You can sum up the Christian right’s reaction to lesbian author Kittredge Cherry’s novel Jesus in Love: At the Cross as “Oh no, she didn’t!”
The story, which she’s been publishing excerpts of all week on her blog, retells the Passion story so that Jesus is ultimately persecuted for his love affair with the disciple John, or rather that’s the pretext that Caiphas uses to nail the Messiah to the cross.
It’s a radical retelling, to be sure, but not the first time Jesus has been portrayed in a queer light. Terrance McNally’s Corpus Christi continues to infuriate mainstream Christians with its depiction of a love affair between Judas and Jesus whenever it’s performed, for instance. The question is, beyond pissing off close-minded Christians, is there any good reason for making Jesus gay?
To begin, we have to divorce the historical Jesus from the Biblical one.
From a historical perspective, there’s so little known about the actual man from Galilee that every depiction of him is bound to be wrong. Certainly, it’s far more likely that Jesus had a same-sex relationship than it is that he was a six-foot blond-haired, blue eyed Arayan, for starters. Every culture depicts Jesus in their own reflection, so from a purely historical perspective, the question of Jesus’ sexuality will always be unprovable sexuality, one way or another.
So, when we talk about Jesus, we’re talking about the person depicted in the Gospels, who is both man and God in one. In essence, we are talking about the nature of God.
The first place Christians look for Jesus is in the liturgy and if we delve into what’s written about Jesus, there’s scant evidence one way or another about Jesus’ sexuality. He certainly talks about loving your fellow man a whole lot. from a Christian perspective, this isn’t something that can be easily dismissed. While not a sexual love, Jesus makes it pretty makes it pretty clear that the love he’s talking about is deep and abiding. John 14:21 reads:
“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.”
Or as John puts it more succinctly earlier on in the Gospel, “God is love.” Jesus is pretty much all about love, regardless of gender and implores his followers to “love one another as I have loved you.” In fact, the primary goal of Jesus’ ministry is to get people to love each other.
Some scholars read one Biblical account as Jesus healing a gay man, or rather the male lover of a Roman centurion, a story told in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10:
“In Matthew, we are told that the centurion came to Jesus to plead for the healing of his servant. Jesus said he was willing to come to the centurion’s house, but the centurion said there was no need for Jesus to do so — he believed that if Jesus simply spoke the word, his servant would be healed. Marveling at the man’s faith, Jesus pronounced the servant healed. Luke tells a similar story.
Just another miracle story, right? Not on your life!
In the original language, the importance of this story for gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians is much clearer. The Greek word used in Matthew’s account to refer to the servant of the centurion is pais. In the language of the time, pais had three possible meanings depending upon the context in which it was used. It could mean “son or boy;” it could mean “servant,” or it could mean a particular type of servant — one who was “his master’s male lover.”
Biblical scholar, Morton Smith, looked at a fragment of an early version of Mark’s gospel found at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem in 1958 and found this passage, just one of many depictions of Jesus’ sexuality that was excised by the early Church:
“And the youth, looking upon him (Jesus), loved him and beseeched that he might remain with him. And going out of the tomb, they went into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days, Jesus instructed him and, at evening, the youth came to him wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God”.
It certainly gives you pause, right? There’s a whole cottage industry of books that look into gay subtexts in the Bible, with titles like, The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives From the New Testament, but if speculating about the sexuality of a closeted actor is tedious, trying to determine the sexuality of Jesus in any definitive way seems pretty pointless. Outing the Biblical Jesus ultimately seems like a pursuit that will bear few tangible rewards.
So, if we accept that there’s no way to tell whether the historical or Biblical Jesus was ever attracted to another man, we’re left with what Christians call “the Living Jesus”.
This is the Messiah that exists in the here and now and this Jesus is an evolving thing. For Catholics, He evolves through pronouncements from the Vatican. For Protestants, Jesus is a personal connection to the Divine. For other groups, Jesus manifests Himself through divine revelation or the speaking of tongues. Put simply, this Jesus comes in many forms and by many means, so to imagine The Living Jesus as a gay man is not a huge leap.
In fact, Gay Jesus has a lot to teach Christians of all stripes. Jesus’ suffering has been a way for oppressed minorities to express their struggle and find comfort since the faith’s founding. It’s the spark of the African-American spiritual, the bond that ties Chinese Christians together and for gay Christians, Jesus’ message of universal love has special resonance when they are persecuted for loving each other.
Consider Cherry’s retelling of the Garden of Gethsamane story. John sits beside Jesus in vigil, all too aware that their time together would soon come to an end:
“I don’t want you to go.” He stifled a sob, for he knew from my group discussions with my disciples that there was no talking me out of it. I lay my head on his chest and listened to his heartbeat again while I let him hold and stroke my body as much as he wanted. We were both damp with sweat and tears. Our salty, musky smell evoked my compassion, like a low musical note purring where my womb would be.
I spoke from that place: “I won’t abandon you. I’ll be back. The world won’t see me anymore, but you will see me,” I promised. … “God will give you Someone to be on your side forever. This Someone is the Spirit of truth.”
It’s a poignant and beautiful passage partly because we recognize it from our own lives. Modern Christianity can be a mighty intolerant place for gays and lesbians, but while Jesus may be eternal, our understanding of Him continues to evolve and grow over time. In recasting Jesus in a gay light, authors like Cherry are sweeping away the intolerance of the past and trying to renew the core message of Jesus’ life and death — that God is love. — Japhy Grant