Queering Theology: Subversion and Grace

When I was a conservative Christian and a freshman in college, I decided to try and be “punk.” Needless to say, my “punk” phase consisted of wearing a chain on my wallet and pretending I knew what I was talking about when it came to music – even though, embarrassingly, my idea of “punk” at the time was…Green Day.

I thought I was subversive and bucking the system, even as I voted for George W Bush and campaigned for John Thune. I thought I was being “punk,” even as I tried to fit myself into a restrictive purity culture and its attendant gender roles. I thought I was hip, even as I was the whitest white girl who ever existed. I truly didn’t know what subversion looked like because I’d been fed the youth group lie that believing in Christ was the subversive thing, that it was going against the grain to hold to a faith and to judge others for their sexual lives.

As I’ve grown up and discovered more things about my queer identity and my own concept of sexual ethics, I’ve realized that believing in American evangelical Christianity is one of the least subversive things that exists. And that’s because American evangelical Christianity exists to maintain a status quo of current power structures. It is white, it is heterosexual, and it is cisgender. And its theology has developed over time to support such a system.

True subversion doesn’t come from “going against the cultural grain” by saving yourself for marriage in a hook-up culture, despite what we’ve been told in our youth groups. True subversion doesn’t come from celebrating being straight in a culture where queer folks are still fighting to keep their jobs.

We’ve been fed this falsehood about what subversion is in American evangelicalism. We worship a Christ in our own image – a European, cisgender, heterosexual Christ who is more interested in making sure you don’t have to provide your employees with birth control than with whether or not you just made someone homeless by firing them because they’re gay.

So what does it mean, then, when queer theology tells us that we worship a subversive God, a God who bucks the systems and the trends? Such a reading is, after all, supported by Scripture – a Christ who told us the first shall be last and the last shall be first, a Christ who instructed us to care for the “least of these,” a Christ who called Zacchaeus the tax collector his friend.

Subversion does not exist in pretending to be against a culture that actually supports our every privilege. Subversion exists in realizing our positions of power and actively giving them up for the love of others. Subversion exists in recognizing that I participate in white supremacy on a daily basis and I must dedicate myself to upending that system – especially if it means placing myself lower on the ladder of success. Subversion exists in recognizing that I benefit from a culture that enacts violence on trans* people on a daily basis and that I live without fear – and subversion exists in my work to make the world a safer place for my trans* family. Subversion exists in realizing that I am part of a minority sexual orientation and that my identity is part of my God-given selfhood that I must celebrate with grace.

This weekend, I’m headed out to a local Christian music festival for my research on Christian culture and presentations of gender and masculinity and womanhood. Having attended this festival before – but not since I came out of the closet and I developed my progressive politics and theology – I’m preparing myself to see and hear statements of subversion-that-is-not-actually-subversive. I know this will happen because this is how American evangelicalism functions – without thinking they are in the minority, American evangelicalism would not have nearly the fervor and tribalism they exhibit now.

But true subversion comes from the world of nuance, from realizing that you sit in positions of privilege and power in many areas and that you are not actually subverting anything when you lean on your culture power to get your way. True subversion exists, as Christ did, in humbling yourself so that others may live.