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"Good ethics is
attention to the
other who stands
Ethics is about
care, and justice-
making is about
wrote: "You will
know the truth, and
the truth will make
you – odd.”
I’m here this evening because Janie Spahr telephoned, and when Janie calls, it’s nearly impossible
to say no. Looking out on this gathering of friends and colleagues – so many Sophia-sisters, justice-
loving brothers, and diversely gendered, exquisitely embodied lovers of God – I’m doubly glad that
Janie asked and that I had the good sense to say yes. Thank you, Three Sisters, for your gracious
The last time I attended a General Assembly was back in 1991 when the Task Force on Human
Sexuality’s report, “Keeping Body and Soul Together,” was rejected by a wildly lopsided vote of 534
to 31. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that after that kind of vote, I could take a hint? Surely someone like
myself -- a self-avowed, practicing Christian ethicist – would realize that, after helping to cause all
that turmoil and upset, he might not be welcome in Presbyterian circles. This evening I’m also
grateful that you’re a different kind of Presbyterian circle.
That 1991 Task Force brought me together with my beloved colleague Sylvia Thorson-Smith. The
two of us have recently edited a collection of essays entitled Body and Soul: Rethinking Sexuality as
Justice-Love. In our introductory essay, Sylvia and I reiterate our conviction – and this brings me to
my topic tonight – that sexuality will remain a church-dividing and society-dividing issue until justice is
done. How will we recognize when justice is done? Surely, one sign will be when lesbian, gay,
bisexual, and transgender persons are honored among God’s beloved people as neither inferior to
nor superior to others, but rather co-equal -- fabulously co-equal.
That justice day is not yet here, so I suggest that in the meantime, we keep a “queer eye” on the
Presbyterian Church, especially when it comes to marriage, morals, and other makeovers.
Having a “good eye” is always an asset: being perceptive, keeping things in perspective, and having
a compelling vision. William Sloan Coffin writes, “As I see it, the primary religious task these days is
to try to think straight. Seeing clearly is more important even than good behavior, for redemptive
action is born of vision. Religious faith, far from being a substitute for thought, makes better thinking
(Trust Coffin to point out that it’s justice-centered religion, not religion per se, that aids in visionary
If having a “good eye” is important, what about the queer part? Queer is not another word for “gay”
although many people use the term that way. Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people
are queer, but not every queer person is LBG or T. Being queer means something like what Larry
Rasmussen is talking about when he describes the mission of the church. God calls us to engage in
“creative deviance on the frontline.” How come deviant? Because we’re not to accept the
conventional definitions. Creative? Because we need to seek alternatives. On the frontline? Because
we’re to stay in the struggle during good times and bad.
Tonight I want to extol the virtues of keeping a “queer eye” on the world around us, especially on this
crazed administration in Washington, as well as our own sometimes crazed denomination.
Joan of Arc heard voices. John of Patmos had visions, quite revelatory visions. Queer folk, let’s
admit it, have fantasies! Lately, I’ve been having a deeply satisfying recurring fantasy: the “Fab Five”
visit the Presbyterian Church and do a complete make-over. You know these guys, don’t you, from
their hit television show? They rescue nice, somewhat clueless heterosexual men from one fashion
disaster after another. Gently but firmly, they confront their social ineptitude. With good humor they
encourage them to move beyond the maelstrom of masculinity. These queer change artists model
how to be gracious hosts, good listeners, and attentive partners. Their motto is “you – only better.”
What I love about this show is how straight men and straight couples openly welcome -- and so
gratefully receive -- the wisdom, zest for life, and empowerment these five gay men have to offer.
What difference would it make if the Presbyterian Church did likewise – and openly listened to and
truly welcomed all the LBGT wisdom, zest for life, and empowerment that is readily available? The
Fab Five might put it this way: “Be Presbyterian -- only better.”
Let’s turn a discerning eye first to marriage. Who could have anticipated how politicized marriage
would become at the beginning of the twenty-first century? First of all, heterosexual marriage has
become politicized. The Washington establishment is promoting marriage as their prime strategy for
reducing poverty. They’ve dedicated $1.5 billion dollars to encourage – shall we say, coerce? – the
young and poor to “tie the knot,” so that “single moms” will marry gainfully employed husbands who
will take the entire family off the public dole, or so the theory of “compassionate conservatism” goes.
Marriage is being embraced as the newly favored way to privatize social welfare. To be sure, a
“queer eye” sees this picture differently. Yes, it’s true that helping people develop relational skills is
a good thing, but it’s also true that government programs aimed at promoting marriage will largely be
a waste of time and resources unless these programs are accompanied by good jobs with good
benefits, first-rate publicly funded education, decent health care, affordable housing, and serious
reform of the criminal justice codes so that those caught in the “drug war” will receive far fewer
prison sentences and far more rehabilitation programs.
I needn’t tell anyone in this gathering that marriage has also become highly politicized in terms of
extending the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. It’s important to place in context what’s
happening in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The movement toward marriage equality is part and
parcel of the ongoing struggle to end anti-gay oppression and to establish social and religious
equality for sexual minorities. At the center of this and every other social justice struggle is the
process of coming to recognize the humanity of those persons and groups who have been rendered
invisible and inconsequential. So, too, is gaining awareness of the community’s obligation to protect
Marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court has long clarified, is a fundamental human right. By adopting a
justice lens or what I’m calling a “queer eye,” we see that marriage is a changing, ever evolving
institution. Furthermore, marriage should change in order to reflect our best values and deepening
respect for others. As the Vermont Supreme Court stated in its 1999 Baker decision which led the
way to civil unions, “The past provides many instances where the law refused to see a human being
when it should have.” Granting same-sex couples equal access to marriage benefits and protections
is “simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity.”
In November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court wrote similarly strong words in the
opening paragraph of its landmark Goodridge decision: “The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the
dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” The courts
have done a very good thing by affirming the full humanity of LBGT persons and securing our equal
right to marry. To the contrary, opponents of same-sex marriage seek to split the human community
according to sexual difference and reward heterosexuality with special rights and status. That’s
unjust and wrong.
Using our “queer eye,” our message should be – pardon the expression -- straightforward: equality
-- and only equality -- in marriage. The church should not be promoting marriage per se and
certainly not patriarchal marriage. Rather, we should be encouraging only egalitarian partnerships
based on friendship and mutuality between co-equals. In other words, the church should educate
and equip people to marry not for love only, but for love and justice. Justice-love, that very queer
virtue, should become the normative expectation for all relationships.
Some might say, “yes but.” Yes, but when gay and lesbian couples seek to marry, aren’t they merely
mimicking heterosexual couples, trying to assimilate by “passing as straight,” and only seeking to
gain respectability? No doubt, same-sex couples seek to marry for similarly complex reasons that
heterosexual couples seek to marry. Some may want to assimilate, but something far more
interesting and important culturally is happening here, what might be called a process of reverse
assimilation. These days many heterosexuals in the cultural majority are acting – well, there’s no
other way to put it – more and more queer. For one thing, the normative sexual practice for most
married heterosexual couples is contracepted, not procreative sex. How very gay! Second, many
straight couples are working hard to overcome rigid gender roles and re-structure their relationships
on the basis of mutual respect and power sharing. Sounds queer to me! And third, many are
experimenting with alternative forms of family, including extended networks of friends and loved
ones. Again, all rather queer.
About morals, let me say that, by and large, Presbyterians know their etiquette, but even good
etiquette is a poor substitute for good ethics. Good ethics is about paying attention to the other who
stands before and alongside you. Ethics is about care, and justice-making is about respect. When it
comes to sexuality and sexual difference, and here I speak as a gay man, I’m reminded of W.E.B.
Dubois’ observation that “Being a problem is a strange experience.” Needless to say, Christians over
the centuries have twisted sexuality and made it into a much feared and greatly debated problem.
This evening I have an important announcement to make: There is no “problem of homosexuality.”
Even better, there is no “sin of homosexuality.” Homosexuality, like heterosexuality and bisexuality
and intersexuality and a-sexuality, is morally neutral. You don’t lose points if you’re gay; you don’t
gain points if you’re straight. Looked at with a “queer eye,” the entire sex/gender continuum doesn’t
work on a point system. What matters ethically is not identity, but character and conduct. On this
score, the Bible has much to say about right character, right conduct, and right relationship. I’m also
reminded of a quip by lesbian comedian Lynn Lavner. “The Bible contains six admonishments to
homosexuals,” she notes, “and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean God doesn’
t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision.”
About makeovers, I quote one of my favorite Southern authors, Flannery O’Connor, who’s written:
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you – odd.” It’s rather odd, isn’t it, during these days
of homeland and international insecurity, to claim an unquenchable thirst for justice, to insist on
treating every person with dignity, and to yearn deeply to protect the earth and preserve it in all its
beauty? In struggling for a comprehensive, multidimensional justice, the Three Sisters know that the
going often gets tough and lonely, but the good news is that we’re never alone. God, the never-
flagging Lover of justice, never ever lets go. With persistence and grace, God insists on
transformation, not merely reformation. As the Bible and our own lives testify, God is the
consummate make-over artist.
Some years ago, a truly great Presbyterian theologian and queer friend, Robert McAfee Brown,
known also as St. Hereticus, wrote about the duality of peacemaking. From one angle, working for
peace can appear as nothing but an exercise in futility, butting your head, time and again, against a
wall. From another angle, looked at with a “queer eye,” seeking peace and the things that make for
peace is empowering because it means aligning with the ways things are meant to be – and keeping
faith with the impulse at the very heart of the universe.
A queer God forever extends a transformative invitation to all: Be bold, and be odd. Keep a “queer
eye” on the church and beyond. Stay in the struggle, and while doing so, continue to party with lots
of justice-loving friends. Above all, be prepared for a divine makeover, the makeover of a lifetime.
After all, the best is yet to come!
MARVIN M. ELLISON teaches Christian ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary and is a
minister-member of the Presbytery of Northern New England. He is author of Same-Sex
Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis (Pilgrim, 2004) and co-editor with Sylvia Thorson Smith
of Body and Soul: Rethinking Sexuality as Justice-Love (Pilgrim, 2003).
1. William Sloan Coffin, A Passion for the Possible: A Message to U.S. Churches (Louisville, KY:
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 2.
2. Baker v. Vermont (filed December 20, 1999), 6, cited on the web page of Gay and Lesbian
Advocates and Defenders, www.glad.org.
3. Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health, et al., cited on the web page of Gay and Lesbian
Advocates and Defenders, www.glad.org.
“Queer Eye” on the Presbyterian Church:
Marriage, Morals, and Other Makeovers
Sermon by the Rev. Marvin M. Ellis, Ph.D., for The Three Sisters Dinner
(More Light Presbyterians, Shower of Stoles Project, That All May Freely Serve)
216th General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Richmond, Virginia
June 26, 2004
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