The new expressions include my own LGBT Saints series at JesusInLove.org. I have been developing a queer theology of sainthood in the process of writing more than 40 profiles of LGBTQ saints over the past two years. I had scant interest in or knowledge of the saints until a few years ago when I finished a series of books on the queer Christ (Jesus in Love novels and Art That Dares). Many people told me that they couldn’t relate to a gay Jesus, but they liked the idea that his followers were LGBT. At first I thought that LGBT saints were rare. Gradually I came to see that they are everywhere throughout all time and they are among us now. We have all met saints in our lives. They are ordinary people who are also extraordinary.
One of the greatest challenges has been to figure out who is a “saint” and who is “LGBT” or “queer.” If the boundaries of sainthood are slippery, then the definitions of LGBT and queer are even more fluid.
|Saints Perpetua and Felicity by Br. Robert Lentz|
Queer has a double meaning, as defined by theologian Patrick Cheng in his book Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. It can be an umbrella term for marginalized sexualities and gender identities. But Cheng explains that the term also denotes an attitude. “In recent years, the word ‘queer’ has been used by many LGBT people as a positive label that proudly embraces all that is transgressive or opposed to societal norms, particularly with respect to sexuality and gender identity,” Cheng writes.
In light of this definition, the need for “queering the saints” becomes clear. Saints have been criticized as vehicles of the dominant morality, but for me as a lesbian Christian the opposite is true: LGBTQ saints can shake up the status quo. It’s important to re-evaluate familiar figures, to recover those who have been lost and to recognize the saints of our own time.
Churches have tried to control people by burying queer history. The LGBT saints show us not only THEIR place in history, but also OUR place because we are all saints who are meant to embody love. We can restore the complex reality of saints whose lives are being hijacked by the hierarchy to enforce the status quo. Traditional stories of the saints tend to be overly pious, presenting idealized superheroes who seem distant and irrelevant. Saints have been used to get people to passively accept oppressive situations. Too often the saints have been put on a pedestal to glorify virginity and masochistic suffering. The emphasis on miracles disrespects nature, the ongoing miracle of life. Queer saints can help reclaim the wholeness, connecting sexuality and spirituality for the good of all.
Another guiding light in my quest for queer saints has been the book Spitting at Dragons: Towards a Feminist Theology of Sainthood by Elizabeth Stuart. She is known primarily as a queer theologian, but in this book she lays a strong feminist foundation that can be applied to queer or other communities. She found that sainthood has many redeeming qualities. She writes:
“The theology of sainthood is grounded in the concept of community; it is clearly a belief system that arose from the ‘bottom up’ and was often perceived by both the hierarchy and the laity as subversive, providing another system of authority beyond and above the clerical caste, and it was a process in which women were involved from the beginning as saints, proclaimers of saints, and devotees of saints.”
Stuart’s words can apply to LGBT people as well as women. LGBT people were deeply involved in sainthood from the start as saints and as followers of saints. I apply a “hermeneutic of suspicion” as championed by feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther. The dominant Christian culture tried to suppress overt homosexuality, so any hint of homosexuality that survives in the historical record should be given extra significance.
|Harvey Milk of San Francisco by Br. Robert Lentz|
People are drawn to the presence of spiritual power in the lives of the saints, and their willingness to use that power for others, even at great cost to themselves. The LGBT saints can inspire people to challenge unholy gender norms on our own queer paths toward sainthood.