What can Christianity learn from the queer experience? A lot, according to Rev. Liz Edman, author of the new book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity. Using scripture and her personal experiences as a lesbian priest in the Episcopal church, Rev. Edman makes a powerful case for the ways in which God and the church have always been queer. Drawing on the virtues many LGBTQ persons are forced to develop by living a straight and cisgender world, her book is a must-read for allies yearning to grow in their faith and for LGBTQ people hungry for a queer perspective on theology and ethics.
What inspired you to write Queer Virtue?
Appeals to religion remain the biggest drag on justice for LGBTQ people, and an appalling source of violence against queer people. As a priest, I am acutely aware that such appeals are part of a broader malaise within Christianity – a malaise characterized by fearful/hateful proclamation by some on the right, and tepid proclamation by many on the left. I have long had the gut sense that these concerns were related: that a proclamation that was good for the queers would also be good for Christianity. Queer Virtue is born of years of work to name how those problems are interconnected and to help both queers and Christians move forward with greater spiritual health.
Can you share a little bit about why the word “queer” is important to you and to your understanding of God?
I use “queer” to refer to two distinct but mutually-reinforcing ideas. First, queer is a useful umbrella term that for an ever-growing list of sexual expressions and identities in which people are upending conventional notions about sexuality. But I use it in a second way, too: to “queer” is to rupture, or disrupt, simplistic and false binaries. For me, this offers an incredibly helpful way to think about what Jesus was: queering false categories that create difficult spiritual quandaries for people. So, for instance, Jesus in his person ruptured binaries between human and divine, between life and death, between sacred and profane. When Paul says that in Christ we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, he is rupturing some of the biggest binaries of his day. And of course, Jesus constantly encouraged his listeners to rupture false binaries of self and other. That’s what he does repeatedly in all of the conversation in the Gospels about “who is my neighbor:” upending conventional ideas about the categories that people find themselves consigned to.
What theologians, pastors, or other voices have most deeply influenced you in developing your queer understanding of God?
I have been blessed to have been taught and mentored by extraordinary people of faith. Phyllis Trible, with whom I studied at Union, most influenced my relationship with scripture. But I have to say, the people who have most influenced my conception of God are the people I’ve known in Christian community — especially people who work hard when there is disagreement. I remember once passing the peace with a good friend – a lesbian – who was in the midst of a painful argument with another member of our community. As we embraced, she said to me, “I just don’t think I can shake his hand.” “You don’t have to,” I said, trying to be helpful. She drew back, straightened her shoulders. “If I can’t pass the peace with him, I can’t take communion.” I know many stories like this that just astonish me, and it is a kind of queerness at work. Not sexual queerness, but queerness in the sense of people taking seriously the Christian demand that we push past “me vs. you” and actively claim our relationship as members of the body of Christ.
One of your fundamental propositions in the book is that the church shouldn’t just work to “include” queer and trans people, but to actually learn from and be changed by us and our experiences. How would you summarize the difference and what’s at stake?
The impulse to “include” queer and trans people sort of implies that we are “other.” It suggests that we exist a little bit outside the essential movement of the faith, but because we are children of God like everyone else, we should at least get to hang out at the table. My argument – and what I have honestly experienced – is that queer and trans people possess deep, intuitive knowledge of what the church’s mission is fundamentally about.
What is at stake here is the church’s ability to comprehend why Christian life and witness matter. This is a huge issue for mainline/progressive Christianity. We are at a tipping point in our ability to provide credible moral leadership to the world. It matters that the church live out its mission with greater energy and passion – and above all with an understanding of just how urgent the work is.
Queer people can help Christians do that. Why? First, because queerness places ethical demands on queer people. Queer people have to discern an identity. We have to get honest about it, even in the face of material risk. We find other people who share a comparable identity marker and build community together. Then we look to the margins to see who isn’t yet included, and we do something about that. This ethical path is nearly identical to the path that Christians are supposed to walk, and queer people know how to walk it. Queer people can also help Christians because we are keenly aware that when we are deciding whether or not we want to walk this path, lives hang in the balance.
So basically I’m saying that it isn’t enough to “include” queer people. Partly because it matters to see just how central queerness is to the Christian tradition, and largely because I think that queer and trans experience has vast potential to help the church BE the church.
There’s a lot of pressure to de-sexualize our experiences as LGBTQ people when we engage in Christian conversation. I really appreciated that you didn’t erase that element from your book. Why do you think the church is so scared of discussing not just sexuality, but sex itself?
Sex is simultaneously intimate and chaotic. It can bring you to ecstasy; it can hurt like hell. In all of these ways, sexual encounters are a lot like encounters with the sacred. And with both sex and the sacred, there is a blurring of boundaries that is inherently queer. The church as an institution often has the impulse to contain the chaos, control the boundaries. I think that’s because the church struggles with the paradox of our need for security: as Christians we are a people who are supposed to let go of our attachment both to possessions and to coercive power, but we can’t quite believe that we will survive without these things. We can’t quite believe that God really will keep us safe. So rather than modeling the vulnerability that the church should model across the board, the church often lurches in the opposite direction and becomes a watchdog – at times a vicious watchdog – policing the borders of human experience.
If you had to sum up the message you hope straight and cis Christians would take away from your book, what would it be in three sentences or less?
Queer people possess virtue, in terms that Christianity itself has set. Christianity is inherently queer, inherently about rupturing false binaries that pit people against each other. Queer people thus can teach the church a great deal about the Christian path: what it is about, why it is important, and how to walk it with greater integrity.
Interview by M Barclay
- An interview with Rev. Liz Edman, author of “Queer Virtue” - May 26, 2016