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Out of the Closets and into the Kingdom

Forty years ago this coming fall I wrote a paper for liberation theologian and feminist Dr. Letty Russell, for her course “Issues in Liberation Theology.” I had forgotten its title until decades after, when I returned to speak on the campus of Yale Divinity School and Letty introduced me.

She proudly held up the paper, still in her files, “Out of the Closets and into the Kingdom: The Call of the Kingdom for Gay Christians within Liberation Theology.” Some of you will know the title is a play on a rallying cry for the nascent LGBT movement, “out of the closets and into the streets!”

What follows is the introduction to my paper. I’ve only changed spacing, bolded some sentences, and included references in text rather than as footnotes. At the end I’ve also added a sentence from the paper’s concluding paragraph, quoting Letty.

There is a knock at the door of my closet. I tremble with fear. It is the persistent Jesus again, asking that the door be opened, asking to be given hospitality, asking me to remove the walls between us and between me and the rest of the Kingdom.

“I don’t want any!” I shout, in my desire to live in peace. But the possible joy, despite my initial denial, eventually overcomes my fear, as it has in the past and will again in the future, and I open the door. Jesus comes in, smiling, hugs me. He sometimes chastens me for taking so long to answer the door. As we drink the new wine which he brings, in my ecstasy I see the walls of another closet disappear. And I inevitably think with surprise, “He’s done it again,” and smile at my lack of faith.

For gay people and indeed for everyone, the Kingdom of God is somewhere outside the closet. A closet is a cramped place in which to hide, with little room to breathe and the inevitable storeroom for unwanted items and unsightly clutter which one also wishes to hide.

It has similarities to a box, and for some, a box belonging to one Pandora, which has been forbidden to be opened. Humans prefer boxes in which to live, travel, file, categorize, love, find entertainment, worship, pray, etc. At their worst these boxes symbolize death (coffins); at their best they symbolize the Kingdom which is yet to come (churches), though they are never to be confused with that Kingdom.

As Letty Russell speaks of the constantly changing horizon of freedom, in the same way it is possible to speak of the constant opening of each of our successive closet doors. Sometimes we who are inside open the door to the Kingdom outside (conversion); sometimes the Kingdom “breaks in” (incarnation); and sometimes the door rots and simply falls off its hinges (novelty, chance, serendipity, time).

But the nature of the Kingdom, from this perspective, is that it is always outside of the closet, waiting to enter or waiting to be entered. It is the Kingdom which inspires movement or moves itself; it is above all a moving event. It is “the driving force of salvific history,” and as such is “the very key to understanding the Christian faith.” [Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 162.]

As a fundamentalist I identified the Kingdom with a literal understanding of God setting up the Kingdom on earth at the end of time—sort of a heaven on earth. As James Cone, however, aptly points out, to the oppressed with whom I began to identify, the “eschatological promise of heaven is insufficient.” [James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 44.]

As a social activist I identified the Kingdom with a kingdom on earth which we “liberals” were going to bring into existence—the old social gospel. Here Gustavo Gutierrez’s differentiation between promises and the Promise proves helpful. [Gutierrez, 162.] Though the in-breakings of the Kingdom may occur in the process of social activism, they cannot be understood as the Kingdom itself, or the fullness of the Promise, but rather only as promises of the future fulfillment of God’s Promise of the Kingdom.

As Günther Bornkamm puts it, “the Kingdom of God cannot be described as can an earthly thing or distant wonderland—every attempt to ‘define’ it can thus only come to grief—for it is a happening, an event, the gracious action of God.” [Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, 77.]

The Kingdom of God is not a static reality, but a movement. Bornkamm also states “all the beatitudes are directed towards the coming Kingdom of God and are embraced in one idea, that God wills to be present with us and will be with us all, in as manifold and individual a way as our needs are manifold and individual.” [Bornkamm, 77.]

God wills to be present with gay persons and all who wish to be free in their movement from their closets of humiliation, despair, loneliness, isolation and secrecy to the kingdom of exaltation, exultation, companionship, community and openness (which includes freedom and responsibility).

As the experience of many gay persons will testify, “coming out” is not a once-and-for-all experience, but a continuing process. So the movement towards the Kingdom, somewhere outside the closet, or the Kingdom’s movement toward the closeted, is one which continues until the final Promise is fulfilled: God’s gift of God’s own future, the Kingdom.

As the Church, as people who wish to be free in the Body of Christ, whether female, male, black, brown, red, yellow, white, gay, straight, and so on, we must respond to our “calling to be a community that lives, not by the standards of the world, nor of the past, but by the memory of hope.” [Letty Russell, Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective, 162.]
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