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RGOD2: Getting out of hell, an Easter parable

LGBT people have been historically and universally condemned to hell. The Easter message liberates us and invites us to live authentic and full lives, even when we are condemned by many religious institutions.

“Christian orthodoxy demands I believe in hell, but I don’t have to believe anyone is in hell.” - a remarkable statement from Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Good Friday is about Jesus’ crucifixion and torture that climaxes in his death. His body is placed in a borrowed tomb. The following Sunday, the tomb was empty, and rumors spread that he had been raised from the dead.

The religious establishment tried to solve their immediate political problem of how to get rid of Jesus. They planned to have him killed by the state (Roman Empire). Yet, even death could not contain the Jesus revolution.

Later, theologians would reflect on where Jesus went between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Their answer - hell. Jesus descends into hell to free all of humanity from death’s captivity.

A controversial image of the Resurrection

There is a beautiful fresco in the ancient Chora church in Istanbul depicting the Resurrection. In it, Jesus leaps from the tomb grasping the wrists of Adam, Eve, all the early biblical characters and all of humanity leaving the tomb - together.

This is a deeply controversial image because it affirms the belief that the whole of humanity, not just a part of it (Christian believers) share in new and risen life. By entering into hell, the light and love of God that was present in the physical being of Jesus, frees others from their captivity too. There is no room (in this ancient orthodox reflection on the meaning of Easter) for some humans to be “left behind” (a 19th-century American invention that has gained popularity in recent years). There is no indication of a judgment where the “goodies” are taken up and the “baddies” remain in hell. Everyone is out!

Some Christians had such a hard time with the idea that Jesus could enter such a dreadful place as hell so they actually left it out from the historic Apostles creed preferring to say “he descended to the dead” rather than the more ancient belief “he descended into hell.” What would Jesus be doing around those nasty people that we want to throw into eternal damnation?

The church has always struggled with the belief that people who disagreed with the dominant belief system (doctrine) or who were deemed “infidels and heretics” could share in eternal life outside of hell. Hell was a convenient cosmic trash can where God would punish the people with whom we disagreed or found threatening. The body could be tortured to save the soul and religious people throughout history found justification in doing horrific things to one another to ensure their enemies might be saved from eternal damnation in hell.

Many Christians still believe, despite of orthodox teaching I just described, that LGBT are so evil and immoral that we will spend the rest of eternity in hell. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (excluding gay folk) and there is an inconsistency in this theology that undermines the universal principles that the original Christian “Good News” of the effectiveness of God’s unconditional love.

This is also not orthodox Christianity. It elevates anti-gay bullying to an eternal and cosmic realm and gives justification to religious people to continue to wreak havoc and use the state to punish us in 76 countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT. Good Friday is a daily reality for millions of LGBT people worldwide. The Jesus story is our story too. He descends to the place the church and a third of the planet has condemned us to. He also grasps us and all humanity by the wrists, releasing us from all that confines us. This is what Easter means to me.
Dominic Crossan is a former Catholic priest and reflecting on the two forms of Christianity that dominate our world said:

“Either Jesus got it right the first time … to bring in God’s justice and peace through love and non violence. Or, he didn’t get it right and so he will return at a later date with his heavenly armies to beat the crap out of humanity.”

I like his Irish sense of humor while demanding Christians to practice what we say we believe. Either the whole world is already saved and sins are forgiven or Jesus didn’t get it right the first time.

A contemporary Easter story

If I told you a story about a young idealist leader who shared his food with his friends and the poor, brought healing and a radical form of inclusiveness to the marginalized and persecuted, who might that be?

How he challenged the religious and political establishment, broke the law and alienated himself so much that they sought any avenue to get rid of him. He was finally discredited and executed, and while some were glad to finally get rid of him, others were devastated at the violence and cruelty these institutions directed toward him. They became disillusioned and had to struggle to find a new identity without him. Yet he mysteriously remained with them and his movement did not disappear with his death, but only grew in numbers and in conviction.

I am talking about David Kato, the Ugandan activist who was murdered last year. I just watched a preview of “Call Me Kuchu” (Ugandan slang for queer) about the life, death and continued presence of David Kato.

It is a remarkable film capturing David’s life over the course of a year before he died. His humanity, love and sense of justice is tangible. He is surrounded by disciples (many of whom I know) who now carry his torch for justice. They too talk openly about their dreams and struggles in a society that has condemned them to hell and made sure they would experience it this side of the grave.

We see David’s vulnerable side as well as his audacity to take on the government and its horrible propaganda. We see Giles Muhame, editor of the tabloid paper Rolling Stone (who hounded David and his community, and called for their hanging) as a profoundly damaged human being who is so unaware that he is an architect of genocide and impending murder.

Maybe someone like this should deserve to go to hell for what he is doing in the name of God, but the fresco in Istanbul reminds me that he too mysteriously shares in the new humanity. He just doesn’t realize it yet. There is a real place called hell, but it is not of God’s making, it is made by people like Giles. He made life hell for David Kato and many others in Uganda. But the authentic Easter message invites us to see Jesus with us and bringing us out of hell into freedom and new life.

The American filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall should be commended for making this film as a modern-day Easter story. The film received international acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival and will have its American premiere on June 16 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Katy and Malika thanked the Cinema Fairbindet international jury and the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Dirk Niebel, for the prize, saying it was important for the Ugandan gay and lesbian movement to receive recognition in an international setting. This, the filmmakers said, would lend a voice to the activists' struggle. This has become their “Good News.”

I know the film is going to have the same effect in the USA. It will also be shown at the Castro Theater on June 19, days before San Francisco celebrates Pride with the theme ”Global Equality.” We too are Easter people. We look up to the light and legacy of those who have gone before us, clutching our wrists and pulling us out of the tombs. And the gates of hell cannot prevail. Happy Easter!

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.

Photo captions

Top left: The Rev. Albert Ogle. Middle left: Ogle’s actual license plate. Bottom left: David Kato with his mother Lydia at her home, where his body was laid to rest.