T.S. Eliot’s magi aren’t quite sure what they have been brought to Bethlehem to witness. A new beginning, certainly, but, as they say, ‘…this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.’ Nothing is quite the same again; the otherwise routine event of a lowly infant born in unimportant poverty – out of sight, out of mind, at least to those sleeping it off at the inn – somehow pulls them out of kilter when they try to resume to their habitual routines: ‘We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…’. Eliot’s poem captures perfectly an atmosphere of haunting strangeness which endures, effervescent in this season even today, amidst all that is familiar, swaddled and saccharine. Without dismissing Away in a Manger and the various carols that share in its tidy piety, Eliot’s poem pushes us into a different register. Arriving as we do ‘not a moment too soon’, the cries of that vulnerable infant proclaim to us a world rather less neatly sewn up than we fool ourselves into thinking – a sacrificial, exclusive, and violent world destabilised by a truth proclaimed peaceably from its margins, which gently unpicks the falsities and half-truths propping up the ‘respectable’ corridors of power. Thus, the swaddled flesh of the Christ child is not simply the object of happy cooing; it belongs to that same life-giving Body by whose annihilating wounds we will be dispossessed of sacrificial myth, and healed. In the words of St Gregory Nazianzus, this is the night in which ‘natures have been instituted afresh’ – a notion cherished by St Maximus the Confessor in his argument that in the Christ child may be found a redemptive ‘performance’ (tropos) of our God-given human being (logos). The Bethlehem dawn does not simply convey good news to a humanity with questions; the news it calls good is nothing less than a question to our understanding of what being human means. And that’s a death of sorts, at least to the certainties of old.
‘Authentic Christianity is and must be queer’. So says Liz Edman, Episcopal priest and political strategist, who addressed the Westcott community this term, discussing some of the themes to be found in her latest book, Queer Virtue (Beacon Press, 2016). Her work has caught the attention of congregations on both sides of the Atlantic, and her visit to Cambridge came amidst speaking engagements in London and Liverpool, where the appetite among church leaders for fresh and imaginative engagements with some of the most depressingly entrenched debates in the Anglican Communion has given Edman a space in which to bring together her perspectives from her years in ministry and her current ‘day job’ in politics. For Edman, ‘queer’ is less an abstract label, and more verbal in its character: the queer perspective is one which articulates a process of ‘rupturing’ by which false binaries and static frameworks are shown to be inadequate, stale, and less than honest vis-à-vis the complexities of human existence they seek to distil. Transcending these false binaries is the work of queer theory – though this is perhaps a misleading label, since what the term denotes is so often the lived experience of discerning with honesty the depths and complexities of one’s own identity, fashioning a language with which to communicate this honestly, and engaging in the risky process of navigating one’s relationships and building a new kind of community and solidarity.
Tragically, it is against such a process of honest discovery that the institutional and de facto doctrinal weight of Christianity is so often perceived to be, or actually is, levelled. This is tragic – not to mention ironic – since, as Edman argues, queer people ‘possess virtue on terms that Christianity itself sets’. That is, the journey of queer discovery is fundamentally congruent with the journey of transformation, the mental and spiritual metanoia, inaugurated and catalysed by the Christ event itself. Christ is conceived out of wedlock, born a refugee in a cultural and religious backwater. That upending of geopolitical evaluation (dare we say London / Workington?) is but one of a host of categories, conventionally juxtaposed, which are in Christ drawn into stupendous, troubling, non-competitive proximity: messiah / weakling, chosen one / atrocious genealogy, son of God / born of a woman, truly divine / truly human. ‘For in this Rose containéd was / heaven and earth in little space’; it transpires that we understood neither. Our limited conceptions of both have been transcended; the old patterns of thought must fall away. ‘Natures have been instituted afresh’. The pitch has been queered.
For those tempted to think Edman’s project inhabits an esoteric realm somewhere on the margins of Christian theology, yet another transformation may be in order. The queer perspective unlocks something at the heart of the project of Christian theology, something fundamental to one’s confession of Christ Jesus as Lord. For, once ‘queerness’ of a kind is unleashed at the heart of the Christ event, the ripples travel outwards, transcending every last order of exclusion, violence, and scapegoat they encounter. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’, says St Paul to the Galatians (3.28). The outstretched arms of Christ on the cross draw into the divine embrace an infinitely wide arc of relationship which simply cannot be limited, cut out, or excluded. The gentle obstinacy of God’s love puts back to us again and again the truth of the Samaritan paradigm: there is no boundary which the divine love cannot bridge, and there is no ultimate logic of exclusion which is necessary to the purposes of creation. Insofar as we are in Christ, we are participants and co-workers in this redemptive ‘unlocking’; yet this is of course a process which also needs to happen within ourselves. We are perennially tempted to view our identities as fixed, static, and exclusive, and we fail to see how such a perspective does violence to the complexities of shared existence and the reality of the lives of others. We forget St Anthony’s wise counsel, ‘our life and our death are with our neighbour’, by which he indicated that our moral judgement so often rests on ignorance – or neglect – of our own life and complexity. Our true identity is the stuff of patient discovery; our lives are ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3.3) and revealed through our habits of attentiveness to the queer narrative by which God has revealed himself as mystery.
Put another way, Edman’s project involves a continual unmaking and remaking in the crucible of prayer, scripture and sacrament, which constitutes, as the Catholic theologian James Alison puts it, ‘the discovery and construction of a real and surprising fraternity which begins with overcoming the tendency to forge from our own perspective a sacred which excludes’ (Faith Beyond Resentment (DLT, 2001), p.36). Like Alison, Edman writes from the perspective of an LGBTQ Christian, whose very bodily life has been demeaned, despised, and threatened by those claiming to act with divine authority and righteousness. And, like Alison, Edman argues convincingly that it is from precisely this place of the ‘broken heart’, from this position of bodily vulnerability, that the virtues central to Christian existence are most clearly manifested and understood, since it is from this perspective that one is awakened to the fact that God has precisely nothing to do with human habits of violence and oppression. The conception of God as an aloof, stern, pitiless moraliser (the armour-piercing ammunition for any kind of established ‘order’) is blasphemous; to use Alison’s formulation, the ‘scandal’ of the Gospel is its gentle destruction of any ‘religious’ perspective in which truth is subordinated to group cohesion and mercy to sacrifice. By contrast, the discovery that we are in fact invited into a larger story, in which no such exclusion, scapegoating, and anxious corralling are necessary, becomes the interior key by which we understand and embody the new kind of community Christ brings about, a community in which the intelligence of the victim is manifested without resentment in order to draw all into a new unbinding of conscience, a solidarity based upon a constant revisiting of the margins to discern where and how we have excluded and oppressed in order to unbind our own consciences further. This is the hermeneutical key manifested, as Edman movingly recounted, in the decision of many LGBTQ Pride participants to march without armed police protection in the wake of the 2016 mass-shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It is, equally, the stance inhabited by so many who call themselves queer, whose faithfulness in Christ through every repercussion of their costly honesty about their identity gives vivid illustration to Jesus’ words about the bearing of a cross as basic to discipleship.
My love of T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi has something to do with my sense of solidarity with its narrator, as he undergoes what is so recognisably a feeling that he has encountered a kind of vertiginous drop beyond the reaches of his own conscience. I don’t, personally, imagine him ever saying much more about the events he describes; in fact, I sometimes imagine that the only visible transformation after he had returned was that he said a great deal less about everything. That has something to do with the sense that Eliot’s narrator is not so much describing a process of understanding events, but of events understanding him; not so much his reading of an occurrence in Bethlehem, as everything about that occurrence reading him. Back from his sojourn, the wise, priestly man (if that is what he was) had a sense, perhaps, that everything he thought basic to understanding the world had in fact been shown to be part of a gentle question, a question posed wordlessly in the cries of an infant. There were no drab cosmic necessities anymore; in fact, the world fizzled with restless questing and questioning. All he knew was that he was invited to journey deeper into a truth so utterly discombobulating to settled expectation that it felt like a death. And yet it wasn’t death, really – it was life. Life he had never imagined before. Redemptive, transformative, radically queer.
This reflection is based on Liz’s talk to members of the Westcott House community, and the subsequent session of questions and answers. You can find out more about her work and book here.