The Feast of the Unclean

by

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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Spnjht
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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.

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Murdoch Matthew
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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.

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Gary Paul Gilbert
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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

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Amber Evans
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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...

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Olivia Kuser
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yesyesyesyesyesYES! This is beautiful Sara. Thank you.

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