June 16 | Queering Our Horizons

Sermon: Katelyn Amstutz

Ruth 1:16-18; Acts 4:32-35

Once upon a time, there was a girl. This girl lived with her father and stepmother, but her stepmother was jealous of her great beauty. As the girl grew up she became even more beautiful, and her stepmother mistreated her. Something happened between them; perhaps the girl was banned from going to the ball, perhaps she was killed by an apple, but the girl needed to be rescued, and there was a handsome prince who showed up just as she needed him, who married her, took her away from her family, and they had children and lived happily ever after.

My freshman year of college at Bluffton University I took an advanced writing class on Fairytale literature. Professor Susan Carpenter kindly let me and my best friend into the class despite neither of us fulfilling any of the requirements. At the time, I was obsessed with fairytales; I loved reading original fairytales, retellings of fairytales, and rewriting them. The fact that I’ve begun this sermon with a fairytale should maybe tell you that I haven’t moved on from that. What I learned from Susan Carpenter was that fairytales are always about the fears and anxieties of the people telling them: warnings about being careful or kind, about the grossness of going through puberty, but also reassuring children who lost their mother to childbirth that their stepmothers might feel evil, but their lives too could have a happy ending. Fairytales are also about the possible: what could be, and what we can imagine the world to be like.

I’m sure we delved into it at the time, but I didn’t think until later about what kind of anxieties caused the happy ending my beloved fairytales proposed to be a nice heterosexual marriage and children.

Earlier this year I read eminent queer theorist Judith Butler’s most recent book Who’s Afraid of Gender, their first book for a non-academic audience. They became curious about the rise in global anti-gender movements after being attacked in an airport in Brazil, and they write about fears of gender theory and trans people, from those spread by our local republican legislators to those espoused by Pope Francis. They call these fears phantasms: fantastical stories, fairytales that feel like reality: when your sense of self is threatened, it is easier to change the story than it is to come face to face with yourself. The phantasm espoused by all of these groups is that recognizing the very existence of gender will cause the family to crumble, and with it, civilization.

It’s easy to look back at the fairytales I loved and see hints of this same threat: the reward is a family. Don’t you want a family? How else are you going to be secure and safe? Who else will take care of you? Who else will love you, if not a husband, if not your children, if not your family? How else will the Kingdom survive?

If this language about families and civilization sounds like it has roots in colonialism and racism, that’s because it does. In Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: a Black Asexual Lens on our Sex-Obsessed Culture, Sherronda J. Brown writes: “U.S. capitalism coupled with white cisheteropatriarchy created an essential need for the nuclear family structure, a remnant of white european colonization of the Americas. This family structure was, of course, also forced on stolen Africans and their descendants… the nonheteronormative, nonnuclear family structures and kinship connections of Black families became evidence of their instability, dysfunction, savagery, and primitivity, and it therefore needed to be eradicated”.

Those anxieties in the fairytale ending shows up here; that happy ending needs repeated, over and over, to erase cultures whose original stories had different endings, no less happy for their non-heterosexuality

When I discovered the words aromantic and asexual to describe myself, soon after that fairytale class, I spent a long time changing that fairytale story I spent so long believing. I, like many of us, was taught that I would grow up and get married, that I’d eventually be interested in boys, that the most important thing in life would be my children someday. Imagining a queer life is hard: you have to look in histories you’re not taught, and learn from people whose stories you’ve overlooked, or haven’t been told.

Sherronda J. Brown goes on in her book to examine all the ways the family is required by capitalism under what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls Organized Abandonment: families are where the burden of care is placed; they are last institution in which you can be cared for if you don’t have money, whether it’s needing to stay with your family while you get a job, to needing your family to care for you when you’re sick, needing your family to watch your kids for the day. This dependence leaves so many people, especially queer people, in abusive situations, or even situations where they are merely tolerated rather than loved, just to receive care. And yet, when we imagine the Kindom of God, here on earth, we are unable to escape the language of kinship and family–unable to imagine relationships outside of the biological ones that are often complicated with obligation and violence.

How do we imagine relationships we haven’t been taught?

Queer as a term has a long history–while today it is often used as an umbrella identity term, it began to be reclaimed dating back to Stonewall as a political term, often used to describe worldmaking that crosses binaries and pushes at the edges of possibility. Jose Esteban Muñoz begins his book Cruising Utopia by saying “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”

I wonder, what does the queer utopia of love for each other look like? What would it mean to free love for our communities from the limitations of “kinship” and “family” that, no matter how hard we try, imply we are caring for each other because we have to–not because we truly care for each other? How can we change the story of our horizons? Of what is possible, even if it takes fairytale magic to get there?

The two scriptures for today can provide us with some stories to help our imaginations.

When I was a child, I read and reread the book of Ruth like a fairytale. It read something like this:

Once upon a time, Naomi and her husband and sons moved to a foreign country. Her sons got married, but tragically, her husband and sons all died. She prepares to return to her home land, and her daughter-in-laws ask to come with her. She tells them no, over and over again, and one listens, but the other, Ruth, says “where you go I will go, your people will be my people, and your God my God.” When Ruth and Naomi get back to Naomi’s home, they are poor; Ruth must take the leftover harvest from the fields. One day, the man in charge of the fields took notice of her, and eventually married her, and they lived happily ever after.

You may notice that this isn’t actually what happens in the book of Ruth, but it is certainly the story I would have found in a children’s Bible, and it is not terribly hard to just sort of gloss over most of the story and get to what we could read as a happy, heterosexual marriage, the kind a young girl should aspire to, the kind suitable for storybook. Full of our anxieties about the kind of life we expect women to lead. This story doesn’t take much rereading to find queer frames just outside this view, to look for stories we might have overlooked.

We might tell it another way:

Once upon a time, Ruth left her home out of love. She was committed: she won’t leave Naomi, her lover, her friend, her partner in grief, even though it takes her outside of the world she grew up in. She and Naomi are trying to survive, and will do what it takes even though Naomi’s ties to her homeland are tenuous, and Ruth is a migrant. As Ruth works to take care of them, she meets a man who is willing to marry her to give her the stability she and Naomi need. They get married, and when she has a son, he is both Boaz and Naomi’s son; together, the three of them are of David’s line.

Yeong Mee Lee, a Korean scholar, writes that this is a familiar story to her: like many women who migrate to Korea, Ruth is a queer migrant from a different culture who gets legal support for her relationship by using the system. The relationship between Ruth and Naomi is one of queer possibilities; one where we can read ourselves into their relationship: in one reading, Ruth and Naomi are a lesbian couple, happy to find stability for themselves. In another, they are queerplatonic: committed to each other, once again trying to find stability in a world that is harsh to women on their own. Marrying their best friend for health insurance, we might imagine today. Or maybe they, like many societies, formed relationships in broader ways than we do today: more adults, more kinds of relationships between those adults.

The scripture from Acts reads today as another kind of fairytale utopia in our capitalist society:

Once upon a time, a community decided that they would care for each other. Under their ideals of what friendship and community means, no one held private ownership of anything, they held everything in common. No one had any needs, because those who had money gave money, and it was distributed to each according to their need.

This fairytale is the kind of early-church community our early anabaptist ancestors often tried and failed to emulate, often in ways that read as a kind of queer relationship to the state of their day. And the kind of relationships and utopia the queer community has often tried (although similarly often failed) to embody: Jose Esteban Muñoz’s queer utopian horizon draws on histories of groups like the Third World Gay Revolution in 1971, which wrote: “16.) We want a new society—a revolutionary socialist society. We want liberation of humanity, free food, free shelter, free clothing, free transportation, free health care, free utilities, free education, free art for all. We want a society where the needs of the people come first. We believe that all people should share the labor and products of society, according to each one’s needs and abilities, regardless of race, sex, age or sexual preferences. We believe the land, technology and the means of production belong to the people, and must be shared by the people collectively for the liberation of all.”

What Acts tells again, is that this kind of fairytale utopian world is possible, a world where we care for each other out of love and not the obligation of biological ties the state relies on. It might not last; the early Christian practice of holding everything in common certainly didn’t make it. But as Rebecca Solnit writes in A Paradise Built in Hell, “A comprehensive utopia may be out of reach, but the effort to realise it shapes the world for the better all the same.” As we reread Acts, it tells us that another world is possible, even if only for a moment.

I thought of this passage from Solnit when I was at the encampment for Palestine at Ohio State earlier this year, and as I witnessed students across the US building communities where everyone had what they needed: people contributed to have food and medicine available, people creating community with those around them, people trying to ensure the safety of their comrades. Everytime we find commitment in an unexpected place, everytime we find care for each other, we glimpse a world that could be.These flashes let us see our horizon–a queer God’s community on earth.

These days, my relationship with fairytales is often one of queer possibility: how can they be retold, reimagined; what historical stories are untold, what is deeper underneath the surface. How do the stories we tell–mythical and real–expand our imagination of queerness’ “warm illumination of a horizon”, how do the histories we find tell us about the kinds of lives we can live.

This Pride month and beyond, may we remember Ruth’s untraditional love, and Acts’ community of care. But even more, may we all look around us to find those queer stories that have been hidden, and look off in the distance to see a queer horizon, of liberation and love, to practice here and now.