"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That's what the priest says when marking our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday. It's a fitting beginning for the forty-day penitential season that we Christians call Lent. We're called to remember that we are finite creatures -- that we were created from dust, and that we will one day return to dust.
It's not a bad thing to be reminded of our finitude, particularly in a world that is full of violence, greed, and suffering. According to the fourth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo, sin was unleashed into the world because Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate of the forbidden fruit. They wanted to be like God, and, as a result of their pride, they forgot that they were made of dust.
But for some people, every day is already a painful reminder that they are made of dust. For these people, sin is not so much about pride, but rather the failure to have a healthy sense of self-esteem and love for oneself. As Valerie Saiving noted in her groundbreaking article from 1960 on women's sin, sin is not always about "pride" or "will-to-power." It can also be about underdevelopment and the negation of the self.
As someone who has ministered to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community for over a decade, I believe that most of my LGBT siblings don't need further reminders that we are made from dust. Indeed, many of our homophobic political and religious leaders already do an excellent job of perpetuating LGBT self-loathing and shame.
The Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum -- who once compared homosexuality with "man on dog" action -- recently told a gay man in Missouri that he did not deserve the "privilege" of marriage. Why? Because this man's marriage would not "benefit" society in the same way as opposite-sex marriages.
As a person who has been in a loving relationship with my husband Michael for over two decades, I resent the implication that my marriage has any less benefit to society than the two-day marriage of Brittney Spears, the two-month marriage of Kim Kardashian, or the three marriages of Newt Gingrich.
Similarly, LGBT youth are told from an early age that they are worthless. In the last few years, nine teenagers -- including many who were bullied for being gay or being perceived as such -- have committed suicide in a Minnesota school district that is represented by the former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Despite the district being labeled a "suicide contagion" area, Bachmann has refused to comment about this issue and has, in fact, opposed anti-bullying efforts there.
What I believe LGBT people do need, by contrast, is the constant reminder and affirmation that we are in fact divine. That is, all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (see Gen. 1:27). That the Word of God became flesh (see John 1:14) and, through the incarnation, affirmed the goodness of our bodies. And that we are all, in fact, children of God (see Gal. 3:26).
In my forthcoming book, From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ (Seabury, 2012), I argue that the Western church should learn from the ancient Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theōsis or deification. Rather than obsessing over a crime-based model of original sin, we should embrace a Christ-centered model of sin and grace in which we are constantly growing towards our ultimate end, which is to become divine like God.
So let us "queer" the Ash Wednesday liturgy during these forty days of Lent. Instead of only remembering that we are dust through rituals of fasting and self-denial, let us ask whether we have honored the divine within ourselves. In the short time that we have on earth before we once again return to dust, let us ask whether we have truly loved ourselves as God loves us. Have we been as gentle and kind to ourselves as we are to others? Have we encouraged ourselves to follow our deepest dreams and desires?
"Remember that you are divine, and to the divine you shall return." That is the promise of the Good News, and let us never forget that.
Follow Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/patrickscheng