The following is a guest post written by Rev. Kittredge Cherry, lesbian Christian author and art historian who blogs about LGBT spirituality and the arts at the Jesus in Love Blog. Her books include “Equal Rites” and “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More“.
Feminists have criticized saints as top-down tools of the dominant morality, but as a lesbian Christian I find that sometimes the opposite is true. The desire for saints rises from the grassroots, and LGBT saints can shake up the status quo. Feminist theology is helping me in a quest for new models of sainthood that lead to LGBT and queer saints. The LGBT saints attract people with the quality of their love. They show us not only THEIR place in history, but also OUR place — because we are all saints who are meant to embody love.
Feminists tend to be suspicious of saints because they have been used to get people to passively accept oppressive situations. As theologian Elizabeth Stuart writes, “Their lives became vehicles for the dominant theology, morality and political culture.” Feminist philosopher Mary Daly’s solution is to take the “hags” out of hagiography, explaining, “Surviving, moving women can hardly look to the masochistic martyrs of sadospiritual religion as models.” Too often the saints have been put on a pedestal to glorify virginity, death and masochistic suffering. The emphasis on miracles disrespects nature, the ongoing miracle of life. Feminists find liberating power not in hierarchy or hero-worship, but in mutuality, sometimes called erotic power or passion.
I had a mostly secular, mildly Presbyterian upbringing, so I had scant interest in or knowledge of the saints until a few years ago when I finished a series of books on the queer Christ. Many readers told me that they couldn’t relate to a gay Jesus, but they liked the idea that his followers were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or otherwise queer. They were seeking role models for alternative ways to lead loving lives.
I decided to uncover and highlight saints to inspire LGBT people of faith and our allies. The positive response quickly affirmed that people are hungry to connect with queer people of faith who have gone before. I offer some reflections on what I have learned by writing more than 40 profiles in the “LGBT Saints” over the past two years. This is my queer theology of sainthood.
A guiding light has been the book “Spitting at Dragons: Towards a Feminist Theology of Sainthood” by Elizabeth Stuart. She is known primarily as a queer theologian, but in this book she lays a strong feminist foundation that can be applied to queer or other communities. She found that sainthood has many redeeming qualities. She writes:
“The theology of sainthood is grounded in the concept of community; it is clearly a belief system that arose from the ‘bottom up’ and was often perceived by both the hierarchy and the laity as subversive, providing another system of authority beyond and above the clerical caste, and it was a process in which women were involved from the beginning — as saints, proclaimers of saints, and devotees of saints.”
Churches have tried to control people by burying queer history like they have erased women’s history. Most mainstream churches would not canonize any saints who were openly LGBT, so we must claim our own saints. It’s important to re-evaluate familiar figures as well as to recover those who have been lost and recognize the saints of our own time.
At first I thought that LGBT saints were rare. Gradually I came to see that they are everywhere throughout all time and they are among us now. We have all met saints in our lives. They are ordinary people who are also extraordinary.
One of the greatest challenges has been to figure out who is a “saint” and who is “LGBT.” If the boundaries of sainthood are slippery, then the definition LGBT is even more fluid.
My definition of who qualifies as a “LGBT saint” continues to expand. First I considered saints officially canonized by the church, but I soon discovered that many have achieved “sainthood” by popular acclaim. The church didn’t even have a formal canonization process for its first 1,000 years. Ultimately all believers, living and dead, can be called “saints,” a practice that began in the early church. Yes, we are all saints!
Dictionaries define a saint as “a holy person” or “an extremely virtuous person.” I rather like the concept of sainthood that emerged in comments on my blog, the Jesus in Love Blog Atlanta artist Trudie Barreras wrote: “My definition of saint has absolutely nothing to do with what the hierarchical church defines, and everything to do with the quality of love displayed.” Or, as gay author Toby Johnson commented, “Being a saint means creating more love in the world.”
Sainthood comes in many different forms. Some become saints by leading an exemplary life, but the surest path to sainthood is to risk or lose one’s for the good of others. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). Martyrs, from the Greek word for “to bear witness,” are a common type of saint.
Whether or not they died as martyrs, the lives of the saints were indeed difficult. Our lives are difficult too — and that can become a point of connection. Like today’s LGBT Christians, the saints sometimes faced opposition from within the church. Some martyrs, including cross-dresser Joan of Arc, were killed not FOR the church, but BY the church!
LGBT and queer did not exist as categories throughout most of the history in which the saints lived. A convenient way around this dilemma is to say that LGBTQ saints are those of special interest to LGBTQ people and our allies.
Some deny the existence of historical LGBT saints because it’s almost impossible to prove their sexual activity. However, same-sex affection does not have to be sexually consummated for someone to be honored as an LGBT saint. Deep love between two people of the same gender is enough. Homosexuality is more than sexual conduct. The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions.”
I apply “a hermeneutic of suspicion” as championed by feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther. The dominant Christian culture tried to suppress overt homosexuality, so any hint of homosexuality that survives in the historical record should be given extra significance.
Many official saints were nuns or monks living in same-gender convents or monasteries. Naturally their primary emotional attachments were to people of the same gender. Soon almost all saints seem LGBT!
My “LGBT Saints” series is an ongoing project. I welcome input from my feminist sisters as I continue to research, write about and commune with queer saints. I put special effort into finding the women among them. We can restore the complex reality of saints whose lives are being hijacked by the hierarchy to enforce the status quo. We can reclaim wholeness and tap into the energy of our ancestors in faith. Let us move boldly ahead on our own queerly feminist paths toward sainthood.