Blessing for the Outcast
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
19 June 2005
Last week my boyfriend was making fun of me. He thought that at that moment I was walking rather nelly. I asked if he wanted me to walk like a man, and then I imitated the scene from the movie The Birdcage when Robin Williams tells Nathan Lane to walk like John Wayne. You remember the scene? Nathan Lane walks like John Wayne, and it is hilarious watching this queen try to do it. He asks if it was okay, and Robin Williams says that it was, he just never realized that John Wayne walked like that.
I went to see The Birdcage with two of my good friends, John Eggleston and Laura Picazo. Eventually, both of us guys would come out. Already one of our roommates had come out, and our group of friends included pretty much every out or somewhat out gay person at OBU. We went to see the movie in Shawnee. The theatre was packed. Part of what made going to the movie so much fun was that the three of us laughed at more things in the movie and laughed louder than anyone else. Part of this is just natural; the three of us are loud people. But it was also because we got more of the jokes than the rest of this pretty straight crowd. We enjoyed it so much that we were still laughing that loud when we got back to the apartment.
I don’t know what moment is the funniest. Nathan Lane is perfect in his role, embodying the drag queen with high camp. I love it when he shows up in female drag, but in very conservative female drag and tries to play himself off as a real woman. He actually fools the naïve Gene Hackman who himself is the perfect send-up of the conservative religious and political fundamentalist. Maybe the best moment is Gene Hackman himself in drag.
Another favourite movie from the mid-nineties is The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It didn’t play in Shawnee, but our group of friends watched it on video. I still watch it every time that I see it’s on. I love the pink bus, and the shoe on top that they ride, and the extravagant dresses and ridiculous dance numbers. But most of all I love the story as they try to find their way in a barren and inhospitable world. Then they march to the top of the canyon in their costumes and high heels. It is a sight to see.
Back before I left Dallas a couple of the young women who had come out to me in recent months had come over to my house to watch movies. Before we put the movie we had rented in the DVD, I noticed that Priscilla was on. When they said they’d never seen it, I made them watch it. They loved it of course. It was really exciting to see these two young girls enjoy what is now one of our classic gay films.
These movies and these stories are important. Even their campiness is important. Now, they are fun and silly and there is no point in overanalyzing them and making them so serious that they loose their camp. Because they are important precisely because they are so absurd and funny. We have plenty of serious gay fiction and serious gay movies and those have their important role. The movie Angels in America was immensely helpful in my coming out process. And films like Philadelphia and The Hours are important in representing our struggles to a wider audience
This is Pride Week in the GLBT community. More than usual, tonight I want to directly speak from and to the GLBT experience and its connection with our biblical narrative.
Gay camp is significant. Our comedy and silliness are important. When we get together socially we often get really silly. We play up all sorts of stereotypes. For example, when the guys get together, we make tacky comments and sexual innuendo and many really act like queens. When I interviewed with the Pastor-Parish Relations Team, someone was describing the service project you all did last year when you made scarves for the Wilson School kids. Someone said you had a sewing circle. Then someone else jumped in and said, “All the men brought their sewing machines and the women worked on our cars.”
Then there are the clothes that we wear. Did you see the stupid hat that I wore to the gay rodeo? Drag is so common in gay culture and not just the typical dressing up and performing as the opposite sex. As one friend said, it is all drag. That friend can do the cowboy look or the preppy look or the metrosexual look or any of a variety of looks, depending on what is called for in the moment.
In Andrew Holleran’s 1978 classic gay novel Dancer from the Dance we get a portrayal of gay disco life in New York in the early seventies. One character we meet is the young and gorgeous Malone, who is just being introduced to gay life by the old queen Sutherland. Sutherland says, “We live, after all, in perilous times . . . of complete philosophic sterility, we live in a rude and dangerous time in which there are no values to speak to and one can cling to only concrete things . . .” You expect the conservation to get serious at this point, but instead, Sutherland walks over to his closet and reveals his wardrobe. In high camp, the concrete things we can latch onto are clothes
. . . like the Count of Monte Cristo his fabulous treasure, the accumulated wardrobe of fifteen seasons on the circuit. They stared silently for a moment at the stacks of jungle fatigues and plain fatigues, bleached fatigues and painter’s jeans, jeans with zippers and jeans with buttons, tank tops and undershirts, web belts, plaid shirts, and dozens of t-shirts in every color
The description of the closet goes on for more than half a page, listing articles of clothing. Sutherland eventually says, “But after a while you realize, . . . that there is nothing but these.” He turns to Malone, who has just lost his first love and says,
So what remains for us? . . . What we may well ask, is there to live for? Why get out of bed? For this dreary round of amusing insincerity? This fithy bourgeois society . . . No, we may still choose to live like gods, like poets. Which brings us to dancing. Yes, . . . that is all that’s left when love has gone. Dancing.”
In this story, existential angst has led from fashion to disco. How campy is all that old dance music? I mean, really. Abba isn’t exactly Mozart. “YMCA,” “I Will Survive,” “We are Family,” and so many other songs are important to our culture, even if they are silly.
It is easy to see the artistic contributions and importance to gay history and culture of works of art like Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Symposium, the poetry of Sappho, Shakespeare, and Whitman, the paintings of Michelangelo, the novels of Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and E. M. Forster, the films of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, and so many others. But what is the significance of our lighter moments, our silliness, our camp? Why do we enjoy laughing at The L Word, Queer as Folk, and Will and Grace? Why do we dress up and engage in rituals like the rodeo, drag shows, and clubbing? Why do we fill our conversations with tacky humour and play to stereotypes?
Largely, because we can. It is our expression of freedom. Because we are an oppressed people, our lives are filled with absurdity. So, in response, we have played up the absurd and enjoyed every minute of it. The world forces closeted gays to perform and wear masks, and so we do it for fun and enjoyment. The words that others use to attack us, like fag, queer, and dyke, we have reclaimed and use with humour and pride. In describing the Stonewall Riots in 1969 the Village Voice gave evidence of using this campy language to explain our struggle for civil rights. They wrote,
The forces of faggotry, spurred by a Friday night raid on one of the city’s largest, most popular, and longest lived gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, rallied Saturday night in an unprecedented protest against the raid and continued Sunday night to assert presence, possibility, and pride until the early hours of Monday morning. ‘I’m a faggot, and I’m proud of it’, ‘Gay Power!’, ‘I like boys!’ – these and many other slogans were heard all three nights as the show of force by the city’s finery met the force of the city’s finest. The result was a kind of liberation, as the gay brigade emerged from the bars, back rooms, and bedrooms of the Village and became street people.
Our stories, our humour, our movies, our music, our fashion, all of these are expressions of freedom or a desire for freedom. Together these elements of our culture tell the story of an outcast and oppressed people longing for liberation.
It is fortuitous that the lectionary should have the story of Hagar fall during Pride Week, for Hagar’s story is also one of oppression and liberation. Hagar is a woman in a patriarchal society. She is a slave. In fact she is a slave who is used for sex and procreation. Plus she is a foreigner. An Egyptian, to be precise. For the Hebrew audiences who would originally be encountering Hagar’s story, Egyptians were the enemy who had wronged the people. If this story were being told to Jewish audiences today, Hagar would be German or Palestinian.
There are two stories told about Hagar. The first is in Genesis 16, when she is given by Sarah to Abraham so that Abraham might impregnate her. Once she has conceived, she looks with contempt upon Sarah. After this Sarah afflicts Hagar. The New Revised Standard Version translates this too lightly as “dealt harshly,” instead of the much stronger “afflicts.”
Suffering affliction, Hagar take matters into her own hands and flees. She heads home toward Egypt. The angel of the Lord finds her beside a spring and asks her what she is doing. God then tells her to return to Sarah and suffer. Hagar then receives a promise, a blessing, that she will be the mother of multitudes. This is the first such promise made to a woman by God in scripture. It has similarities to the promises made to Abraham. God assures her, “for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” In response to the blessing, Hagar does what no other biblical character does. Verse eleven says,
So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”
This story is full of ambiguity. Hagar suffers affliction. On the one hand God furthers that affliction by sending her back to Sarah. On the other hand, Hagar has a special place in the biblical story. Despite her status as a woman, a slave, and a foreigner, God responds to her affliction, God gives her a promise, and she gives God a name instead of God revealing a name to her.
We meet Hagar again in the story read earlier in the service. It has parallels with the first Hagar story, but also distinct differences. This time instead of Hagar freeing herself, she is cast out by Abraham upon orders from Sarah and God. When Abraham sends mother and child away, he is very distressed. What astonishes me here is that when he sends them away, all he gives them is bread and water. This is an extremely wealthy man who could have sent them away with livestock, goods, and other people. Instead he sends them into the inhospitable wilderness with insufficient supplies. This time Hagar does not find a well in the wilderness and is not headed for home. She seems to be lost and eventually it looks like she and Ishmael will die. In great agony, Hagar leaves her son to die and begins to cry. God now makes provision for them, as a well of water is discovered.
I think that the importance of Hagar’s story is that she stands as a type. She represents all oppressed people as they struggle to find blessing and the good life. She is trapped in a system of patriarchy and slavery. Other oppressed peoples are also trapped in systems of poverty, racism, homophobia, etc. Hagar is oppressed by Sarah, instead of finding solidarity with someone else who is oppressed. How often do oppressed people turn on each other instead of helping one another? In the Hagar story even the role of God is ambiguous. Is God liberator or oppressor? How often must this same question have been asked by African-American slaves, or women encountering the prejudices of the church, or by the GLBT community? Yes, Hagar is a type. She represents the struggles of the oppressed, the outcast, the one in need of liberation.
One of the major fields of theology toward the end of the twentieth century was Liberation Theology. Liberation theology had many different schools depending upon which community gave rise to the thought. Some of the schools include theologies that identified themselves as Black, feminist, queer, African, Latin-American, and environmental. Some were even a combination, like the school of thought that describes itself as eco-feminism.
What all liberation thought had in common was that it judged the traditional understanding of theology as not taking account of the central role of liberation in the Biblical story. Theologies written by the privileged – predominately white, straight, European males – almost always overlooked or at least didn’t have the insights to understand the importance of liberation themes found in the Exodus, some elements of the law codes, the preaching of the prophets, and the life and ministry of Jesus.
One of the most important works of liberation theology is God of the Oppressed by James Cone, which was published in 1975. Cone is a Black Theologian. The term doesn’t simply describe his race, but is a school of thought called Black Theology. What Cone did was take the elements of the black experience and use those to interpret Christian theology. By looking at slave spirituals, the blues, folk tales, sermons, hymns, and other elements of the African-American religious and cultural experience, Cone was able to cast new light on traditional theological categories.
Cone begins by sharing the stories and experiences of African-Americans, and he insists that we all need to listen to each other’s stories, especially all oppressed peoples. We can learn much by using our stories to interpret our faith experiences, and we can learn more by sharing our stories with each other. He reminds us, “No one can be truly liberated until all are liberated.”
The most powerful part of Cone’s books is how he interprets Jesus. He writes,
Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom.
Throughout the gospels we see Jesus identifying with and ministering to the poor and the outcast. Women, lepers, the mentally ill, the disabled, the blind, prostitutes, Gentiles, and tax collectors all are welcomed by Jesus.
It is Cone’s claim that just as the historical Jesus of Nazareth identified with the poor and outcast, that Christ continues to identify with the poor and oppressed. The most striking section of Cone’s book is entitled “Jesus is Black.” Cone is not arguing that the historical Jesus was black, because the historical Jesus was clearly Jewish. Listen to his argument,
My point is that God came, and continues to come, to those who are poor and helpless, for the purpose of setting them free. And since the people of color are his elected poor in America, any interpretation of God that ignores black oppression cannot be Christian theology. The “blackness of Christ,” therefore, is not simply a statement about skin color, but rather, the transcendent affirmation that God has not ever, no not ever, left the oppressed alone in struggle. He was with them in Pharoah’s Egypt, is with them in America, Africa and Latin America, and will come in the end of time to consummate fully their human freedom.
This spring I was teaching a lesson from this passage to my youth at Royal Lane. After reading this excerpt, I asked them, “In the context of 2005, then, who is Jesus?” One youth immediately answered, “Gay.” Others answered “Blacks,” “the poor”, “Hispanics,” “the mentally ill,” and other groups. One person said that in 2005 Jesus was a poor, handicapped lesbian living in the slums of Latin America. I was proud of them for grasping the theological concept at work here.
What is being made is not a literal claim, but a theological claim that Jesus Christ identifies with those who are in need. Because of this, we can have hope. Hope that is not merely an intellectual idea, according to Cone, but is the practice of freedom within the oppressed community. The oppressed community practices this freedom by sharing stories, by creating a culture, and by continuing to worship God.
This is why it is important for us to tell our stories, and why it is important for gay culture to be filled with celebration, silliness, and the absurd. It is our expression of freedom within the midst of our oppression. This is the way we take the difficulties of life and laugh at them.
So I want to appropriate the Hagar story as one of our stories. Not because Hagar was queer, but because she was oppressed and outcast. From her story we learn that God takes heed of affliction and will bring blessing.
We can also claim the story of Jesus. As liberation theology has taught us, Jesus identifies with the oppressed and the poor. Jesus suffers alongside them and for them. Jesus’ death and resurrection signify the liberation that will come when the reign of God is fully realized. So, Jesus is with us now, those of us who are GLBT and undergoing discrimination. Hope is ours. We will be fully free when God’s reign begins. O how wonderful! O how glorious!
So, go out this week, be silly, and celebrate.