Every year Queer Theology invites LGBTQ+ folks to blog about a topic on the same day. I’ve been a frequent flyer of this program since it launched in 2011. This year’s theme is:
What does your queerness or transness call you to do and be in the world?”
Much like encountering Christ can be cause for “returning a different way” so too can being queer. How has your queerness affected how you go through life, how you navigate your faith, and what you are called to do and be?
At Church Madrid, Spain
I’m a sucker for tomb stories, so I wrote a piece for Meetinghouse.xyz about a bizarre tale where Jesus encounters a man who lives in the tombs. This person is isolated and troubled. Jesus relieves the man’s sufferings by hurling a bunch of demons into a herd of pigs. What is extraordinary about the Matthew version is that narrates the story of two men living in the tombs together. This raises so many questions for me.
Is their violent behavior just a ruse to keep prying eyes away from their life together? Did they recently rehab a tomb, making it warm and cozy, and there they chat and drink tea until they are interrupted by nosey, intolerant townspeople? How did they meet? Were these men pretending all the time just so they could live together? Were they two troubled people who found comfort in each other in a world that did not know how to help them or accept them? We will never know. Tombs are places of mysteries. What happens in the tomb, stays in the tomb.
Ah the Bible. Some will say it was the source of all my woes. I mean as a gay guy in America, folks used the Bible as the source book for a lot of the homophobia I faced and then piled onto myself. But could the very same collection of ancient stories be useful in overcoming anti-LGBTQ trauma?
I reflect on this notion in a new personal essay I published on BelieveOutLoud. I remember how when I first came out, there was a flutter of activity about “gay” Bible characters.
… in 1999 many gay Christians and queer scholars were asking, “Who is gay/lesbian in the Bible?” Some pointed to Jonathan and David. Others to Ruth and Naomi. There were rumors of a gay Roman Centurion.
I understood why people were on a quest to find gay Bible characters.
After years of being bashed by scripture, people needed affirmation. Many of us wanted to defend ourselves from the many negative attacks from folks hurling Bible verses like poison darts. After spending nearly 20 years receiving harmful conversion therapy, I too needed Biblical recovery.
For me though I was disinterested in gay and lesbian characters. Rather I felt curious about the other queer folks in the Bible, the gender non-conforming ones. Maybe t because of the bullying I experienced came in the form of Gender Policing. I bumped up against rigid gender codes when I played on the playground, then when I sat in the pew at churches, and even years later when I hung out with the gays over brunch. These enforced gender rules and the supreme value of masculinity soak all the worlds where I sought to belong. Ah, but in the Bible there are people who trouble gender, and to me that is Good News.
I have a thing for eunuchs in the Bible. I hate that preachers and teachers overlook them so much. These are sexual and gender minorities in the Bible. Not gay men and not transgender women, but they were decidedly “queer” in their times.
As non-procreative males who did not experience puberty, they stood out. In a world where it seemed everyone was part of a family unit, they were single. In a world where there were clear divisions between male and female, they were neither or they were both.
I ecourage Christians who are struggling with LGBTQ issues to do a study of the eunuchs in the Bible. Eunuchs take on many roles. They appear in many stories. They are often essential to the narratives, and they are celebrated.
Maybe because I’m gay these characters stand out to me. We often look for ourselves in the text. I encourage non-LGBTQ christians to look beyond their own experiences and use their imaginations as they read stories of eunuchs in the Bible.
Take some time to see people who are hidden in plain sight.
As an actor, I look at the Bible differently from the ways pastors and traditional Bible scholars see it. In addition to usinglanguage, historical context, and previous commentary, I also embody the text. I become the people in the Bible stories. Through playful and serious performance, often done alone in my own study at home, I discover so much that is hidden from our minds. These findings are usually well supported in the text.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is how my view of the encounter between the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Apostle Phillip radically changed once I used my imagination to step into the body of the eunuch. I published a piece about this over at MeetHouse XYZ.
The Mystery of the Ethiopian Eunuch
The Ethiopian Eunuch is:
• a foreigner
• an African
• a eunuch (castrated male)
• a rich person
• a member of a royal court
• a literate person (most people in those days did not read including most of Jesus’ disciples)
• a person of faith
I have often stood, imagining the Temple in Jerusalem with the crush of people, the many courtyards and fountains, the buzz of activity. It was a highly gendered space. Men and young men to one side, and women and children on the other. There was an area designated for foreigners and for gentiles. Everyone in their place.
I stood imagining the different designated areas. I saw all the families and wondered, “As a eunuch, where do I go?” and “How do I feel being in this space where family is so central?” It felt familiar.
As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible, I can appreciate the diversity it presents. For one it is not a single book. The Bible is a collection of books ranging in number depending if you read a Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant bible. The writings range in type: letters, historical accounts, poetry, law, prophecy, even erotica.
The settings of these writings are diverse–Africa, the Middle East, Europe–as are the languages in which they were written. The writers and people who appear in the texts are also diverse. And gender in the Bible is diverse. There are not simply male and female characters. For instance, there are angels, who although are sometimes presented as male, are also described as not really having a gender.
So Many Eunuchs
Ebed Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch rescues the prophetJeremiah
Then there are the eunuchs of the Bible–so many eunuchs. We must remember that in ancient times, eunuchs stood out. They typically had their testicles removed before puberty, sometimes with their consent, but usually not. As a result, they did not develop secondary sex characteristics that come during puberty. They retained high voices. They did not develop the body hair or the facial hair like men of their time. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them.
Eunuchs could not produce offspring. While some did partner, most did not. They were often single and childless unless they adopted. In a world where everyone seemed to be part of a family unit of some sort, they stood out as loners.
As an actor, I have taken time to explore the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8. This is not the only Ethiopian eunuch in scripture. I have written about eunuchs before and spoken about the Ethiopian Eunuch, Ebed Melech, who appears in Jeremiah 38,39 (see video below.)
The Multiple Identities of an Ethiopian Eunuch
Many eunuchs were castrated before puberty–they retained high voices and did not develop the facial hair, body hair, and muscle that come with testosterone. They were sexual and gender minorities.
What is extraordinary about the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 is that the author of Acts goes out of the way to signal to the reader the many intersecting identities of this one person. In fact, besides Jesus himself, no other character in the Christian Bible is so fully described.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship,and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. (Acts 8:27b-28)
To someone of the time hearing this description, they are struck with diverse identities in one person. The Ethiopian Eunuch is:
a rich person
employed at a royal court
literate (most people in those days did not read including most of Jesus’ disciples)
a person of faith
Embodying the Text
As an actor, I have often stood, imagining the Temple in Jerusalem with the crush of people, the many courtyards and fountains, the buzz of activity. It was a highly gendered space. Men and young men to one side, and women and children on the other. There was an area designated for foreigners and for gentiles. Embodying as much as I can of the Ethiopian Eunuch, I stand looking at the different designated areas. I see all the families. I wonder, “Where do I go?” I also wonder how I might feel being in a space where family is so central; for me as a eunuch that is just not in the cards.
On the return trip home to Ethiopia, this surgically altered, gender variant, rich civil servant who is a person of faith reads aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. Likely it is an expensive scroll. Probably written in Hebrew. No doubt this eunuch is a polyglot, able to converse in Ethiopian, Greek, Hebrew, and who knows what else. The eunuch reads aloud because that is how people typically read in the ancient world.
The Eunuch reads a very particular passage that comes from Isaiah 53.
Attending white Evangelical churches much of my life, whenever this passage was preached, and it was preached often, the minister either pointed to Jesus or to the Apostle Phillip. Never to the eunuch. For most ministers I heard, the passage served as a delivery system to remind Christians that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. They take a Hebrew Bible passage and import Jesus into it saying this is a prophecy about Jesus. That reading of it, or like Phillip, we too should go around and share the good news.
One Text, Multiple Readings
There are multiple ways of reading this text, but to me the most interesting is to consider it from the perspective of the eunuch. Likely as a child this one was taken from home and parents. This one was physically held down, likely without giving consent, and was operated on. Through a painful procedure with the real risk of infection and more pain, testicles were removed.
This one grew up but never went through puberty. As boys matured and changed, this one did not change in the same ways. This one was assigned a position in a royal court. This one could not start a family. This one was both respected and mocked, sometimes at the same time because of an elevated status in the palace and what was seen as a social deformity. This one may well have felt isolated, rejected, and even experienced physical challenges and disabilities because of the lack of testosterone in the system.
Who IS the Prophet Speaking About?
This one then is puzzling over a passage of scripture about a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. This one is curious about the identity of the person being described. This one asks question, “Is the prophet speaking of himself or of someone else?”
Reading he passage through the eyes of this eunuch, I wonder what this one sees and feels. Does this one look at the text and see a mirror, someone similar, and feels drawn and validated? This one reads:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, but he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and was as a sheep silent before her shearers, and he opened not his mouth.
He was taken from oppression and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living…
In my imaginations about this Ethiopian Eunuch I feel the weight of these words. Some translations say, “Justice was denied him.” It speaks of his humiliation. It asks, “Who can speak of his offspring?”
On that chariot ride we have no idea if this unnamed eunuch and Phillip continued reading and came to what has since been labelled Isaiah chapter 56. But if they did, they would have read an extraordinary promise from God to both foreigners and eunuchs.
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from His people.” Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)
Art by Mila and Jayna Ponder
There is a great deal we do not know about this Ethiopian Eunuch and will never know. This one appears as the first baptism of the early church and is often credited with being the founder of the church in Ethiopia. What is most telling to me is that an early disciple of Jesus felt compelled by the Spirit to sit and talk and build community with this person who is so radically different in every way from Phillip. This is not simply a “queer” Bible character, but like many people, this one possesses in one body a host of socio-economic, political, national, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities.
I often tell audiences that ultimately I am not interested in the identities of the people in the Bible way back then. Rather I am concerned about our multiple identities today and how they intersect with varying degrees of access to power, privilege, and justice. I consider how in some spaces people can feel they must check something at the door in order to enter. I urge myself and others to consider the challenges and the rewards of fostering spaces where people can bring their whole selves.
Many Christians have questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues and the Bible. We may think we heard everything there is about these issues. Hidden right before my eyes, I have discovered people in the Bible whose stories might surprise you.
This is a special weekend in Pennsylvania. All over the commonwealth people of faith are standing up to affirm their belief that fairness and equality should be the norm for all people, including transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and queer people. While some states have been limiting and downright slashing the rights of LGBTQ people, Pennsylvania lawmakers seek to increase rights through the PA Fairness Act.
The legislation (Senate Bill 974 and House Bill 1510) would update Pennsylvania’s current nondiscrimination law – originally written in 1955 – to ensure that all citizens regardless of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, disability and now – sexual orientation, gender identity and expression – can participate in and contribute to the state’s economy.
It is currently legal in Pennsylvania to fire someone and deny them housing or business services solely on the basis of the person being gay or transgender.
Equality Pennsylvania has been working hard to get this bill passed, and this weekend has organized the effort to have people of faith voice their support along with messages of faith that support LGBTQ equality and liberty. They asked me if I would do a video on the topic.
As a Bible scholar, I hate it when some people use the Bible as the moral authority to deny people rights. It is one thing if someone is opposed to LGBTQ advancement and visibility in the world, but to do so insisting that scripture sanctions discrimination is an inappropriate use of the text.
Similarly I do not believe we need permission from the Bible to treat our neighbors, loved ones, co-workers, and employees with dignity and respect. In my video I stress that in making our secular laws, we need to keep the Bible out of it (even as I quote well-known universally accepted wisdom that appears in it!)
One of the texts for Sunday is Acts 9:36-43. It’s about the death and resurrection of Tabitha, aka Dorcas. It is a passage about women, widows in particular, and the loving care of bodies.
Displaying the Disciple’s Deeds
Dorcas, a disciple of the early church, famously did good words in Joppa and helped the poor. She gets sick and dies, and through it all her friends care for her through the illness and wash her body after her death, as was the custom. These women then dispatch two men to bring the Apostle Peter to the upper room where Dorcas’ body is laid out.
Peter arrives and these women show Peter some of the handiwork of the beloved deceased disciple. Think of this as the exact opposite of airing someone’s dirty laundry. This is a visual display of goodness.
“All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.”
2016 Transgender Day of Awareness and Lobbying at State Capitol in Maine.
I love this detail–displaying the robes and other clothing Dorcas made. I imagine the women earlier that day washing Dorcas’ body–taking each hand, each finger, hands and fingers that did good and created useful things, perhaps even beautiful things.
It gets me thinking about legacy and what we leave behind. There are many issues in the world worthy of our attention and good work. Three that stand out for me are racial justice, LGBTQ equality, and climate action.
What are we leaving behind?
This gets me thinking of loved one who have made an impact in my own life, the legacy they have given me of love, freedom, affirmation, and physical, practical support. These days I feel a lot of gratitude as I think about the multiplying factor of receiving and giving all these essential things.
Windmill in Illinois from Amtak. Photo by Peterson Toscano
Carrying on with this Bible theme, I sat down with Rev Dr Leah Schade, a Lutheran pastor and the author of the new book: Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit. I asked her for any Bible stories that we can look at through a climate lens. She SHOCKED me with an interpretation of a passage that has scared the snot out of me for decades.
When I was a tender young Christian in a Pentecostal Church in New York City, the absolute most terrifying passage in the Bible was one that warned us we could commit a sin that was so bad, it was unforgivable. As a Christian struggling with homosexuality at the time, I assumed the worst iniquity of them all had to do with gay stuff. And while my pastors insisted that my gayness was a major problem for them, they pointed to another more deadly sin: Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
After hearing repeated sermons about this spiritual threat, my fellow believers and I got it into our heads that we had somehow committed this sin. After frightening the snot out of us, Pastor Willy (that was his name) had to talk us down and assure us that there was no way we could have committed this sin. Confusing. He told us it was a really dangerous sin. It was hard to explain, and hard to commit, but once you did, you could not be forgiven.
Fortunately Leah calmed me down and provided a beautiful and moving reading of this text. The segment is about 12 minutes long and includes some lovely music by Chenard Walcker. Settle back and have a listen to a weird but wonderful climate change Bible lesson.
Rev. Dr Leah Schade speaks about blaspheming the Holy Sprit
Rev Dr Leah Schade and her new book!
Peterson sits down with Climate Stew crew member, Leah Schade and asks, “What does the Bible say about Climate Change?” They have a lively conversation where the pastor unpacks a controversial passage in the Gospels, a line by Jesus about an unforgivable sin.
Every since I got caught up in the world of climate action, I have been curious about how theologians and ministers have approached the topic from a Biblical perspective. So many people look to the Bible for guidance and comfort, so no wonder they may seek out messages that can apply to our current climate crisis.
The first and most prominent message I heard over and over seeks to refocus the way we look at the earth. Instead of something to conquer and subdue, our role can be that of stewards of the planet. It is a lovely thought and definitely better than the Man shall have dominion over all creation approach. Still it felt tepid to me.
Recently I heard a Franciscan priest in Arizona talk about this concept of stewardship. His critique of it and his broader view of the world, stimulated my thinking and helped me better understand my discomfort around the whole stewardship model. Here is audio of Fr. Joe Schwab from the Franciscan Renewal Center followed by my own commentary. (Transcript below. Hope you like the music by Romo, Raúl Díaz Palomar, and Derlei)
In the next part I speak with a Lutheran pastor about the unpardonable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and what on earth that might have to do with climate change.
As part of my epic tour of the the American Southwest earlier this fall, I attended a climate change rally in Phoenix Arizona. The organizers, mostly faith-based groups, focused on the moral imperatives to act to address climate change. I recorded most of the speakers, and in future episodes will share some of what they had to say. But for this episode I have for you the public comments of Father Joe Schwab of the Franciscan Renewal Center, which you can visit at thecasa.org.
Father Joe Schwab
I admit that when the priest approached the microphone wearing his flowing brown Franciscan robe, similar to the one my childhood parish priest wore, I did not expect too much. At best I thought I would hear the same old talking points about how we are required to be good stewards of the planet. Instead Father Joe surprised me with his twist on the stewardship message. I’ll play you what I recorded and then share the thoughts it dislodged in my head the following day in Quaker meeting.
Here is some of Fr. Joe’s message:
Inspired by Pope Francis, the Franciscan Renewal Center decided to amplify his call for decisive action at the United Nations Paris Climate Talks in December. To this end, we invited a variety of organization to join together to speak with one voice on the moral imperative that we act NOW to address global climate change. For Franciscans and Franciscan- hearted people this is not a new focus. We have been dedicated for the last 800 years to understanding St. Francis’ call to be brothers and sister to all of creation. St. Francis saw himself in a kinship relationship with the rest of creation. This kinship relationship is like the workings of a family. He did not see himself as something separate, like a steward standing outside the created world striving to guard it. Rather he saw himself on the inside, one of the created world and protecting it as he would protect his own mother, sister or brother. This stance of St. Francis created a different relationship with the rest of the world, a more humble one. As in a family, he saw his relationship with the rest of the world as being mutual, with each being having something to offer and each having something to learn.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word, Steward, no concrete image comes to mind. Well, other than Stewie from the Family Guy. I can’t think of a person I know who is a steward.. A friend of mine for a time was the warden of the Friends Meeting in Oxford England. In America we would call that person a Caretaker or a Super or Manager of Buildings and Grounds. But I don’t anyone who is a steward.
Steward is an archaic word like covenant and kinship. These old timey words have a formal weight to them but do not resonate like the words barista, guidance counselor, or caretaker. A caretaker is in charge of things and land. But when we are talking about being stewards of the earth we know that also includes looking after many living things, animals and people. Some words that might apply then are Caregiver or the British term, Carer, for someone who assists a person with medical needs. We also have the word attendant and assistant.
All these terms though I find problematic when talking about climate change and the earth. There is a distance, an othering about them. I care for you. You need me. But is that really the relationship we have to the natural world and the atmosphere?
I am not a touchy feeling granola new age environmentalist, but even I can see that there is an interconnectedness. When I breath out, I release a little bit of carbon dioxide and a lot of nitrogen. The carbon dioxide is in turn absorbed by plants and ultimately gets transformed and released as oxygen.
I am not a distant other caring for a needy planet. Rather I am part of a system, one that I need for food, air, and life.
Gretchen in eco-drag
If I were to be cynical about it though, the actual relationship I see that humans have with the planet is parasitical. A parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense. We have a negative connotation to the word parasite. It can be used as an insult in an argument, “I tell you Leonard, I can’t take any more. You are sucking the life out of you. You are an emotional and financial parasite!”
My husband is writing a novel that includes a character that is a tape worm, so over meals and before going to sleep, I have heard a far too much about parasites. Now there are actually good parasite, beneficial parasites. Researchers have begun to point out that many intestinal parasites actually help us.. These microbes swimming in our guts might be responsible for activating our immune system and staving off problems caused by intestinal inflammation. There is a give and take with these parasites in our systems. We benefit each other.
While it doesn’t sound terribly appealing, I believe that instead of seeing ourselves as stewards of the earth, we should think about how we can be downright neighborly beneficial parasites on this planet.
The reality is we need the earth far more than it needs us. As we alter the chemistry of the atmosphere and harm multiple species, ultimately the earth will move on and reorganize itself to the new conditions it faces. It will adapt. If need be, it will do so without out, ejecting us from the system.
While I do not see us as stewards or caretakers or caregivers brought in to manage and save a sick planet and eco-system, I do think we have our part in undoing the damage that we have done, well as much as we can. If like St. Francis preached, the natural world and all in it is family to us, sisters, brothers, and others, kin, we can right the relationship where we have been cruel, selfish, or thoughtless. We can take our part.
As St. Francis said, Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in God’s sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.
Then I share Transfigurations. We look at Deborah, Joesph, several eunuchs, and characters in the Gospels.
The audience was made up of LGBTQ people who were part of that summer’s institute. According to the HRC site:
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation LGBT Mentorship program for Religious and Theological Study seeks to encourage and promote the dialogue on LGBT issues and religion in seminaries and, by extension, in our congregations and communities by investing in the next generation of LGBTQ and allied scholars.
So if you are interested in LGBTQ theology or know someone who is, here is my scholarship (with comedy and theater) for you.