By Grace Aheron.
This piece was developed during the first Bartimaeus Institute Online Cohort (2015-2016), aka “The Feminary.” These pieces will eventually be published in a Women’s Breviary collection. For more information regarding the Feminary go here.
“Only in the longing for a world of economic and sexual justice together, and not subordinated to one another, can the encounter with the divine take place. But this is an encounter to be found at the crossroads of desire, when one dares to leave the ideological order of the heterosexual pervasive normative. This is an encounter with indecency, and with the indecency of God and Christianity.”
– Indecent Theology, 2000
While the drum beat of the purity cult of Christianity rings through our bodies and bones, causing our feet and hands and desires to fall in step, there are voices— high and descant, low and elemental— that waken us from the single-file lines of decency. Marcella Althaus-Reid was one of those voices. Her writing and her life embodies queerness in its fullest sense, destabilizing boundaries that society treats as fixed. I first encountered her in a liberation theology class in college, placed on a syllabus alongside other Latin American theologians. At first nod, I appreciated her shock value and creativity in reading the bible with special attention to notions of sexual desire and improper behavior, but I initially underestimated the extent to which her theological imagination calls society deeper into freedom.
Marcella was born 1952 in Rosario, Argentina and raised amidst waves of political corruption and economic disparities that surged through the country. Around the time of the military junta, she received a Bachelor of Theology degree with a focus in liberation theology from El Instituto Superior Evangelico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and also trained for ministry in the Methodist Church of Argentina. As thousands of people were being disappeared by the military-lead government, Althaus-Reid was studying with famous liberation theologians such as Jose Miguez Bonino and J. Severino Croatta and practicing her studies through community project in the slums of Buenos Aires. She was a follower of the methodologies of Paulo Freire, believing that it is not enough for people to talk about ideas and change, but that concrete steps action and community engagement must be paired with dialogue.
In her first book, Indecent Theology (2000), she named herself an “indecent Latina bisexual theologian,” identifiers that she did not see as prohibitive for doing theology, but rather grounds upon which her credentials as a theologian rested. Her theology does not shrink from controversial topics, but rather strides boldly forward and sits down amongst them. Taking on the praxis of Latin American liberation theology which treats life on the margins as ground zero for theological reflection, she began her theology in the unruly and gender bending worlds of poor, “sexual deviants” in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Perhaps Jesus would have shown up at a gay bar in the slums of the Global South, she muses. Perhaps he is already there. She reacted to the role of “decency” she saw reflected in whose experiences were counted as legitimate points of departure for theology in the Latin American context (Why the farmer and not the stripper? Why the single mother but not the trans mother?). As such, she began her theology alongside those hidden away in the closet.
Her second book, Queer God (2004), was her manifesto in reaction to the sexual oppression of Christian spaces and Christian theology. In it, she claims that all theology is sexual theology, as grappling with sexual identity and expression undergirds all human experience. Did Jesus have a penis? Two testicles? What was the landscape of sexual desire like for those who followed him? In my class, such questions illicit at best eye-rolls and blushing and at worst full on tirades against her blasphemous claims. But, why, Marcella would ask, is it so terribly scandalous to speak of God and sexual desire in the same breath? How can we see the semen on the skirt hem as sacramental as the blood in the chalice? “The search for love and for God is a bodily one,” and bodies searching for love add context to the human desire for God.
Marcella was hired first as lecturer, but then as Professor of Contextual Theology at New College, University of Edinburg— the first woman ever hired by the college. In this position of writing and teaching, she also worked and worship in the Metropolitan Community Churches, which she supported for its work on inclusion and alternative community.
Upon her transition into the next world in 2009, Edinburg College lowered their flags to half-mast, colleagues and students praising her work as a mystic, believer, and thinker. Althaus-Reid centered the experiences of folks who the church could not touch— whose behavior was not only condemned as sinful, but destabilizing. Her reflections draw us down a bumpy road of human experiences into a different plane of theological reflection. She blesses us with benedictions such as this one:
“Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognise God sitting amongst us, at any time, in any gay bar or in the home of a camp friend who decorates her living room as a chapel and doesn’t leave her rosary at home when going to a salsa bar.”(from Queer God)