Gary David Comstock’s Gay Theology Without Apology (Wipf & Stock, 1993) is a radical, important essay collection that uses the experiences of gays and lesbians in the church as a foundation for democratizing and diversifying our methods of interpreting the Bible. As he says in the introduction, “Christian Scripture and tradition are not authorities from which I seek approval; rather, they are resources from which I seek guidance and learn lessons as well [as] institutions that I seek to interpret, shape, and change.” (pg.4) Comstock is a UCC minister and Wesleyan University chaplain. His essays re-imagine key Christian concepts and Bible passages to help us develop “a relationship with Scripture that is modeled on friendship rather than parental authority.” (pg.6) The chapter that spoke most to my present concerns was “Leaving Jesus: A Theology of Friendship and Autonomy”, so I’ll be focusing on that essay, but I recommend reading the whole book.
When support for gay rights brought me to a crisis of faith in my moderate-evangelical orthodoxy, I had two choices. I could join the ranks of Christian scholars explaining why the affirming position was supported, or at least permitted, by a reasonable interpretation of the Bible. Or I could be honest about the fact that I would continue to hold that position, regardless of what I could find in Scripture. Having chosen the latter course, I’m stuck with the liberal’s dilemma: If the Bible is not my highest authority, how is it relevant? What does it add to the values I already live by, or the process by which I make decisions?
I greatly respect Comstock for confronting the sleight-of-hand that we progressives engage in when we try to remain under the Christian umbrella while pointing it in our preferred direction. It was so refreshing to have permission to walk away from this power struggle over “WWJD?” In the “Leaving Jesus” essay, he writes:
I think we need to stop using Jesus as our trump card in waging the struggle for peace and justice. First, because it is opportunistic; we use him as we wish for our own ends. Second, because we really do not mean it; I do not think we are involved in movements for social change because Jesus would have been with us, but because we want, need, and think we ought to be involved. Jesus gets tagged on as a rationale or support for what we know or have decided we should do. And third, because it is not an effective strategy; the organized, mainstream church has more power for establishing the prevailing image of Jesus than do marginalized people within or outside it. The history of Christianity has shown that Jesus is up for grabs; and whoever is most powerful determines the prevailing image of Jesus. (pg.93)
Now, this is not to say that every Christian is treating Jesus as an afterthought to their personal preferences. Probably most of them feel they have had genuine encounters with Jesus through prayer and Scripture, and that those encounters are guiding them to certain positions on social issues. That’s equally true for the priest of my liberal parish who supports gay rights, and for my conservative Christian former mentor who opposes them. It was true for me when I had the revelation at the 2006 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing that led me to write Two Natures, a project that blew up my relationship with Christian orthodoxy.
We should tremble at the presumption of declaring that our opponent’s God-encounter is delusional, just as we refrain from undermining their sanity by disputing what their heart and body tell them about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or trauma history. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4, NIV)
And yet, don’t these contradictory theological results reveal the insufficiency (or possibly over-sufficiency) of the concept “Jesus” to restrain wrong actions? Comstock has anticipated this issue as well:
That the Bible is a resource for defining and lending strength to the formation of various faith communities that believe and act in various, and often conflicting, ways is not easy for those whose faith community is predicated on being right and changing others. To acknowledge and allow for a multiplicity of expressions may be to tolerate forms of Christianity that are unacceptably oppressive. But to argue for the primacy of one form, our form, over another is to become engaged in a contest for which there is no winner. Each community can claim a biblically based Jesus who supports it. (pg.95)
Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).
To be occupied with arguing over the correct image of Jesus is to be caught up in establishing and recognizing him as a master. Over and over we end up with a “top man” in whom we put our hope and trust, instead of giving ourselves and each other the power to decide and do what should be done, instead of taking responsibility for claiming and doing it ourselves. (pg.98)
…[Jesus] does not seem to have wanted to found an organization that would be preoccupied with fawning over him and perfecting his image. A friend bids us well, not holding on to us with last-minute conditions about loyalty and preserving his name, but trusting and expecting us to love one another–a rare and wonderful example of rescinding patriarchal privilege, and perhaps one that many would do well to follow. But its value and power lie not in proposing yet another example of how wonderful Jesus is, but settles on us the task of being our own example, of finding out from each other how wonderful we can be for each other. (pg.99)
Revisiting this essay, for the purpose of this blog post, has clarified why I feel stuck and heavy-hearted in my current prayer life. I grew up in a home where the opposite values were modeled. Life with my bio mother was all about one-way loyalty; protecting the family’s public image at the expense of the facts; proving that my way was the “right” way before I’d be granted any autonomy; never growing up; and acting grateful for love that was supposed to be unconditional but actually depended on meeting the above conditions perfectly. The only way to break that pattern was to end the relationship completely. So on a gut level, when I think about accepting some aspects of the Biblical Jesus and refusing others, I’m terrified of abandonment and punishment. My childhood instincts tell me that it’s all or nothing: either submit to the commands I don’t believe in, or forfeit my claim to any love, help, or approval from Jesus. This tears me in two.
I’d like to stay friends with a Jesus who embodied God’s overcoming of all divisions between clean/unclean, spirit/flesh, divine/human. I want to continue drawing hope from love’s triumph over death and humiliation in his Resurrection, without accepting the dogma that the universe runs on the blood sacrifice of the innocent. I’d like to believe he would listen and learn from my feedback about situations where “turn the other cheek” and “forgive 70 x 7” can impede healing and justice for the abused. It would be great to feel that he trusts me to figure things out and will forgive me when I mess up. And finally, if it turns out that Jesus is not the image that channels God’s love to me most clearly, I wonder if I can ever feel that he sends me on my way with a blessing, as scarcely any of my mentors and parental figures have been able to do.
What would make the progressive church a place where I could grow into this kind of friendship with Christ? First, more awareness of and stepping back from the struggle for narrative dominance. If we were truly secure in our freedom to relate to Jesus in our own ways, we wouldn’t need to appeal to a selective reading of Scripture as if it were the only right one. Second, sermons that dare to reject or critique the Bible passages presented in the weekly liturgy, instead of leaving them there like undigested lumps. I find it hard to handle the cognitive dissonance of being confronted with controversial texts that we then avoid in the rest of our worship experience. Third, guided conversations as a community about how our psychological baggage affects our theology. The church willing to take on this challenge would truly be a model for a counterculture of love and equality.