This week I visited St. Mathew’s Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand, where a Christmas poster of a baby Jesus with a rainbow halo has attracted international outrage.
The poster states: “It’s Christmas and time for Jesus to come out.”
One of the priests who serves there and has been dealing with the flurry of media response happens to be from San Diego! Whether you are a Christian, a recovering Christian or an atheist, the story of the birth of Jesus in an outhouse/stable is of cosmic significance for LGBT people and their stigmatized allies across the planet. Don’t reject the story as some in the church have rejected us. You and I are actually IN the story. St. Mathew’s has successfully made this connection!
If you, like me, are tired of raving-mad Fundamentalists shoving JESUS down our throats, I can understand why Christmas can be such a turn-off. Try another ancient code word for the one who is our ally. Say “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” This ancient mantra is as inclusive as it gets.
The actual meaning of the word Jesus is “one who creates space.” Are you breathing easier? Salvation is not about being saved from hell; for many LGBT people it is simply about being saved from choking to death by the homophobia of other people. Many LGBT children face bullying and even violence, so many of us can connect our experience of marginalization with the story of Jesus’ beginnings. This is OUR story because it is about Jesus’ marginalization.
Jesus, from his very humble beginning, enters a dark world of political upheaval and control (Roman census and taxation), personal rejection, stigma and even a memory of a close escape from the threats of (state) violence. King Herod wants to remove any potential threat to his power and orders a massacre of male children. This gruesome detail in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 2, Verses 16-18) parallels the horror of our own recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Although there is no historical evidence for the “Slaughter of the Holy Innocents” commemorated by the Church every year on Dec. 28, it would be the perfect day to start the revolution to end gun violence in the USA. What a perfect day to have a national day of prayer and vigils across the land for gun control! But, my fear is that clergy will be so tired after putting on all the pageants and doing Christmas for everyone else, that the deeper significance and connections of the Jesus birth story, including violence against children, will be too difficult to engage.
If there was ever a time for the USA to say no to gun violence, this is it. Could the USA Christian movement make a major dent in our indifference to 30,000 people who die each year from gun violence? While Congressional leaders who have not been supportive of gun control remain silent and prepare to celebrate Christmas with their grandchildren and families, the feast of the “Slaughter of the Holy Innocents” coming on the heels of Christmas 2012, may be a game changer.
Sanitize or sanctify?
Typical religious Christmas celebrations sanitize the reality of suffering and marginalization. It is not unlike the way the Church has sanitized the crucifix as a symbol of torture. Modern western Christianity has largely forgotten what it is like to come from the margins because it is focused upon maintaining its powerful imperial institutions. A significant part of global Christianity wants to make a lot of money (Prosperity Gospel according to pastor Rick Warren) or seek political influence where morality and Scripture can shape laws (i.e., anti-homosexuality bills in places like Uganda, Russia and Ukraine, or banning divorce or birth control). The Church is not as familiar with the margins as it used to be and it requires work from all of us to remember that place.
For me, this year in particular connected me to many marginalized LGBT people globally who will not be welcome at their churches to celebrate Jesus birth. They have helped me see where God is working in the world today. Ironically, the people entrusted with the telling of the story, my fellow clergy, have no idea what LGBT marginalization looks like or their perpetuation of it by homophobic statements and support of anti-LGBT laws. So we need to tell them our stories as marginalized peoples. We can attempt to engage a pastor about our quest for human rights, but I guarantee you will get closer to his heart by talking about what it is like to be marginalized rather than about being denied “rights.”
Yet, the sheer power of the original Jesus birth story cannot fully expunge the basic premise that Jesus and God are quite content to work outside religious institutions and not part of our “country clubs at prayer” mentality either. The threat of the story, if we do not identify as marginalized, demands we control it by co-opting or sentimentalizing it. I have worked in enough parishes and schools over 35 years of ministry to know what I am talking about. Clergy are expected to tell the Christmas story without “upsetting the horses.” Marginalized people are usually not a focus of the Midnight Mass in most congregations. Most clergy either protect their congregations from the depth of the story and cave in to the commercialization of the season, or become chaplains to the “country club” mentality. In so doing, the Church maintains a series of locks and mazes that the truth seeker must uncover for themselves, far away from Sunday school, the Church and the Christmas crib.
The truth of the birth story is not obvious and what is peddled as Christmas observance in most churches this week is not the truth. Santa, Jesus, Angels. Bishop Barbara Harris once remarked how culture can often hold the gospel hostage. There is no time like Christmas to illustrate her point, unless you are a member of St. Mathew’s in Aukland.
Good News from the margins
Organized religion feels most at home in state parliaments and sweet Christmas pageants than in the margins of desperation, violence and rejection. These margins are often products of our personal shadow recesses created by our own political and theological frameworks.
For example, Uganda has to believe homosexuality is un-African, western-imported, a threat to children and families and is so overwhelmingly evil so that they can ignore their own pandemic of heterosexual violence toward women and children. Externalize the threat always. In the same way, a large number of Americans will sentimentalize and feel deeply for the tragic loss of 20 beautiful children in their classrooms, but this emotional response will not help us to answer a deeper questions about our fascination with violence, why the Second Amendment has become an 11th Commandment or why we ignore Americans with mental illness. I reject the view that this was caused by evil or the devil. It is easier to isolate the evil from outside of us than to admit our institutions and livelihoods, (even identities) may depend on disowning and marginalizing our shadow side as a nation or as individuals.
Religious leaders and traditions have a responsibility to make the texts live and to help society face our own darker shadow sides. The Mexican Christmas tradition of Posada is a story of rejection by the whole village until Jesus and his exhausted parents are finally welcomed by the oddball innkeeper. The roots of Mexican hospitality come from the Bethlehem story through the Posada tradition told over the centuries.
In the 1980s we used this tradition in Pasadena as a kind of street drama inviting the community to end the stigma of people living with HIV. The holy family represented all marginalized included people with AIDS. Thousands of people joined us and supported the AIDS Center there and the Jesus story creating breathing space for so many stigmatized people with HIV and their families. We made the texts live again.
Making the holy texts live
I believe the faith community is potentially the only USA coalition or cohesive social movement powerful enough to challenge the unquestioned authority of the NRA and our mad love affair with violence.
The symbolism of the birth narrative recounting the Slaughter of the Innocents triggers both the unconscious power of myth and an opportunity for societal transformation as we achieved in Pasadena. Our collective energy undoubtedly defaults to sentimentalizing Christmas rather than incarnating it (living and breathing it). It is hard to recognize the story when it is performed by children for their doting parents, but it is actually a pretty horrific human story that most church-goers, if we are honest, would rather not unlock. This year may be different as people see ghostly resemblances of absent children in the faces of their own beloved ones. “That could have been my kid,” many will think. This national tragedy may actually knock us out of the sleepy “Silent Night” syndrome where we lullaby ourselves into national inertia and indifference about gun violence.
This year, Christmas will come as a bittersweet reminder of human folly as well as human potential. I cannot listen to the Christmas story without thinking about the millions of LGBT people who remain religious and political exiles in their own countries and faith communities. They are stigmatized in the same way Jesus and the saints bear the stigmata – wounds of love often inflicted by a broken world.
Christmas is also a very painful time for a lot of LGBT people because of its close association with memory, family, belonging and rejection. Yet, by embracing the reality of our experience, we are opened up to its truth and our connection to something much much larger than our individual issues. The essential message hidden in the traditional Christmas story comes as good news for all marginalized and suffering people. Let’s be surprised by our own awakenings. It’s time for Jesus to come out.
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.