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Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

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What I Learned From Drag Queens About the Gospel

Posted: 09/16/2012 10:10 am

I've been watching "RuPaul's Drag Race" since the first season. Ru and her "goils" (girls) celebrate beauty and power of transformation offering the viewer a contemporary Gospel in sequins and feathers. The spiritual meaning of these transformations are not lost on RuPaul or her contestants. Love of and for Jesus, God, the Spirit and a reality beyond our own are regularly expressed in traditional and inventive ways like the RuGospel spiritual, "Jesus is a biscuit, won't he sop you up?" (Sung by Latrice Royale as her male alter ego.)

So when it came time for me to preach on one of the hard texts in the Gospel, where Jesus compares a woman begging him for help to a dog, I asked, "Did Jesus just call that woman a bitch?" And I remembered that Latrice Royale redefined bitch as Being In Total Control of Herself." The Gospel of Latrice helped me with the Gospel of Mark.

I preached following sermon at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on Sept. 12. An audio link can be found here.

Jesus said to her, "Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For that saying, for this logos, go now, the demon, the disease, the dis-ease, has left your daughter." Mark 7:27-29

[Dons feather boa.] This morning I'd like to talk to you about Drag Queens and Did Jesus Just Call that Woman a B----? Let us pray:

In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam's womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

I love drag queens. I love the way they make me think about gender, its construction and its performance. Drag queens like RuPaul, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale are some of my favorite critical gender theorists and theologians. Now drag queens are not female impersonators; for the most part they don't want to be women. They can be gay men and there are straight men who drag it out. There are women who perform as drag kings. Drag performers are folk who have chosen to express themselves and (hopefully) make a living by publically performing another gender. While all gender performances including those of us here today who are not professional gender performers, choose some elements of gender presentation over others to represent publicly, drag performers tend to center their performance in the stereotypical: voluminous hair, curvy bodies, sequined eveningwear, feathers and eyelashes that would shame a giraffe.

While there are a few petite queens -- Ongina boasted of being a size 4 -- many queens are well over 6 feet without their 5-inch platform heels and some are so full-figured that they could play professional football. One of my favorite queens, Latrice Royale, is famous for what she calls her "curves and swerves," for being "chunky yet funky." Drag queens have also been subject to public censure, ridicule, harassment and violence. RuPaul, the reigning Queen of Queens, is famous for saying "wearing drag in a male dominated society is an act of treason." Ru knows that choosing any kind of female gender performance by intentionally surrendering and/or sabotaging male privilege is an act of treason -- or resistance -- against the androcentrism is this planet's original sin, pervading the scriptures and on display in the Gospel, on the lips of Jesus, no less.

You don't have to be a drag queen to feel the wrath of some sections society -- church and society even -- for your gender performance and presentation: If you are a man who is deemed not to be appropriately masculine whether because you're gay, bisexual, transgendered or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant -- you knit or love babies, puppies, kittens, manicures and mascara, and think women are your equal... If you are a woman who is deemed not to be appropriately feminine whether because you're lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant -- you earn more than some men, coach sports, wear your hair short and spikey, hate make up or love trucks and wrenches, think men are your equal... Or because you're a man, woman or child who has been raped or sexually abused and no longer fit in the hierarchy in the same way. In this rigid gender binary masculinity and femininity are immutable and fixed characteristics of immutable and fixed genders and those genders are not equal. The gender binary serves to keep women and feminine folk in their place and has little patience for folk who occupy an unanticipated, unscripted place in the hierarchy.

Like other marginalized members of society, drag queens have taken the hateful language spewed at them and transformed it into community and self-affirmation, like the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. Latrice Royale has taken one of the more hateful epithets thrown at all kinds of women and folks who perform as women and redefined it: Being In Total Control of Herself. The b-word in case you didn't catch it, a female dog.

In a gospel that does not sound like good news to me, Jesus said to a woman kneeling at his feet begging for help for her child, "Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Did Jesus just call that woman a b----? I know this is Jesus and we've been trained to read him and hear him religiously, more than religiously, divinely, incarnationally. But where I come from you cannot call a child a dog without calling her mama a dog and you cannot call a woman a dog without calling her a b----.

In my best Queen Latifah, I want to ask Jesus, "Who you calling a b----?" (I know some of you don't know that song, U.N.I.T.Y., it's from the previous century.) In our supposed-to-be-good-news Gospel lesson Jesus calls a woman like me, a non-Jewish woman, a b----. There is no honest way around it. Jesus was not talking about a pet dog. Yes, he or the evangelist used the term kunarion, which sometimes meant a smaller dog like those kept indoors in other cultures; but the Israelites did not keep pet dogs. Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East, all of them scavengers. "Dog" was also the code word for a man who sold sex to other men, voluntarily surrendering his proper place in the gender hierarchy. Dr. Mounce's dictionary makes the point that a kunarion is a worthless specimen of a dog, reminding me of the way some folk who love big dogs think about little yapping dogs -- that they're not even worthy of the title "dog."

When Jesus talks about throwing food to dogs, he is not talking about feeding family pets. He's talking about taking your good food that you have prepared for your family off the table, walking it outside and throwing it in the gutter -- Greek students note the ballistic verb in the text -- so that the scavengers that are rooting through the garbage and maybe even eating the corpses of other dead animals can dine on what you prepared for your children. And the children in the analogy are the Israelites, the Syrophonecian, Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter are not even human in his metaphor.

The woman's response, emerging from her context -- after all Jesus is in her country, at the beach, blissfully outside of Herod's jurisdiction -- she reframes Jesus' words and changes that context. She does that. In her words, not those of Jesus, dogs are if not pets, at least not scavengers; they eat under the table. Now she has already humbled herself. She is now kneeling at the feet of a strange man. She is begging him for help. She probably knows that he is a Jew and what Jews thought of Gentiles. And while there is no reason to believe that androcentrism was any worse in ancient Israel than any other place in the Ancient Near East, she is dealing with a religious leader from a tradition that alternated between suspicion of and outright hostility toward women.

And taking the words that David Henson calls "racist and sexist" (in "Jesus Was Not Color Blind" on Patheos), and that Matt Skinner (on WorkingPreacher) calls "palpable rudeness" while being "caught with his compassion down," she shows Jesus what it is to Be In Total Control of Herself. She doesn't ask, "Who you calling a b----?" But she does werk. She werks the Word. And because of what she said, what she did, not what she believes -- this is werk without articulated faith, Jesus healed her daughter. In verse 29, he is converted by her logos, "that saying" not "saying that" -- rendered as a verb in the NRSV, but her word, her logos. She is the embodiment of the divine Word.

Now, many will say that Jesus didn't really call her the b-word. He just made an analogy in which the healing she wanted was compared to food for those whom he intended to heal, who were children and she and her child were dogs. So she was only a b-word by analogy. And that's not the same thing. Well, one day I was in the chapel of another seminary and a seminarian walked up to me and said to me "I grew up calling black folk n-words -- and the seminarian actually said the word, to me in chapel, then asked - what word should I use to refer to black people now?" She used the n-word about people like me while talking to me, in the chapel. When I discussed this with a variety of folk I was surprised that some of my colleagues said, "She didn't really call you the n-word, she just used it in a sentence while talking to you." They were of the belief that was a distinction that mattered. To me, that was a distinction without a difference.

And that's how I feel about this text, that the difference between comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs in an analogy and calling her and her daughter the b-word is a distinction without a difference. Now I understand that not everyone experiences this passage that way. And I'm not claiming that this is the only way to hear this Gospel. I'm sharing with you how I hear it because the principles of womanist preaching include affirming the dignity of black women as legitimate interpreters of the Scriptures whether or not our interpretations converge with those of the dominant culture, because our interpretations are God-breathed and revelatory, Gospel to more than folk who look and think like us.
It's alright if you have your own way of understanding this text. But I ask you to proclaim this Gospel in such a way that it doesn't take lightly how deeply entrenched gender bias is in the world of the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves and our world, that you don't dismiss the concerns of girls and women who feel marginalized by the Church and even by the Scriptures and that you don't empower people who call women outside of our names.

The church has taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, taught and fought, killed and died over that notion and it's implications. But most of us are not ready for Jesus who was quite that human. Who you calling a b----? A fully human Jesus is a product of his culture. Perhaps he was influenced by his own scriptures, Sirach who shared the same Jesus says in 26:25: A headstrong woman is regarded as a dog, but one who has a sense of shame will fear the Lord. The Anchor Bible Commentary (Skehan and Di Lella) has, "The unruly [woman] will be thought of as a bitch..." Even Jesus is affected by the androcentrism and ethnocentrism that characterize his people and their time. As am I.

I'm a black woman living in an American context that alternately demonizes and exploits my womanhood. If the Gospel isn't relevant to my context then, it's not Gospel or good news to me. And I stand with and in the place of all of those girls and women who are called the b-word by men and boys and other girls and women. Who hear the word on television and in the movies and in the music that is marketed to them, to us. I stand with the women and feminine-gender performing folk of various subcultures who use the word affectionately and with those who have redefined it for themselves.

And I'm standing up to Jesus, talking to and about women like me using language like that. Some of you maybe asking, where is the Jesus I know and love? Well, I think I caught a glimpse of him, in the midrashic space between their words. The listening, learning Jesus is the one I know and love. In this story, this nameless woman is also a Christ-figure. She is the one who humbles herself and will endure whatever is dished out to her in order to bring healing and new life. She is the rabbi, who teaches Jesus the value of all human life. She is the prophet who preaches the reign of God for all of God's children. She is the one who transforms the narrowly ethnocentric Jesus into the savior of the whole world. Apparently even Jesus needed a little help. In becoming her student Jesus becomes our teacher.

As a colleague recently reminded me, this is a passage that will sort out your Christology. How human, how divine is your Jesus? Is he human enough to be bigoted and biased? Or does your preconceived notion of the divinity of Jesus mean that whatever he said was holy, therefore comparing a woman to a female dog isn't really the same as calling her a b-----, or it's alright as long as it's Jesus. How divine is your Jesus? That Jesus listens and responds to the woman, is that an indication of humanity or divinity? Or is it both? I think the humanity and divinity of Jesus are all tangled up in this passage, sometimes thick and sometimes thin, neither distinguishable from the other, impossible to sort out.

In this troubling story, Jesus teaches me the value of listening, the value of hearing and the value of being able to grow and change your mind. Perhaps Jesus is a process theologian. In either case he models divinity and humanity in a muddy, godly, morass. Jesus is God enough/human enough/man enough to change his mind. And that is Good News.

This Gospel is that God's concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Jesus, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.

 

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