We reproduce here a sermon by Professor George Zachariah delivered at Gurukul Chapel, Chennai, on August 2, 2009.
Interested readers are referred to a longer version of this essay published in ‘Religion and Society’ available at the end of this article. Also available is a Message to Indian Christian communities resulting from a Theological Round Table on sexuality held in Kolkata on Dec 5 and 6, 2009.
Church: A Rainbow Community of the Beloved and Equals
Dr. George Zachariah, Department of Theology and Ethics, Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Chennai
Image Source: bornlikethis.org
The Delhi High Court verdict on July 2nd, reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code continues to be a major controversial issue in our nation. Religious leaders are in the forefront aggressively challenging the verdict in the name of culture, tradition, and values. Various church bodies have already passed resolutions condemning the verdict. The hitherto silenced sexual minorities who have been forced to confine to the closets are also in the streets celebrating the verdict which decriminalized their lives. It is in this context of moral ambiguity and multiple perspectives, that we have gathered this evening as members of the body of Christ to reflect together the implications of this verdict for the being and the becoming of the Church in India. How do we become a Church to those brothers and sisters who are ostracized and excluded from the fuller communion of the Church? How can the Church reclaim its vision of a rainbow community of the beloved and equals?
The Church has always approached homosexuality as a moral issue, and we are reluctant to welcome and include homosexuals into our faith communities. Most of the churches unconditionally reject homosexuality as sinful and immoral, and refuse sacraments and ordination to people with homosexual orientations. In the case of some churches, they condemn homosexuality but not the homosexual person based on the principle of condemning the sin but not the sinner. A third position understands homosexuality not as a matter of sexual orientation, but due to the choice of the person. So for them, it is an addiction, from which the person can be saved by coming to Jesus. The role of the Church in such situation is to help homosexuals to change their sinfulness and abnormality by turning back to Jesus. Finally, there are also few churches which understand same sex relations as capable of expressing God’s purposes, and homosexuals are people with dignity because they reflect God’s image. On the whole, the Church is not a welcoming place to people with different sexual orientations.
Bible plays a significant role in discerning our response to homosexuality. “Homosexuality is sinful because the Bible says so” is the standard response to the recent debate not only by ordinary people, but also by bishops and church leaders. What does the Bible say about homosexuality is the question that we want to probe in order to make an opinion on this issue. This question does not recognize the importance of hermeneutics in understanding biblical texts. It stems from the dominant idea of biblical interpretation as an objective scientific study without subjective interest to dig out the original meaning of the original author buried in the text. We tend to believe that this approach of reading Bible is an innocent, unbiased, and scientific method with universal validity. This approach has been contested by readings from the margins.
Bible has played a significant role in the violence inflicted upon sexual minorities. This experience of scriptural violence compelled many homosexual people to hate Bible and to leave the Church. But the biblical abuse initiated by the heterosexist interpretations also led to the emergence of queer interpretative communities who read Bible from their standpoint to protect themselves from scripturally sanctioned violence and exclusion. Their attempt is to “take back the Word” not only to protect them, but also to celebrate their lives.
Queer biblical interpretation, has two functions. On the one hand it attempts to critique heterosexist interpretations that use Bible to condemn homosexuality and legitimize and perpetuate the exclusion of and violence against sexual minorities. But on the other hand, it is also a positive reading strategy to reclaim the Bible and to rediscover their subjectivity within the Bible. One of the positive methods of queer interpretations is known as Befriending the text. Even as we commit ourselves to transform our faith communities into just and inclusive communities, let us try to draw inspiration from the Bible using the method of befriending the text to enable and empower us for this great task.
Even as we commit ourselves to transform our faith communities into just and inclusive communities, let us try to draw inspiration from the Bible using the method of befriending the text to enable and empower us for this great task.
In befriending the text the text of homosexual lives interacts with the text of scripture. “The point of reference for a queer reading of scripture is the notion that the Bible is our friend. When we approach the Bible as a friendly text, as a text that ‘does not harm,’ the terror of the scripture is transformed into the life giving word of God. We are able to find our story within it.” Befriending the text is a deep spiritual experience for sexual minorities because, it enables them to affirm that “we too have been graciously invited to God’s inclusive table; and we are taking back the word as we take back our Christian practices.”
The Epistle to the Ephesians is addressed to a multicultural church, primarily with Jewish and Hellenistic communities. The Epistle talks about the unity and reconciliation of the whole people of God through the agency of the Church. So the Church in the letter to the Ephesians is an inclusive church which celebrates diversity and differences. What is the theological reason for imagining Church as an inclusive community in a multicultural and pluralistic context? Is it just an attempt to be politically correct, or is there a theological rationale to argue that the Church is essentially an inclusive community? I would like to share with you three insights from our readings to help us in our search to become an inclusive community.
First of all Christian faith that affirms one body, one spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God is not a rejection of diversities; rather it is an affirmation of the reconciliation of all diversities in Christ. Plurality and diversity are not accidents or deformities that need to be cured and treated. The reconciled diversity that we find in the one Lord, or one body, or one spirit, or one baptism is not the imposition of a particular worldview or practice or sexual orientation as normative for all. Rather as members of the one body, sharing the same baptismal vow of allegiance to the one Lord, our differences are being reconciled in Christ Jesus.
So inclusiveness is not a choice that the Church ought to make. Rather inclusiveness is the basic characteristic of the Church.
A Church with fortified walls practicing untouchability towards people who share the same image of God and who are marked by the sign of cross in the sacrament of baptism can not be considered as the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ is a Church without walls extending its fellowship to all those who are beloved by God in Christ Jesus.
Secondly, our calling as Christians is not to exclude but to practice the spirit of reconciliation for unity in the bond of love and peace. The author of the epistle reminds us that, “I therefore, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” So if all our diversities are reconciled in Christ, then our calling is to lead a life worthy of this divine purpose of reconciliation for which God has called us. Often we exclude others out of our desire to become a holy people by condemning them as immoral and impure. But once again we are reminded this evening that holiness is not something that we achieve by sanitizing and insulating ourselves from the sinful world; but holiness is an invitation to become holy in the way of Jesus, the Christ. Holiness for Jesus meant challenging the purity maps of his time which excluded people on the basis of their health, ethnicity, class nature, and gender status. In that process he touched the leprosy affected people, he touched the ears and eyes of people with deformities, he touched human saliva, he dined with socially outcaste people, he protected notorious women, and he was crucified outside the city gates. Through touching the untouchables Jesus inaugurated God’s reign in our midst. The Church is duty bound to continue this mission of touching the untouchables. Christian mission of reconciliation presupposes the prophetic courage to touch the untouchables. Church becomes a first fruit of the reign of God only when we respond to this call in the bond of love and peace, and welcome into our midst those who are condemned as untouchables.
Thirdly, the Church is called to speak the truth in love to grow into the fullness of Christ. Speaking the truth in love is a difficult task. Speaking the truth that in Christ we are all reconciled with one another is a dangerous proposition. We are still reluctant to recognize casteism as the original sin of our country because we are afraid to speak the truth in love. We continue to be comfortable in excluding women from the total life of the Church because we are not yet ready to speak the truth in love.
Our homophobia against people with different sexual orientations, and our anger against the Delhi High Court verdict expose our unwillingness to speak the truth in love. Speaking the truth in love demands from us the courage to expose the untruth of our dominant truth claims.
Exposing our untruths is an invitation to a costly metanoia: a metanoia to transform our faith communities from our obsession with the prevailing dominant truth claims of our times to discover in love, new truths, truths that compel us to grow into the fullness of Christ. Growing into the fullness of Christ enables the Church to grow in love. From the fear of the unknown, the stranger, and the person who is different from us, we grow into the beauty of the rainbow where we celebrate the splendor of beauty without sacrificing our differences.
If this is the Gospel of Jesus, the Christ, we see the manifestation of the same Gospel in the judgment of the learned judges of the Delhi High Court. Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice S. Muralidhar in their historic verdict made a distinction between public morality and constitutional morality.
Public morality is informed by the dominant social norms and values. Constitutional morality, on the other hand envisions the highest ethical principles. Pubic morality is what the dominant system prescribes as good and moral. Legitimizing laws in the name of public morality is unethical as it prevents the possibility of the blossoming of the constitutional morality in the here and now. Again, for the learned judges the rationale for them to affirm constitutional morality above public morality was the principle of inclusiveness, the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution. As followers of the non-conformist Christ, the one who consistently quarreled with the priests of public morality, our call is to reject all laws that demonize, criminalize, and exclude human beings from the life of the Church and society.
This calls for corrections in the prevailing power inequities in the Church and society. Social and cultural norms should be re-imagined so that differences in caste, gender and sexuality are no longer ranked hierarchically in terms of superiority and inferiority.
Differences should not be occasions for domination but for recognizing and validating variations within a richly diverse humanity.
A prayer of lament read to us by Paul Davis enabled us to listen to the agony of a person with different sexual orientation. “Let me have a share of your peace without obsessing that my “lifestyle” is not Christian, without hating myself, my fate, my body, and my heart. Let me live a life of joy and peace, secure in the knowledge that your grace fills me, that nothing I have done or desired or worried about can erase your love for me that you bid me come “just as I am.”
This is the vision of a rainbow community of the beloved and equals. It is a historic moment for us, the Indian Church, to make a decision. We can either continue to remain as an inhospitable religious club—a hostile community as the rapists of Sodom in Genesis 19, committing violence against the sexual minorities, or we can become a just and inclusive rainbow community celebrating our God given diversities by welcoming those who are different from us into our midst to experience Christian fellowship in a deeper way. God of love has called us as a community of friends and equals to be filled with God’s love; to share God’s unconditional love; to demonstrate God’s love to others—whoever they are, whatever their background be; to declare and show by our actions that God loves all, and has no pre-existing conditions for loving all of God’s creations. May the God of love help us to become a Church to those who are demonized, criminalized, and excluded.
Church: A Rainbow Community of the Beloved and Equals (Full version)
Message to Indian Christian communities (Theological Round Table on sexuality, Kolkata, Dec 5 and 6, 2009)
We thank Prof. Zachariah for consent to include these resources on Orinam.net