Thursday, April 8, 2010

[Christology] Jesus is my Girlfriend

[my usual disclaimers about being lesbian and Christian are relevant here, but perhaps most importantly and inescapably in this reflection, I am an English-speaker. While the limitation of language is, of course, part of the point, it is also worth mentioning upfront and remembering throughout: I am fluent in English and only in English.]

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." - Luke 13:34, NRSV.

What if you never used gendered pronouns for God?

Well, if gender is a deeply ingrained marker for you, if it's part (perhaps an important part) of how you perceive people (including yourself), you might feel God was a wee bit impersonal -- a bit like the Platonic Form of a Person, maybe, without gender or sex or sexuality or skintone or eye color or an accent or affectations or mannerisms or in fact any of the things that make us people.

And perhaps if you have lived in (and still live in) a culture where "people" default to white middle-class college educated cisgendered WASPy straight men, perhaps you might envision God -- in the privacy of your own head -- as being an old white man, just like He God is depicted in so many works of visual art.

Perhaps the discipline of never using gendered pronouns for God would make your experience of God distinct, would remind you that God is transcendent, unlike us, unlike you, and you would be careful not to attribute to God your own human thoughts and feelings.

Perhaps you would adopt a discipline of using personal pronouns, of addressing God, and thus experience God not as Mother or Father or Bride or Bridegroom but as Thou, personal, intimate, and unutterably Other.

Perhaps the discipline of never gendering God would help you to find other metaphors for God: Rock, Spirit, Breath, Word, Wisdom, Flame. Perhaps you could look at that list of sexless concepts and forget that anyone, anywhere, has envisioned Wisdom as feminine or Fire as masculine.

Perhaps you know a God through meditation Who is so transcendent and other that you could not imagine gendering God anymore than you could imagine holding God's hand or kissing God or running to embrace God early in the morning in a quiet garden.

What if you never used gendered pronouns for God? What if you never used gendered metaphors for God? If God were Parent, Child, Sibling, Spouse, Monarch instead of Mother, Son, Sister, Bridegroom, Queen?

There are non-gender-specific, personal metaphors for God that are a lot more evocative than "sibling," of course -- Lover, Shepherd, Potter, Prophet.

What if you never gendered God? Perhaps your language for God would be rich and evocative, creative and nuanced, every word carefully chosen, first because of the newness of the discipline, then because of the joy of finding new ways to tell old truth. Perhaps you would become more aware of gender as a construct, of the unconscious ways we use gendered language all the time. Learning to use inclusive language is an exercise, a discipline, that renders visible the invisible and omnipresent structure of gender in our culture.


Noli me tangere. John 20:17, Vulgate.

This tiny scrap of scripture has been central to my spiritual and academic life (which are, by their nature, one) since I was a senior in college and writing a thesis (if the kind of theology I do -- speculative, constructive, inventive, creative, poetic, imaginative and only discursive when it can't be helped -- can rightly be anything so formal as a 'thesis') about the romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary called Magdalene.


So he went his way, and was alone. But the way of the world was past belief, as he saw the strange entanglement of passions and circumstance and compulsion everywhere, but always the dread insomnia of compulsion. It was fear, the ultimate fear of death, that made men mad. So always he must move on, for if he stayed, his neighbours sound the strangling of their fear and bullying round him. There was nothing he could touch, for all, in a mad assertion of the ego, wanted to put a compulsion on him, and violate his intrinsic solitude. It was the mania of cities and societies and hosts, to lay a compulsion upon a man, upon all men. For men and women alike were mad with the egoistic fear of their own nothingness. And he thought of his own mission, how he had tried to lay the compulsion of love on all men. And the old nausea came back on him. For there was no contact without a subtle attempt to inflict a compulsion. And already he had been compelled even into death. The nausea of the old wound broke out afresh, and he looked again on the world with repulsion, dreading its mean contacts. - The Man Who Died, D.H. Lawrence

Jesus asked, "Who touched me?" When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you." But Jesus said, "Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me." - Luke 8:45-46, NRSV.

It got stuck in my heart my first semester at seminary and it won't unstick... when Jesus Sang the Stone Butch Blues:

She does not touch, learns not to touch, discovers to her horror the draining of touch, the power of touch, the healing and the scarring that is skin touching skin, daubed spittle and fingertips, aching with sensation, nerve endings and desire...


People have very kindly not asked me why I've suddenly become so freakish around my pronoun usage, why I sing or say "Child" and "She" or "Ze" when everyone else is saying "Son" and "He." And yet I have an instinctive defensiveness around this topic, a fictional interlocutor against whom I defend myself admirably, as if theology were a contest and not a conversation, as if I could tell you what your relationship with God looks like. That, as they say, is between you and your God.


I have worshiped mostly in contexts where the First and Third Persons of the Trinity are referred to with gender-neutral language most of the time, to the point where hearing "God -- He" is not just a little jarring to me.

Jesus, of course, was male.

Of course.


There are three ways that we understand the Body of Christ. One is female, one is male, and one is genderless.

The bread we share at the communion table is for us the Body of Christ. This bread is tangible, physical, palpable; we can feel and taste and smell it, and to us it is the very Body of Christ. It is a capital-S Sacrament of God's presence in the world. It is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

The Church is the Body of Christ. She is Christ's hands and feet and voice and heart in the world. Paul explains to the Corinthians in eloquent detail how the Church -- She, we -- is Christ's Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

Jesus' body was the Body of Christ. Jesus' body was male, and Jesus was resurrected: actually, physically, tangibly, literally. Jesus died, and lives again. Christ is Risen. Magdalene encountered the living Christ in the garden on Easter morning. He is risen indeed.


He says, "Noli me tangere."

The risen Christ is not quite the Jesus who died.


"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Matthew 25:40, NRSV.

The Second Person of the Trinity -- Son, Christ, Word, Wisdom -- is that Person Who becomes incarnate. The Incarnation was Jesus Christ, the Anointed One, God's Beloved, God's Chosen, the Word made flesh.

And Jesus was, presumably, male-bodied. Was identified as male by Jesus' contemporaries. Identified Christself, without question, as male.



In 1981, Rosemary Radford Reuther asked, "Can a male savior save women?" and those of us who ask it with her have been told (I assume it's not just me) that Jesus' maleness is not important, no more than Jesus' thirtyness or able-bodiedness or Semiticness or 1st-century-CEness. What is important is that Jesus was particular, scandalously particular, that God chose ONE BODY, just like each of us has one body, that Christ's humanity was, just like our humanity, particular and contingent.

In 2006, I wrote:

If Jesus was human -- and he was, fully human, subject to human temptations, emotions, and desires -- then his human particularity becomes overwhelmingly scandalous for me. If Jesus was the perfect embodiment of God's intention for humanity, if Jesus' relationship with God was one of total trust, complete obedience, and mutual confidence, then the particularities of this one human person become problematic. This one human, Jewish, aged thirty, poor, so tall, and, most troubling for me, celibate (probably) and male (definitely) knew God as no one else has. I feel in my discomfort my own gender essentialism; Douglas John Hall notes that imaging Jesus as a young white male excludes "the weak and handicapped, the old and feeble, the members of nonwhite races, and women" (490) and in a footnote describes a study of Christ images in the visual arts -- Christs of all colors, but all of them men. I find myself saying, "But of course, Jesus was male;" gender is essential for me in a way that race is not, for obvious reasons. As a white woman, I can ignore race, pretend colorblindness, but I am always aware of gender, and as a queer white woman, I am always aware of sexuality.

When James Cone says that Jesus is Black in every way that matters, that the essential point of Jesus' humanity was his identification with the oppressed, not his skin color (which of course was not "white" according to our categories), he is perhaps making a true statement about the Black experience and what it means; to say that Jesus is female, I feel, is qualitatively different and a more difficult intellectual move. The tradition informs us that the importance of Jesus' particularity is not his particular aspects -- age, sex, race, religion, sexuality or lack thereof -- but his full participation in an essential aspect of humanity. To be human is to be a particular human; no one is "human in general." Jesus cannot be identical to me, his attributes identical to mine, any more than I could be identical with my father, my sister, [or others with whom I share deep intimacy].


For black liberation theology, as for all liberation theologies, Christ identifies entirely with the oppressed and downtrodden of any society. In this connection, as a white person of privilege, I cannot begin to speak, but only listen and accept the real, physical liberation that Christ offers to the world's poorest and that is so desperately needed.

At the same time, with the imagined feminist theologian in Migliore's dialogue (pp 298-299 especially), I must supplement the discussion of economic injustice with acknowledgement and discussion of, to claim Migliore's word, "linguistic" oppression, but, moreover, the hegemonic thought patterns that color our ways of thinking God, Christ, redemption, resurrection, and the whole panoply of related concepts. At one and the same moment I accept with almost mantric faith that Jesus Christ died for me, that I am a sinner and that I am redeemed, that even at my most despairing moments I am the beloved child of a God who loves me enough to suffer with me and die for me, working a redemption that I cannot hope to understand, that the drama of Christ's passion is the story of God's love enfleshed in a human body. I believe, incredulous, confused, that Christ is Lord and savior. I believe in a gendered Jesus who was fully human and who loved God with all his heart, and a Christ beyond gender and history who loves the created world, humanity, and me enough to die for us, and I believe at the same time that there is no distinction or difference between them, so much so that I find any discussion of two natures disingenuous and confusing [...]

[Cited: Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context; Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology; James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation]


Why do you use gender-neutral or female pronouns for Jesus? no one has asked me.

The smorgasbord of quotations and ideas above provides context, I hope, for two answers.

1. "Inclusive language" for God frequently results in God-talk that is entirely neuter except for the male pronouns that are, unquestioningly, used for Jesus and by extension Christ*. The result is that all the pronouns used for the Godhead are male.

*I'm not entirely comfortable with using "Christ" as shorthand for "the Second Person of the Trinity," but the usage is ubiquitous and, I think, understandable to my readership. "Jesus" is "the historical Jesus," a human person who embodied Godhood; "Christ" is "the Christ of Faith," coeternal with the Creator and the Spirit, God from God, Light from Light, of one being with the Creator, the Word and Wisdom of God. The relationship between "Jesus" and "Christ" you can fill on for yourself until such time as I write a book or seven, and until then I won't ask too hard why "Anointed One" became God's middle Name.

2. Jesus' maleness has made me uncomfortable for a long time. It makes me uncomfortable because I find deep resonance in the metaphor of the Church, and the soul, as the Bride of Christ, and I am a lesbian. It makes me uncomfortable because, despite all the women who surround Jesus in the gospels, the women who provide Jesus with money and ointment and service and tears and who are the first apostles, we are still left with the image of many men and women serving one man. It makes me uncomfortable because when we speak of God without pronouns and without gender, Jesus' gender shows up more starkly still and feels indisputable, ironclad, of course.


But it doesn't have to be.

This is the conclusion of another paper I wrote in Fall of 2006, modified slightly:

Every writer realizes that, in recounting or writing or inventing Jesus’ words, she or he or ze changes those words and their meaning, discovers or invents or both a new Christ, responds to "Who do you say that I am?" with an answer that will never perfectly reflect the Jesus of history, who cannot be known to us, but is recounted only in stories already embroidered. We may choose, with the questers for the historical Jesus, to carefully pick out stitches in an attempt to discover the texture of the original cloth. Or, with the authors we have studied this term, we might take up our needles, choose our own threads, add our own images to those we have received, sometimes overlapping those images, sometimes discarding them, sometimes simply changing the color. We cannot know who Jesus was, but only who Jesus is, for us, today.