The Cross and the Queer
David R. Weiss
February 22, 2003
The season of Lent is awkward for me. These are the 40 days I feel least at home in the church. The 40 days I feel least like a “good” Lutheran or even a “good” Christian. I will tell you why, because I think it’s important. But you must listen quietly, because it is not really safe for me to say. Columns like these can be costly for a theologian for to write.
Luke tells us that at a certain point in his ministry, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). The season of Lent invites us to do the same. Forty days (Ash Wednesday to Easter, not counting Sundays) are marked out and set aside for us to journey alongside Jesus to Jerusalem and ultimately to the cross. Lenten liturgies—from texts, to prayers, to hymns—encourage us to reflect on why Jesus went to Jerusalem. To die, of course. To take away our sins.
No. I don’t believe that anymore. I think that’s the biggest mistake Christian theology has made in its 2000 year history (and it’s made some pretty big ones). Jesus did not die to take away our sins. And until we are clear about that we will continue to miss the atoning power of his life through our misplaced focus on his death.
Atonement—literally, at-one-ment, the process of restoring to unity that which has been fractured—is the Christian doctrine that tries to explain how our fractured relationship with God is made whole again. The Christian tradition has typically said that this happens through the cross. Somehow Jesus’ death is decisive in effecting our atonement. The details are admittedly sketchy. We don’t know just how it works. So we grasp at images. Perhaps Jesus’ death is like a ransom paid to Satan to buy back our freedom. Or maybe his death is needed to balance God’s own scales of justice, to appease God’s perfect wrath. Or perhaps it provides the ultimate, unmistakable evidence of how much God loves us. These have been the three dominant images offered for the mystery of atonement for 2000 years.
Yet each image ends up regarding violence as somehow redemptive. Whether it is a ransom paid to Satan, the satisfaction for our guilt before God, or a self-immolating display of absolute love, in each scenario, the cross, as an act of infinite violence, becomes the turning point in human salvation. Infinite love gets rendered as infinite violence. With devastating consequences.
For better or worse, we see ourselves as created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). But when we conceive of God in ways that place the violence of the cross at the very center of God’s work for reconciliation we invite ourselves to place violence at the very heart of all manner of human activity as well. Far too much of our own history—political, military, religious, economic, social—has been invested in imaging a violent God as we pursue our own “noble” violent ventures. It has to stop.
So, three years ago, in a rather unLutheran gesture, I decided to give up something for Lent. I gave up, once and for all, any notion of atonement that involves Jesus dying for our sins. I suppose I’d been flirting with this break for fifteen years before that, but it’s hard to let go of a notion that seems as Christian as apple pie is American. It’s all I ever learned about the cross. Why else would Jesus have died?
Well, I’ll tell you, he was killed because he was queer.
As GLBT persons have reclaimed the word “queer”—in a move not unlike Christians reclaiming the image of the cross—they have turned the word into a positive point of identity. Literally, “to queer” something is to foul it up. And increasingly GLBT persons have decided that when the system of heterosexism is so unjust to so many it needs to be fouled up; it needs to be queered. In its widest sense, “queer” has even been unhinged from sexual orientation. It has become the name for anyone who consciously chooses to resist the forces of injustice on every front possible and to ally themselves with those who are falling—and getting pushed—through the cracks of society.
Now take a good careful look at Jesus. Forget for a moment that “he came to Earth to die for our sins.” Look at his life. He talks to women in a society where that was off limits (he even allows himself to be reproved by the Syro-Phoenician woman). He blesses children in a world where they were little more than the labor force in waiting. He feasts with tax collectors and other socio-religious outcasts. He praises Samaritans. He breaks taboos over who to eat with, who to talk to, and who to touch. He tells stories again and again that turn things upside down. Jesus’ entire ministry is one long conscious choice to resist the forces of injustice on every front possible and to ally himself with those who are falling—and getting pushed—through the cracks of society. Jesus is queer.
And as all of you must surely know, when you’re queer, you don’t need any sort of divine destiny in order to face the threat of an untimely death. Society—in all its religious, social, political, and economic expressions—will all too happily grind you up.
Jesus died not because God required his death to liberate me (or you) from sin but because the powers that be in this world required his death in order to keep me (and you) in check. The cross . . . and the lyncher’s rope, the assassin’s bullet, the basher’s baseball bat, and the jail cell . . . all of these represent the world’s attempts to keep power in hands other than God’s.
In fact, perhaps the most effective attempt of all has been to lure us into understanding the cross as God’s will. Then we are tempted to invest ourselves in honoring Jesus’ death rather than in emulating his life. Atonement does not hinge on the violence present in Jesus’ death. It hinges on the hospitality present in his life—and that’s where our attention belongs, even, and especially, during Lent.
Yes, the cross is real. It is the loud, painful, shattering “No!” that the world shouts again and again to the unconditional welcome that God offers to all persons. And for this reason, the cross and the queer have a long history. But the cross doesn’t have the last word. The queer does. The momentum of Jesus’ lived life, his feasting and fellowship, his healing and teaching, his unconditional (how utterly queer!) welcome is more powerful even than the cross. Call it “Easter.” Call it “Resurrection.” Call it “The-Queer-came-back.”
Call it radical hope. And then act on it.