During Holy Week many LGBT Christians and their allies find inspiration in “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a controversial series of paintings that are newly available as a book.
The images show Jesus as a gay man of today in a modern city.
He is persecuted, killed and rises again in the 24 paintings by New York artist Doug Blanchard. A surprisingly diverse group of friends join the gay Jesus on a journey from suffering to freedom.
One pastor says that they “depict the Holy Week that is in my heart.” I felt the same way, so I wrote the reflections and prayers that appear in the book.
This week Christians around the world remember Christ’s Passion—his suffering in his final days as he was betrayed, persecuted and brutally killed. Queer people often identify with the hurt and humiliation that Jesus experienced during crucifixion.
Christ’s suffering is on the minds of many LGBT Christian artists all year long.
Jesus on the cross is the most common theme in LGBT Christian art. Artists consider it the best way to express the horrors inflicted on queer people, to advocate justice and perhaps to offer the hope of new life.
The majority of viewers agree that the most powerful image in Doug Blanchard’s Passion is “Jesus Dies,” the cover image for the illustrated book. I have written about a wide variety of LGBT Christian images by dozens of artists. Many are included in my previous book “Art That Dares.” But none has had as much impact as Blanchard’s gay Passion of Christ paintings.
A gay Jesus on the cross is intended to broaden, not limit how Christ is perceived. What the gospels emphasize about Jesus is the wildly inclusive way that he loved. It is valuable to have LGBT images of Jesus along with all the others to show that Christ represents with ALL human beings in our full diversity. Every group envisions Christ based on their own context, and now there is a gay vision of Jesus, shaped by the political, economic and cultural forces of our time
When believers open to the possibility of a queer Christ, it becomes easier to see the God within the LGBT community.
In “Jesus Dies,” Blanchard places the crucifixion of Christ against a modern city skyline with a 21st-century crowd. They look like ordinary people today. Some jeer at the dying martyr while others pray. Many, including a few priests, watch grimly. Once again Jesus has brought together an unlikely group. The young man hangs on scaffolding that forms a cross behind him.
The cross is one of the world’s most common symbols now. It has been painted by virtually every artist in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Rembrandt. But the dying Jesus on the cross was not depicted at all in Christianity’s first 1,000 years.
Christians drew strength from the crucifixion story in the era of early Christian martyrs, but back then artists had to disguise crosses as anchors or tridents to avoid Roman persecution. After Christianity gained legal status in 313, a few images began to appear with the Christ on the cross, but he was always vibrantly alive, head held high in victory over death.
Crucifixion images started proliferating around the 10th century—at the same time that the medieval church began to direct hostility specifically at same-sex erotic behavior.
The church directly or indirectly caused the execution of thousands for homosexuality over a period of 700 years. Witch burning occurred in the same period and claimed the lives of countless lesbian women whose non-conformity was condemned as witchcraft. Blanchard says that their modern counterparts—such as LGBT people murdered in gay bashings, driven to suicide, or killed by AIDS—were on his mind as he painted “Jesus Dies.”
The artist reveals the crucifixion for what it was—one man’s violent death. Whenever anyone commits violence against another, Christ is crucified again, including when LGBT people are attacked or killed because of who they are. By witnessing the crucifixion with compassion, viewers can stand beside all who suffer.
Blanchard’s Jesus doesn’t look obviously gay. His Passion series begins before and continues after the standard Stations of the Cross, covering Christ’s entry into the city, Last Supper, arrest and trial as well as the traditional scenes of carrying the cross and execution. His sexual orientation only becomes clear when he receives a homoerotic embrace while ascending to union with God.
The paintings and the new book that I wrote about them have been denounced as blasphemy by conservative Christians.
The most recent battle erupted this week when Huffington Post ran my article on the gay Passion of Christ. Most of the 2,200 comments condemn it as “blasphemous,” “disgusting,” or “ridiculous.” It also received 9,800 “likes.”
Blanchard, an art professor and active Episcopalian, created the series to grapple with his own faith struggles. We refuse to concede Jesus to those who act like they own the copyright on Christ, then use him as a weapon to dominate others. LGBT Christian visions are important now because conservatives are using religion to justify discrimination against queer people.
Nobody knows for sure what the historical Jesus looked like or whether he was attracted to other men. Some progressive Bible scholars do argue that Jesus had a same-sex lover, but that is not the point. He lived in solidarity with outcasts, including prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, widows and the poor. Christians believe that in him God became flesh—a total, shocking identification with all people, including the sexually marginalized.
The growing number of queer theologians say that the queer Christ is here to free and empower people who were wounded in Christ’s name.
Those who were rejected by the church for homosexuality may find that the gay Jesus welcomes and understands them.
Images and excerpts from the book are being posted daily during Holy Week at the Jesus in Love Blog. Like the paintings, the book is titled “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision.” In the book each image is accompanied by my commentary on its meaning, artistic and historical context, Biblical basis and LGBT significance, plus a short meditation with a scripture and one-line prayer.
Many condemn the gay Passion of Christ paintings as blasphemy, but I see them as a blessing that builds faith and a better society.