Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Erotic Christ / Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People

“Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today,” a liberating essay by Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng, is presented here as a five-week series starting now.

[Update: A new book based on this series, “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ” by Patrick Cheng, was published in spring 2012.]

Every week Cheng will present one of five models that arise out of the experiences of LGBT people:
1) Erotic Christ (sin as exploitation; grace as mutuality)
2) Out Christ (sin as the closet; grace as coming out)
3) Liberator Christ (sin as apathy; grace as activism)
4) Transgressive Christ (sin as conformity; grace as deviance)
5) Hybrid Christ (sin as singularity; grace as hybridity)

[Update: Cheng added two more models in his new book:]
6) Self-Loving Christ (sin as shame, grace as pride)
7) Interconnected Christ (sin as isolation, grace as interdependence)

Cheng is assistant professor of historical and systematic theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are honored that this brilliant, up-and-coming gay scholar chose to share his work at the Jesus in Love Blog.

Patrick S. Cheng
He adapted the following essay for the Jesus in Love Blog based on his article of the same title in the new book “Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection (Second Edition),” edited by Marvin M. Ellison and Kelly Brown Douglas. His book “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology” will be published next spring by Seabury Books.

Cheng is an ordained minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), an LGBT-affirming Christian denomination that is open to all people. He is also a contributor to the religion section of the Huffington Post. He will deliver the John E. Boswell Lecture at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California in April 2011. Patrick lives in Cambridge with his husband of nearly two decades, Michael.

For more information about Patrick, please visit his website at

Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today[1]

By Patrick S. Cheng, Copyright © 2010


            Sin is a difficult issue for many, if not most, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT” or “queer”) people of faith.  It is the primary reason why LGBT people are denied full participation in the life of the Church, including the denial of sacraments and rites such as same-sex marriage and ordination, as well as the denial of many secular rights such as civil marriage and anti-discrimination laws.  Sin also torments LGBT people starting from a young age.  That is, we are taught very early on that same-sex acts are sinful, and we will be condemned to eternal punishment in hell if we fail to repent and abstain from such acts.

            As a result, many LGBT people are unable to understand what grace – that is, the unmerited gift of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ – is all about.  If a central part of our identity (if not the central part), which is the ability to experience embodied love and pleasure with another human being, is understood as intrinsically sinful and in need of repentance and abstinence, then why should we care about God’s grace?  In fact, what kind of sadistic God would create people one way and then insist that they change who they are in order to attain salvation?  It is not surprising, then, that many LGBT people have turned away from the Church and organized religion.

The Traditional Legal Model of Sin and Grace

            The Church traditionally has talked about sin and grace in legal terms.  For example, same-sex acts are understood as sinful because they violate biblical law, natural law, and/or other divine prohibitions against such acts.  Although there are only a handful of biblical passages that discuss same-sex acts (for example, Gen 19:5, Lev 18:22 and 20:13, Rom 1:24-25, 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10), they have been cited time and time again to “prove” the sinfulness of such acts.  Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church has relied upon natural law to argue that human sexuality must always be expressed in the context of procreation, and any delinking of sexual pleasure and procreation is a violation of God’s law.

            By contrast, grace under the traditional legal model is understood as God’s forgiveness of those who have engaged in same-sex acts (that is, justification) as well as God’s assistance in helping such people to abstain from such prohibited acts in the future (that is, sanctification).  In other words, to accept God’s grace is to refrain from having any non-procreative sex, including same-sex acts.

            There are a number of problems with this traditional legal model of sin and grace.  First, this model detracts from a central message of the New Testament, which is justification by grace alone.  By characterizing sin as the violation of God’s eternal laws, the focus inevitably shifts to who may or may not be violating such laws.  This in turn leads to an obsession with groups that are thought to be sinners (for example, LGBT people), as opposed to a focus on God’s unmerited grace, which is actually the only thing that can help any of us to overcome the bondage of original sin.

            Second, the traditional legal model results in an obsession with defining precisely what the rules for right and wrong behavior are.  Specifically, this takes the form of endless argumentation and prooftexting over what the Bible “actually” says about same-sex acts.  While I believe in the importance of biblical exegesis, I also think that a narrow focus on what God prohibits or allows in scripture takes away from the larger framework of original sin and the theological significance of Jesus Christ in salvation history.  That is, the Bible becomes simply a book of rules, as opposed to the revelation of God’s relationship with – and love for – humanity as the Word made flesh.

The Christological Model of Sin and Grace

            As an alternative to the traditional legal model, I propose a christological model of sin and grace.  Under such a model – which is suggested by the work of christocentric theologians such as Bonaventure and Karl Barth – Jesus Christ is the starting point for thinking about sin and grace.  That is, sin is defined as whatever is opposed to the grace of what God has done for humanity in Jesus Christ.  In other words, sin is defined in relational terms to Jesus Christ.  It cannot be reduced to a laundry list of commandments to obey.

            For example, one way of thinking about sin and grace from a christological perspective is to understand sin as pride and grace as condescension.  That is, to the extent that Jesus Christ is understood as the grace of God’s coming down from heaven for our salvation (that is, condescension), then sin is defined as humanity’s urge to raise itself up above God (that is, pride).  Liberation theologians have characterized this as the sin of economic and political subjugation of the marginalized.

            By contrast, another way of thinking about sin and grace from a christological model is to understand sin as sloth and grace as exaltation.  That is, to the extent that Jesus Christ is understood as the grace of God’s lifting up of humanity in the victory of the resurrection (that is, exaltation), then sin is humanity’s refusal to rise to the level of what God has called us to be (that is, sloth).  Feminist and womanist theologians have characterized this as the sin of hiding or the negation of the self.

            Building upon the christological model, I propose five christological models of sin and grace that arise out of the experiences of LGBT people: (1) the Erotic Christ; (2) the Out Christ; (3) the Liberator Christ; (4) the Transgressive Christ; and (5) the Hybrid Christ.  These five models use the experiences of LGBT people to illustrate how sin and grace manifest themselves within in a specific social context.  It is my hope that these models can lead to a more thoughtful discussion – as opposed to silence or avoidance – about what sin and grace mean to LGBT people today.

Model One: The Erotic Christ

            The first christological model of sin and grace for LGBT people is the Erotic Christ.  According to Audre Lorde, the Black feminist lesbian writer, the erotic is about relationality and desire for the other; it is the power that arises out of “sharing deeply” with another person.  The erotic is to “share our joy in the satisfying” of the other, rather than simply using other people as “objects of satisfaction.”[2]

Grace as mutuality
Detail from The Last Supper
by Becki Jayne Harrelson
The Erotic Christ arises out of the reality that Jesus Christ, as the Word made flesh, is the very embodiment of God’s deepest desires for us.  Jesus Christ came down from heaven not for God’s own self-gratification, but rather for us and for our salvation.  In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly shows his love and desire for all those who come into contact with him, including physical touch.  He uses touch as a way to cure people of disease and disabilities, as well as to bring them back to life.  He washes the feet of his disciples, and he even allows the Beloved Disciple to lie close to his breast at the last supper.

            Conversely, Jesus is touched physically by many of the people who come into contact with him.  He is touched by the bleeding woman who hoped that his powers could heal her.  He is bathed in expensive ointment by the woman at Bethany.  After his resurrection, Jesus allows Thomas to place his finger in the mark of the nails and also to place his hand in his side.  All of these physical interactions are manifestations of God’s love for us – and our reciprocal love for God – through the Erotic Christ.

Carter Heyward, the lesbian theologian and Episcopal priest, has written about the Erotic Christ in the context of the “radically mutual character” of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  For Heyward, the significance of Jesus Christ lies not only in the ways in which he touched others (both physically and otherwise), but also in the ways in which he was “healed, liberated, and transformed” by those who he encountered.  This power in mutual relation is not something that exists solely within the trinitarian relationship between God, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit.  Rather, this power is present in all of us who have ever “loved, held, yearned, lost.”[3]

Sin as Exploitation

            So what is sin and grace in light of the Erotic Christ?  If the Erotic Christ is understood as God’s deepest desire to be in relationship with us, then sin – defined as what opposes the Erotic Christ – can be understood as exploitation, or the complete lack of mutuality or concern for the needs and desires, sexual or otherwise, of another person.

Sin as exploitation
“Judas Kiss” by Robert Recker
            For many people, sin in the context of the Erotic Christ takes the form of sexual practices in which one’s partner is treated as merely an object of gratification or something less than a full person (for example, sex arising out of addiction).  These people, particularly those who struggle with sex addiction and/or low self-esteem, have engaged in anonymous, unsafe, and/or drug-fueled hook-ups in which self-gratification is the primary if not only concern.  The sex addict’s partner or partners are reduced to objects for stimulation and not seen as human beings in themselves.  This is the sin of exploitation at work – using one’s partner as an object for stimulation and not as a fellow human being.

Grace as Mutuality

            By contrast, grace in the context of the Erotic Christ is mutuality, or the deep awareness of being-in-relationship with the other.  As Lorde describes it, grace can take the form of something as simple as “sharing deeply any pursuit with another person” such as dancing.[4]  For Heyward, the grace of the Erotic Christ necessarily takes the form of “justice-love” and sharing in “the earth and the resources vital to our survival and happiness as people and creatures.”[5]  The grace of mutuality is understanding that we are all connected deeply to each other and creation.  It requires a commitment to changing how we see and interact with the world, whether socially, politically, or sexually.  The grace of mutuality is a gift that allows us to feel an authentic connection with others and with God.

[1] Copyright © 2010 by Patrick S. Cheng.  All rights reserved.  The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng is the Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  This essay is adapted from his article, “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today,” in the second edition of Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by Marvin M. Ellison and Kelly Brown Douglas.  For more information about Patrick, please see his website at
[2] See Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, ed. Marvin M. Ellison and Kelly Brown Douglas, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 75, 77.
[3] See Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 74.  See also Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic As Power and the Love of God (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989).
[4] See Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” 75.
[5] See Heyward, Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right, 71.

Come back next week for Part 2: the Out Christ by Patrick S. Cheng.

Editor’s note from Kittredge Cherry: The artwork for this post was chosen to contrast the erotic mutuality of Ohlson Wallin's Crucifix at the top (where Jesus and his beloved together BECOME the biracial cross) with the erotic exploitation of Recker’s Judas kiss (where the exploitive biracial kiss sends Jesus to the cross alone).

Click here to see the whole series so far.

Related link:
Open Hands: Treasure in earthen Vessels: An Exploration of Sexual Ethics (Vol. 13 No. 4)


Trudie said...

I am really looking forward to this series! It never ceases to amaze me that Christians have lost the connection between their claim that God became truly human in the person of Jesus and the reality that ALL human existence is therefore part of God's experience. When God declared creation GOOD, that includes the erotic aspect -- the creative aspect -- of human nature as much as, or even more than, other aspects. When respectable theologians present thoughtful discussions of this reality, the rest of us are truly blessed.

Anonymous said...

This is such great material. I appreciate having access to it here and I appreciate having heard you speak on it at General Conference in Acapulco. Your insight and the presentation help me to articulate what I have believed for guite a while.
Thank you for sharing.
Rev. Bob Bond

Turtle Woman said...

Just an additional note about Patrick Cheng's wonderful excerpt.
First off, every lesbian and gay person should go out and BUY HIS BOOK! Ours just arrived the other day, and it's filled with lively essays. Second, I want to congratulate him on being such an erriadite moral resource for our whole community. The great weakness of the gay world was its moral obtuseness. If heteros hated us, then we could just discard all human decency. Sexual manipulation of congregants was rampant, dissing of lesbian couples the norm... Cheng offers a way for lesbians and gays to access grace, which I don't think we know how to do very well.

Trudie said...

Turtle Woman, your comments are absolutely on target. I've been involved with the gay religious community for over 30 years, both via the Catholic organization Dignity, until it was scuttled by the Vatican in 1987, and MCC. During that entire time, I've been praying to see theologians, clergy and laity in the gay religious community take the reins of their own ethical theology and begin to see the truth of Christ's teaching about the equal worth of all human souls regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of individuals.

Obviously, the Jesus in Love novels were and remain for me the most deeply moving and authentic expression of this understanding, but I am also very grateful to have other supporting studies from a more traditionally theological perspective covering the same ground.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, a new sexual ethics by and for the LGBT community is much needed. And we must try to walk the walk of our new ethics, not just talk the talk. In my experience, women (lesbians included) need to learn the message of mutuality just as much as men.

I am encouraged to hear that people are finding this series useful in their lives and ministries. When I get didn’t any comments in the first couple days (except a hate mail calling us “sick”), I started wondering if sin was too unpopular as a discussion topic in the LGBT community.

If we want to go deeper into gay sexual ethics, another helpful resources is “Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth” by Daniel A Helminiak, another excellent gay theologian. It includes chapters on “Sexual Ethics without Religion” and “The Right and Wrong of Sex, Queer or Otherwise.”

Patrick and I had some discussion about how to illustrate the sin of exploitation. What is more appropriate as an illustration: the kiss of Judas or the soldiers beating Jesus? So far I simply left this without an artwork to make the point.

Turtle Woman said...

I'd almost given up hope about any gay or lesbian theologian coming up with something useful about sin.
So this is very encouraging. What would sin look like if we were very clear about what was best for lesbian and gay moral and spiritual selves? I wanted to be a better person, but found heteronormative discourse just revolting, sexist and worthless.
I also got really sick of the sexual out of controlness of the gay community itself, just sick of the whole thing.
So what would be helpful? What would help us as radical lesbians think of sin? If all of patriarchy is about the negation of the female being-- remember "mankind" "male god" "man" as generic for human, "male" as the very definition of human being... when you have the HIStory of brutal oppression of women, how could there be any grace at all for women in the old testament? And in the new I always liked this quote: "Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you." And I interpret scorpions to be the patriarchs themselves, because snakes were the symbol of the great goddess and the sacred power of women!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Here’s what I wonder: What about when the exploitation is mutual? I see this situation fairly often. For example, an older, wealthier person takes a young lover, exploiting them for their youth, but the younger, poorer person gladly participates in order to exploit the older one for their money. Each is disadvantaged in one way, but has an advantage in another way. I suppose that any kind of exploitation is “sin” ….

Turtle Woman, LGBT people and women face some similar obstacles based on others judging and limiting them according to rigid ideas about proper male or female behavior. So your comparisons of “negation of the female” with this essay make sense.

After consulting with Patrick, I went ahead and added the “Judas Kiss” image to this post. It contrasts the erotic mutuality of Ohlson Wallin's Crucifix at the top (where Jesus and his beloved together BECOME the cross) with the erotic exploitation of Recker’s Judas kiss (where the exploitive kiss sends Jesus to the cross alone).

Anonymous said...

The struggle is with understanding the difference between exploitation and commerce. Is it exploitation if I go to the market and give money to a farmer for produce he or she has raised and wants to sell? Generally we would answer no. But what if I have control over a large portion of resources to purchase produce and I am able to force the farmer to sell his or her produce for less than its value? Generally we would then say yes it is exploitation. If a wealthy person agrees to share his or her wealth with an attractive person for sexual companionship the attractive person is willing to give for what is offered then is it exploitation? We have many beliefs about sexuality and its expression we must examine to determine their foundation and their validity.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I honor the questions posed in the anonymous comment. How do we apply the concepts of exploitation vs. mutuality in specific cases the real world, within the particular socio-economic context? I’m running this series because I share your goal of examining beliefs about sexuality to determine their foundation and expression. I am trying to understand where “commerce” ends and “exploitation” begins in human relationships.

It helps me to reread Patrick’s text and see that he defined exploitation as “the complete lack of mutuality or concern for the needs and desires, sexual or otherwise, of another person.” The older rich/younger poor couples that I described do not fit that definition of exploitation. There was always at least some concern for the needs of the other person. Some of these relationships seem to be an equal exchange and mutually beneficial, but I’ve seen others end badly with one or the other person getting hurt.

The difficulty and dangers of this model -- and all of the LGBT models of sin and grace -- seems to come when we apply it to others. Jesus said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”

We live in a world where people are equal in God’s eyes, and yet each of us is unique. The differences so often lead to judgments and systematic inequalities, or what could be called “original sin.”