Monday, March 28, 2011

Radical Love: Why Christian Theology Is a Queer Thing

By Patrick S. Cheng*

Queer theology—that is, the place where Christian theology and queer theory meet—is all about radical love.

Radical love, I contend, is a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries, whether they are boundaries that separate us from other people, that separate us from preconceived notions of sexuality and gender identity, or that separate us from God.

Radical love lies at the heart of both Christian theology and queer theory.

Radical love is at the heart of Christian theology because we Christians believe in a God who, through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, has dissolved the boundaries between death and life, time and eternity, and the human and the divine.

Similarly, radical love is also at the heart of queer theory because it challenges our existing boundaries with respect to sexuality and gender identity (for example, “gay” vs. “straight,” or “male” vs. “female”) as social constructions and not essentialist, or fixed, concepts.

It should be noted that radical love is not about abolishing all rules or justifying an antinomian existence, sexual or otherwise. Radical love is ultimately about love, which, as St. Paul teaches us, is patient and kind, and not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. As such, radical love is premised upon safe, sane, and consensual behavior. Thus, nonconsensual behavior—such as rape or sexual exploitation—is by definition excluded from radical love.

Jesus Christ can be understood by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as the embodiment of radical love. Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry also reinforces the notion of Jesus as the embodiment of radical love and boundary-crossing.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus constantly dissolved the religious and social boundaries of his time. He ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He touched “unclean” people such as lepers and bleeding women. He spoke with special outcasts such as Samaritans. In other words, Jesus Christ dissolved the “holy” boundaries of clean and unclean, holy and profane, and saint and sinner.

Jesus Christ is the embodiment of radical love because—in addition to crossing divine and social boundaries—Jesus also crosses sexual boundaries. This is, Jesus’ life and ministry can be viewed as dissolving the rigid line between “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”

In terms of bisexuality, Nancy Wilson raises the interesting possibility that Jesus Christ was sexually attracted to both women and men. She discusses Jesus’ household in Bethany—that is, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus—and speculates that Jesus could have been attracted to both sexes. According to Wilson, “the most obvious way to see Jesus as a sexual being is to see him as bisexual in orientation, if not also in his actions.”

Finally, Jesus Christ is the embodiment of radical love because Jesus crosses gender boundaries. As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “there is no longer male and female” in Christ Jesus. To that end, a number of theologians have written about the transgender Christ, or Jesus Christ who dissolves the boundaries between “female” and “male.” As in the case with bisexuality, transgender discourse challenges binary and hierarchical thinking about gender.

As a gay theologian, seminary professor, and ordained minister, I have been continuously amazed at the ways in which the radical love of the queer community has helped us to overcome the seemingly insurmountable religious, legal, political, societal, cultural, and other obstacles that present us from fully loving one another and being who God has created us to be. As Paul writes beautifully in the eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (8:38-39).

Excerpted from Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011).

*The Reverend Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D., is the Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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