Sharon A. Bong – « Becoming the queer, postcolonial, (eco-)feminist body of Christ »

Sharon A. Bong

« Ecclesiology. Becoming the queer, postcolonial, (eco-)feminist body of Christ in Asia »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo


I. Introduction

What does it mean to become church in Asia in the likeness of a queer Christ in the new millennium? On the one hand, the notion of queerness – that is suggestive of deviancy even perversion – seems alien to the commonly perceived conservatism of churches embedded in an Asian values system where Christianity comes largely as an effect of colonialization (e.g. Spaniards in the Philippines, Portuguese in Malaysia, then Malaya, the Dutch in Indonesia, the British in India, and the French in China) and remains a minority faith (except in the Philippines and Timor-Leste). On the other hand, the notion of queerness – that is suggestive of disruption and multiplicity – resonates with the web of multi-cultural, multi-religious connections, ideological clashes and revolutions from below that characterize not only nationalist struggles in the past but also postcolonial endeavors of the present, e.g. political uprisings (e.g. Umbrella movement in Hong Kong), neo-liberalist market economies of Singapore and China amid the crippling poverty in South Asia (e.g. India, Bangladesh, Nepal), advocacy and outreach initiatives to mitigate the refugee crisis (e.g. Rohingyas in Myanmar), and gender-based violence faced by women and those with non-heteronormative genders and sexualities (e.g. death by stoning for those who commit adultery and gay sex in Brunei, the only Islamic State in Asia).

To queer, in essence (although there is no essential core to queerness), is to make strange (resist), to dismantle (deconstruct), and to reclaim (reconstruct). Within a Christian context, to queer the body of Christ, is to resist the overdetermined maleness of Christ; to deconstruct harmful dualisms that result from such androcentrism (e.g. male/female, mind/body, reason/emotion, white man/native other, heteronormative/non-heteronormative, Man/nature even human/non-human); and to reconstruct the human as made in the (queer) image of God – one that is bodied on mutuality, reciprocity and eroticism.This paper aims to offer an ecclesiological dimension to two forms of embodying a feminist-queer Christ in Asia, the Ecclesia of Women in Asia and the Free Community Church in Singapore, which are intricately woven into the tapestry of postcolonial, queer and (eco-)feminist theorizing and theologizing. The paper argues that to queer or make unfamiliar (e.g. theology, anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, which are all intertwined), necessarily restores and reconstitutes what had been lost, arguably perverted, but is now made tangible – an opening up and proliferation of possibilities of realizing a body of Christ who is redeemed by and for all in the here-and-now. 

II. Beyond male/female

The liberating-salvific mission begins with the feminist project of dismantling the most fundamental dualism of all, that of male/female which is premised on the insistence of sexual difference as divinely-ordained hence natural law. As dualisms are hierarchically ordered (i.e. male as dominant and female as subjugated) and oppositionally related (i.e. female as non-male and by inference, inferiorized), the fixation of Christian thought and praxis on God the Father (theology) and the maleness of Christ (Christology), renders Man superior to Woman (anthropology). The duality or polarity of ontological differences (i.e. equal but) and soteriological sameness (equality) between Man and Woman becomes the rock upon which the church is built. That human as created imago dei – albeit in the image of Father-God (rather than a genderless divine being) – compounds this duality and dualism. This in turn, renders gender complementarity of the sexes as a logical, expedient, natural order of creation; the Woman’s raison d’être is as Man’s complementary Other and helpmate. Man however, is not Woman’s helpmate. Therein lies not only the non-reciprocal relations between the two but worse, a sexual hierarchy that logically, expediently and naturally becomes systematized as the structural sin of gender-based discrimination and violence against women in the home, in church, at the workplace, on the streets.   

In this regard, the feminist hermeneutics of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is instructive in dismantling the dualism of male/female. Going back to the basics, through the example of the first century Christian communities, she revisits the pre-Pauline baptismal promise of Galatians 3.28 that is often touted (also by liberation, postcolonial and queer theologians) as biblical justification for the flattening of racial, class and sex differences: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek/ There is neither slave nor free/ There is no male and female’. Where Gnostics posit the originary figure of Man as androgynous, the apostle Paul insists on the ‘symbolic distinctions’ (sexual difference) in place of ‘functional distinctions’ (gender roles). Schüssler Fiorenza, however, notes that in the last pair, unlike the other two (Jew/Greek and free/slave), ‘it does not speak of opposites but of man and woman’. With allusions to Genesis 1.27 where humanity is created in the image of God, ‘qualified as “male and female”’, she infers that the third pair ‘does not assert that there are no longer men and women in Christ, but that patriarchal marriage – and sexual relationships between male and female – is no longer constitutive of the new community in Christ’. The ‘egalitarian ethos of “oneness in Christ”’ becomes the rock upon which the call to freedom (from biological determinism) and discipleship are extended to and taken up by women as women rather than ‘becoming “male”, “like man”, and relinquishing her sexual powers of procreation’.[1] In calling into question the most fundamental of dualisms, male/female, she troubles two centuries of Church Fathers’ perversion of egalitarian and inclusive sexual ethics that are already embedded in the heart (and loins) of Christianity. 

Differences that matter – race, class, caste, sex – do not need to be erased or diminished in order to realize the mutuality rather than complementarity (which invariably marks the sexes differently and values man/woman disproportionately) that we are called to in the way we relate to each other. Schüssler Fiorenza, in borrowing from Jewish wisdom theology relevant to the early Christian communities, follows this relationality (rather than rationality) through in the radical vision and inclusive praxis of ‘Sophia-God’ and ‘Jesus-Sophia’ (wisdom) manifest in the discipleship of women as a ‘discipleship of equals’.[2] Equality and inclusiveness become hallmarks of the first-century Jesus (messianic) movement of bountiful table-sharing with outcasts; the disinherited there-and-then, here-and-now. Prophet-like, she summons an ‘ekklesia of women’ as a new model of becoming church: a ‘“new church” (as opposed to the ‘patriarchal church’) in solidarity with the oppressed and the “least” of this world’, a religious-political gathering of women imbibed with the ‘angry power’ of Sophia-God who ‘rejects the idolatrous worship of maleness’ and ‘internalization of the male as divine’. She counters predictable objections of ‘reverse sexism’ (as with ‘reverse imperialism’) by maintaining that ‘mutuality with men’ (as with mutuality with colonizers) can only be realized when the ‘structural sin of sexism’ (as with colonization) is brought down and the Church begins to heal from within when it has reconstructed itself.[3] This entails that the Church holds itself accountable, even repentant for the sins of its fathers, commits itself to revolutionary change in realizing the vision and mission of a ‘discipleship of equals’ (rather than the exclusivity of male clericalism) and stands in solidarity with (rather than persecution of) the ‘least’ among us. 

In the light of this feminist, prophetic, and above all, Christian vision of becoming church not only in Asia but in the world, we are presented with a hollow version of this baptismal promise: the Study of the Diaconate of Women initiated by Pope Francis in 2016 that draws from the church’s his-story of women deacons which rests on the affirmation of ‘feminine genius’ (itself premised on the principle of gender complementarity) first articulated by Pope John Paul II in his ‘Letter to Women’ in occasion of the 1995 Fourth UN World Conference on Women. These sit uneasily as half measures, a cop-out from the original intent, that all – (within the economy of) male and female – embody ‘Sophia-God’ and ‘Jesus-Sophia’ as members who profess the same faith. These strategems are tantamount to relegating women to a messianic albeit sex-segregated table where the quality of the feast is perhaps second-rate (not unlike lower-grade food exports to developing countries) or where women and girls eat leftovers after the men and boys are done (an everyday reality of many women leading to their malnourishment). Son preference, which is so pervasive in the context of Asia (an ontological reality from womb to tomb, beginning with female infanticide), is mirrored in (rather than challenged by) the churches in Asia headed by an anthropomorphic male God that invests male privilege as a divinely-ordained birth right. A double perversion appears to be at work, depending on who is deciding this and for whom. The first is a purposeful and sustained deviation from the ethos of mutuality, equality and inclusiveness, and the second, a no less purposeful and sustained example of the ‘structural sin’ of ecclesiastical sexism. 

At the heart of the exclusion of women from the priesthood or ecclesiastical leadership is a blindness that persists to exclude women on the basis of sex, as one who cannot embody (the maleness of) Christ because she lacks the male organ. Re-imagining the body of Christ beyond his whiteness – in effect, queering – is made familiar-but-not-quite through a de-colonizing lens by postcolonial theologians, as an Asian, flat-nosed Jesus with a third-eye.[4] Re-imagining the body of Christ beyond his maleness – in effect, queering – is made familiar-but-not-quite through a transgressive lens by feminist-queer theologians, as Christa, the female Christ, ‘who undresses the masculinity of God’, Christ ‘as a poor prostitute’ who is triply oppressed by virtue of her race, class and sex,[5] Christ as ‘mother, woman and shaman’, whose life-giving blood is that of Christ brutalized at the Cross, in the name of God the Father, and for the sake of humankind.[6] In unmasking the imperialism of a life-taking theology that reduces female bodies and bodily experiences as less worthy or more defiled, an ‘incarnational body theology’ that begins with the concrete, messy realities of surviving or aspiring to live abundantly, that seeks to ‘reflect on (all) body experiences as revelatory of God’[7] is more faithful to the baptismal promise long withheld from half the human race, and others. Pregnant bodies (which includes women and now, female-to-male transgender persons who delay their transitioning)[8] in all their potentiality for reproductive fecundity maybe a repugnant figure at the altar to some but are surely the full (in more senses than one) embodiment of Christ as co-equal creators and paradigmatic embodiment of Sophia-God.  

‘In memory of her’ represents not only biblical women who led the way (for those who intentionally lost the way for others), wo/men whose bodies suffer, resist and heal, but also the ‘least’ among us and all who take on the ‘angry power’ of Sophia-God to engender a heaven on earth for all, founded on a relationality that is socially just and lovingly inclusive. In memory of her, the Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA), a gathering of Catholic-feminist women theologians, sought to break the silence of (religious and lay) theologians from the womb of Asia whose voices were not hitherto heard. EWA ‘expresses the desire of women to enter the mainstream Church as fully responsible ecclesial participants and partners in the life of the Church. EWA seeks to bring to consciousness that women are Church and always have been Church’.[9] In memory of her, gathering the voices of the silenced who have been violated by clergy and the complicity of popes, archbishops and bishops – as abuses of the excesses of male privilege – is to stand in solidarity with survivors of gender-based violence and to speak out against those who continue to wound because they can.[10]

III. Beyond heteronormative/non-heteronormative

The liberating-salvific mission continues with the queer project of dismantling the corollary dualism to male/female which is heteronormative/non-heteronormative, premised on the insistence of heterosexuality as divinely-ordained hence natural law. As dualisms are hierarchically ordered (i.e. heterosexuality as normal and non-heterosexuality as abnormal) and oppositionally related (i.e. non-heteronormativity as deviating from the norm of heterosexuality and consequently, marginalized, pathologized, even demonized), the fixation of Christian thought and praxis on the rightness of heterosexuality renders heterosexuals morally superior to non-heteronormative persons, e.g. gay or lesbian-identifying persons, bisexuals, transgender or intersex persons and those who are queer (e.g. asexual, pansexual, gender fluid) or questioning (LGBTIQ+). The ontological differences are fixed (flawed non-heteronormative persons are not quite created in the perfection of a presumed heterosexualized image of God). And soteriological sameness (equality) may be achieved through celibacy, i.e. not acting on one’s sexual desires (where loving the sinner but not the sin, is as good as it gets in terms of pastoral care of LGBTIQ+ persons in mainstream churches). This becomes the rock upon which traditional family values and the Church’s sexual ethics are built. That ‘Church Fathers took the lived reality of […] [the] enfleshed first-century rabbi […] [and turned it into] the virginal and celibate Son of God’[11] compounds the metaphysical mind/body split (aligned with the male/female dualism or binary). This leads to body dysmorphic disorders (a dis-embodying) within the divine/human body, often resulting in shame, guilt and pain among LGBTIQ+ persons.

The Church’s body theology that naturalizes gender binaries and heteronormativity leads to Church-sponsored sex-negative and harmful messages and practices. Examples include conversion therapies for LGBTIQ+ persons (to cast out the demon of homosexuality), Abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education programmes, withdrawal of state funds for Abstinence+ programmes or comprehensive sexuality education that offer sex-positive messages which include bodily integrity, safer sex practices, knowledge of contraceptives to facilitate informed decisions about one’s sexual reproductive health and rights. Gender-based violence directed at LGBTIQ+ persons, e.g. hate crimes fueled by homophobia and transphobia (fear and hatred of gay-identifying and transgender persons), corrective rape, often at the behest of parents of LGBTIQ+ persons, go uncorrected. All bodies and sexualities are policed to ensure conformity to discursive practices (which is the general aim of the Church’s body theology) that affirm what Judith Butler calls the ‘heterosexual matrix’[12] – the neat alignment of one’s sex/gender/desire (e.g. if one is born male, one ought to be gendered masculine and desire the opposite sex). This is the one natural rule that all should obey – happy are those who fit in and woe to those who do not! Bodies and sexualities, especially of LGBTIQ+ persons that cannot be straight-jacketed or resist being heterosexualized, find expression instead through ‘gender performativity’ – reflected in the lived realities of myriad combinations of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sexual characteristic (SOGIESC). That ‘gender is not a noun […] gender is always doing’ makes visible the inexhaustible gender work involved in constructing these categories as fixed and stable.[13] In effect, this means that one is not born but becomes heterosexual – dismantling gender binaries de-naturalizes the (un)learning and (un)doing of SOGIESC for all.

How does the body of Christ fit into such transgressive modes? How are the bodily experiences of LGBTIQ+ persons revelatory of God’s splendour and grace? Welcoming LGBTIQ+ persons to the bountiful messianic table – as a moral and political imperative – entails challenging the Church’s heterosexism, i.e. systemic and systematic discrimination, even demonization of LGBTIQ+ persons. It also involves re-imagining the body of Christ beyond ‘his’ presumed heterosexuality, virginity and celibacy – in effect, queering – which paradoxically renders Christ quite familiar to LGBTIQ+ persons albeit a stranger to others. In a queer body of Christ, LGBTIQ+ persons see the messy materiality of their body realities (blood, sweat, tears, semen and vaginal discharges) reflected and see that it is good – the profane becomes sacred. According to James B. Nelson, although Christianity confines ‘the divine reincarnation exclusively to Jesus’ (thus giving rise to ‘Christian triumphalism’, i.e. only those who believe and fit in, will be saved), ‘Christians can see other incarnations: the christic reality expressed in other human beings in their God-bearing relatedness’. He adds that, ‘the marvelous paradox is that Jesus empties himself of claims to be the exclusive embodiment of God, and in that self-emptying opens the continuing possibility for all other persons’.[14] The ‘christic reality’ of suffering, resistance and healing experienced by LGBTIQ+ persons extends the redemptive grace poured out through Christ’s kenosis (self-emptying), life-giving love for all, and above all, the ‘least’ among us. In this way, Christ was always already queered – the sacred becomes profane. 

Queer theologies and Christology in this regard push the porous boundaries between divine/human and sacred/profane to indecent limits. Queer theologians offer counter-narratives that seek to redeem, paradoxically by subverting the body of Christ for all. They do so firstly by proliferating the ‘christic reality’ expressed in LGBTIQ+ persons ‘in their God-bearing relatedness’ and secondly, as feminist theologians have done, by reclaiming the power of the erotic. Marcella Althaus-Reid travels down the ‘path of obscenity, as a methodology, to find more radical per/versions of Christ’ – material and multiple meanings beyond the corset and closet of a ‘Monotonous Mono/Christ’ (heterosexualiszd, virginal, celibate) to a ‘Bi/Christ’ that reflects the sense of how LGBTIQ+ persons are bodied – how they look, how they smell, how they touch and feel.[15] ‘Take back Jesus’, Kittridge Cherry advocates, for ‘[n]obody owns the copyright on Christ’, as she traces queer Christian art complete with leatherdykes engaged in BDSM practices (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism).[16]

The fear and hatred of women and the feminine are profoundly related to a fear of the erotic or erotophobia that remains a colonizing weapon used to oppress by repressing (i.e. marking as different and valuing as inferior) the feminized other, e.g. women, emotion, the body, indigenous peoples and the earth, as articulated by queer eco-feminists.[17] As such, dismantling the intersecting dualisms of male/female, mind/body, reason/emotion, white man/native other, heteronormative/non-heteronormative, Man/nature even human/non-human, entails, among other subversive tools, reclaiming the redemptive power of the erotic. Althaus-Reid laments the legacy of systematic theologians who have constructed a ‘de-eroticised’ and ‘lustless messiah’, sanitized through the filtering process (dualism) of embodying either agapian or erotic love[18] For Carter Heyward, ‘[o]ur power is erotic because it is about embodying relational connections’. The profundity of this relational movement powered by the erotic is embodied not only in ‘erotically empowered/empowering women’ but also in Christa, who ‘moves among us in our right relatedness […] the power by which we know ourselves to be a commonpeople’.[19]

The erotic power of relationality, present among the ‘commonpeople’-‘discipleship of equals’ celebrates a shared sexual ethics of mutuality, equality and inclusiveness. At the heart of this troubling, playful erotic power is the loving call to extend hospitality to the stranger within and among us for in these bodies, Christ resides. The call is taken up by the Free Community Church (FCC) in Singapore which is an LGBTIQ+-friendly sacred and safe space for all, as it ‘affirms that all individuals, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, are individuals of sacred worth created in God’s image’. The FCC also ‘affirms that same-sex and transgender relationships, when lived out in accord with the love commandments of Jesus, are consistent with Christian faith and teachings […] [and] find discrimination based on negative judgment of others, fear of difference, and homophobia inconsistent with Christian teachings’.[20] The imago dei through the body of Christ is thus redeemed for and by all who thirst, are hungry and seek shelter in the bosom and loins of Christ-Sophia-God. 

IV. Conclusion 

The body of Christ is queer in transgressing not only axes of differentiations such as gender, sexuality, class but also life/death. Doing church involves the realization that the liberating-salvific mission continues with the queer project of dismantling the dualisms of male/female: the Ecclesia of Women in Asia that is premised on a “discipleship of equals”. The queer project, indeed praxis, also calls to question the dualism of heteronormative/non-heteronormative: the Free Community Church. Doing church in these ways embodies a feminist-queer Christ that dwells in Asia that in challengingthe structural and systemic sins of sexism and homophobia is not only restorative but also transformative in realizing a body of Christ who is redeemed by and for all in the here-and-now.


Notes

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, New York: Crossroad, 1983, pp. 204, 211, 218. 

[2] Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, pp. 132, 135.

[3] Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, pp. 344, 346–347. 

[4] Choan-Seng Song, Third-Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings, Guildford and London: Lutterworth Press, 1980. 

[5] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 111, 122. 

[6] Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990, pp. 64–69. 

[7] James B. Nelson, Body Theology, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1992, p. 51.

[8] Henry Bodkin, ‘Sex-Change Men “Will Soon Be Able to Have Babies”’, The Telegraph, 4 November 2017, at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/11/04/babies-born-transgender-mothers-could-happen-tomorrow-fertility/.

[9] See the homepage of EWA at: https://ecclesiaofwomen.com.

[10] Carol Glatz, ‘Survivors Speak: What Vatican Summit Must Do to Stop Abuse’, Catholic Philly, 20 February 2019, at http://catholicphilly.com/2019/02/news/world-news/survivors-speak-what-vatican-summit-must-do-to-stop-abuse/.

[11] Lisa Isherwood, ‘Sexuality and the “Person” of Christ’, in Lisa Isherwood and D. von der Horst (eds.), Contemporary Theological Approaches to Sexuality, London and New York: Routledge, 2018, p. 277. 

[12] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge, 1990, p. 280.

[13] Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 285.

[14] Nelson, Body Theology, pp. 51–52.

[15] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, pp. 112, 118.

[16] Kittredge Cherry, ‘Take Back Jesus: The Queer Christ Arises for the Good of All’, Tikkun, 23.2 (2008), 48–50.

[17] Greta Gaard, ‘Toward a Queer Ecofeminism’, Hypatia, 12.1 (1997), p. 132. doi:10.2979/HYP.1997.12.1.114

[18] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, p. 120.

[19] Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989, pp. 20, 115–116.

[20] See the homepage of FCC at: https://www.freecomchurch.org


Author

Sharon A. Bong is Associate Professor of Gender Studies at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. She has authored The Tension Between Women’s Rights and Religions: The Case of Malaysia (2006) and edited Trauma, Memory and Transformation in Southeast Asia (2014). She is currently consultant to and former coordinator of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia and a forum writer for the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church.

Address: School of Arts & Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia, Jalan Lagoon Selatan, 47500 Bandar Sunway , Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia.