The Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D., is a theologian, seminary professor, attorney, and ordained minister. He is the Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and he has served as an ordained minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches for over a decade. As a blogger with The Huffington Post and the author of three books and numerous articles, he explores the intersections of faith, race, gender, and sexuality. Also, in 2000, he founded Queer Asian Spirit, an online global resource for LGBT Asian people of faith.
Believe Out Loud Blogger Becky Garrison sat down with Cheng in Cambridge, MA, to discuss the shifts she's observed in some church circles toward a theology seeking to include those who have been marginalized by the institutional church.
First off, why did you participate in the We Have Faith exhibit?
I believe that photographs are a powerful medium to tell our stories and to connect with people across differences. My husband, Michael, and I were pleased to be part of this exhibit as openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people of faith. Too often the conversation about religion and sexuality is reduced to slogans like “gay = secular” or “people of faith = anti-gay.” Unfortunately, this doesn't reflect the complexities of what’s going on in the world.
Can you elaborate on the shift that I've observed in liberal Christian traditions away from framing of LGBT rights from a political to theological standpoint?
I think it’s critical for the LGBT community to address issues of equality not just from a political perspective, but also from a theological perspective. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program are doing a great job in terms of making sure that the voices of LGBT people of faith and our allies are being heard. But there is still much more work to be done. Believe it or not, theologians have been writing LGBT-affirming theology for over a half century. In my book, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, I trace the development of queer theology since the 1950s. Some of the earliest works of queer theology included Derrick Sherwin Bailey's Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955) and Robert W. Wood’s Christ and the Homosexual (1960).
The earliest works of queer theology tended to be more apologetic; they affirmed that "Gay is Good." The 1970s saw the rise of a liberation theology model that affirmed the importance of freedom from political and religious oppression. The 1980s saw a move towards a lesbian feminist model of mutuality in relationships, and the 1990s saw the rise of queer theology. Today there’s a move towards an intersectional model that recognizes the interconnectedness of race, class, sexuality, gender, ability, and other identities. In other words, these identities are all deeply connected.
Who is the intended audience for your books?
As a queer theologian, I’m committed to speaking not just to the religious academy, but also to broader communities of faith, such as people in the pews. I’m excited that my books are not only used in seminary and divinity school classrooms, but they are also used in church study groups around the world. My first book, Radical Love, is actually a complete systematic theology from revelation to eschatology. If you understand what that means, great. But if you don't, you can still get a lot out of the book. At the end of each chapter, I provide a list of study questions for further reflection, as well as additional resources for further study. My second book, From Sin to Amazing Grace, is about rethinking the classical doctrines of sin and grace. I use ancient Eastern Orthodox notions of theosis to move from a law-based model to a Christ-based model of sin and grace. My goal is to make queer theology more accessible to non-academics.
Your book, From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ, raises the question, how is Christ queer?
Christianity is, at its core, a queer religion. By that I mean Christianity was originally a deeply subversive faith tradition before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. After all, Jesus Christ was put to death for upsetting the religious and political powers of his day. We've become so used to seeing the cross as a piece of jewelry – instead of a horrific symbol of execution – that we've lost the sense of the deep transgressiveness of early Christianity. Since at least the 1960s, contextual theologians have talked about the Black Christ, the Latin American Christ, the Asian Christ, the African Christ, and the feminist Christ. So why not talk about the Queer Christ? In From Sin to Amazing Grace, I propose seven models of the Queer Christ: the Erotic Christ, the Out Christ, the Liberator Christ, the Transgressive Christ, the Self-Loving Christ, the Interconnected Christ, and the Hybrid Christ.
What do you hope to achieve with your forthcoming book, Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality and Spirit?
Rainbow Theology is about weaving together issues of race, sexuality, and spirituality. The LGBT community still has a long ways to go in terms of true inclusivity with respect to people of color. Similarly, communities of color – both within the United States and around the world – still have a long ways to go with respect to acknowledging the LGBT people in their midst. Rainbow Theology is the first book to examine systematically what LGBT theologians of color have written over the last two decades about these issues. In the book, I argue that themes of multiplicity, middle spaces, and mediation are at the heart of the queer of color experience. It's definitely time to have this conversation.
How do you approach those who utilize select verses to claim that "homosexuality" is a sin?
I think people should spend less time proof-texting, and more time thinking about what the Bible is saying from a big-picture perspective. If we take the Incarnation seriously – that is, if we believe that the divine Word became human and was made flesh (as described in the opening of the Gospel of John) – then we should also affirm the fundamental goodness of human flesh and sexuality. Most importantly, love is at the heart of the Good News. God is love, and the greatest commandments are to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. So how can love between two people of the same sex not be from God? At the end of the day, however, I’m not sure that arguments over scripture ultimately change people’s minds. What I think changes minds (and hearts!) is getting to know LGBT people.
How do you respond to even "progressive" Christians who use scripture to justify the love the sinner and hate the sin mantra?
I would say that “loving the sinner and hating the sin” is unworkable in practice. You can’t just love a part of a person. You either love a person or you don’t. Jesus Christ never split off the person from the sin. He simply loved the person, period. He ate with tax collectors and sexual outcasts. If progressive Christians say that they love LGBT people, then they should break bread with us, invite us to preach in their churches, and include our voices in their publications and books. They should have a conversation with us and learn about our painful experiences of being excluded from religious communities. We can't move forward unless we're willing to have open and honest conversations with each other.
What is your response to Christians who feel that legalizing same-sex marriage is an affront to their biblical beliefs?
My response is that if you don’t believe in same-sex marriage, then don't get married to someone of the same sex. People of faith are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They have a right to their theological beliefs about same-sex marriage. However, we live in a civil society and not a theocracy. LGBT people still lack basic legal protections on the federal level in most states. This makes the legal rights provided to same-sex couples under same-sex marriage laws all the more important for LGBT people.
Who are some characters in the Bible who do not conform to the gender binary?
One of the first converts to Christianity is the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, who was both a racial outsider and a gender-variant person. Lydia, also from the Book of Acts, is a female merchant and the head of her household, which also challenged the gender norms of her day. I think some of the most interesting work currently being done in the field of biblical studies relates to the strange, wonderful, and fundamentally queer nature of the Bible.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Cheng