As the whole of the Christian world focuses today on the incarnation of Jesus Christ, I want to take a different tack. Instead of the familiar (and too often saccharine) focus on the nativity and a cute little infant in a manger, my thoughts have been along the lines we more usually take, in commemorating the births of other great men and women – with tributes to their lives and legacies. In the case of Jesus Christ, of course, we do this routinely throughout the liturgical year, which is why Christmas quite rightly concentrates exclusively on the birth – but for LGBT people, this message is also so inextricably bound up with the false perception that his message is inherently hostile to us, that is important from time to time to step back and consider his life and message as a whole. When we do so, the unmistakable conclusion must be that far from being hostile to sexual or gender minorities (or anybody else), Jesus is more properly seen as a unique queer role model, a superb queer icon.
It is not for nothing that in the letter to the Galatians, we read
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
– Galatians 3:28-29, New International Version
This direct dismissal of arbitrary distinctions between groups of people goes right to the heart of what is understood by queer theory, which no longer restricts the word to a sexual or gender context. In his life, ministry and teaching, Jesus completely exemplified queer in this broad sense, famously reaching out to marginalised groups of all kinds, associating freely with social outcasts like prostitutes and tax collectors, and not afraid to touch the unclean – lepers, or menstruating women. We can easily see ourselves as included among the marginalized and social outcasts, especially in the religious communities that ought to know better, and (metaphorically) also among the unclean – as that is how far too many so-called Christians have tended to view us. We also know, with specific reference to same – sex relationships, that he did not hesitate to go to the home of the Roman centurion to heal his sick “boy” – even though it would have been assumed by all around him that this included a sexual relationship between the two men. It is clear that, in modern terminology, he was at the very least what we would call a straight ally.
But we usually think of “queer” in a narrower sense, as referring specifically to one or other of “LGBT”, for which it is often used as a simple synonym. Is it reasonable to think of Jesus as queer in this more restricted understanding? Indeed, it is.
In the first place, consider his own family, which far from being a model for the modern nuclear family as it is often portrayed, was in fact distinctly queer – conceived by an unmarried mother, and with “two daddies”. Later, he downplayed the importance of the biological family, and emphasised instead our families of choice, advising his disciples to leave their fathers and mothers, in order to follow him.
In his own life, there is no evidence that he ever married, in marked contrast with the practice of his day. Instead, his closest associates were a band of twelve men, who had abandoned their wives and families to join him. For Jews, there was a strong expectation on men to marry and father children, a practice that only the ascetical Essene sect rejected – but Jesus was not an ascetic. (Although he lived simply and encouraged others to do so, we know that he was not averse to a glass of wine). In this direct and public rejection of the hetero-normative emphasis on marriage and family, Jesus was clearly queer in his lifestyle.
He was also queer in his choice of friends. Outside the immediate circle of the twelve, his best known close associates were the household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who are described in the bible as two sisters and their brother. This is unlikely however to be literally true, with the extreme social pressures and expectations on all Jewish women to marry. It is quite possible that “sisters” is a euphemism for two women in a lesbian relationship – but even if this were not so, this household was definitely “queer”, in its direct repudiation of conventional marriage. As for Lazarus, when Jesus is given the news of his death, he is described as one whom Jesus loved deeply.
Throughout the Gospel of John, there are repeated references to a “beloved disciple”, with whom Jesus had a particularly close relationship. This may have been John, to whom at the point of death he entrusted the care of his mother (much as a widower might take care of his mother-in-law). Or it may be Lazarus, who we know to have been the object of particular affection. Whoever it was, we know that the relationship was at the least more emotionally intimate than his other relationships, and included a tactile element – at the Last Supper, he sat beside Jesus and laid his head on his breast.
We do not know for certain whether this emotionally intimate relationship with the Beloved Disciple was purely emotional and celibate, or a sexual one – but it certainly could have been. As one who was fully human as well as fully divine, Christ would certainly have experienced the same sexual feelings and urges as any other adult male. There was even at one time, a tradition in some quarters of the Church that the bridal couple at the famous wedding feast at Cana was – Jesus and his Beloved Disciple, John.
Whether he was sexually active or celibate, whether we choose to interpret the word broadly or narrowly, we cannot avoid the conclusion that Jesus was, most certainly, “queer”.
But makes him a uniquely important queer role model, what warrants my description of him as a “queer icon”?
I’m not going to go into this analysis myself – the theologian Patrick Chen has done a superb job of explaining this in a series of articles on sin and grace published at Jesus in Love blog, and later expanded in his book, “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ”
In the first of these, “Erotic Christ“, Cheng emphasises the importance to Christ of relationships.
In Out Christ, he describes how Christ’s example is a role model for us in coming out, which he sees as grace – and the closet as sin ).
Liberator Christ emphasises Christ’s role as one who came “to set prisoners free” – and that explicitly includes those imprisoned in any way by sexual oppression and social hostility or prejudice. LGBT activism is thus seen as a Christian grace.
Transgressive Christ and the last of the series at Jesus in Love, Hybrid Christ illustrate Jesus’ overt flouting and subversion of artificial socially prescribed group boundaries and restrictive gender norms – and how in his own life he constantly merged different identities.
Thomas Bohache et al (eds): The Queer Bible Commentary (especially the chapters on the four Gospels)
Patrick S. Cheng: Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology
Patrick S. Cheng: From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ
Patrick S. Cheng: Rainbow Theology
Susannah Cornwall: Controversies In Queer Theology
Gomes, Rev Peter: The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?
Robert Goss: Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up
Theodore W. Jennings Jr: The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament
Gerard Loughlin: Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body
Dale B Martin: Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation