Thursday, December 02, 2010

Liberator Christ / Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People

Jesus Rises (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by F. Douglas Blanchard

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

By Patrick S. Cheng, Copyright © 2010

            The third christological model of sin and grace for LGBT people is the Liberator Christ.  This model is rooted in the liberation theologies of Latin American and Black theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone.  In other words, Jesus Christ is understood as the One who frees all those who are enslaved to systematic oppressions, including heterosexism and homophobia.

Indeed, Jesus Christ announces at the beginning of his ministry that his mission is to set the oppressed free.  By reading from the Book of Isaiah, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed by God to “bring good news to the poor,” to “proclaim release to the captives,” and to “let the oppressed go free.”  The work of the Liberator Christ is reinforced by the parable of sheep and goats in Matthew 25, in which Jesus declares that whoever ministers to those who are hungry, thirsty, outsider, naked, sick, and/or imprisoned has actually ministered to him.

Like the Exodus event in which the ancient Israelites were set free from their bondage to their Egyptians slaveholders, the Christ event liberates LGBT people from the bondage of heterosexism and homophobia.  For example, Robert E. Shore-Goss, a gay former Jesuit priest and current Metropolitan Community Church minister, has written in his book Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto about the importance of deconstructing traditional christologies.  For Shore-Goss, LGBT people are called to move from the erotophobic and sex-negative “Christ the Oppressor” to the LGBT-empowering “Jesus the Liberator.”[2]

Other LGBT theologians, such as Gary David Comstock, also have written about the need to be liberated from traditional notions of a hierarchical Jesus that lords over us.  In his book Gay Theology Without Apology, Comstock argues that Jesus liberates us from seeing him as a “master.”  Rather, Jesus invites us to be his “friend.”  Jesus gives us a “nudge to get on without him,” and he urges us to take on the ethical responsibility of loving one another.[3]

Sin as Apathy

            If the Liberator Christ is understood as the One who frees those who are enslaved to systemic oppressions, then sin – defined as that which opposes the Liberator Christ – can be understood as apathy.  That is, sin with respect to the model of the Liberator Christ can be seen as the refusal to work towards the elimination of the systemic oppressions that affect all members of the LGBT community, including those LGBT people who are “least among us,” such as the socio-economically disadvantaged, recent immigrants, and undocumented workers.

Many LGBT people have come out of the closet and succeeded in their work and careers.  Indeed, they end up living a comfortable middle- to upper-class existence in urban gay enclaves such as San Francisco and New York.  However, like the goats in Jesus’ above parable, these individuals are often blinded by the sin of apathy and fail to address issues of economic injustice, racism, sexism, and ablelism, both inside and outside of the LGBT community.  Despite the fact that these individuals have benefitted greatly from the liberation work of past LGBT activists (e.g., our courageous transgender ancestors at the Stonewall Riots), many of these “A-Gays” do very little – if anything – towards the further liberation of all who suffer from systemic oppressions.

Grace as Activism

            By contrast, grace in the context of the Liberator Christ can be understood as activism, or the willingness to challenge the powers and principalities that result in systemic oppressions.  That is, grace can be understood as a willingness to challenge not only traditional LGBT issues, but also many other issues that result in social and economic injustices.

For example, the grace of activism can be seen in the grass-roots work of many LGBT communities of color that acknowledge the interconnected nature of systemic oppressions.  For example, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA), the national coalition of queer Asian organizations, is committed not only to addressing traditional LGBT issues of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, but NQAPIA also addresses issues of racism and classism within the LGBT community as well as immigration reform.  The grace of activism is a gift from God that recognizes that we are all interconnected within the Body of Christ and that we cannot say to another that “I have no need of you.”

[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 Robert Goss, Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 61-85.
[3] See Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1993), 91-103.

Come back next week for Part 4: the Transgressive Christ by Patrick S. Cheng.

Click here to see the whole series so far.

Editor’s notes from Kittredge Cherry: The Liberator Christ is Patrick Cheng’s newest model - so new that it does not appear in his published essay in “Sexuality and the Sacred.” He developed the model after submitting his manuscript for publication there. I am honored that he chose to introduce the Liberator Christ through the Jesus in Love Blog.

The image for this post, “Jesus Rises” shows Jesus setting prisoners free on Easter morning. It comes from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by F. Douglas Blanchard, which presents Jesus as a contemporary gay man. “Jesus Rises” and other selections from the Gay Passion series appear in my book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.”


Kittredge Cherry said...

I'm surprised that NOBODY commented on this post. Is it the sin of apathy???

I'd say the sin of apathy is similar to "sloth" in the traditional 7 deadly sins. But sloth is traditionally paired with the virtue of diligence, not the grace of activism.

I’d like to see Patrick expand on the idea of individual acts of liberating others in addition to collective activism through groups.

Terence Weldon said...

Kitt, so sorry I've not commented. Instead, I've given it a big shout out and punt at Queering the Church (scheduled for publication at 6pm this evening, British time).

My surprise is that for Cheng himself, this aspect of Christology was an afterthought. For me, it is central (but then, my faith formation was against the background of South African apartheid. How could it be otherwise?)

Independently of Cheng, I have been thinking about the liberator Christ as revealed in the passage from Isaiah/Luke 4, and a new insight into it that came to me in a recent reflection: just as Jesus was not presenting a new message in the Temple but handing back the old, queer/gay/lesbian theologians are not repackaging or reformulating the Gospels, but simply restating the original - stripped of the homophobia that so often is added.

(My reflection on this is up at QTC: