Queering Theology: We Exist

One of my current favorite songs is “We Exist,” by the Grammy award winning band, Arcade Fire. Setting aside a deeply problematic music video, the song tells the story of a gay man coming out to his father, saying, “Daddy it’s true. I’m different from you.” In the bridge of the song, the protagonist sings, “Down on your knees, begging us please, praying that we don’t exist.” The song itself acts as a simple and yet radical declaration: “We exist.”

Last year sometime, I tweeted that the ongoing struggle of the marginalized is to simply exist. Much of the project of oppression is to stamp us out from existence, saying that we don’t or should not exist, and that our work is therefore useless and able to be ignored. By standing up and declaring “we exist,” marginalized people from all walks of life demonstrate that they have things to contribute, that we are here and we refuse to be silenced.

Patrick Cheng’s Radical Love doesn’t spend a lot of time delving into what he calls the “texts of terror” for queer people. Indeed, there aren’t a lot of queer theology texts that spending time dissecting those particular pieces of Scripture, for any number of reasons. The most prominent reason that queer theologians don’t address those texts is because many of us don’t feel the need to justify our existence. Engaging with those texts of terror, under the good faith assumption that we may be wrong about our own existence gives far too much ground to the idea that our entire existence could be invalidated by argument.

Queer theology, instead, focuses on the larger implications of what love looks like and what we can know about radical, boundary erasing love from what we know of who God is. In queering scripture, then, we are not necessarily imposing an extra reading on top of what we already know, but simply using a different lens to discuss orthodoxy in new ways. Like literary criticism in that way, we are not adding anything to the poem when we read it – we are merely using a different kind of lens to shed light on different ideas.

I struggled with whether or not to say “lens” in the previous sentence and here’s why – in things like literary criticism, the scholar is slightly removed from the process. We use our own experiences to some extent, but the largest part of our study comes from research and understanding of the author, the context, and varying lenses. Queer theology, on the other hand, tends to emphasize experiential ideas – we are looking for ourselves in the scripture, looking for reflections of the vastness of our human experiences and not pretending toward any faux objectivity.

When I was at Baylor, one thing a professor impressed upon me was the ideat that there is no such thing as an objective self. I am I due to the sum of my experiences, not because I am some kind of soul-being separate from the meatsuit in which I inhabit. There is no objectivity – there are merely experiences that are treated as normative and therefore invisible.

Notice that techniques developed and used by white, straight, cisgender men throughout theology are considered “objective.”  This is never more obvious than in the rise of neo-Calvinism, where men are upheld as the best interpreters of Scripture and under a burden to be spiritual leaders. Naturally, those who are best suited to interpret Scripture interpret Scripture in such a way as to disallow the participation of any who are not like them – creating, therefore, a perpetual motion cycle in which faux objectivity reinforces itself and its own power. Queer people cannot interpret the Scriptures queerly because white, straight, cisgender men who are in power interpret the Scriptures to say so.

One of the boundaries queer theology destroys is this faux-objectivity around the interpretation of Scripture. Queer theology says that love means God created us and that we can see ourselves in God’s Word. This means that restricting scripture to solely be interpreted by one people group – through the subtle emphasis on “objective” reading or the outright rejection of queer and female readings as “sinful” – is a problem because it places bounds on God’s ability to work God’s love for God’s people.

So what kind of queer readings do we look for? We examine the relationships between people in Scripture. We discuss queer representation and look for the eschatological vision of God's love. David and Jonathan, for example, is one of the more famous queer readings of the Old Testament. These two were said to have a bond closer than that of brothers, and much of the way their relationship is discussed talks about the love they had for each other. Such a reading demonstrates that, while the writers of these particular books did not have an philosophical category homosexual relationships, there is definite potential that homosexual love was celebrated by one of the most famous people in Israel’s history.

One of the things that gets talked about in progressive media criticism is the continued need for representation throughout the media we consume. It is similar in faith – queer people of faith are looking for representations of who they are throughout church history, Scripture, and traditions. Just as it’s important for children to see people who are like them on screen, it is important for queer people to find themselves represented throughout the church. This does not mean that we impose some sort of outside reading on a person’s sexuality, but that we open ourselves up to the possibility that our assumption of heterosexuality and cisgender identity may be wrong. We are looking for ourselves because we know that we exist. 

[Photo credit: Tony Webster]