In Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman draws from over three decades of experience studying, preaching, and teaching from the western canon of Christian Scripture to attest the inherent queerness of authentic Christianity. Journalist Deborah Jian Lee reports from the front lines of the battle younger and more diverse Evangelicals are waging to reclaim Christian ideals and harness them to promote social change in Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. While Edman and Lee have written for different target audiences, they both address a growing movement within Christianity to embrace and accept the LGBTQ community. We caught up with them to ask about this shift in the landscape of progressive religion in this two-part conversation. Here we present the first part to close out this year’s Pride month.
Your books have different target audiences, yet speak to a growing movement within Christianity to embrace and accept the LGBTQ community. Talk about what you mean by reclaiming and revitalizing Christianity.
Deborah Jian Lee: For Rescuing Jesus, I’m speaking to a range of people including Evangelicals, ex-Evangelicals, progressive Christians, the spiritual but not religious, and the Nones, who don’t ascribe to any particular religion. I write about those on the margins of Evangelicalism, namely people of color, women, and LGBTQ Christians. Oftentimes people from these communities feel disqualified from the faith and feel like they must choose between their faith and other important aspects of their identity. They’ve confronted the Evangelical establishment’s strict ultimatum: leave your culture, your gender, and your sexuality at the door or leave the church altogether.
But in Rescuing Jesus, I tell the story of a rising generation of people of color, women, and queers who have rejected this ultimatum and are asserting their full humanity, remaining within the faith community and reclaiming Evangelicalism as their own. By doing so, they are saying, “God made me in His image, and I am an essential part of the Body of Christ.” They’re also challenging church and social systems that perpetuate their oppression by carving out a robust evangelical social justice movement.
It sounds counterintuitive to what “evangelical” has come to stand for in recent decades, but they convincingly argue that this is the very heart of the gospel message. When Jesus walked this earth, he spoke about justice, about subverting power structures and the status quo, and about uplifting those on the margins. Today, the marginalized that are reclaiming Evangelicalism are pointing the world towards the gospel and a Jesus who is all about radical inclusion and an abundance of love. Their message has the power to transform American Christianity.
Rev. Elizabeth Edman: In so many ways, our work is really resonant with one other’s, but we come at the issue in different ways because the movements we’re addressing are coming at it in such different ways. Within Christianity, my primary audience is progressive Christians. I’ve also got an audience of LGBTQ people, Christian or not, who have suffered spiritual damage from a false and rigid proclamation of Christianity and other world religions as well. What you’re describing within Evangelicalism is this rigid proclamation, which some folks in the Evangelical establishment are trying to rebrand, retool, make sexy, but not really change. Progressive Christianity is different from that, because over the past thirty or so years, as various denominations have tried to include queer people particularly, we’ve done that not by proclaiming a fresh gospel, but by easing up on what have been considered the rules on their church in order to include people. And at the same time, there’s been a sort queering of the tradition—that I think also mirrors what you’re describing—by people who themselves have been marginalized, reclaiming the tradition by proclaiming something else, something new and something fresh.
You were talking about people claiming their own Christian identity, and in doing so, issuing a new kind of theology, which I think is exactly right. In Queer Virtue, I make the assertion that authentic Christianity is and must be queer. What I mean by that is I see within Christianity relentless rupturing of binaries, akin to the impulse within queer theory to rupture false binaries. You’ve got Jesus in his person rupturing the false divide between human and divine, life and death, sacred and profane, and ultimately, the divide between Self and Other. This queering takes place throughout the tradition, and queer people already have an idea of what that means on the ground. How does this inform the way we live? Queer people discern an identity. We have to get honest about that in the face of real risk, reach out and find other people who share a comparable identity marker, build community, and then look to the margins to see who’s not included. That, to me, is an ethical path of queerness. And isn’t it interesting that this ethical path so closely aligns with the ethical path Jesus told his followers to walk? I think that’s not a coincidence. My essential premise is that Christianity could learn a lot from queer people who are walking this queer path every day. That’s the hope that I see for reclaiming Christianity and revitalizing it.
What is it about this moment in time that makes this issue more urgent? What’s the difference between today’s progressive religious movement and previous ones?
Rev. Edman: We are at an urgent moment because Christianity, broadly I would say, is losing its moral authority. I think we are losing our status as a credible moral voice in today’s world. There are a lot of reasons for that. Of course, you and I are talking primarily about American Christianity, but this isn’t just taking place in the United States. What I perceive in our increasingly globalized world is a crying need for moral perception.
I spent a few years as a college chaplain working with young adults who are trying to make meaning in a world where old ways of perceiving truth have been called into question, have begun to fall away. So for me, and I would say, for them, rupturing binaries has potential to be a very powerful and vital lens for making meaning in a world where walls are coming down like crazy. That’s the urgency for me. Christianity offers a tremendous window for understanding who we are and who we can be in this moment in history. And perceiving queerness within in the tradition, to me, could help the church be the church more than it’s being right now.
Lee: Yes, Christianity is on the decline, and today the second largest religious group is the Nones. The good news for Christianity: the current progressive movement is led by faith leaders who embody a cross-section of marginalized identities. As they do theology and shape church culture from these unique vantage points, they’ve shaped a movement that works to uplift people across the spectrums and intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, and so many other identities.
These people are the future of Christianity—they can speak to the Nones. Actually, reporting on these leaders had a direct impact on my own faith journey. I’m a None. I’m part of the mass exodus from the Church. I grew up atheist, but in my teens I became a Christian when I experienced my first place of belonging in a Chinese immigrant church. In my white suburb, I had experienced verbal, and sometimes physically violent racism. But I found sanctuary in this church, where I learned about a divine love that embraced everybody. Then in college, I got involved with the larger (whiter) evangelical movement, which was mired in the culture wars. I eventually left evangelicalism because, well, as an LGBT-affirming feminist woman of color who talked about identity a lot, I heard plenty of leaders and friends suggest that my progressive beliefs disqualified me from Christianity. So I left my faith community, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
When I reported Rescuing Jesus, I met people who experience similar exclusion, but are staying and casting a vision for a more inclusive Evangelical church. I met people who ministered to the marginalized and to the very people who rejected them, and in doing so, they saved lives and created new, beautiful communities.
One of the most inspiring stories I encountered came from a group of queer students attending Biola University. This is a renowned Evangelical institution based in southern California, and like many Evangelical colleges across the country, they have these policies that prohibit what they call “homosexual behavior.” If you come out or if you’re outed, you don’t know what could happen to you. You could be disciplined, questioned by the administration, expelled. You could lose your scholarship. You could be forced into reparative therapy. You could be outed to your family before you’re ready and your parents could cut you off from their financial support. You could become homeless. The stakes are just so high, so most people stay closeted. But at Biola, there was the group of queer students who started an underground support group. They created a safe place where people could be their full selves within this oppressive institution. It was this collection of people who found each other and spent every week loving each other and helping each other heal from the spiritual wounds they had experienced through being in an Evangelical community that told them they were an abomination and that they did not belong.
I’ll never forget attending their end-of-the year party in 2013. A couple dozen of them sat in a circle in this cramped room, sharing stories about how the group had saved them from depression, isolation, suicidal thoughts. They held each other and cried. They joined hands and prayed for each other. They loved each other with an urgency and rawness that felt so life-affirming. It looked like the very gospel that brought me to Christianity in the first place. And to my surprise, this moment played a part to my own eventual return to the Christian faith.
Stayed tuned for part two of this conversation.
About the Authors
The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman is an Episcopal priest and a political strategist who has been expanding people’s understanding of faith and sexuality for over twenty-five years. She has worked on the most pressing contemporary issues in the intersection of religion and sexuality, serving as an inner-city hospital chaplain to people with HIV/AIDS from 1989 to 1995 and helping to craft political and communications strategies for marriage-equality efforts. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.
Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist, radio producer, and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. She has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, Slate, GOOD, Reuters, WBEZ, WNYC, and others. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.