The Wolf and the Lamb: Coming Out and the Promises of Advent

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 is featuring lectionary Scriptural reflections by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8,12-13, 17; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

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John Winslow

Today’s reflection is from John Winslow, a former Jesuit Volunteer and current M. Div. student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

In Advent, we do not only reflect on the coming of Christ in the Incarnation as a historical moment but also as a contemporary reality. We reflect on how Christ is being made manifest to us and for us in the present moment.

We hear today, in a passage from the prophet Isaiah, that the “wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,” that “the leopard shall lie down the kid;” and that “the calf and young lion shall browse together.” We hear the message that a relationship paradigm based on a never-ending cycle of violence and exploitation will end. Christ’s coming undoes one of nature’s most fundamental relationships: that of predator and prey. In Christ, the life of one will no longer depend upon the death of another. In Christ, all of creation “shall be glorious.”

As LGBTQ Catholics, the relationship between the wolf and the lamb is one we know intimately. Growing up, the only feeling I associated with my sexuality was fear: overwhelming, mind-numbing, constant fear. It was closer to me than my bones. It was woven into every word I spoke, like a second language I never knew I was learning but woke up speaking fluently one day.

As LGBTQ Catholics, we often feel pulled in at least two different directions. We do not fit neatly into any of the boxes or categories that contemporary society has created for us. To those who support our God-given LGBTQ identities, our Catholicism is often seen as backward and inexorably tied to cultural conservatism. Meanwhile, our LGBTQ identities are often demeaned and demonized by our faith communities – sometimes the very faith communities that raised us.

And the struggle is not simply instigated by groups external to ourselves. For many of us, the struggle is also a constant, exhausting war of self-attrition: sometimes feeling at peace with ourselves as queer, and sometimes feeling at peace with ourselves as Catholic, but rarely feeling completely at peace with both.

For many people – especially those in the LGBTQ community – the idea that a Roman Catholic priest would somehow be anything other than condemning of my sexuality, much less actually compassionate and helpful, is baffling. Most people laugh when I tell them that the best coming out advice I ever received was from a priest. To be fair, I, too, never imagined I would say, “I came out to my family on Holy Thursday via email because a priest told me to.”

And yet, it is true. I would never have come out without the ongoing love, support, and counsel of many Catholics – women religious, seminarians, lay people, and, yes, priests. The night before Holy Thursday of my junior year of college, I stayed up reading through the journal I had been keeping on and off since age fourteen. I read through accounts of family vacations, and memories of adventures during my semester abroad. I read through my list of firsts: my first kiss with a boy, my first time telling someone I was gay, my first sexual experience. I read through the manic biblical scribblings, the raging prayers and questions. I touched fingers to the tear stains on the poem I wrote about my first crush.

I thought about how desperately I longed for peace–a peace the world seemed incapable of giving.

Of things that would surprise me, receiving “peace” was not at the top of the list. Quite frankly, it’s not something that I ever thought I would find – certainly not after coming out.

And yet, reading through my life, with that priest’s advice on coming out dancing through the back of my head, I realized that coming out was not about doing anything. Rather, coming out was like the wolf and the lamb embracing one another in love, letting something seemingly impossible simply happen the way it was always meant to. And when I did come out, it was the most profound experience of peace that I had ever known.

This Advent is an opportunity for us to remember that Christ’s peace is not just one that will come at the Parousia, the Second Coming. No, Christ’s peace is offered to us daily, a peace that can give us rest. Regardless of the condemnations of the Magisterium, or the sudden emboldening of homophobia and transphobia spreading across the United States after the election, or the vitriol of our families, we are in fact loved in all that we are. When we embrace ourselves in all of our integrity, we find Christ embracing us, too. And it is this embrace that will give us peace.

–John Winslow, December 4, 2016

Let No One Be Left in the Field

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

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Craig Ford

Today’s reflection is  by Craig A. Ford, Jr., a doctoral candidate in Theological Ethics at Boston College.

At first glance, Advent might seem to be a season designed to mess with our notion of time. Advent, we hear frequently, is about waiting, about expecting. These words, at least for me, don’t strike up images that imply a lot of activity: waiting and expecting, for me, conjure up scenes in which activity is temporarily suspended–like sitting in a doctor’s office, or waiting on a crucial email you need from a colleague in order to complete a project.

On the other hand, everything about our daily lives during this time of year seems to be in a state of consumer frenzy, amplified by the compulsion to shop and buy presents, to prepare dinners, to host parties, to send out Christmas cards. This madness is the furthest possible thing from waiting; it seems, instead, like racing.

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Jean-Francois Millet, “The Angelus”

But, if we let the readings for this first week of Advent grab our attention for a few moments, I think we’ll see that the impression of Advent as a sort of liturgical waiting room is inaccurate. And they certainly don’t advocate for Advent to be a time consumed in buying the latest and the greatest new gadgets. Instead, today’s scriptures point out that we need to be engaged in different sorts of activities.

This alternative impression comes into view most clearly when we go through the readings backwards. Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel invite listeners not into a story where people are sitting on their hands, but instead into a story where people are going about the daily rhythms of their lives completely oblivious to the Gospel’s demands. From here, the arrival of the reign of God is dramatized as the sudden disappearance of some of those closest to us. “Two men will be out in the field,” Jesus says, “One will be taken, and one will be left” (Matt. 24:40).

But no one should be left in the field. Our job as Christians is to include everyone, and this is the activity in which Advent demands that we engage.

What does this sort of work entail? It entails our going about the business of opening ourselves to each other. It entails the courage not to retreat into ourselves beyond the demands of self-care. (We should never discount self-care, including everything that’s required in order for us to feel healthy and be willing to extend ourselves in service to others once again, such as cups of coffee with friends, long walks, and disconnections from social media.) Our work entails trying to live a non-exclusive Gospel, where we become ambassadors of welcome to each other. Paul summarizes this in the second reading as the act of putting on Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14), which we know from elsewhere in Scripture is identical to taking in, providing for–in a word, loving–our neighbor (1 Jn. 4:20).

This work is not easy. And for those who us who identify as LGBT, as queer, or as gender non-conforming Catholics, this type of activity will seem downright unfair. After all, why should we expect to open ourselves up to others such as our own bishops who continue to use the hurtful language of the truth about man and woman, and the unique bond of marriage they form”? (What such a statement obscures is the actual truth that no relationship hallowed by the presence of love can afford to be excluded from the Church, the very community animated by love, the bond of the Holy Spirit.)

Moreover, the prospect of President-elect Donald Trump in the United States exacerbates these negative messages, as Trump’s presence in the public forum has validated the homophobic and transphobic sentiments of some of his supporters. These supporters, in turn, are making these sentiments public in a way that causes many of us to fear for our safety, especially if we live in states marked by that do not have policies protecting LGBT, queer, and gender non-conforming persons.

But this work of opening ourselves to all is nevertheless the call of the Gospel. This is the work of Advent, of waiting for the arrival of Christ. We must pray for God to strengthen us in this work. For lying on the other side of this work is the presence of justice and the presence of peace. The illustration of Isaiah has captured many hearts: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares; and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is. 2:4). Will it capture ours?

We queer Christians know that we cannot afford to perpetuate exclusion. This Advent, may we dedicate ourselves to no longer leaving anyone–friend or foe, beloved or bigot–in the field.

Remembering Matthew Shepard: Encountering Solidarity, Countering Isolation

Today’s post was written by guest blogger Alfred Pang is a PhD student in Theology and Education at Boston College.

By Alfred Pang, October 12, 2016

I experienced a micro-aggression about a year ago at Mass. It was during a homily that listed, in a single breath, the Magisterium’s teachings against contraception, divorce and same-gender marriage. It obliterated the complexity of each issue. There was, of course, the typical mention of the natural complementarity of male and female as biologically designed by God. Such preaching was not new to me, but until then, I had been able to shut it out, numbing myself to what is said and mustering enough generosity to understand that some homilists do not know any better.

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Matthew Shepard

On this particular occasion, I could not. Instead, I simply shut down. I felt invalidated within the church I love as a gay Catholic man. I was angered by the quick dismissal of fruitful same-gender love. I found myself isolated and silenced in the broken shards of the church in which homophobia goes unrecognized. I simply shut down. Such is the power of micro-aggressions, whose cumulative toxicity, often unbeknownst to the offenders, wears down our souls, wearies our bodies and renders our selves invisible.

What aided in my recovery was remembering the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die on a cold October night in 1998. I recalled, in particular, Dennis Shepard’s (Matthew’s father) statement to the court at the trial of his murders. These words comforted me:

“By the end of the beating, his body was just trying to survive. You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone. There were his lifelong friends with him—friends that he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time—one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming. His last day alive in Wyoming. His last day alive in the state that he always proudly called home. And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind—the ever-present Wyoming wind—for the last time. He had one more friend with him. One he grew to know through his time in Sunday school and as an acolyte at St. Mark’s in Casper as well as through his visits to St. Matthew’s in Laramie. He had God.”

The assurance that God is with me brought me much consolation. God’s presence endures as life not in spite of but in the midst of loss and death. Dennis Shepard’s description of God’s presence in creation and, as Creator, embracing Matthew in Her womb of life, is powerfully evocative. God must have grieved. And in our pain, God grieves with us. We have God because God first loved us. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

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Alfred Pang

During my recovery, I realized that God is present not simply to piece together the broken pieces of my life. God is just not into patchwork! God’s daily invitation to us to be reconcilers in Christ is not simply to be a people who patch things up. Rather, God creates us anew and calls us to be co-transformers in the world in light of our wholeness in Christ who holds all things together. I am reminded by Mr. Shepard’s words that the pain that I was experiencing is not mine alone, but shared in the interconnection of our many individual lives held and sustained by the One divine breath of God that blows creation into being.

This recognition of the inter-connectivity of our lives, I suggest, lies beneath the decision of Matthew’s parents not to press for the death penalty against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two young men responsible for Matthew’s violent murder. It is also this attentiveness to the oneness of God’s divine life reflected in diversity that propelled their founding of the Matthew Shepard Foundation just months after their son’s death. In the witness of Matthew’s parents, I gradually found hope and healing.

Today, we commemorate the 18th anniversary of Matthew’s death and I’m struck that Matthew would have been my age if he were alive today. And today, I know Matthew is alive when we remember the reality of violence being directed at young people due to their gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Hate is, of course, to be resisted.

Beyond physical violence, Matthew’s story also points to the violence of isolation engendered by micro-aggressions cumulatively experienced in our families, schools, churches, and communities. More than an issue of unjust discrimination, every instance of someone fired from ministry or of another teacher dismissed from a Catholic school because of sexuality fuels this culture of isolation, leaving young people feeling abandoned, especially those who are wrestling with their experiences of sexual marginalization.

In today’s Gospel lectionary reading, we hear Jesus speaking to “the scholars of the law”: “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46).

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William McNichols, “The Passion of Matthew Shepard”

Jesus’ words are sharply poignant in light of our remembrance of Matthew. Jesus’ words ought to trouble us to confront not only our moral self-righteousness but also our complicity in turning the rich openness to God’s life within the Christian tradition into an enclosed grave for LGBT people and their families. Together with the crucified Christ, let us be stirred by Matthew’s death to lament over the continuing loss of young LGBT lives due to the distress experienced in isolation.

Yet, let us also be challenged that death does not have the last word. God’s enduring presence as life calls us forth to resist dehumanization by first recognizing that violence in any form is never deserved and deserving. Instead, we deserve to be loved as persons created in the image and likeness of God. There are no damaged people. There are only intersecting systems of dominance due to homophobia, heterosexism, racism, and classism that damage relationships.

Do not wait too long to tell someone how proud you are of them. This is the coming out that we all need to do to reverse slowly but surely this life-sapping culture of isolation. And may our families be the first spaces that need to be de-isolated, to be converted into spaces where blessings are shared in the midst of losses, and where our grief and joy, pain and hope are embraced as one, through a commitment to forgive, serve, and witness in God’s divine life. Anything less than these can only mean that Matthew and many other LGBT youth have died in vain, and our remembrance meaningless.

On October 20, people worldwide will “go purple” for #SpiritDay 2016 to resist anti-LGBT bullying and bias that youth experience in schools. For resources on how Catholics, and specifically Catholic schools, can get involved, please click here.

To read a Lenten reflection on Matthew Shepard posted earlier this year on Bondings 2.0, please click here.

On Divine Mercy Sunday, How Have LGBT Catholics Been Experiencing the Year of Mercy?

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“Image of Divine Mercy” by Stephen Whatley

Nearly four months ago, Pope Francis inaugurated, to much excitement and anticipation, the Jubilee Year of Mercy now underway. He has called for this to be a time to remind ourselves that the church to be a “home for all,” a place “where everyone is loved, welcomed, and forgiven.” Catholics worldwide are participating in many ways and Malta’s Bishop Mario Grech even expressed his hope that the year would “start a new era for the Church.”

On this Divine Mercy Sunday, it is worth inquiring about what impact the Year of Mercy is actually having for LGBT Catholics, their loved ones, and their allies.

Positive moments of expanding mercy and inclusion have occurred. In several instances, bishops have used the Year of Mercy to extend special welcomes to LGBT communities.

For instance, Bishop Terry Steib, SVD of Memphis, in his letter titled A Compassionate Response, called on Catholics to tightly link mercy with humility and to be open to encounter and dialogue in ways which can move LGBT issues forward. Two bishops even apologized for the church’s mistreatment of marginalized people. In his Lenten message on mercy, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, sought forgiveness from those whom the church had hurt, including LGBT people. In New Orleans, Archbishop Gregory Aymond is hosting a Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday that includes a ritual of forgiveness and resurrection which acknowledges:

“[That] we as individuals, as members of the archdiocese and society as a whole have let people down. . .This rite seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with those who have been hurt or alienated by the church either through institutional or individual offenses.”

While no communities were specified, LGBT people are clearly included among those hurt by the church and Aymond has spoken in more positive terms about issues of sexuality in the past.

Lay Catholics are participating in the Year of Mercy, too. Many call for a more just and inclusive church and society. As a way to mark this special year, Kentucky Catholics marched through downtown Louisville and rallied outside the cathedral to foster support for LGBT non-discrimination protections. U.S. Catholics elsewhere, including at least two governors, are actively resisting “license to discriminate” bills now under consideration in state legislatures across the country. And two transgender Catholics shared their stories during a workshop at L.A. Religious Education Congress, the largest Catholic gathering in North America.

Despite these items of good news, negative moments have also occurred.Too many church officials are either avoiding the Year of Mercy or it seems they do not quite understand mercy. Malawi’s bishops used a pastoral letter on mercy to call for the government to jail LGBT people. A pastor disrupted a funeral because of his opposition to LGBT issues. Another pastor closed a parish LGBT ministry. The Vatican has thus far refused to intervene to stop Dominican Republic church leaders’ increasing attacks on gay U.S. Ambassador James Brewster. For church leaders whose hearts remained hardened to LGBT people, we can pray these words taken from Pope Francis’ prayer for the Year of Mercy:

“You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.”

When it comes to LGBT concerns, Pope Francis’ own involvement in the Year of Mercy is ambiguous. The million-dollar question right now is what impact his upcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, will have for LGBT Catholics. The pope consistently preaches mercy during his Wednesday audiences, his foreign travels, and everything else in between. But he lodged his harshest criticism of marriage equality yet in January, and his involvement in Italy’s debate over civil unions has been unclear.

The jury is still out on whether the Year of Mercy, viewed as a whole, will be good or not good for LGBT people and other Catholics who support equality. There are signs of hope among the people of God but plenty of intransigence in ecclesial institutions too.

What do you think? Has the Year of Mercy benefited LGBT Catholics? If not yet, do you think it still might? What would be ways of showing greater mercy to those the church excludes and harms? You can leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

Our Eagerness to Be the One to Cast the First Stone

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126: 1-6; Philippians 3:8-14; and John 8:1-11. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

Today’s Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery is, ironically, a favorite of those who like to castigate LGBT people.  They say that because Jesus says “Go, and from now on do not sin any more,” that they are justified in telling other people–specifically, LGBT people–how to live their lives.  It seems the rest of the story is lost on them because they think they have found a Scripture text that they can use against others.

In holding onto this one line of Scripture, such people are doing exactly what the scribes and Pharisees in the story have done: isolating one bit of text and, in the process, losing the whole spirit of Scripture’s message that people should not judge one another, but should love one another and offer each other mercy.  The gospel writer is clear that their purposes are vengeful, not religious. The author says they brought the woman to Jesus “so that they could have some charge to bring against him.”  People use the act of judging not only to bring harm on their targeted victim, but to trap others, as well. Human beings are always way too eager to cast the first stone.

In the gospel story, Jesus’ first response is to write in the dirt.  Some commentators say that this action is a message from Jesus:  by doing so, he is telling the accusers that the letter of the law is as transitory as letters written in the sand.  They need to find the law’s deeper message, which is a message of acceptance and mercy.  More importantly, they should look to their own lives to discover sin, not to search for it in other people’s lives.  Indeed, this same message, so important to Jesus’ ministry, appeared in the gospel story two weeks ago.

Only Christ can tell us to “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Other human beings don’t have that authority.  Christ will speak to us in the depths of our heart, in the privacy of our consciences, when all other judgmental people have disappeared, and when we are alone with Christ.  Only Christ  knows whether we have sinned or not.  If other people try to point out the sins of others, they fall into the same trap as the scribes and Pharisees in today’s story.  They open themselves up to the same rebuke that Jesus gave them:  “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The scribes and the Pharisees in today’s story can be forgiven for their error because of their ignorance.  They were doing what they had been taught to do.  I think of that lesson when I am confronted with church leaders who oppose any sort of progress for LGBT equality.  It is not necessarily evil and hatred that motivates them.  Instead, I think, most of the time they are held captive by the narrowness of their own upbringing.  That is why we must constantly seek to educate such people. We must continue to tell our stories, even when they don’t want to hear them.  We must continue to speak out so that others can learn the deeper messages of God’s Word.

Our job is not to point out whether we think other people have committed a sexual sin, the sin of homophobia, or any kind of sin.  Our job is to examine our own lives, recognize our own need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and to try to offer that same mercy and forgiveness to others.  If we think of ourselves as in this story, we certainly should not picture ourselves as Jesus.  We don’t even need to think of ourselves as the woman.  The scribes and Pharisees, the ones who are too inclined to judge others and to appeal to the authority of the law, are the people that I think we most reflect.

In today’s first reading from Isaiah, God tells us that we need to give up our habitual patterns and our penchant for always doing things the way they have been done for so long.  We need to be aware that our old ways of thinking need to be transformed:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

God is always calling us to something new.  Isaiah continues with a message that even the situations which seem most hopeless for renewal can, in fact, be renewed by God:

In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
for I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland. . .

God does not give up on us–ever!  And God does not give up on those who are opposed to LGBT equality–ever!  God is always wanting us to renew ourselves, to examine our lives–not the lives of others–and to be open to “something new.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Beyond Being the Prodigal Child, We are Parent and Sibling, Too

 

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“The Prodigal Son Returns” by Soichi Watanabe

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent are: Joshua 5:9A, 10-12; Psalm 34: 2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

The Prodigal Child is among Scripture’s most well-known parables. In today’s liturgy, its rich themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are enhanced by the readings from the book of Joshua  and 2nd Letter to the Corinthians with which it is paired.

Interpretations generally position the reader as the wayward child returned to the parent, hinting that we are lost disciples returned to God’s loving embrace. This applies to our interpersonal relationships when we find ourselves welcomed back into families and communities which we may have left

But what if we position ourselves as the parent, or even the elder sibling? Doing so complicates a calming parable, raising questions for us when we would rather bask in being the prodigal child welcomed home and celebrated.

For instance, if we are the parent, we have to ask ourselves if we run to meet those who have abandoned and even harmed us? Are we “filled with compassion” by their presence? Do we unreservedly organize a celebration when someone accepts returns after years of exile? As people existing at the church’s margins who have experienced the very real exclusion and  harm which some church ministers can inflict, is our response to other excluded people like the parent in this parable?

If we picture ourselves as the elder sibling, are we ready to acknowledge that we want some people in our lives to remain absent and even figuratively dead? Are we envious when others receive greater love or care in certain moments? When reconciliation happens in our church, would we rather the divisions and wounds remain because we have adjusted to them? Have we so rooted ourselves and our identities at the margins that progress becomes unwelcome?

Asking myself these questions raises truths I would rather ignore. I have to admit that that at times I have not wanted to forgive, never mind to celebrate, certain people who have passed through my life. I am comforted that seeking LGBT justice in the Catholic Church seems to be stable employment, given the depth of institutional and cultural homophobia in our community. I would rather be the prodigal child, welcomed and held, celebrated and held up, than practice the parent’s boundless compassion or admit the darkness I share with the elder sibling.

Thankfully, the lectionary sets this parable of the Prodigal Child within a context. The first two readings are reminders of that God fulfills promises. In the passage from Joshua, the Israelites celebrate the Passover as their forty years of wandering comes to an end. The unceasing manna which had sustained them dries up. God kept God’s promise. In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the new creation brought about by God through Christ. Again, God kept God’s promise.

This context allows us to root ourselves in God, confident that God keeps the promise made by Jesus to be with us always. Knowing that God’s grace is operative in our lives, we know that when we do not love boundlessly or are ready to face our dark sides, we do not do so alone. We have God’s grace and we have one another, ambassadors of Christ in Pauline language, to mediate that grace to us. Lent is a time for conversion. My prayer today is that we may all come to know we are loved as the Prodigal Child, to know we must love as the parent, and to know that to love and be loved we must wrestle with our darkness as the elder sibling.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Play Starring Transgender Jesus Draws Catholic Protests

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Jo Clifford as Jesus in the play

Catholics in Northern Ireland protested a play performed this month which portrays Jesus as a transgender woman, but the playwright defended it as an attempt to make audiences “think again” about faith and gender.

The play, titled “The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven,” was most recently performed at Outburst Queer Arts Festival in Belfast just weeks after the nation’s legislature failed to advance marriage equality legislation.

Writer and actor Jo Clifford described it as a “very important, very intimate show,” explaining to BBC:

” ‘Obviously being a transgender woman myself it concerns me very greatly that religious people so often use Christianity as a weapon to attack us and justify the prejudices against us. . .

” ‘I wanted to see if we could move away from that and make people think again.’ “

Audience members are quite moved, said Clifford, including Christians. The writer has repeatedly reinterpreted biblical stories to generate new ideas, suggesting the overall message of this play is clear:

” ‘I think it’s very important to get across the message that Jesus of the gospels would not condone or want to promote prejudice and discrimination against anybody and to try to convey a message of compassion and love and understanding of everybody. . .No matter what their belief, no matter what their gender, orientation or sexuality.’

Not all welcome that message as a small Catholic group protested in Belfast, as has at previous performances. Former Glasglow Archbishop Mario Conti once said that it is hard to imagine “a more provocative and offensive abuse of Christian beliefs” than this play.

Clifford, however, said protesters have generally not seen the play and that it seeks neither to offend nor blaspheme because she is a Christian herself. Her point is rather to reflect on Jesus’ ministry through this “work of devotion”:

” ‘I simply want to assert very strongly, as strongly as I can that Jesus of the gospels would not in anyway wish to attack or denigrate people like myself.’ “

Clifford made a similar point in another interview, available on YouTube:

“He was talking to the victims of persecution, to the victims of prejudice and he would speak to them in a very accepting way, as one human being to another.”

In this, Clifford is correct. The Gospels reveal a Jesus who elevated people’s dignity and specifically sought out those who had been marginalized.

Catholic tradition has long embraced the arts as a means for spiritual nourishment and divine revelation, opening up the human person to themselves, to others, and to God. While I have not viewed Clifford’s play, her interviews suggest she is someone committed to creating art with devotional ends. The protesters would have benefited more by attending a show and seeing what came up in their inner life, instead of casting stones from afar.

For more information on The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, visit the play’s website here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry