From Jesus to Rumi: A Queer Perspective On Love

(The following is a transcript of the talk I delivered to the Magic Valley Unitarian Fellowship on 11/13/11.  I’m posting it here to not only share some of my own struggles but also to hopefully offer some hope to those who may find themselves on similar paths.-JT)

I always struggle to come up with an answer when I’m asked,”what do you believe?”, when it comes to religious matters.

I find, thanks to our consumer driven world where the concept of love is often just another commodity, that “I believe in love” comes off sounding more like a Top 40 hit or a bumper sticker slogan left over from the 60’s, then it does a spiritual foundation.

But to me that statement signifies more than boy meets boy or boy meets girl, it means more than the latest Oprah moment or even some ideal that is preached so often from the pulpit, but then all to quickly forgotten in its practical application.

As I was working on this talk this week, I came across a discussion on a progressive Christian website regarding what Jesus had to say about a woman’s right to choose. The original point was, as Reverend Matthew Westfox of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has pointed out, a truly pro-life Jesus based theology means working for health care, employment, and other factors so that no one ever feels he or she cannot be a parent because the conditions aren’t suitable and that we never force life into a situation that lacks one of the most fundamental ingredients of healthy ground — parents who are ready to love and welcome the child.

Not surprisingly, the idea was lost on more then one commenter. “There are more words in the Bible then the words of Jesus,” wrote one person, before going on to try to use the rest of the Bible to prove their belief that someone who supported a woman’s right to choose couldn’t be a Christian.

I found the comment profound, though not surprising.

Coming from a predominantly Seventh-Day Adventist family, I had heard the Jesus story long before I had learned to read. I came to love and admire the idea of a man who was willing to sacrifice his life in order to show the religious and military power base of his day a better way.

Unfortunately, as I explored church after church well into my college years, I also learned that his words like treating others as we would want to be treated, turning the other cheek, and laying down your life for your brother..the heart of the christian religion…more times than not get lost in a world of pet doctrines, biases and teachings that have little to do with love at all.

I remember making the mistake of telling a male classmate, who was picking on me in the 4th grade, that I loved him. He in turn told the rest of the class. That was the year I learned that boys aren’t supposed to love other boys.

Though I had meant it in strictly platonic sense, I quickly learned that not only were the words of Jesus really not welcome in our society, the attraction that I had started to feel towards the members of the same sex was welcomed even less.

When I was 12, much to the dismay of my family, I took to missionary discussions and was baptized into the LDS church. Over the next year or so I studied, read and prayed. I went to the meetings and participated in family home evenings and did all the other things expected of a young LDS teen. But as my hormones started to rage inside me, I also knew that I would never fully fit in.

During camp-outs or church basketball games, I would hear the other male members call each other derogatory names like “homo” and “queer”. I suppose they meant it as a form of camaraderie, but to me those names told me that the male members of the church were frightened of anything other than strong heterosexual masculinity.

We moved from the Ward and I moved on to other churches. At a Baptist church camp, I learned that non-Christians would be left behind at the end of the world. At a Pentecostal church I learned that the gifts of the spirit, which are supposedly sent to manifest divine love, were often times largely wasted on fellow believers on Sunday mornings and those working for political goals, such as anti-gay legislation, ending a woman’s right to choose or heralding in a Christian government.

One day when I was 14, I heard my favorite Christian call-in talk show host talking about the issue of gay teens on the radio. I ran to the nearest payphone. A few minutes later, I found myself telling the country the words that I had long buried deep inside me, “I’m gay.”

“I don’t like myself,” I told the host. “I know it’s wrong.”

He prayed the sinners prayer with me and sent me to a Christian counselor.

“You’re not gay,” the counselor told me. “You simply lack male authority figures in your life.” His prescription was to talk to my pastor and date girls. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was pretty sure he was wrong.

Throughout high school I did just that. I had learned to hide my sexuality well and replace it with such a hateful judgmental religious spirit. I once told a classmate that he was going to hell for passing out condoms on campus. Later, when he came out and suffered the ridicule of the school, I verbally participated in the attacks. He eventually dropped out.

The hypocrisy of all this was not lost on my conscience. I had started to notice other cracks in the fundamentalist evangelical school of thought as well. Though I didn’t tell anyone, I had begin to notice that the subculture that is American Evangelicalism largely had little to do with those simple but profound words and acts found in the Jesus story of the New Testament.

I had noticed that power is often preferred over humility, that violence of words and even sometimes deeds are often preferred over turning the other cheek. I noticed that material possessions and a strong American business work ethic were far more important than identifying with the poor and the economically oppressed. The idea that we were right often came at the expense offending and shaming of others.

The whole thing came to a head when I was a freshman in Bible college. One night a group of us returned to campus to find the words “Gay Jew” scribbled on the dorm room door of one of our friends. The school administration was more concerned about whether or not the student was indeed gay than they were about the hate crime committed.

Shaken by the incident, I dropped out a few days later, swearing off Christianity forever.

A short time later, I started the journey of coming out of the closet and began living my life as an openly gay man. First to my family then to my friends and then to my co-workers and the larger community.

A few years later, I went back and started to reexamine the religion of my youth. I began a more scholarly look at the Bible and the church in view of my sexuality, rather than in-spite of it, I began to find a lot of things that many churches gloss over and ignore.

I started to once again appreciate the so-called red letter words of the New Testament. I also began exploring other religions as well…discovering that at the root of each was the same basic call for love and compassion.

But how..I could we live in such a world with so many different religions based on love, yet have so much human caused suffering? How could we spend so much time on money and so-called foreign national interests, yet still have so much hate in the world?

I remember thinking ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was a religion that simply worshiped love?’ I ran it by a Christian friend who quickly dismissed the idea as humanistic.

“Is not God love?” I asked him.

“Yes, but God is a lot of other things as well,” came a reply. His answer was like the poster who left the comment I quoted earlier.

One day I stumbled across the story of the 13h century poet and Muslim mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. For those of you that don’t know the story of Rumi, let me quickly give you an overview.

Sufism can most easily be described as the spiritual heart of Islam. It is the breath of essence of the Koran.

Already a popular Sufi, which when he was in his late 30’s, he met a teacher named Shams of Tabrizi. The meeting had a profound effect on Rumi’s life and religion. It is said that upon meeting the two retreated to Rumi’s home and spent the next two years together as inseparable mates.

There has been much discussion regarding the sexual nature of the relationship between Rumi and Shams, but regardless of whether or not there was any physical relationship, one cannot deny the homoerotic overtones of one who writes…

Sometimes I wonder, sweetest love, if you
Were a mere dream in along winter night,
A dream of spring-days, and of golden light
Which sheds its rays upon a frozen heart;
A dream of wine that fills the drunken eye.

Rumi spent the rest of his days writing such love poems to his teacher, who simply disappeared one night. One theory says that he was killed by Rumi’s other disciples. No matter…he spent months in morning and longing.

A Sufi teaching says that the love of the divine is a vast and endless ocean. The point of the Sufi discipline is to free ourselves from the divisions and separations we have been taught from birth by paying attention and connecting with our hearts. As one polishes the heart, the Sufis say, one begins to see that this existence is simply part of a vast ocean of love.

With this thought in mind, Rumi worked out that his teacher wasn’t missing after all. That in the ocean of divine love there can be no separation, for that is merely a human way of viewing things as is time and space.

I was immediately drawn to Rumi’s poetry first because of the profound love story that is taking place between Rumi and Shams, and second because as I read I realized that I had indeed found a religion that worshiped love without apology.

But it is also a religion that does not practice division. In fact, I believe that love uses whatever method necessary to point us to the goal of calling us unto itself. I am able to appreciate and gain wisdom from the ten pillars of Buddhism and still study and practice the ideals of Hinduism. I have a strong appreciation for the magic and mystery of the nature based religions such as Wicca, the spiritualism of the Native Americans and the secrets of the folk religions found in Mexico, the Appalachians and other places.

The point Rumi says, is to be able to hear and answer to the call of love.

Rumi wrote, ‘I am neither a Moslem nor a Hindu I am not Christian, Zoroastrian, nor Jew.’

For him, such divisions did more harm than good.

There are contemporary orders within Islam that seek to apply Rumi’s teachings to a modern era. It is these ideals that I find myself most drawn to. God becomes more then a system or rules of thought, but becomes love itself, calling us to lose ourselves, like Jesus, for the sake of something other than ourselves.

Today, when I tell someone I believe in love, it is the idea of Rumi’s radical love of the divine. It is in the basic concepts of the worlds religions, it is found in the words of your neighbor as thy self.

This idea speaks to me not only as a human, but as part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Queer, Intersexual and Asexual community as well. In a community that is just now coming into its own, that is just now beginning to understand and appreciate its own loves and desires, there is much that Rumi can speak to as far as our relationships, our struggles and our desires.

Let me be clear, this is not just a simple kind of love. It is a love that goes far beyond the usual agape love found in most Christian thought. Agape love is a-pathetic and rational. But it is clear that the love that Jesus most often spoke of, and that Rumi writes of, is not only radical, but it’s erotic, human as well as divine, emotional and often times seemingly irrational.

Rumi often describes the call of loosing yourself to love as being drunk..“Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absent-minded. Someone sober will worry about events going badly.  Let the lover be.” he writes.

It is also a passionate love.

In his book, Jesus Acted Up, Christian theologian, Robert Goss, writes: “The erotic is the human ability to feel passion in relatedness; it seeks wholeness through interconnectedness. It is the love as the power to act each other into well being.”

Theologian Sallie McFague points out that agape, eros and philia are unified in love and are part of the divine relating to us.

I believe we are called, as humans, to accept and practice this kind of radical love.

Goss goes on to describe such acts as nothing less than love making with the divine itself. Love making, he writes, is the practice of solidarity, compassion and identification.

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church minister, Rev. Thom Belote, describes this force as, “The Godly Erotic.” It is, he says, whatever helps us to “become world in ourselves.” “Some scholars,” writes Belote, “tend to name activities that are creative and imaginative – painting, writing, composing – as avenues to and channels for erotic energy. They also point to social justice work as an expression of the same. Since erotic love is not content with numbness, and is not content with suffering, it leads those who experience it in the fullest to work passionately to lessen suffering. Make love, not war, indeed. Martin Luther King said that love without power is anemic and sentimental, and that power without love is reckless and abusive.”

It is this queer (different) kind of love that we make when we fight injustices like oppression and poverty. It is this queer love that calls us into action when there is hurt and loneliness. It is this kind of love that allows us to loose ourselves in divine orgasm.

It is the kind of queer… we find in the Universalist Unitarian principals.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

It  is the call to this queer kind of love that enables Rumi to write,

”The Lovers
will drink wine night and day.
They will drink until they can
tear away the veils of intellect and
melt away the layers of shame and modesty.
When in Love,
body, mind, heart and soul don’t even exist.
Become this,
fall in Love,
and you will not be separated again.”

(If you are seeking a spiritual home please feel free to visit a local Unitarian Universilist Fellowship. Here in the Magic Valley, the fellowship meets at the Twin Falls Senior Citizens Center every Sunday. Click here to learn more.)


One Response to From Jesus to Rumi: A Queer Perspective On Love

  1. murielroberts says:

    Thanks, James, for sharing your talk. Would you ever be interested in coming to Pocatello UU Fellowship to talk? I’m not sure how much our schedule is filled for after he new year, but I would like to suggest to the Worship Committee that we try to get you here.

    Muriel Roberts

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