Whose Jesus?

Rev. Naomi King
I served our congregation in Gainesville, Florida for seven years before leaving there to put myself at your disposal. One of my neighbor colleague ministers in Florida at that time was the Rev. Naomi King. At state clergy gatherings where I had a chance to talk with and get to know Naomi and attend some worship services that she led for us, I discovered she is at least as creative as her father. Rev. King’s father’s name, you see, is Stephen. For those who like their theology traditional and settled, the daughter is also scarier than the father. She gave a presentation once and just the title would make the blood run cold if you’re the sort of person who believes the faith of our fathers is not to be meddled with. It was titled, “The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port.”

With that as my introduction, Happy Easter, everyone! It’s the most significant day on the Christian calendar. Early Christians met to celebrate on Sunday, rather than the Jewish sabbath of Saturday, because their savior was resurrected on Sunday. We gather here on Sunday, every Sunday, in continuation of that tradition. And today is THE Sunday – the Sunday that is that reason all the other Sundays are celebrated.

Some of us are Christians, and many of us who don’t call ourselves that now were raised in a Christian tradition. And all of us are shaped by the influences of Christianity throughout culture. The understanding we have of Jesus is important, whether we are Christian, Jewish, atheist, or however we might identify our faith. So on this Sunday of Sundays, let us ask again: Who shall we say Jesus is? Who, and whose, is Jesus?

I didn’t see Naomi’s presentation – I only know her title: "Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port." Provoked by that title, another minister, Rev. Thom Belote, and I have reflected on the idea. I’ll be utilizing some of what I learned from Rev. Belote (HERE), along with my own thoughts.

If the resurrection is about renewal, and if renewal is about getting a different perspective on things, what different perspectives on Jesus might we consider? Consider this – you may have known about this, but you might not. In the deaf Christian community there is fierce debate about whether Jesus knew sign language. Until I learned this, it was not a question that had ever occurred to me. But, then, I’m not deaf – yet. For a deaf Christian, I can see how this would be important. From their point of view, they need to know if this man – this man that their faith tells them is God – was able to communicate with people like them. For a deaf person, it’s the question of whether God is accessible to them. And that matters.

Forensic anthropologists' reconstruction of a
typical 1st-century adult male Palestinian Jew.
Likewise it matters, as feminists have been pointed out, that God is presented as male. And it matters that Europeans have been depicting a Nordic looking Jesus for hundreds of years. Whose Jesus is it?

As for Jesus’ sexuality, official doctrine is that he didn’t have any. Authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis in “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code” have imagined a sexually active heterosexual Jesus. Others imagine that he might have been gay. There’s not much evidence either way on that question, but there is that curious case of the naked young man in the Gospel of Mark. In Chapter 14, as the Roman soldiers are arresting Jesus, we read:
“All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”
So there was a scantily-clad young man hanging out around Jesus and his followers. Speculation about what he was doing there can only be an exercise of our imagination – fan fiction, perhaps -- not history. (Still, imagination is essential in theology. If we aren't pushing the edge, we're not only humorless, but a faith is losing freshness. For "cyborg pirate ninja Jesus" see HERE.)

Still, Carter Heyward, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speaks of the queerness of Jesus. She says:
"The term 'queer' as I am using it, let me be clear, is not simply a code-word for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other ways of being at odds with dominant gender culture. 'Queer' is not simply a reversal of a negative epithet so often hurled against LGBT folks in homophobic culture. 'Queer' is not simply a synonym for being 'odd,' 'unusual,' or 'out-there.' Queerness is public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. [Episcopal Divinity School] is, by the grace of God, a Queer seminary."
Such “solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice” is found in the way the Jesus of scripture breaks gender rules and gender roles. He befriends prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts, challenges traditional family values, and ignores his family of origin in favor of those who became his "siblings" by loving God and neighbor. He makes a new family of allies – an experience all too common among LGBTQ folk who have been rejected from their families of origin.

Jesus’ ministry embodies radical acceptance. African-American Christians connect Jesus’ own scourging and crucifixion with their people who have been the victims of whipping and lynching. And LGBTQ Christians view the Passion as a hate crime. Was not Matthew Shepard crucified?

Queer Christian art has adapted traditional iconography such as the Stations of the Cross and the Passion narrative to address LGBTQ suffering. In so doing, these artists enlarge the way we all see God. A Jesus that is accessible across a greater range of diversity is a prompt to us all to recognize the image of God in ourselves and in others.

Jesus’ ministry and teachings were subversive of the order that privileged some. (Were I here to add “at the expense of others,” then I would be merely redundant, for privilege by its nature is inherently unequal. When a good or a benefit is equally and universally provided or protected, we call it a right.)

Jesus’ continual theme throughout his teaching is this concept usually translated as “Kingdom of God.” I will often use “Kin-dom of God,” as better capturing the realm of concern and respect for all that I think Jesus had in mind. The original Greek – which isn’t really original, since Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, but, as the language in which the gospels were written, is as original as is available to us – is basileia tou theou.

Theologians seeking to avoid the connotations of English translations, speak of the basileia – the siblinghood of radical acceptance that is Jesus’ predominant theme. Theologian Robert Goss, for instance, writes of:
"the basileia, the reign of God which signified the political transformation of his society into a radically egalitarian, new age, where sexual, religious, and political distinctions would be irrelevant. Jesus acted out his basileia message by standing with the oppressed and outcasts of society and by forming a society of equals." (Elizabeth Stuart describing the work of Robert Goss, as quoted by Terence Weldon, HERE)
For Goss, the resurrection represents God’s endorsement and confirmation of Jesus’ basileia message. The resurrection tells us that not only Jesus, but God, is on the side of the oppressed. This is what Goss means when he says that at Easter, Jesus became the “queer Christ.” Goss is making no comment on Jesus’ sexuality. Rather, he’s starting with the standard claim that the resurrection turned Jesus into Christ because the resurrection signaled the special status of Jesus as the messenger of, the bringer of, the embodiment of, salvation. And then he’s adding that, in particular, the resurrection turned Jesus into queer Christ because the salvation that Jesus represented lay in what Jesus taught: namely, a basileia of respect and acceptance for queer people, and for all people. The resurrection reveals God’s orientation toward the excluded.

Thus Goss calls the resurrection God’s “coming out” as queer – queer in Carter Heyward’s sense of queerness as “public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation.” Jesus’ call for radical equality continues to resonate wherever there is inequality of concern or respect.

So where does the pirate bit come in? Hold on to your chair, mateys. On this point, Rev. Thom Belote, engaged in a very different project, made a discovery. Rev. Belote was trying to get inside the mind of Thomas Jefferson, because Jefferson had some rather Unitarian ideas about Jesus and authored the first laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the U.S. Belote read hundreds of pages of laws that Jefferson wrote for the State of Virginia. One discovery he made was that the punishment for piracy in the State of Virginia was significantly harsher than the punishment for the equivalent of highway robbery. This was baffling. Why would this be?

He explains:
“The basic answer is that highway robbery exists within a closed system; pirates live outside of the system and threaten the entire system. Highway robbery is a form of illegal commerce, but it reinforces the validity of commerce. Piracy is an attack on not only the material goods that are plundered, but it is also an attack on the idea of property. If a mechanic quotes you an exorbitant price to fix your car, you would accuse the mechanic of highway robbery, not of piracy.”
Yes, pirates are thieves and criminals. Specifically, they are thieves and criminals who function outside of the dominant social and economic system.

Kester Brewin, a British Christian blogger offers this analysis:
“What pirates do, as a rule, is emerge from the underbelly of a ‘stuck’ orthodoxy and, by way of actions that are initially perceived as heretical, reinvigorate that practice. And this is what Jesus did. He saw a religion blocked – a temple which had access restricted by merchants and priests. And he set about plundering the booty in the temple, and setting it free for all to enjoy. This was the heresy of Jesus Christ.”
Jesus upends and plunders the social system when he says that in order to follow him you must first sell everything you have and give the money away to the poor, when he overturns the tables and drives the moneychangers out of the temple (which leads directly to his execution), and when he overturns the law by pronouncing that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) In parable after parable, Jesus’ teachings ransack accepted economic principles.

As Christians identify themselves with a symbol of death – the cross – so, too, pirates identify themselves with a symbol of death, the skull and cross-bones. In both cases, the symbol proclaims fearlessness of death. Pirates and Christians both claim a radical power beyond the powers and principalities that pretend to rule the world. By renouncing life, the pirate and the Christian claim life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the early Christian church. His words might also describe a band of pirates:
“Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, alike are our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth. We are unknown and yet are well known. Dying we still live on;
disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.”
Pirates have a certain attraction that no other criminals have. Children on Halloween don’t dress up as arsonists, aggravated assaulters, or tax evaders – but every year a number of them will dress up as pirates.

I think we romanticize pirates because they represent subversion of the usual order of privilege and inequality. While other thieves and crooks pretend to be normal law-abiding folk, the pirates are out there openly under a flag of their own, the jolly roger. They capture our imaginations with a vision of a life liberated for the sort of inequalities that pervade mass society, and that weigh down the spirits of everyone, whether you’re on the top or the bottom of that inequality.

It’s not that pirate ships were utopian models of egalitarian sharing – but they did represent small face-to-face community, where everyone knew everyone else, and where they were out from under the sort of inequalities and frustrations perpetuated by invisible and faceless bureaucrats.

In recent times, the Somalian pirates were certainly problematic. The international community united to take steps to effectively end that problem – and we absolutely had to do that. But at the same time, let us remember the bigger picture.

Let us remember the 1801 to 1805 war against the Barbary States undertaken by the Jefferson administration to suppress the Barbary Pirates who were interfering with the crucial trade interests of the young nation. It was the first but not the last time the United States would go to war against a part of the Islamic world to protect our financial interests. Let us remember the conditions to which the Somalian pirates were responding. Western powers came to Africa, enslaved the people, established colonies, stole the natural resources, divided Africa into oddly shaped nations without any understanding of or regard for local history, and overthrew politicians that Africans elected when the Western powers didn’t like them. Who should be lecturing whom on respect for property? Or even on respect for life?

Jesus was a subject of an empire militarily and economically oppressing the conquered people of Israel. Jesus’ actions and teaching reverse the economic and political worldview of Rome. When Jesus upsets the moneychangers' tables outside the temple, he's upsetting not just tables, but a religio-economic worldview that protects privilege. So, yeah, it’s not so big a stretch to compare him to a pirate.

On this fine Easter morning, the stone of the tomb is rolled back, and the tomb is empty – because the queer pirate Jesus is wheeling into port somewhere else. I don’t know if Naomi talked about the significance of wheeling into port, and Thom Belote’s reflections don’t go into that. Wheeling into port, to my mind, suggests two things. It has a feeling of bringing it home – coming from “out there” and into our hearts with the message of basileia – of beloved community of radical acceptance.

More darkly, though, I reflect that pirates don’t come into established ports unless they have been captured and are being brought in to be locked up and executed – as, indeed, Jesus was. Yet even from the gallows – or the cross – they inspire imaginations to dream of what liberation might look like.

Other theologians and writers have developed the idea a disabled Jesus, an immigrant Jesus, a woman Jesus, a transgender Jesus. When all of us imagine a Jesus that is accessible to each of us – not narrowly cast as a Nordic-featured straight (or asexual) white able-bodied citizen of the empire – then possibilities of liberation open up to us all. When we all see the image of God in each of us, we see it better in ourselves as well.

Yes, these are imaginative exercises, but the gospels were imaginative exercises from the beginning. Theology IS imagination. Our imaginations empower us, and our imaginations make empathy and compassion possible. The basileia is an imaginative exercise – and one of tremendous power. The basileia is for all of us – everyone needs to see it embodied in someone that looks like them. We all also need to see it embodied in someone different from ourselves.

When Rev. Thom Belote explored Naomi King’s ideas of queer pirate Jesus, he concluded by musing that perhaps his next sermon might be: “The Transgender Cowboy Buddha Skips to the Market.”

Happy Easter and may we all be risen.

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