatile egotism, but to say I’m a totally odd, entirely accepted, wonderful, beautiful child of God. One of the most important things I’ve learned from the queer community is that self-acceptance is actually a good and holy thing, while self-hatred is actually a rejection of God’s grace.

Self-hatred was the way I stayed stuck in the infinite loop of habitual sin, because I thought if I hated myself enough for sinning, I was being “repentant.” That’s what an overemphasis on total depravity can do to an evangelical kid who falls into various forms of addiction. The self-emptying that Christianity values doesn’t involve saying I’m actually uninteresting and ugly and don’t matter. It means that I gain enough “pride” to stop obsessing over my inadequacy so that I’m able to notice that other people actually exist. That’s the paradox. Healthy pride is entirely compatible with self-emptying and even self-denial in a Christian sense. Self-denial without healthy pride, a.k.a. self-care, is codependency, which is perhaps the most ubiquitous spiritual disease among committed Christians today.

Edman continues by examining whether there’s a biblical justification for a positive use of “pride.” She finds it in an interesting place.

Some of the most prominent figures in Hebrew scripture begin their work by giving voice to healthy Pride. They are people whom God calls by name. When they hear their names, these people sit bolt upright and respond with the Hebrew word hineni! which means, “Here I am!”… Hineni is a vital concept in Jewish theology. It is the prophetic response to God’s call… Hineni is thus a statement of identity and presence. That’s why hineni is a declaration of healthy pride. [116]

If this analogy holds, then queer pride is actually synonymous with obedience, as much as that may seem odd to some Christians. Moses’s exasperating exchange with God at the burning bush would be the opposite. His insecurity is actually an obstacle to doing God’s work. In the New Testament, Edman brings in the example of Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel. Perhaps my conservative Catholic friends are thinking oh no she didn’t right now. Mary is certainly humble, but her humility is not diametrically opposed to the pride Edman is talking about.

Mary takes in all off this complexity, and she rises to the challenge. Her response is calm, self-possessed, measured, deliberate. The NRSV translates it as, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”… She stands in her Pride, knowing herself, able to meet this angel in conversation and engage her God in whatever extraordinary encounter is about to take place. [118]

I don’t see any reason why this is an illegitimate reading of the holy encounter that has become the central mantra of Catholic discipleship, or why a queer person upon discovering their queer identity cannot say, just like Mary, “Here am I; let it be with me according to your word.” I don’t have the right to tell anybody else that their journey of self-discovery cannot possibly be their obedience to the gentle voice of God’s love in their heart just because their identity doesn’t fit into my comprehensive summa theologica of human possibilities.

The greatest harm that Christianity has done in the world has stemmed from the need to universalize human existence into a generic “one-size-fits-all” nature rather than respect the particularity of individual peoples’ identities, social locations, and vocations. If you need a proof-text to support the legitimacy of human particularity, see 1 Corinthians 12. We’re not supposed to be generic Jesus-clones; we are differently shaped, differently gifted, differently called members of his body. Oneness in Christ is not sameness in Christ. We are called to harmony, not unison. The heresy of generic humanity is precisely why the church needs to be shipwrecked by queer pride.

Any definition of sin that discourages people from asserting their own value and needs does vast harm to people whose value and needs are already being actively denied. Defining sin as pride, as hubris, may be appropriate for people of privilege–and especially those who hoard power or who profit by appropriating resources from others. But for those who have been colonized, dehumanized, demonized, and in myriad ways robbed of life and livelihood, this definition works to extend and exacerbate their oppression. Imposing such a definition of sin is one of the biggest hammers in the ideological toolbox of empire that Christianity was born to dismantle. This is ironic, because you’d think that defining pride as aggression and hubris would serve to contain imperialistic tendencies… But in practice, universalizing this definition of pride is one way the privileged Self absorbs and renders invisible all those less-privileged Others. Demonizing Pride is, in fact, one of the most effective ways that Christianity has ended up serving those who conquer and dominate, contributing to the disempowerment of people the world over. [115]

This claim about the harm of universalizing definitions of sin and human nature in general has been borne out historically in the last five centuries of European colonialism and white supremacy. The way that European Christians justified conquest, pillage, genocide, and slavery was through their assertion of a “one-size-fits-all” humanity into which other cultures needed to assimilate (a.k.a. “civilize”) for their own good. The miracle is that God was able to cultivate a holy, healthy Christian faith among oppressed people who appropriated the Christianity of their oppressors as a tool for their own liberation. For example, black slaves turned the cross that white theologians had labeled an abstract debt payment into proof of God’s solidarity with their suffering.

Taking up your cross, the central metaphor of the Christian discipleship, has a completely different meaning, depending on whether or not you already have a heavy cross that you’re carrying. For privileged people like me, taking up a cross means joining Jesus in his solidarity with the world’s crucified. For people who have been colonized, dehumanized, and demonized, taking up a cross means dignifying their suffering through Jesus’ solidarity with them. While someone who is filled with messianic hubris like me might need to keep my head down by taking up my cross, those who have been stepped on by empire are keeping their heads up by taking up their crosses.

Taking up a cross can actually mean pride in the positive queer sense. Jesus took the most shameful humiliation the Roman Empire had invented and made it into an expression of holy pride. How else should we understand the language of Colossians 2:15? “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” Why can’t a queer kid read that and say oh that’s like what happens when I march in a pride parade after the bullies at school call me faggot and beat me up? Why can’t a pride parade be what it looks like for someone who has been shamed and humiliated to take up their cross and triumph over their bullies?

It’s disconcerting for privileged people to surrender our grip on a “one-size-fits-all” anthropology, theology, scriptural hermeneutic, etc. But it’s a step the church urgently needs to take. And that’s why I really honestly believe that the queer community is the fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy in 1 Corinthians 1:28: “He has chosen the despised ones to bring to nothing the things that are.” People who don’t fit in the normality of 90% of us and refuse to hide quietly in the closet any longer are bringing to nothing all of our explanatory systems so that we can see Christ in all of his rainbow colors. So get Liz Edman’s book! Let yourself be shipwrecked by queer pride and discover a deeper love of Jesus on the other side.

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