In her account of the historical development of gay and lesbian/ queer theology, Elisabeth Stuart says that the weakness of both the gay liberationist and the feminist/lesbian approaches is that by working from the basis of real life experience of gays and lesbians, they are not easily accessible by others who do not share than experience. They also, she says, have in practice placed so much emphasis on ethics and relationships that questions of the divine seem to fade into the background: their work barely qualifies as “theology” at all.
This is not an accusation that one could make against Robert Goss, a former Jesuit turned AIDS activist. In his writing, he places God, and in particular the person of Jesus Christ, firmly at the centre of his work. In marked contrast with both the earlier gay and lesbian theologians and the orthodox Catholic theologians of the Vatican, Goss’ theology is built on Christology.
But before developing his Christological model, he analyses the existing power structures of society and the church and conventional presentations of Scripture, showing how they are influences by the prevailing heterosexist power structures. For example, says Goss, even the language we use has developed from the medical language of pathology and deviance, through the criminalization, to the Christian discourses which unquestioningly present heterosexual behaviour as somehow the only part of “God’s will” for human sexuality. In teaching our children, secular and religious education systems assume that all children are heterosexual, so that those who are not grow up without any preparation by socialization for learning appropriate behaviour.
In the age of AIDS/HIV though, this very insistence on heterosexual conformity has produced a counteraction, provoking a range of transgressive actions by AIDS activists to shake up the public consciousness. This transgressive response, says Goss, is fundamental to an understanding of Christ. Christology, he says, has been drastically distorted by the popular presentation of Christ as a desexed, ascetic and celibate male: a presentation heavily influenced by later Hellenistic philosophy and Gnosticism, but one without any support from the Gospels.
So, rejecting the unscriptural conceptions of Christ that are so familiar to us from our heterosexist religious education, Goss develops a model of Christ rooted in the scriptures. Central to this argument is an emphasis on
the basileia, the reign of God which “signified the political transformation of his society into a radically egalitarian, new age, where sexual, religious and, and political distinctions would be irrelevant. Jesus acted out his basileia message by standing with the oppressed and outcasts of society and by forming a society of equals.
His siding with the poor and oppressed led him to what Goss calls Jesus’ most transgressive demonstration of “the egalitarian, unbrokered reign of God” – the “Stop the Temple” action, which led directly to the cross.
The implications for queer Christians of Jesus’ constant siding with the poor, marginalised and oppressed against the rich and powerful are obvious, but there is another important lesson Goss points to: the crucifixion itself.
Goss argues that at Easter, Jesus became the “queer Christ”. This is not any comment on Jesus’ sexuality, although Goss is keen to point out the homophobic assumptions that underlie the construction of Christ as either asexual or heterosexual. Rather, for Goss the resurrection is God’s “coming out” on the side of Jesus, confirming his basileia message. Jesus’ resurrection is therefore the hope for queer people for it is through it that God turns Jesus into a parable about God, and so we know that God is on the side of the oppressed.
Goss’ message for gay and lesbian Christians is clear. In the same way that Christ sided firmly with the outcasts and oppressed and challenged the powerful, questioning the assumptions that lay behind the established rules and practices of the day, and not fearing to undertake transgressive actions to right the wrongs, we who are queer in church must do the same. We must recognize that God is on our side, we must challenge and question the established assumptions, and must not shirk transgressive actions at times.
This is how Elisabeth summarizes the importance of “Jesus Acted UP!”
No other work of gay and lesbian theology is quite as activist orientated as Jesus Acted Up. It is, as the sub-text states, a manifesto and ends with the rallying cry: “ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! END HATE!” It is an exciting call to transgressive action in the name of the queer Christ. It is essentially a liberation theology, but unlike most gay liberation theology, is closer in the manner of its theological reflection to Latin American liberation theology, than to feminist or process theology. Christ is absolutely central to Goss’ theology, and not the demythologised Christ of liberal theology or feminist theology, but the resurrected Christ. Goss never attempts to demythologise the resurrection because he understands the resurrection to be the foundation of all and any hope for justice. And although Goss follows so many gay liberation and liberationist theologians in commending the exile, for him the exile is not a place in which to abandon Christian belief and practice, but a place in which to appropriate and renew it.