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Can Jesus Christ be a Resource for Queer Masculinities?

Rob Day-Walker

By Rob Day-Walker
Rob Day-Walker is a 27-year-old English Major, lay theologian, and disabled gay man currently living in Winnipeg, Canada. He loves Battlestar Galactica, learning about radical social analysis, and singing about Jesus. When he grows up, he wants to be a good writer, a Christian clergyperson, and a happy member of a polyamorous family. He's learned one thing in particular from the submission process for this anthology: when all else fails, read the directions.

It was a rebuke all right, but maybe not as harsh as we might think. As scholars acknowledge, Jesus’ culture was unapologetically hetero-patriarchal. Martha is, indeed, doing the culturally acceptable thing—what’s expected of her. A visiting rabbi is in her home, and she has to make sure her hospitality is at least adequate, even if she’s not the “hostess with the most-est.” Technically, she’s in the right when she says to Jesus about her sister, “Tell her to help me!” Can’t you hear her? “If you want supper, tell her to get up off her ass and get in the kitchen!”

Rather than a universal condemnation of practicality, Jesus interrupts Martha’s usual thinking, warning her in advance to pay attention by repeating her name: “Martha, Martha.” He offers Martha the chance to break out of several unjust systems that hold her captive. Prepping food, of course, is women’s work, freeing the men for the “real work” of intellectual conservation or studying Torah. In fact, in the world of Jesus, women are not taught the Torah as the disciples of rabbis, but rather have to ask their husbands about anything they don’t understand.

In fact, some scholars suggest that this story represents the Lucan community’s response to a debate about whether or not women can be disciples. Can they be trusted with the teachings of Jesus? Remember: in Jesus’ world, if you can be taught, you are qualified to teach. The answer is a definite yes, for both Luke and Jesus. Jesus calls Mary and Martha out of rigid gender roles by according them the respect that a man would have. By recognizing their equality with him, he subverts the gender hierarchies that would merely leave Mary and Martha “safe” in the kitchen, rather than as active participants in revolution. By calling them to be “useless” or socially inappropriate in the moment, Jesus undermines sexist norms by focusing on a wider vision of revolution.

Jesus calls on Martha, and on us, to either subvert or critically adopt society’s expectations of gender. Feminist theory tells us that these expectations are not “natural” or inborn; rather, society teaches us ways of “performing” gender with socially acceptable “scripts.” Jesus recognized Mary and Martha as his equals (in contradistinction to his culture at large!). To Jesus, women have equal moral agency with men; equal ability to teach and critique the received tradition; and equal share in shaping his kind of revolution – the kind that leads people to new cultural, political, and spiritual understandings and patterns of life.

Jesus, who bent gender boundaries and empowered women, suggests to queer men that we can and should be feminists; we should resist and overturn language, attitudes, or social mechanisms (like gender-role rigidity or the notion of a single “feminine” or “masculine”) that oppress women. This happens in the revolutionary “preaching” of organized activism and daily conversations, which we can use as invitations to adopt a more radical and liberating way of life. We see in the Gospel of Matthew, however, that Christ’s affirmation of women does not come without a cost—without an adjustment or clarification of his own values.

Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)
 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26 He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Oddly enough, as we read the passage above, we realise that Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem with the “Canaanite” woman’s gender; her ethnic background seems to be the main issue. Is it possible that the one whom Christians call Messiah, the Son of God and even the (sinless) Second Person of the Trinity, is a racist?

Many Christians (including myself) find this story very uncomfortable indeed: the messiness of this passage (which is arguably less messy than the Gospel of Mark’s version) doesn’t square with our expectations of a truly good human being, never mind God-in-Flesh! I suspect that part of many Christians’ discomfort is a refusal to really think through the implications of Jesus’ humanity (whatever we might say of his deity). The key point seems to be this: if Jesus cannot really learn (i.e., if knows everything because he’s God), in what sense can he be called really human? And if he, being God, really is being racist, what does that say about God? To put it mildly, in the words of transmale theologian Justin Tanis, this story “is not the image of Jesus I was taught in Sunday school.” [2]

Christian angst aside, Jesus does open himself to new insight and ways of performing his mission in the world. Dr. Walter Deller, a respected Canadian Anglican theologian, once asked me about this passage in a personal conversation – “Is holding the beliefs of your culture a sin before or after someone raises your consciousness about them?” Justin Tanis claims, “This story details Jesus’ one and only trip outside Palestine.” [3] Is it also possible that this encounter with the Canaanite woman is Jesus’ first opportunity to evaluate his beliefs and the extent of his mission? ... (continue reading)


[2] Justin Tanis, “Eating the Crumbs That Fall from the Table: Trusting the Abundance of God,” in Goss, Robert E. and Mona West, eds, Take Back the Word (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000), 43.

[3] Ibid, 45.

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Rob Day-Walker said:

I keep wanting to correct the tiny typos that I see...especially the last sentence: "The peace of Christ be yours." LOL. Minor thing!

Posted at: May 31, 2008 3:30 PM

Chris Coombs said:

Fantastic essay! I think one of the most exciting ideas suggested by your essay is the idea of adopting a subversive masculinity, a masculinity of which Jesus (at least in this characterization) is a superb example. I also appreciated the inclusion of a critique of our postmodern disdain for metanarratives. While I think this disdain arises quite naturally out of the radical critiques and the sheer volume of alternative readings of "important" texts that have accompanied poststructuralism and deconstruction, I also think there are radical possibilities (and even something of a practical imperative) to be found in reconstructing metanarratives on a wider, more inclusive foundation, by weaving together the millions of personal narratives that structure our daily existences, as queer men, as masculine, as feminists, as people of color, as people with disabilities, etc. - that out of this melting pot or mosaic or what have you, certain patterns begin to emerge and it is these patterns that offer us an opportunity to write our own story, our own grand narrative and lend our movement direction, sweeping up the whole of humanity in its march forward. This is just a flowery way of suggesting that the problem lies not with these grand narratives, but with their exclusivity. I also thought your approach to forgiveness was refreshing. I think what I've found missing in some of the essays was a failure to question or seek forgiveness for our own transgressions against one another or understand our attackers. On the surface this doesn't sound very radical, until you realize that we ourselves are the attackers at times and that change begins with ourselves. Wow, that was a lot more than I was going to write. Anyway: Thank You!

Posted at: December 19, 2008 11:23 AM