A Small, Queer Hope (and Crash Course in Christian Theology)

On a recent morning, as I began my daily dive into social media, Facebook reminded me that I had written this post exactly 2 years earlier:

“Friends…what do you do when you’re angry at God/the universe? And I don’t mean ‘How do you eventually feel better about it?” or ‘How do you *think* about anger with God?’ I want to know what you physically do or say when you are angry at God. How do you let it out? I’m at a standstill in my spiritual life because I think God has been a jerk, and I don’t feel like I have an outlet the way I would with an actual person. It gets turned back on me. All suggestions welcome (don’t feel the need to focus on the anger passing, I’m not concerned about that right now.)”

Two years later and the question is still relevant.

The past few months have brought about yet another mass shooting by an emboldened white man, the exposure of years of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, wildfires in California that decimated hundreds of people’s homes, the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, a broadened interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allowing employment discrimination against LGBT people, and–framing it all–a contemptuous, self-absorbed president lying to and dismissing his country’s suffering people. Where is God in all of this?

Since 45 was elected, I have found myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of awful news shared every day. Every time one crisis passes, another erupts, typically followed by ignorant, divisive, and inane comments by our president. I scroll through Facebook searching for good news—the birth of a new baby, a friend’s successful venture, videos of puppies–and am often scrolling for an hour or more, discovering even more injustice, and finding much more to be worried and upset about.

I notice I’ve felt frenzied. Desperate to feel better, to escape. I unhappily lurk on YouTube for hours at a time. I flit between seven browser tabs. I’ve cried at the smallest gestures, the most subtle plot twists. I know it’s not just the stress of my own life—starting a new business, or traveling, but because all of the evidence suggests the world is only getting worse, not better.

I read an article in the Guardian recently about how many of the tech engineers who designed social media features such as the Facebook “like” button are giving up their mobile devices to save their mental health. These engineers, more than any other people on the planet, know the impact of social media on individuals. They created many of the feedback loops that take advantage of users’ emotional states as well as their interests—which includes not only their hobbies and community affiliations, but also their fears. Sites like Facebook track what users click on—news stories, online shopping, and other links. They encourage users to vigilantly monitor their posts and others’ through notifications of every like and comment response. They email us when we haven’t logged on in awhile. They curate news items and advertisements based on previous online behavior and the demographic information collected from you (age, gender, political affiliation, etc.) in an effort to generate more revenue from their sponsors.

Many of us are aware of this. We click on an article about cheap vacations and suddenly we see ads for luggage and travel credit cards. What many people don’t realize is that social media companies also have mechanisms to upset users, keeping them engaged for longer on their platform. An easy example is posting “click-bait” articles—articles with shocking, cryptic headlines that are hard for users to resist (“You’ll never believe what Obama just said”), and then suggesting more tempting links to keep the user on that site. Based on aggregated user information, companies know when certain demographics of users feel depressed or vulnerable, allowing them to suggest content that preys on their needs. The very design of social media sites encourages people to seek solace and comfort from upsetting information within the very interface that provided it in the first place.

As The Guardian phrases it, “The same forces that led tech firms to hook users with design tricks…also encourage those companies to depict the world in a way that makes for compulsive, irresistible viewing…That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage. The news media is increasingly working in service to tech companies…and must play by the rules of the attention economy to ‘sensationalise, bait, and entertain.’”

According to a Pew Research Center study released this year, around 67% of Americans get at least some of their news via social media like Facebook, Twitter, and even Snapchat. It’s easier than ever before to foment collective outrage that feels good temporarily and then results in paralysis—being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information we consume.

When we are constantly flooded by bad news—the unfettered perils of climate change, the rolling back of progressive social policy, emboldened racist, xeno-, homo-, and transphobic people attacking our communities—it is not reasonable to be hopeful. We are not given logical reasons to look to our future with positivity and joy. To hope in times of grief and suffering is a queer thing to do.


 

Queer is a word that means strange or peculiar. From the German “quer,” meaning oblique or perverse, it denotes something out of the ordinary. Its “perverse” connotation was commonly used in the 20th century to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender non-conforming people, which was reclaimed in the late ’80s/early ’90s by the LGBT community as a point of pride. A queer identity is often used to self-describe anyone who does not fit into the heteronormative (one man, one woman relationships in an imagined world where there are only men and women) paradigm. It has evolved to include anyone who finds themselves on the outskirts of society or resistant to structures that mandate not only heterosexuality and the gender binary, but reinforce other arbitrary forms of oppression.

To be queer is to be different, and proud of it.

Queer is not just an adjective, but also a verb. To queer something is to uncover the secret undermining of, or even opposition to the way it seems to be, and to let those contradictions coexist. To examine all the assumptions which make the thing normal or unremarkable and reveal its downright absurdity. You can queer a Bible story, a movie, a book…or even theology.

Theologian Susannah Cornwall defines queer theology as “one that question[s] and reframe[s] all ostensible absolutes and incontrovertibilities, not just those related to heteronormativity” (Cornwall, 63). Queer theology takes seriously the radical claims of Christianity—that Jesus was born of a human woman without a human father, that he cultivated a community of outcasts, dissidents, and those condemned by the authorities of his day, that his body died and ascended into heaven after three days. Queer theology constantly reminds us of how strange this story of God’s love for us truly is, even as we experience Christianity in its full mundanity, its normative respectability.

Christian theology is concerned with, among other things, the question of hope. The sub-discipline eschatology is tasked with the question, “In what do Christians find ultimate hope?” It encompasses ruminations about the end of the world, the afterlife, and how God’s promises are kept. A queer eschatology wonders not only how queer and trans people think about their ultimate hope, but considers all of the places seemingly barren of it and asks how God might be showing up anyway.

We often experience Christianity as an immutable cultural force, a tradition that has woven itself into our American customs, our historical imagination, our language, our foundational myths and symbols. An oppressive institution that influences our laws and our educational system. How easily we forget that Jesus was himself an outcast to the Jewish authorities of his day, the Pharisees and other lawgivers, how many early Christians died for their faith as a new religion resisting the world’s most powerful empire! During his time, to suggest that Jesus—an itinerant with a band of followers roaming the countryside and criticizing those in power—was the messiah, the anointed one promised in the Hebrew scriptures, was a queer thing indeed.


 

A few weeks ago, I went to church for the first time in a long time. One of the pastors made a comment in her prayer—“anything that’s contrary to the way things are is what we want to be.” This contrary-ness strikes me as both very Christian language (“We’re in the world but not of it”) and as very queer (“Not gay as in happy, but queer as in f*ck you”).

To bring us back to this question of how to combat despair in the age of social media, one might rephrase this as “anything that’s contrary to the current news cycle is what we want to be.” So how do we do that? How do we sustain hope within ourselves and encourage it for others who are suffering?

Here are three ways we can cultivate this strange hope:

  1. Make your social media engagement abut building relationships with others. When you’re on social media, ask yourself, is what I’m doing contributing to my connections with others? Or does it make me hate the world? Am I centering my relationships or consuming information? If you need to, take a social media break. In the past, I felt guilty for taking a sabbatical from Facebook. It felt as if I was not supporting my community if I wasn’t reading every article about issues I care about, or liking every post expressing my views. Taking a social media break doesn’t mean we are abandoning the work for social justice—it means we’re taking care of ourselves long enough to sustain the work. It means we’re better able to see the good. Taking a break from social media is an act of self-preservation that enables us to show up to support people when they need us most.
  2. Take time to be grateful. Practicing an “attitude of gratitude” every day has been shown to improve mental and physical health, self-esteem, and the ability to overcome trauma.[1] It might sound corny, but creating some time every few days to jot down a few things you are thankful for can really help reframe how you perceive the world. Yes, there are terrible things happening all the time and we have reason to be concerned. And, we are always terribly fortunate, and have reason to acknowledge the ways we’re blessed. When I start to spin out, I often think about the sacrifice of my blood-related and LGBT ancestors who bravely paved the way for the life I have today. It helps to put recent roll-backs of inclusive policies in perspective. We’ve survived before and will survive even now.
  3. Work on self-compassion. This has been one of my commitments this past year. I’ve discovered when I create spaciousness within my own self-critical thoughts, I am far less judgmental and far more patient with other people. Guided metta, or compassion meditation, can be found on YouTube or apps like Insight Timer, or you can write your own. It includes 4-5 statements (i.e. “May I be well,” “May I be safe from suffering,”) directed at yourself, a person you have trouble garnering compassion for, and all beings. You can also create meditations where you imagine talking to your inner child or a part of yourself that is upset. For beginning meditators, Headspace is a great free app to get you used to deep breathing and mindfulness. I have tailored resources for this as well.

So give yourself permission to exit cyberspace, to turn off CNN, to silence your notifications. Fill that space instead with visions of everything you’re thankful for, with appreciation for how you have grown and compassion for all parts of you. You’re doing the best you can in a virtual world that feeds on negativity, a material world that doesn’t always have room for your beautiful complexity.

And if you find yourself trolling the internet all hours of the night anyway, watch this playlist of Ellen doing good for the world. It never fails to make me smile a little brighter.

 

[1] Amy Morin, “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round,” Forbes, accessed November 7, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/.

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