The Feast of the Unclean

by Sara Miles

By ancient tradition, June is the month of Gay Pride. My people celebrate it as the Feast of the Unclean: the feast of the unnatural and unlawful, of foreigners and whores, lepers, sissies, faggots, drag queens, bulldykes, trannies, leather daddies, butch girls, queer boys, intersexed teenagers, lesbian mothers, gay bishops and all the rest of us whose bodies and desires have long been despised as disordered, or hidden away as contaminating. It’s the thrilling festival of the unspeakable, now spoken and embodied. It’s the transforming Passover of the scary, freeing things that happen whenever God’s truth is proclaimed aloud.

But the whole idea of gay pride still makes my skin crawl. I’ve got a problem with gay pride.

Because pride is what sustains me in sin. It sustains me in the ways I distance myself from God by separating myself from others, thinking I’m better than my neighbors: those disgusting sexual perverts or those stupid fundamentalist Mormons or that obtuse Archbishop. Pride is my insistence on a private, special self. It’s my faith in my own ability to save that self. Pride is what keeps me in bondage.

Freedom springs from a completely different understanding. Back in the day, before our parades were sponsored by banks and beer companies and pandered to by politicians, nobody called it “gay pride.” It was simply “gay freedom” or “gay liberation.” Gay liberation: when you realize that love is more powerful than law. Gay liberation: when you realize that the oddest, most shamed, most stigmatized children of God are beautiful and beloved. Gay liberation: when you watch all kinds of unlikely strangers become a family, without boundaries. Gay liberation: when you understand that whoever you are, you belong to a larger body.

That sounds pretty Gospel to me. I believe it is the liberation of Christ Jesus.

And so I believe queer people, too, have a gift to offer to the Church. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be the gift of scandal; the gift of the cross.

And this gift is not about making queer people and our allies feel better. It’s not about making the Church fair and liberal and modern. It’s so that the whole Church may truly embody the folly and the scandal of Jesus, in witness to the world.

Scandal, Jesus teaches, shows us how to see. If we look only upon what seems right, correct, familiar and lawful, we see the tiniest part of God’s handiwork. We must gaze, as Jesus gazed––foolishly and with love––upon every person who seems sick or wrong or just plain outlandish. And when we actually dare to touch that person, then a little more of God’s enormous, disturbing mission is revealed. We see how God is always at work restoring creation to wholeness. “Whoever welcomes you,” says Jesus, “welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

By welcoming the scandalous we can begin to glimpse that our ways are not God’s ways. And by willingly submitting ourselves, gay and straight, to be the scandal, and to bear it without rancor or blame, we can discover what it’s like to live in freedom, outside the law––in the liberation of the cross.

Which obligates queer people, as we become cleansed in the eyes of the world and of religious authorities, not to fall into the sin of pride; it obligates us to give up our sense of specialness and self-aggrandizing victimhood. It requires the progressive straight people who support us to stop feeling superior to their conservative brothers and sisters; to actually talk and eat with their enemies. And it requires us all to continue holding the doors of the Church open to strangers, to other people we don’t approve of or like, so that the Church can be blessed by more and more of the dirty; the foreigners and sinners and unbelievers God sends us.

A discourse about “rights” misses this point. Of course gay people, like straight people, remember how we were slaves and foreigners in Egypt. Many of us are still slaves and foreigners. And so whenever the Church talks to Pharaoh, we must always fiercely work for and demand justice, especially on behalf of the weakest among us.

But the mission of the people of God is not to claim “rights” as dispensed by the state, or by our own religious laws. We cannot give or get from any human being the “right” to receive communion, the “right” to be baptized, the “right” to accept suffering on a cross. These are not rights but free gifts from God, through the love of Christ Jesus.

And that love reveals, if we’re not too proud to see it, the Gospel. How your salvation is inextricably bound up with that of an angry, foul-mouthed atheist drag queen. How my salvation’s irreversibly connected with that of a mean-sprited Nigerian bishop or an Indiana housewife who believes gays are going to hell.

“In his flesh,” says St. Paul––who might, after all, be the patron saint of gay liberation–– “he has broken down the dividing wall between us, that he might create in himself one new humanity, through the cross.”

Our mission is to give thanks. Because liberation doesn’t depend on our individual goodness or pride. It doesn’t depend on our rights or status in the world. It comes from Christ Jesus, who restores us all into his one body: gay and straight, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.

This body suffers scandalously. It loves foolishly. And it frees us, eternally.

Sara Miles is the author of Take This Bread: A Radical and Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead. She is Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

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11 Comments
  1. yesyesyesyesyesYES! This is beautiful Sara. Thank you.

  2. Amber Evans

    Amen, Sara, to everything. A party like the feast of the unclean sounds like a rip-roaring good time, and reminds me of the old Episcopal camp song about how there are no Episcopalians down in hell, because they are all up above…

  3. Gary Paul Gilbert

    My experience is very different. I remain suspicious of theological language, when that language has traditionally been used against LGBTs. The condemnation of the word “pride” makes no sense for a stigmatized group such as LGBTs. Coming out of the closet requires self-respect.

    As the secretary of the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, which has been putting on the Queens Pride Parade in Queens for the past twenty years, I can say that what we did was encourage LGBTs to come out of the closet and let the neighborhood of Jackson Heights see their LGBT neighbors in broad daylight. Danny Dromm, now our City Council Member, said that for too long LGBTs in Jackson Heights were seen as shadowy creatures of the night. LGBTs had been living in Jackson Heights for decades but for socializing people would go into Manhattan, thus giving the elected officials in Queens the impression that LGBT rights were an issue only for Manhattan. the LGBT community in Queens, after the murder of Julio Rivera, had to follow Harvey Milk’s example and come out of the closet to claim its rights. Many gay bars at that time would not support the parade because they said we were going to make trouble. A few gave generously and are still helping the community. The police at the time were very aggressive and the elected officials would not acknowledge us.

    Over the years, however, more and more elected officials have begun to march with us because they began to realize we are a community like any other. LGBTs helped out with political campaigns and let the candidates know their affiliation with the LGBT community. This year we had about 100,000 people show up for the parade and festival.

    Queens Borough Hall, for the past several years, under Borough President Helen Marshall (the first African-American woman in that position) has welcomed the LGBT community for an annual pride celebration. And many other elected officials host their own events.

    Broad community support in Queens is what helped us to win marriage equality in New York State last year.

    Tonight the JFK Democratic Club, a mainstream Democratic club, will honor both Council Member Dromm and me. This is the first year the club’s two honorees are from the LGBT community.

    I don’t think any of this would have happened without people coming out of the closet to claim their rights.

    Minimizing the value of a discourse of rights I find less than helpful. I also think that the church lacks the equivalent of the notion of equal protection. Fairness seems a harder notion to mobilize within Christian theology than within secular politics.

    At the very least an overtly religious would not work with a multicultural/multifaith/no faith community.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  4. Murdoch Matthew

    I realized a while back that if you wanted to embody the whole religious repression message — Suppress your feelings! Chain your impulses! Whip your desires! Lock up your impulses! — S&M expresses it nicely. When I visited St. Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens, in London’s Earls Court in the 1960s, life-size paintings lined the walls graphically depicting naked Christians in various processes of martyrdom. (Google “St. Sebastian” images for a B&D feast.) This sort of repression and (supposed) sublimation is unhealthy. It works at the cost of stifling the impulse to connect and love and live honestly.

    Attending my first bar-mitzvah in the 1970s was a revelation to a former Baptist used to singing “What a worm am I!” The Jewish approach seemed to be “G-d, Thank you for making us so wonderful! Now, smite our enemies!”

    “Rights” rhetoric is problematic. It’s shorthand for codifying the basic sense of fairness we human beings seem to have. “Rights” are not found in nature; they’re respect that civic bodies extend to individuals. Useful concept, but no more fact-based than “salvation.” The underlying ideas are equality and fairness.

    There’s a case for remembering our Gay Liberation roots in this day of corporate sponsorship of Pride Parades. But society-wide acceptance of LGBT persons has followed the corporate sign-on to rights. Gay friendly politicians to whom Ms Miles feels so superior (Pride sneaking in?) have lowered the legal barriers to our freedom. Nice that Ms Miles finds Jesus talk liberating. Not everyone’s experience. We’ve done much better in the secular realm where experience and evidence have some persuasive power.

  5. Spnjht

    Thank you Sara – as always you challenge us to reconsider our moral certainties in the light of the divine message of love.

    – Ben

    Thanks Ben- please sign your whole name when you comment. ~ed.

  6. Sara,

    Thank you for this vision of community and communion that follows Jesus’ embrace of scandal. Looking openly enough to see one another in love takes us beyond tribalism as rights discourse cannot. I’m reminded of James Alison’s startling instance, the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires apologizing to the senior rabbi and Jewish community of Buenos Aires for the church’s historic role instigating persecution and then, literally that very same afternoon, proposing ‘a ghetto’ for LGBT people to protect society. The discourse on rights may, with time, personal experience of ‘the other’ and patience, win the dominant tribe over to extend its boundary. But the work of love, the relentless work of Divine Compassion, to reconcile all, the making of beloved community, rights and pride won’t get us there. Actual, willingly-to-be-scandalized love can and will.

  7. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Donald, How does a Christian discourse about love go beyond tribalism? People can and do tell many different stories while working for justice.

    How can one choose a Christian discourse over a discourse of rights without falling back into the pride Sara denounces?

    Can’t one be bilingual/bicultural? Does our way have to be the only way?

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  8. Gary Paul,

    I like your questions a lot and know I don’t have the satisfactory answers I’d like to have.

    We’ve got two millennia of Christian discourse about love and much of it is as tribal as any other political or religion discourse. And yes, people can and do tell many different stories while working for justice. I’m grateful for that second bit, and believe that Christians transcend our own persistent tribalism by acknowledging and celebrating the community that emerges among all kinds of people, Christian and not, who work, hope, pray (or not because ‘all kinds’ includes people who don’t) for a justice that embraces all humanity and all creation.

    I don’t read Sara denouncing pride (as though she herself was immune). Actually, what I read feels opposite to ‘denouncing’ – that she knows she’s as vulnerable to pride (in the sense of a vanity that puts us above others) as any other human and from her own experience with and in the LGBT community offers us all invitation to look and work for freedom and embrace of difference together.

    Hmmm. Does our endemic return to tribalism amount to every readjustment to the boundary (new people included because majority group acknowledges old wrongs) persist because the new group (old majority plus new previously excluded group) inevitably redefines how what ‘we’ have in common makes us different from ‘them’ – those still outside the tribe?

  9. Christopher Evans

    Gosh darn it if Rowan Williams hasn’t done us a very large disfavor, and now we’re buying it hook, line, and sinker while we play church games and avoid the fact that Anglican Christianity is in several parts of the world a primary and vicious persecutor of sexual and gender minorities, and in other parts negates our persons and relationships and lives in myriad ways.

    Williams and folks here seem to have mistaken the unbounded and infinite love of God on the level of the Trinity to the necessity of love being concrete for us because we are finite and limited. There seems to be an over-realized eschatology at play here, mistaking abundance of grace and love for the reality of living in finite and limited creation, where rights and responsibilities speak precisely to how we are with one another in Christlike ways as creatures.

    The division of love and rights and responsibilities in our finite and limited world looks to me like a form of ecclesiastical docetism that wants to avoid the concrete shapes that love actually takes, divorcing the Church from its being witness to the Word precisely in our social worlds, and failing the Church by not providing the Church with a theological rationale for its own self- and internal- criticism where it fails members of Christ’s own Body.

    Rights language is not incompatible with Christianity. On the contrary, as Miroslav Volf reminds us quoting Nicholas Wolsterstorff, “If the person is not identical with relations, then on can also conceive the rights of ecclesial persons in correspondence to the Trinity…’Rights legitmate to the social practice of claiming goods on moral grounds.’…These rights presuppose the possibility of persons being abused, and they are meaningless without this possibility….The understanding of the divine persons as (interdependent and mutually internal) autonomous centers of action corresponds to the understanding of ecclesial persons as interdependent and catholic, albeit autonomous subjects. In order to protect the persons from abuse, not only for their own sake, but because of their communion with others and with God, one must ascribe inalienable rights to those not (yet) living in perfect love [all of us in the pilgrim Church]. People in the church can have rights, because they are persons who are to correspond to the relations of the divine persons as centers of action; but they must have these rights if they are to live in correspondence to the divine persons, because they are living on this side of God’s new creation. The rights of all members of the church, of officeholders as well as all other Christians, are grounded in the correspondence of the sojourning church to the Trinity. Personal rights, of course, cannot replace mutual love between persons. Rather, properly understood, rights presuppose such love; they protect against the abuse of persons and are an expression of love on this side of God’s new creation…” (Volf, After Our Likeness, 220)

    God has rights, and it is from God’s rights that Christians would be wise to consider how it is within the community of the faithful, we have responsibilities to one another that when failed require protection from abuses, that is, rights. So far, I have yet to see a clear and life-giving outline of responsibilities that fellow members of the Church have toward we who are sexual and gender minorities, with an emphasis on life-giving for us. At best, we have a variety of wishy-washy half-measures.

    Rights language is not new to Christianity either. You can read of folks insisting upon their “rights” at communion in Medieval England.

    When you are on the receiving end of poor and vicious and even persecutorial ecclesiastical behavior dignity and rights language before God in Christ are powerful antidote. I am baptized, I have been united to Christ’s death and resurrection, I will stand up and insist on being treated with dignity. And that will cost me–it is a cross to bear, in a limited and finite world where love takes on concrete shape.

    As for pride, pride can mean more than one thing in the dictionary. It can mean the self-turned-in-upon-the-self or hubris, what the mystic of the Theologia Germanica and Luther describe as Sin, but it can also mean a receiving of one’s place in the universe and before God that is willing to stand in the Resurrection even at great cost just to simply live an ordinary life.

  10. tobias haller

    Thanks, Christopher. I see our theosis as the point of Christ’s kenosis. We are baptized in him in a death like his, which makes us “worthy to stand” in God’s presence and live a life like his. This is the “pride” of deep engagement with who you are in a world that is, our little share of the great I AM. The thought is ironically humbling, but I think that’s the point. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and even more fearfully and wonderfully redeemed.

  11. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Donald, I feel uncomfortable with the word “pride” because groups who are always being asked to wait for the institutional church to get its act together and treat them like everybody else are usually the ones who are asked to submit to the status quo. Women and LGBTs are good examples. The current Presiding Bishop when she first came into office asked that LGBTs patiently accept being at the foot of the cross.

    Likewise, the word “love” doesn’t work for me because it is often about control. It seems too tribal.

    The notion of equal protection seems a better way of looking at injustice because no matter who the disfavored group generally the same arguments will be advanced to protect them from the majority. Working on one issue serves as a precedent for other issues.

    Thank you, Christopher, I find your argument that Christianity and a discourse of rights need not be mutually exclusive. At its most basic, a trinitarian approach stresses that one gets one’s identity through relations to others, so that one cannot separate oneself. A person must neither be split off nor fused with others. Coldness versus smothering are the extremes in parenting therapists are familiar with. The charge of docetism, at least structurally, seems appropriate. A church which denies its concrete relations with people is not very incarnational. Yes, Tobias, theosis is a term which comes up in my mind too for another way of looking at things as in the Athanasian creed: “One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking of the Manhood into God;

    One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.

    One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.”

    I am more comfortable with a nonreligious language but the rhetorical structures in this notion of oneness appeal to me.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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