My friend, Anarchist Reverend, sent out a call with others at Sanctuary Collective for bloggers to share creative queer theology. I grow weary of defensive theology where one has to counter passages that seem to clobber queer folk. That’s why I love performing my Transfigurations play, a piece about gender non-conformists in the Bible.
For today’s Synchroblog I decided to trot out something I wrote awhile ago for The Sanctuary Collective. It is based on a scene from my ex-gay satire Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House and re-visits a well known story about resurrection.
“It was a cave with a stone up against it. Jesus said, ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to Jesus, ‘Leader, think about the smell – the body’s been there four days!’ Jesus said, ‘Didn’t I tell you that if you trusted, you’d see what God can do?’ So they took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, ‘Loving God, thank you for listening to me. I know you always do, but I want these people to know, so they will accept me as the one you’ve sent.’ Jesus’ voice sounded like a dog howling in distress as he shouted, ‘Larry, come on out!’ Larry came out, with his hands and feet still tied by the grave clothes and a cloth over his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him so he can move.’
-from John 11 Good As New—A Radical Retelling of the New Testament by John Henson (used with author’s permission)
The Gospel stories of people liberated from their graves move me deeply—not only Jesus’ triumphant escape from his own tomb three days after he was executed, but also the time when he rescued his friend Lazarus from death and the tomb. Then there is the story of the man who lived among the tombs—no chains could bind him—until Jesus emancipated him from the multiple oppressions that plagued him. Finally freed from the forces that bound and tormented him, the man stood before Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.
Growing up as a guy who felt attracted to guys and who was always a bit of a sissy, I moved in and out of public school, Christian college, the Roman Catholic and then Evangelical churches, and the mission field, but I understood that these worlds did not fully welcome me. My admittance and subsequent service in these came with conditions—namely I had to straighten myself out. I needed to be a heterosexual, masculine (gender-normative) man. In essence, I had to strap myself into a Straight Jacket. Not that there is anything wrong with straight folks; it’s just that I wasn’t one and did every thing in my power (and God’s power) to change all that.
Going through ex-gay treatments designed to “de-gay” me and butch me up, felt very much like a tortuous slow death. I felt plagued with a heap of troubles. I also suffered from the many efforts to keep my queer self bound and gagged—the hundreds of trips to the altar to rededicate my life to the Lord, the counseling sessions with pastors, the ex-gay football clinics, the 12-steps, the violent and terrifying treatments that included exorcism and the two years in residential straight camp—and the list goes on and on. The subjugation and eradication of all things queer in me not only proved futile, it also proved destructive. The “cure” ultimately harmed me, and I ended up injuring myself. Similar to the man overwhelmed by a “Legion of Demons” Jesus encounters on the lakeshore (Mark 5), I felt plagued by myriad problems.
“This man lived among the graves because no one could control him, not even with chains. On previous occasions when he had been chained hand and foot, he tore the chains apart and broke the shackles on his feet, and no one was strong enough to hold him down. He spent the day and night shouting and cutting himself with stones.”
-From Mark 5 Good As New version.
People who are different, or who are perceived as different, often pose a threat to the keepers of the norms. In order to contain this threat, some Christian institutions provide all sorts of punishments for those who deviate from the straight and narrow path while offering loads of incentives for those who diligently tread the party line. How many non-straight, non-gender normative folks have gotten passed over for a ministry position or removed from one? How many perks and affirmations have folks gotten once they announced they would straighten themselves out for Jesus?
In order to access the power and the privileges handed out to the “normal” people (most of whom who also feel they fall short,) many of us felt the demands to alter ourselves—suppress and change our orientation and gender differences. Some like me coveted our straight neighbor’s life. Many of us believed that we would be more valuable to God and others if we were just “normal.” Many of us developed self-hatred and literally went to war against our own gender differences or non-straight orientation. We put on chains and shackles. We stuffed whole parts of ourselves into tomb-like closets hoping that at last we could be free from the problems that just kept getting in the way. Yet time and time again another part of us clawed for life, broke the chains, raised questions that made us and others feel queasy.
Believing we were in a cosmic struggle against evil, we felt dismayed that no matter how much we beat them back, our orientation and gender differences continued to rise up from the grave much like soul-sucking zombies. Little did we understand that it was the closet, the refusal to be honest about ourselves to ourselves and others, that numbed us and caused psychological, emotional, spiritual and at times even physical damage.
Does this sound familiar to some folks? It is not only a queer experience. Many different types of people have felt coerced and compelled to live a less than honest life in order to advance economically, socially or to just feel good about themselves. Perhaps the queer closeted experience is the most obvious model of this, an archetype for all sorts of repression that denies reality. Life in the closet, an inauthentic life with the aim to ignore, tie up, hide or annihilate a natural and healthy part of the self is akin to living in a stinking, dusty, light-proof tomb with a big ole stone blocking the exit.
But stones can and have been rolled away! Jesus called his friend Lazarus (Larry in John Henson’s brilliant translation) out of the smelly, rotting, decaying tomb, and somehow Lazarus heard the voice of Jesus, came back to life and came OUT. What an odd and eerie moment for the Jewish-raised disciples, who according to their Law, could not touch a corpse without becoming unclean by it. A dead body is one thing, but what about the living dead?!?
Lazarus comes out of his tomb alive, but he is not yet FREE. He’s still wrapped up in all of the grave clothes. Traditionally Jewish corpses in First Century in and near Jerusalem got placed in tombs wearing burial clothes. Family or friends took a shroud about twice the length of the body, placed the corpse on one end and folded the other end over long-wise. Then they took strips of linen or other fabric and wrapped the body round and round, and they covered the face with a face cloth. As Lazarus emerged four days after his entombment, he must have looked freakish all bound up in his grave clothes like a mummy. His feet wrapped tight, he most likely had to hop out of the tomb, (for a visual think dirty zombie Easter Bunny without the cute floppy ears.)
I cannot imagine what the disciples, Lazarus’ sisters and the crowd must be thinking at that moment. Possibly, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” Then Jesus breaks the stunned silence and instructs them, “Untie him so he can move.” This is the part that always gets me. It was not enough for Lazarus to come back to life and exit the tomb, he needs the assistance of his friends to unwrap him. Oh and what courage those most likely terrified disciples display as they unwrap him not at all certain of what sort of creepy gift Jesus brings them direct from the grave. Under all those grave clothes they find their friend, perhaps a bit shaken and dazed, but the one they love, the one that Jesus loves. A bit dazed himself, Lazarus needs something to eat and so much more as he processes his death, decay and then resurrection.
Emerging from the closet for me was like Lazarus coming out the tomb. I was out, but I was not FREE. I still had those putrid grave clothes of fear, misinformation, homophobia, misogyny, shame and self-loathing all around me like a boa constrictor, choking the life out of me. I needed friends to come alongside of me to unwrap and untangle that mess for me and with me. I needed tender and courageous touch. I needed truth to replace the many lies I had embraced and fed on for decades. I needed people to be okay with me being a mess for awhile in regards to my faith. I needed people to love me back to life.
In my play Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House, I tell the story of Lazarus’ liberation through the words of Pastor Meadow, who with humor and insight gets to the heart of the matter—we need each other to be fully ourselves. Then after sharing some of my personal coming out experiences, I end the play with the following poem about Lazarus. In the poem I also allude to the story of the man in Mark 5 who found freedom after years of isolation, rejection, violence and chains.