February is LGBT History Month, and this year, the central theme has been peace, activism, and reconciliation. To mark this, Project Shiloh is delighted to offer a blog post from Harriet Winn, who writes about the need and potential for reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the Christian Church. Harriet is an Honours student at the University of Auckland, whose research interests include queer theology and gendered histories within Christianity. Harriet is also an active member of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa, a student-led group campaigning to end campus rape, and Hidden Perspectives NZ, a student community that works to heighten LGBTIQ awareness and acceptance in the Faculty of Arts.
Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church
‘Theological ideas are powerful.’
The queer community can understand the potent power of theology more acutely than many other groups. Historically, the church has contributed to the societal subjugation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer or questioning (LGBTIQ) people, appealing to destructive theologies that designated them “disordered” beings. Yet, in recent years, some church denominations have begun to engage with queer communities in ways that hint at the possibility of reconciliation. The issue of same-sex marriage, for example, has been considered or even embraced by a number of churches.
However, whilst theological engagement with issues such as marriage equality have value, true reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ people will not come from tokenistic gestures but needs to be deeply rooted in an embrace of queer theology. Queer theology presents a challenge to traditional methods of theology from the margins. Through its rejection of essentialism, queer theology demands that the church dismantles and rebuilds its conceptualization of human relationships both with each other and with God, thereby articulating a theology of reconciliation which works both horizontally and vertically.
In this blog post, I will argue that for reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ communities to take place, there must be a process of unlearning normative theologies, followed by a reclamation of queer identity rooted in faith, and finally the finding of common ground between both groups.
The discord between queer communities and the institution of the church has a long and varied history. The conflict between these two groups does not necessarily follow a monolithic path, as there are certainly Christian communities who welcome LGBTIQ people into their fold unconditionally. Moreover, the approach taken by churches to queer people varies between denominations. Overwhelmingly, however, the Christian faith has expressed hostility towards the queer community which has served to rob LGBTIQ people of their ‘fullness of human expression.’
This pervasive hostility has manifested itself in diverse ways. At a scriptural level, verses of the Bible such as the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Gen. 19) have been torn from their original context to elicit condemnation over queer sexuality. Legalistically, conservative forces who seek to discriminate against the queer community have used the rhetoric of church leaders to bolster their political arguments. In their denial of marriage to LGBTIQ people, various denominations of church – most prominently Anglicanism and Catholicism – deny the queer community a fundamental human right on the basis that same-sex marriage disturbs the sanctity and stability of the heterosexual family unit.
All of these objections to queer humanity contribute to a rhetoric of violence which has taken root in the institution of the church and led to the exclusion of queer people from its varying communities. And while this may not involve the total exclusion of LGBTIQ people, this rhetoric has certainly made participating in Christian faith a less-accessible, and oftentimes hostile, experience for them. The question of how to reconcile the queer community with an institution that has historically pushed them to the margins is, therefore, a loaded one.
In tackling the daunting topic of reconciliation, Gregory Baum recognizes that in order to be truly effective, the process must elicit a ‘change of mind and heart’ within its participants. As confronting as it may be, this radical change of position will not take place without a period dedicated to the practices of listening and dialogue between queer people and proponents of theology that oppose their sexuality. It is in these spaces that the unlearning of normative theology and a reorientation of faith towards the inclusion of LGBTIQ people will occur.
Gay Christian Jeff Chu believes that if people simply stop and listen to the stories of queer marginalization, their minds will be ‘positively transformed.’ Here Chu gives voice to the immense value of the role of witness within queer theology. Baum adds nuance to Chu’s assertion when he states that the participants of the dialogue must ‘be willing to examine their own history critically’ and ‘recognise the distortions of their self-understanding.’ Therefore, passive acceptance of the other party’s position is not sufficient – each group must embark on a process of deep self-reflection. For those who oppose queerness, this will involve maintaining an openness to queer theology’s criticism of binaries. Queer theologians proclaim that these binaries – whether related to gender (man/woman) or sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual) – are arbitrary forms of socially constructed categorization which generate discrimination through the process of othering. Recognition and acceptance of the fluidity of identity embodied by queer people is a crucial part of their reconciliation to the church – they cannot and will not be subject to restrictive classification.
This may be an unsettling prospect for Christians who hold theologies which support the idea of gender complementarianism, but as Gerard Loughlin proclaims – faith should be unsettling. Furthermore, this part of the process will challenge many Christians to acknowledge how sin manifests itself in ‘conformity with the status quo’; that collusion with homophobic theology is displeasing to God. The commitment to listening and dialogue allows the process of reconciliation between queer people and their theological opponents to begin on the foundations of truth.
The next crucial stage of reconciliation sees LGBTIQ people reclaiming their identities rooted in faith. Liberation theology, arguably the predecessor of queer theology, presents the need for victims of oppression to find a ‘new self-understanding’ due to the internalization of hatred which can infiltrate their mindsets in an insidiously destructive way. Reconciliation, therefore, implicates forgiveness of oneself as well as of others. For queer Christians, the most profound affirmation of their identity can be found in the conceptualization of God as queer. Furthering the tradition of apophatic theology, which professes God’s transcendence of human understanding as being ‘above all essence’, Patrick Cheng argues that God is an ‘identity without essence’ much like, in its fluidity, queerness. Queer theologians go beyond conceptualizing God as standing in solidarity on the side of the marginalized to contend that God actually becomes one with them; Loughlin believes that queer can be ‘offered as a name for God.’ This remarkable notion affirms LGBTIQ people’s sense of self in the most radical of ways as it expresses an unequivocal divine support for queerness.
On a more pragmatic line of thought, reclamation of queer identity also occurs through the embrace of historic queerness. Lara Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan illuminate how both homosexuality, and same-sex unions, date back as far as heterosexuality. They recognize the unproblematic, historic existence of same-sex unions in China, Egypt, within certain tribes of Native America, and in Māori culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. Delving into the historical place of queerness illuminates how contemporary societal understandings of marriage and sexuality are entirely contextual and not ubiquitous across cultures. Recognizing this offers the potential for liberation from the position of restrictive normativity which has often been the church’s default response to queerness. The reclamation of a queer identity rooted in faith is necessary for the establishment of justice within this process of reconciliation: it puts LGBTIQ people on equal grounding with their non-queer sisters and brothers in faith.
The restoration of justice for queer communities through their reclamation of identity is not the end of the reconciliation process. The next stage involves the growth of mercy between the two groups through the finding of common ground; as Baum has found, the ‘need for a common story’ is one of the most fundamental aspects of reconciliation. In the same way that ecclesiastical endorsement of same-sex marriage will not instantaneously lead to the rooting out of all theological homophobia, simply existing on an equal platform within the Christian faith does not immediately bring about unconditional acceptance of queerness within the church. Therefore, it is vital that LGBTIQ people are able to show a sense of mercy, and patience, towards their theological opponents as they gradually embark upon the path of understanding and accepting queerness.
And conversely, theological opponents of queerness must root their discernment process of trying to understand queerness in the attribute of mercy. Reconciliation is a time-consuming process – not a one-off event; this sentiment is aptly summed up by Leah Robinson who conceptualizes reconciliation as ‘an inspired lifestyle.’ Due to its ongoing nature, mercy must undergird the process as it entails a certain sense of compassion which is ultimately conducive to the establishment of peace: the ultimate goal of reconciliation. The finding of common ground between both parties is a practical method of helping establish merciful attitudes and can be done within this context through illuminating the intersection of queerness and theology. By demonstrating the queerness inherent to both theology and Christian faith, queer theology could gently show its opponents that queerness is not a terrifyingly ambiguous and threatening concept, but something which has a long-standing place in the Christian tradition.
The queerness of Christianity is widespread. It finds itself in defiance of the status-quo, and its seeking of the strange – ‘the unknowable in Christ’, just as the desire to deconstruct ‘traditional boundaries’ and binaries within queer theology demonstrates a commitment to uncertainty. Moreover, the destruction of binaries is not a practice exclusive to queer theology. By existing as both human and divine, Jesus epitomized Christianity’s flagrant disregard for binaries. If traditional modes of theology find the blurring of boundaries between humanity and divinity unproblematic, they should be able to conceptualize, and thus show mercy towards, the blurring of binaries within the human realm. Mercy for the other can take root between the queer community and their theological opponents through the finding of common ground; the queering of Christian faith.
Reconciliation between the queer community and the church will only occur when queer theology is fully embraced by normative theology as a legitimate and life-giving source of faith. The road to peace between these two communities will certainly not be a smooth or swift process, as the hurt that has been wrought by homophobic theologies is deeply entrenched in the psyche of LGBTIQ people. However, through the practical steps outlined earlier – the establishment of truth through listening and dialogue, assertion of justice engendered by reclamation of identity, and the nurturing of mercy by finding common ground, peace becomes an exhilarating possibility. Amidst all the incongruous debate taking place about same-sex marriage and the place of queer people in the highest echelons of the church, queer theology presents the most hopeful way forward.
Queer theology transcends the bounds of theory to become praxis – it precipitates, and requires ‘authentic Christian discipleship.’ Therefore, it requires sustained commitment, which is a crucial component to reconciliation and will aid the long-term inclusion of queerness. In order to avoid the disconnect between itself and society being further widened, all Christian theology must be undergirded by the declaration made by eminent archbishop and theologian Desmond Tutu that ‘he would rather choose hell than worship a homophobic God.’ Patrick Cheng proclaims the church as an ‘external community of radical love’, and now is the time for the church to fully embrace this role.
Ahmed, Lara Aasem, and J. Michael Ryan. “Same-Sex Marriage.” In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, edited by Nancy A. Naples, 1-2. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.
Althaus-Reid, Marcella, and Lisa Isherwood. “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory.” Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007): 302-314.
Aspin, Clive, and Jessica Hutchings. “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality.” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007): 415-427
Baum, Gregory. “A Theological Afterward.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 183-192. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.
Cheng, Patrick S. “Contributions from Queer Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. New York: Seabury Books, 2011.
Dickinson, Colby, and Meghan Toomey. “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field.” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017): 1-16.
Endsjø, Dag Ølstein. Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.
Kirby, Andrew, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper, and Shoba Nayar. “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy.” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017): 901-918.
Loughlin, Gerard. “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity.” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008): 143-152.
Robinson, Leah. Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology. Bern: Peter Lang, 2015.
Shaw, Jane. “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Wells, Harold. “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 1-14. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.
 Harold Wells, “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 1.
 Gerard Loughlin, “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity,” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008), 144.
 Jane Shaw, “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11-12.
 Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood, “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory”, Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007), 304.
 Althaus-Reid and Isherwood, 9-12.
 Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field,” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017), 10.
 Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 12-3.
 Dag Ølstein Endsjø, Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 165.
 Andrew Kirby, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper and Shoba Nayar, “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy,” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017), 908;
Lara Aasem Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan, “Same-Sex Marriage,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, ed. Nancy A. Naples (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016), 1.
 Gregory Baum, “A Theological Afterward,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 198.
 Dickinson and Toomey, 6.
 Baum, 190
 Ahmed and Ryan, 2.
 Loughlin, 143.
 Patrick Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 10.
 Baum, 189.
 Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.
 Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.
 Ahmed and Ryan, 2.
Clive Aspin and Jessica Hutchings, “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality,” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007), 417-8.
 Ahmed and Ryan, 2.
 Baum, 190.
 Leah Robinson, Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology (Bern: Peter Lang, 2015), 35-6.
 Loughlin, 143;
Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 9.
 Ibid, 6.
 Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 11.
 Dickinson and Toomey, 4.
 Shaw, 18;
 Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, 106.