Queer Virtue: a conversation between Liz Edman and Alison Webster
OneBodyOneFaith Brings Queer Virtue to the U.K
A dialogue between Liz Edman (plain text) and Alison Webster (italics)
I am writing from New York to thank you all for sponsoring my trip to the U.K. in August. Thanks to you, I was able to go to Greenbelt for the first time ever (Glamping: yessss.). The weather was perfect. And the music, the conversations, the people...let me just say that I completely understand why I met so many Greenbelters who told me they’ve gone every year since the Saxon invasion.
I am incredibly grateful, not least because writing queer theology, while exciting work, can at times be a bit lonely. I spend a fair amount of time hunkered down at my laptop, or poring over theological tomes, or reading some insightful new piece by an amazing colleague whom I may or may not ever have met in person. So it was a delight to have so many engaging conversations with actual human beings! In the flesh! And some of them were people whose work I’ve long admired.
Like for instance, Alison Webster! Tracey had the inspired idea to put me on the road and bring Queer Virtue to folks who hadn’t been able to get all the way to the yurts of Greenbelt. One introduction led to another and before you knew it the tour had become a series of public dialogues between me and Alison, who just published her own new book, Found Out. It was such a great experience that I wanted to ask Alison to join me in writing this blog.
Hi Liz, I too am indebted to Tracey and OneBodyOneFaith for, in effect, creating a deep connection between us. I fell upon Queer Virtue as soon as I heard of it, just after finishing Found Out, and it was incredibly affirming to find another queer woman of faith, writing from a similar perspective, in a rich and different style. I am totally with you in your conviction that as queer people of faith we bring riches and resources to the Christian community because of who we are. The ways we have lived (often in those painful in-between places of not belonging); the relationships we have forged and maintained (with imagination, creativity and no inherited models); the political changes we have been part of bringing about; the connections we enjoy with the divine, and our idiosyncratic ways of expressing them, should all be deeply celebrated. Thanks, Liz, for capturing that for us, and for giving us the words to say it.
Thanks for your kind words, Alison. You and I are part of a growing movement of people who perceive queer people bringing real gifts to life and to faith. Yet several times during our tour we were challenged on the central idea in Queer Virtue that queer identity “demands a lived response of high moral caliber.” What really interested me was that this pushback was almost always from someone who was quick to identify themselves as some iteration of queer. My response to this is two-fold. First, I think it’s important to clarify that I’m talking about ethical patterns that I see lived out broadly by people in queer community. So, for instance, when I talk about the courage demonstrated by people who come out at considerable risk to themselves, it matters to acknowledge that not everyone comes out. And some queer people are content to throw other LGBTQI people under the bus while they hide in the relative safety of a closet.
My second response -- and you also gave voice to this in Leicester -- is that it shows a certain moral rectitude to take a look at your own people and note where we are falling short. Every time a queer person says to me, “Wait, we need to be so much better!” their introspection itself proves the point.
Something that seemed to greatly energise our audiences was your encouragement to us to engage with the Bible and our scriptural resources in a new and different way. You rightly pointed out that when it comes to sexuality, Christian communities rarely get beyond superficial use of the so-called ‘clobber texts’ – those bits of the Bible that are perceived to be ‘about’ sexuality. What would it be like, you wondered, if, as a Christian community, we could begin from those texts which each of us (from whatever perspective we are coming from in terms of sexuality and other aspects of our identity) find inspiring, helpful, life-giving (even life-saving)? What if we could share our experiences openly and honestly? What if we could talk about how our own interpretations of scripture have shaped our identities and our lives? As churches I think we have inherited a damaging and unhelpful assumption that there are those who are ‘qualified’ to interpret scripture (clergy and academic theologians), and the rest of us simply take what they say as authoritative. I prefer the much more interesting approach: that we are all theologians, because we are all engaged with a process of dwelling in God, and dwelling in scripture, and working out what that means for us. When we can free people to share the insights they often have in private, and keep to themselves for fear that they have ‘got it wrong’, we unleash an avalanche of rich insight into God and one another that is diverse, challenging and exciting. In a sense that’s what I have tried to do through Found Out.
You are gesturing, I think, to a false binary that needs rupturing: the idea that there are only two ways to engage scripture -- that one can read scripture responsibly through a rigorous, academic lens, or one can read personally but with significant limitations. Clearly there is middle ground, in which one can read scripture with care and a good deal of heart regardless of the academic tools at one’s disposal. One way to do this is by peering closely at the text and asking questions of it. A lot of times when I read scripture I try to place myself in it, looking around as if I were taking a stroll in a neighborhood I want to understand better. I am always on the lookout for things that raise questions for me. You model this really well in Found Out. Early in the book you look at the passage in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and you ask (as if talking directly to Jesus), “Why did you weep?” I swear, Alison, my breath caught when I read that question. Jesus raising Lazarus is one of my personal “go to” passages, and this question of why Jesus weeps is one that I have pondered and pondered. You ask it directly of Jesus, and then you come at the question from multiple perspectives. “You knew you could do this; you had already healed from a distance -- so why did this make you cry??” You got me to think about this question from a whole new angle, and your answer has stayed with me powerfully, deepening not only the text but my understanding of my own call.
This is queerness at work as modus operandi in our faith lives: rupturing false binaries in how we study scripture; rupturing false binaries in our relationship to the stories we find there (walking around in it rather than thinking it is utterly removed from our daily lives); rupturing false binaries that imply scripture is a one-way dialogue -- always speaking to us (or at us), but never responsive to our statements and questions.
As you say, ‘queer’ is a verb, and ‘rupturing’ certainly is. I think these are also practices and skills which we need to consciously develop – in how we engage with scripture and tradition, and in how we live our lives. These practices enable us to bring a hermeneutic of suspicion to the world around us – both in church and secular terms; to ask, ‘who has the power here and how are they using it?’; ‘who is being erased and silenced and marginalised, and why?’; who is, perhaps, being heard now for the first time? One of the things I say in Found Out is that oppressive forces are never vanquished, they simply re-form themselves and shape-shift into new manifestations. We have to learn to see them and recognise them, and pay attention to how we listen. That’s something we do in community, not alone. And the more diverse that community, the more nuanced will be our ‘seeing’. Blessing and supporting one another in being courageous and standing our ground is crucial. So let’s end with the blessing you used at the end of each gig of your tour.
Oh, that’s a great idea To the OneBodyOneFaith readers out there, imagine me standing with an outstretched arm, palm toward you. Prepare to be blessed! This is attributed to St. Clare:
Live without fear.
Your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you,
and loves you like the best kind of mother.
Go in peace to follow the good road and may God’s blessing be with you always.