Eric R. Severson
The question of inclusion has it backwards: the Church of the Nazarene is being invited to join the Kingdom of God, which resides in the margins, where holiness abides, among the poor, with the oppressed, as queer. Everywhere else is not the church.
Readers of the Bible, and careful students of Christian history, should be worried about the word “normal.” There is very little about the message of the Gospel that can settle comfortably into norms, and the apostles, prophets, and leaders of the church historically have been decidedly weird. The weird, the strange, the unusual, and the queer are often harbingers of change. The tendency to read modern versions of “normal” back onto biblical characters is a powerful one, but the oddity of Jesus, his followers, his predecessors, and other biblical characters is impossible to ignore. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus tells us, but meek folks win few battles and rarely get rich. Cultural acceptance and success have always required conformation to a broad set of normalized ways of thinking and living. These concepts of normality are entangled with power; they constitute the web of ideas, practices, concepts, and priorities that support structures of power. Paul calls these structures “principalities”—political and social authorities that constitute the “present darkness” of the world (Ephesians 6:12). There is grave danger afoot whenever people attempt to conform to these, to assimilate. The powers and principalities have a deeply vested interest in forcing such an assimilation. Christianity was originally politically dangerous for its refusal to conform. The following article will suggest that if Nazarenes wish to be the church, they should accept the invitation from LGBTQ folks to participate in the Kingdom of God.
That Jesus would reject the normal life of a first century Jewish citizen was foreshadowed by his cousin and predecessor, John the Baptist. John prefigured the coming of Jesus and announced his arrival, dressed in odd clothing, living in the wilderness, subsisting on bugs. Jesus was about 30 years old when the gospels begin to narrate his ministry. In modern times, it is not uncommon for people to wait until their thirties to marry or have children, but in Jesus’ day this was highly unusual and a direct rejection of the expectations that would have been laid on him by his family and community. “Normal” people got married in their teenage years, and by the age of 30 were looking for spouses for their own children. The average lifespan of people in first century Palestine was about 30 years, though people who survived the very dangerous years of childhood averaged 48 years. Nobody who knew Jesus, before he began his ministry, would have thought of him as normal. He was a declared bachelor, a rejector of normal life patterns, a weirdo. His ministry sustained this strangeness; he resoundingly and routinely rejected opportunities to join the powers and principalities. He turned with intentionality toward people who had been crushed by these powers. For shorthand, we might call these folks “the poor,” though we misunderstand Jesus’ blessing on the poor if we think of that term merely economically. The poor are the oppressed, the outsiders, the misfits, the queer.
For various reasons, Christians down through the ages have attempted to make Jesus the standard-bearer of whatever they wanted to normalize. When people want to normalize the nobility of supposedly righteous warfare, Jesus is depicted as a military leader, and people etch lines from the Bible on their weapons. When people want to normalize whiteness, Jesus is depicted as white—though he most certainly was not what people today consider a “white person.” Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Communists, and countless other political groups create a Jesus who normalizes their ways of operating politically. It is not controversial to point out the tendency of people to make Jesus into their own image, or into their image of normalcy. Surely some of these people are closer than others in their understanding of how Christians should think and live and operate today, but they all miss a crucial and seemingly obvious point about the person of Jesus: he was not normal, and will never conform to anybody’s system of normality. The queer, the unusual, the weird, and the abnormal serve an irreplaceable role in the story of the Gospel. Jesus was not a family man. He did not hold down a job. Jesus relates anarchically to both the religious and political legal structures of his time. He did not go to the poor—Jesus was poor. Every expression of the Kingdom of God that we find in his life and teachings occurs at the margins of contesting philosophies of normalcy. He doesn’t go to the margins of the world—these margins are the birthplace of the Kingdom of God.
All four gospels tell an odd and erotic story of a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with extremely expensive oil. This story is one of the rare incidents to appear in all four of the gospels, though details differ between the four accounts. Each description of the event is its own version of shocking. The act is stunningly wasteful, with three gospels directly questioning the economics of the gift, and wondering whether such a resource should have been put to better use. Both Luke and John add an extraordinary detail: the woman uses her long hair to dry the mixture of tears and oil on his feet. Luke calls her a “sinful” person, and adds that she used her mouth to kiss his feet (Luke 7:36-50). This scene is a straight-up scandal; Jesus calls it an act of faith. It is an affront to decency, to normalcy, to the expectation for public relationship between men and women, and to the economic metrics by which virtue is measured. This is a very queer exchange, indeed, and yet somehow a holy moment. It culminates, in fact, with salvation: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). This story is wasteful, extravagant, erotic, scandalous, and queer.
The Kingdom of God is a movement, but it isn’t a movement to the poor, to the oppressed, to the queer. The site for the events of grace, salvation, forgiveness, is on this margin of the world’s normalcy. Holiness is queer. The Kingdom of God, Jesus teaches, is like an irresponsible shepherd who risks it all for one lost sheep. Bad shepherding. The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who pays workers the same whether they showed up in the morning or at the end of the shift. Bad leadership. The Kingdom of God is not a powerful empire trying to decide what percentage of its time, energy, and resources move toward the poor. That empire, whose shape the church too often takes, is a power and principality of our age.
My short contribution to this volume is a welcome chance to say this: the chance to include LGBTQIA+ folks in the Church of the Nazarene is not a question of inclusion, at least not of including queer folks. To participate in the Kingdom of God is to release one’s grip on the powerful cultural and economic forces that threaten to reshape Jesus, and the church, into something “normal,” economical, prosperous, straight. The question is whether or not this particular denomination is interested in participation in the Kingdom of God. The invitation goes the other way; queer folks are wondering whether or not people who think of themselves as Nazarene are interested in being the church.
Rev. Eric Severson is a philosopher specializing in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. He is the author of Before Ethics (Kendall Hunt, 2021), Levinas’s Philosophy of Time (Duquesne University Press, 2013) and Scandalous Obligation (Beacon Hill Press, 2011), and editor of eight other books. He lives in Kenmore, Washington and teaches philosophy at Seattle University.