Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Out Christ / Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People

“Sermon on the Mount” (from Ecce Homo) by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin

“Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today,” a liberating five-week series by Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng, continues today with “the Out Christ.”

[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)

Cheng, theology professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, adapted the series for the Jesus in Love Blog based on his essay in the new book “Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection (Second Edition),” edited by Marvin M. Ellison and Kelly Brown Douglas.

Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today[1]

Model Two: The Out Christ

By Patrick S. Cheng, Copyright © 2010

            The second christological model of sin and grace for LGBT people is the Out Christ.  The Out Christ arises out of the reality that God reveals Godself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.  In other words, God “comes out of the closet” in the person of Jesus Christ; it is only through the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we understand the true nature of God (for example, God’s solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed).  Indeed, the notion of the Out Christ as the revelation of God is supported by Jesus Christ’s description in the Fourth Gospel as the logos or Word of God.

            Chris Glaser, the gay theologian and Metropolitan Community Church minister, has written about the Out Christ in his book Coming Out as Sacrament.  In that book, Glaser describes Jesus Christ as nothing less than God’s very own coming out to humanity:  “The story of the New Testament is that God comes out of the closet of heaven and out of the religious system of time to reveal Godself in the person of Jesus the Christ.”[2]

            For Glaser, God reveals God’s solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed of the world in Jesus Christ.  For example, God comes out as an infant who is born in “a strange town and in a land and culture dominated by a foreign power, the Roman Empire.”  God also comes out in solidarity with the oppressed through the ministry of Jesus, who “defends women and eunuchs and those of mixed race (Samaritans) and responds to other races (the Roman centurion, the Syrophoenician woman).”  In the crucifixion, God comes out by extending “an inclusive paradise to a crucified criminal.”  And finally, in the resurrection, God comes out as one who “lives despite human violence, a true survivor of human abuse and victimization.”[3]

Sin as the Closet

            If the Out Christ is understood as the One through whom God most fully reveals Godself to humanity, then sin – as what opposes the Out Christ – can be understood as the closet, or the refusal to reveal oneself fully to one’s families, friends, co-workers,  and other loved ones.  Not only does the closet prevent a person from truly connecting with others, but it has a corrosive effect on the self-esteem and well-being to the extent that she is constantly forced to keep her life a secret to others.

            Many LGBT people have written about experiencing the sin of the closet.  For many LGBT people of color, coming out to families and friends can be a particularly difficult process as a result of condemnation from theologically-conservative churches, cultural expectations of traditional gender roles, and the anxieties of bringing shame to their families and ethnic communities.  Furthermore, LGBT people of color often experience an additional closet – the ethnic closet – in trying to hide or downplay their minority status within the predominantly white LGBT community.

Grace as Coming Out

            By contrast, grace in the context of the Out Christ can be understood as the courage to come out of the closet, or sharing one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity with others.  For LGBT people, the process of coming out can be understood as grace, or a unmerited gift, on the part of God.  There is no one correct pattern or single path to coming out.  Some people come out very early in life; others wait until much later.  For some people it is a slow and private process.  For others, it is a fast and public announcement.

            Regardless of how one ultimately comes out, the act of coming out reflects the very nature of a God who is also constantly coming out and revealing Godself to us in the Out Christ.  Coming out is a gift that is accompanied by other gifts such as self-love, the love for others, and the overcoming of shame and internalized homophobia.  The grace of coming out is not something that can be “willed” or “earned”; it can only happen as an act of grace from 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] Chris Glaser, Coming Out As Sacrament (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 85.
[3] Glaser, Coming Out As Sacrament, 82-84.

Come back next week for Part 3: the Liberator Christ by Patrick S. Cheng.

Click here to see the whole series so far.

Editor’s note from Kittredge Cherry: The photo for this post, “Sermon on the Mount,” was taken in a famous cruising park in Stockholm with LGBT people from local leather clubs as models. “It was fantastic to walk with ‘Jesus’ to the photo spot. People were looking and a little shocked,” recalls photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin in my book “Art That Dares.”

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Trudie said...

For me there has always been one overwhelming TRUTH: God is Love, and love is served only by honesty. Lying, hiding, pretending -- all of these work against meaningful relationship not only with God but with ourselves and each other. This is why DADT is so entirely diabolical, as many of its opponents insist. How can we fantasize that the supposed defenders of our Nation's freedom in the military they will be effective while the are enslaved by enforced dishonesty? Ohlson's painting of the liberator Christ is absolutely on target here!

Kittredge Cherry said...

The comparison to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military is timely and accurate. Thank you, Trudie, for calling it to our attention.

It was hard to choose an artwork to illustrate the “Out Christ,” so I’m glad that this picture spoke to you. I added a note to the post with background info: ” Elisbabeth took the photo in a famous cruising park in Stockholm with LGBT people from local leather clubs as models. She told me that it doing the photo shoot was fantastic. People stared in shock as “Jesus” walked openly among the queer people, coming “out” and being among us.

RevBobBond said...

Coming out as grace is certainly relevent to the queer community and I think the concept is fertile to any denial of who we are in all the aspects of who we are and being honest about it. We do such violence to ourselves when we feel the need to pretend we are something we are not or to be something we are not.

eric said...


I am SO enjoying this series! I have long ago grown tired of, and have come to view as irrelevant, the traditional "legalistic" view of sin.

For one thing, I tend to believe the entire concept of "Original Sin" is invalid. I don't hold with it at all. In light of that, just what is the point of Jesus death/resurrection?

This series on sin is really fascinating to me. I look forward to each of these.

That said, this one troubles me... and not in the good way I like to be troubled.

For me, now, in 20/20 hindsight, I can see the closet as the sin, or rather hiding in the closet as sin.

I'm having a hard time putting into words why, though, I have trouble with this. I fear I won't do what I'm thinking justice, but here goes.

People living in the closet already have so much going against them. They feel shame, and fear, self-disgust. They're bombarded from all of society. They remain in the closet because the primary message they hear is "Being gay is a sin, and because they are gay they are evil". People in the closet fear coming out, because then their sin, their evilness will be known.

Now, we tell them that they're doubly screwed because they hear from one side that being gay is sinful, and from another hiding in the closet is sinful.

Being in the closet is not just simply about hiding the truth of who they are. It's about trying so hard to NOT be that which they fear they are.

Turtle Woman said...

Thanks Eric, I think you have a very valid point about damned if you do damned if you don't. I feel that all commentary by theologians is very patriarchally suspect as well. Christianity being contaminated by male supremacy, male gods etc. So I am hyper vigilent. However, what I have seen in the lesbian and gay community is that we don't ever even bother to talk about sin, we don't try to come up with a moral code of our own, and in real life this has led to a lot of abuse and sexual exploitation within the gay world itself. So I believe these moral dialogues within our own community are worthwhile.

I do feel we need to address the moral freedom of coming out, and what that could mean to having the ability to make better life decisions.

Sin will always be a charged word, original sin is charged too. But if we all work together on building a powerful moral code within lesbian centric or gay male centric christianity, we'll be powerful.

eric said...

Turtle Woman, I agree that we need to engage, withing the LGBT community, the issue of sin - and for much the same reasons you state. That's one reason I am enjoying this series.

The problem with engaging in this conversation, though, is we need to consider the "collateral damage" our discussions may have.

Were we to assume that only well-adjusted, intelligent and mature women and men were the audience, we could go at it, throwing caution to the wind... well, I guess some caution is always needed.

I just want to be sure as we proceed that we remember that not all who may see this will be well-adjusted, intelligent or mature. I well remember hiding in the stacks at the boarding school I attended, reading about homosexuality... and being pushed deeper in to my own closet as a result.

It's too bad we live in such a flawed human state. Wouldn't it be nice if we could build "a powerful moral code" within a CHRIST centered Christianity... one that didn't require either a lesbian centric or gay male centric perspective? Wouldn't it be nice if we could throw off millenia of patriarchy, and instead of condescending to one another interact one to one equally?

Well, we don't. So I look forward to joining you, Turtle Woman (and Kitt, and everyone else who wants), in defining that powerful moral code.

Kittredge Cherry said...

You all are raising important issues about how to apply the new models of sin and grace. A special welcome to Rev. Bob Bond for making his first comment here! Turtle Woman, thanks for your passion, and Eric, thanks for reminding us of the need for unity and compassion.

I originally thought that the Out Christ would be the least controversial of Patrick’s five models. The idea of the closet as sin seemed obvious at first. Unlike his other models, this one seems to go hand in hand with one of the 10 commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness” -- although the commandment specifies “against your neighbor.” Maybe it was OK to bear false witness against yourself?

I personally spent many years as a closeted young lesbian, but not because I thought it was a sin. I just wanted to conform to society, since I knew no higher authority. I didn’t know there was a God back then. Then I had a conversion experience and felt the reality of God’s love for me just as I am. An evangelical lesbian Christian became my mentor and I joined a progressive interdenominational church. There was no “LGBT theology,” but I knew that God loved me and created me as a lesbian. It was my faith in God -- and God’s own action within my soul -- that soon empowered me to come out of the closet. I knew that God didn’t want me to live a lie, and with God as a higher Source I was able to stop worshipping the idol of social acceptance. Patrick’s model of “coming out as grace” rings true for me.

Maybe the danger of this model -- and all of the LGBT models of sin and grace -- is when you apply it to others. I don’t want to judge others or call them sinful! Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. The word “sin” is so loaded that we LGBT folks tend to avoid it at all costs, but that leads to the problems that some of you have named. We need to develop ethics based on our own LGBT experience… and apply it to ourselves, not use it to attack each other.

Maybe we also need to defuse the word “sin,” like we did with “queer.” For example, Eric wrote, “I tend to believe the entire concept of ‘Original Sin’ is invalid,” and yet later wrote, “It's too bad we live in such a flawed human state.” “Original sin” may just be another way of stating that we lived in “a flawed human state.” The original Aramaic words used by Jesus for sin can be translated as “trespass” and “missing the mark.”

eric said...


Your juxtaposition of my issue with original sin against my comment about living in a flawed human state was illuminating to me. Thank you. I suppose the problem for me has been the difference between the collective and the individual.

When I speak of original sin, it's in the context of each one of us, individually, being already condemned upon birth because of some original sin visited upon us from our parents and their parents down the millenia from Adam and (St?)Eve. This is how the doctrine of original sin (I know it's supposed to be capitalized, but I won't) was taught to me in my catholic grade school, my catholic high school, and much later in seminary. To be honest, I don't even know definitively if this is catholic teaching or not... but it is the way it was taught to me.

When I speak of a flawed humanity, or a flawed human state, it's in the context of the collective. Though, of course, even individuals can be flawed.

But your point IS indeed taken... IF original sin were universally construed as "flawed human nature", or missing the mark, I think I could be okay with that.

And in fact, looking back, I CAN see that my life "in the closet" fundamentally separated me from God's saving grace. But, I think that's for another time.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I first heard the idea of “original sin” as participation in oppressive social systems from lesbian theologian at a conference of Christian Lesbians Out Together in the 1990s. She said it is impossible for us NOT to participate in systems such as sexism, racism, etc that harm other people, so it is original sin, something that we are born into as humans. I remember being upset about it at the time, because I wanted so badly to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. I think she said we had to admit and accept our culpability as a step toward spiritual growth and better relationships. I’m more comfortable now with the idea that we are all “sinners,” and God loves us anyway.

But where does Christ fit in? Can he “save” us from collective guilt? This question leads to the third model that will be posted tomorrow: the Liberator Christ.

Thanks again, Eric, for all your comments and support.