The Queering of Jesus: How I Reclaimed My Faith

by Timothy DuWhite

Today my mother has called me to ask what it is I plan on doing for Good Friday. She knows it has always been my favorite religious holiday of the year and is sure I have made plans. Hearing her voice, a ripe fruit bursting with all that good news and Baptist tabor, only makes it even more difficult to admit (to both her and myself) that I haven’t thought much about it.

How do I tell my mother that I haven’t enough space in my mind to think about any more death?

How do I tell her that all that space is currently being taken up by prisons, and the police state, and orientalism as a means of distraction? How do I tell her that there is something about my black and queer that is causing Jesus’s seven last words to get lost in translation?

Since moving to New York my mother has worried about me as most mothers would. She is fearful of me “losing my way.” She is convinced that the current friend group I am hanging out with is doing nothing to assist me on my “spiritual growth,” and she is scared.

She would never admit it but I know my queer makes her prayers to God last a little longer than usual most nights. However, I’ll be lying if I said she had nothing to worry about. I’ll be lying if I said that since moving to New York, meeting the friends I have and learning what I have about my people, has not forced me to put religion into question.

As Good Friday grows near and I am faced with so many images of an emaciated Jesus on a cross, I am also faced with the task of reconciling this with a blackness that is inextricably queer. 

Growing up I was offered the trope “What would Jesus do?” as a means to distinguish between what should be deemed the right and wrong decision. The idea in posing this question to oneself is that we all have the capacity to be “Jesus-like.”

However, as I think about the sacrifice Jesus’ time on the cross represents I also think about which “likeness” of Jesus black individuals like myself actually inhabit in this country. Everyone wants to be like Jesus in the sense of morality and “do gooder” nature. However, what about the suffering? The way Jesus suffered is the very reason in which we praise him today.

Jesus died on the cross as a means for us to live. The black radical in me hovers around this thought like a vulture contemplating the vitality of its prey. Is the sacrifice of Jesus a dead thing or has it too been resurrected? Capitalism is a blood sport—it is a weight of a cross and a splinter in a palm—we all know this. So when I think about the “means for us to live” I think about slavery—both past and present. I think about what it means for a person (or people) to be the contingency on which the rest of the wheels spin.

I ponder on the idea of “sacrifice,” and whether or not it must be a voluntary decision to be deemed as such.

Jesus states, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” These words escaping from a white mouth while connected to an equally white body. I cannot help but question the ways in which colonialism has help to shape what we deem a savior to look like.

When I was growing up, the most exciting part of visiting my grandmother’s apartment was seeing all her paintings of what she called “black Jesus.” A stoic man with hair the texture of wool and bronze skin. Sadly, for me these pictures were no more than mere fantasy, just a funny rendition of the real thing. I knew even then that Jesus couldn’t possibly look like me.

However, for my grandmother those pictures of a black Jesus weren’t just a pleasant possibility.

For my grandmother that was Jesus—carrying all of the burden people his complexion carry today. In her eyes, my inability to see him as well as his brown skin as savior was a transgression I would need to repent for later. “Forgive me father for I know not what I do.”

My grandmother would have never described herself as a radical woman. She just believed in her black and her God and raised her children (including my mother) to believe in the same. Coming from Barbados my grandmother had distinct understandings of God’s opinion in relation to sexuality. She believed man was to be with woman and that was it. I think about my grandmother a lot when I hear about the horrific news of violence against queer black folks in Uganda.

In the essay Black, Gay and Indisputably Africa author Douglas Foster writes:

The theme of homophobic African politicians is that gay identity is a perversion imposed on black people by white oppressors. The historical fact is the reverse, of course: Legal prohibitions on homosexuality were originally imposed by white colonial rulers. So it’s no small twist in the plot that the new wave of threats to Ugandan gays should be reinforced by American religious extremists.

Towards the end of last year I began to identify as queer as means to live in alignment with my politics.

“Gay” has never been meant for a black boy like me—not in this country at least.

In my earliest years, “gay” was the all-white cast of Queer as Folk. “Gay” was a cis-gender white male holding a rainbow flag on a pride float. “Gay” was a campaign towards marriage equality using the Civil Rights Movement rhetoric; however, “gay” was never a campaign towards ending poverty or state sanctioned violence.

What my black queer does is undermine this continual erasure. It acknowledges that our lack of visibility early on has never managed to place us neatly into the LGBTQ timeline, so in response we’ve carved our own space in time beyond it. What our queer does is call upon the centuries of work our ancestors have done exploring the multiplicities of gender and sexuality.

By claiming queer what we as a people have done is acknowledged the necessity of the cross, yet finally allowed ourselves to resurrect both blacker and undying. “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I think I finally have an answer to my mother’s original inquiry now, my plans for this Good Friday is to queer Jesus.

My plan is to divest white supremacist depictions and analysis around sacrifice and rather pull from the blueprint of my ancestors both dead and alive. On this Good Friday, I intend on lifting up the four-hundred years my people spent singing negro spirituals and calling upon a savior as black as the Jesus in my grandmother’s pictures. I intend to divest the prohibitions on my sexuality imposed on me via white colonial rulers and religious extremists. I intend to undermine the subjugation in which this “religion” intended for my people and rather uplift the God that’s been on our side the entire time.

This Good Friday I intend to no longer divest myself as means to reach salvation. Instead rather, I will look towards the reflection of the Jesus that is in me.

I will ask myself “What would Jesus do?” and know that when he said “I thirst” on the cross he was referring to the same thing I wish to be replenished of as well: Liberation. My intent is to not reconstitute Jesus into an image more appealing to myself but rather to see him in his full totality.

If death was the best option Jesus had for breaking the chains of the rest of us, then the death of the apologist in me is how I will break my own chains.

And in the words of Jesus himself, “It is finished.”

Photo via flickr user A.Davey