Relevant truth telling with a queer twist
I love Jesus but sometimes I don’t like him
Is Jesus sexist? Well, yeah, sort of.
by Layton E. Williams
Last month, as Pope Francis made his first visit to the United States and “popemania” took over the country and social media, I followed the events of his trip with interest. Like many, I’ve been impressed by his uncommon humility and bold call to care for the Earth, immigrants, and those living in poverty. Some of my friends, however, rightly pointed out that he is still ultimately unsupportive of LGBTQ folks and women’s equality. One friend wondered in a tweet if she was the only one who remembered that the pope is arguably misogynistic. The truth is, my first thought when I read her tweet was, “like Jesus.”
Most of my seminary and ministry friends could tell you who their favorite Jesus is. They might tell you they like Markan Jesus best, or maybe John’s Jesus. They may lift up table-flipping Jesus, or healing Jesus, or little baby Jesus. My confession is that—even though I deeply love Jesus Christ—I do not really like any version of him very much. I think he is often harsh (especially to unsuspecting fig trees and desperate women) and is pretty consistently a jerk to his closest followers, deriding them for their lack of understanding even while he intentionally speaks in abstract riddles. I suspect that meeting Jesus would be something like meeting your favorite author at a book signing and finding her to be crusty, disinterested, and socially inept.
‘Still, to be honest, I kind of life that Jesus isn’t so likeable. . . . God often seems so abstract and amorphous that, if I’m not careful, I find myself shaping God into my own image as if She’s a liquid I’m pouring into a container of my own design.’
I believe deeply in both the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the world-transforming power of his teachings about justice and mercy. This faith in Jesus’ ultimate purpose allowed me, for years, to laugh off his less-appealing character quirks with an eye roll and a muttered, “Oh, that Jesus.” But last fall, I was struggling to write a sermon about his parable on the 10 bridesmaids. Finally, after days of fruitless wrestling, I threw up my hands and angrily exclaimed to my friends, “Jesus was sexist!” They empathetically agreed with me. Underneath this parable about readiness and faithfulness is the presumption that women are property—the standard perspective of 1st century Jerusalem. While I believe that in today’s world Jesus would be pro-women and pro-LGBTQ, 1st-century Jesus is not nearly as inclusive and feminist as I would like.
We could split some hairs about this. Sure, Jesus was more inclusive of women and others than the society of his time, but modern Christians still have a responsibility to recognize the problematic context in which he participated.
Still, to be honest, I kind of like that Jesus isn’t so likeable.
I think there is something valuable in Jesus being a bit of a temperamental jerk sometimes. God often seems so abstract and amorphous that, if I’m not careful, I find myself shaping God into my own image as if She’s a liquid I’m pouring into a container of my own design. It’s much harder to do that with a human Jesus who butts up against my desires and expectations in tangible ways. My constant frustration with Jesus’ attitude and behavior forces me to wrestle with him. I am called to engage him with intention and even discomfort—to thoughtfully consider why I believe in his teachings and seek to follow them in my own life. Honestly, in moments when Jesus isn’t making me uncomfortable, I’m probably not paying enough attention.
‘If the gospel can be born in and transcend a problematically oppressive context—if it can come from a savior who is, even himself, caught up in those systems—then we can trust that the gospel can transcend our own problematic context and unrecognized oppressions too.’
The other parts of Jesus that I dislike—his participation in sexist and oppressive systems—aren’t meaningful to me in the same way as his irascibility. I genuinely wish that Jesus had been more overt and bold in dismantling some of those systemic oppressions. I wish a modern justice-oriented pope would have zero room to doubt that equality for women and LGBTQ justice are a part of Jesus’ hope for this world. All the counter-cultural things that Jesus does—though transgressive and important—aren’t enough to compel me to forget all that he doesn’t do.
Remarkably, though, I find hope even in this struggle with Jesus. Trusting that Jesus was fully human and fully divine means accepting that he was fully human—including being influenced by and even participating in oppressive systems. Only by accepting this full humanity can we trust that Jesus’ full divinity has the power to enter into and transform those oppressive systems and us. Jesus’ full humanity also means that he grows and changes over the course of his life. His experience with the Syrophoenician woman, for example, challenged him to confront his own human prejudices and realign himself with the radically inclusive gospel he proclaimed (Mark 7:25–30, Matt. 15:21-28). His growth is a living testament to the transformative power of that gospel.
There is so much hope to be found in this (admittedly uncomfortable) truth. If the gospel can be born in and transcend a problematically oppressive context—if it can come from a savior who is, even himself, caught up in those systems—then we can trust that the gospel can transcend our own problematic context and unrecognized oppressions too. What “isms” have we yet to recognize? How are we inhibiting the in-breaking of God’s kindom without even knowing it? Jesus’ words and vision have spoken beyond even his own imagination during his lifetime, and they undoubtedly speak beyond whatever justice and love we can imagine now.
I don’t always like Jesus very much, but I do love him. I love that he calls for radical justice and love, for a world defined by grace. I love that his call transcends his own moments of unkindness and misbehavior. I love that his call transcends the sexism and heterosexism and oppression of his context. And I love that his gospel blooms in imperfect cracks all over this wide world: in short-tempered 1st century carpenters, in justice-seeking, sexist popes, and in outspoken, snarky young pastors.
I don’t always like Jesus, but I do love him. And I suspect that he feels the same way about me. Thank goodness.
Layton E. Williams is a teaching elder currently serving as the pastoral resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Her ministry focuses on young adults, adult education, and a jazz worship service.