"As fresh and groundbreaking as ever..."
To mark the publication of her new textbook introduction to the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid, Thia Cooper reflects on her theology matters today - perhaps more than ever.
2020 was a year known for COVID but it was also a year that will be known for transgender violence, many people of color. So far, 2021 is no different. In the USA, some states are considering bills that would prevent transgender women from participating in female sports. Violence and repression of the transgender community is rife. With her work from 1998-2009, Marcella Althaus-Reid, an Argentinian sexual liberation theologian expanded our thinking about issues of theology, the body and sex. Today, her work is as fresh and groundbreaking as ever, as many Christians still wrestle to accept that sex, sexes, and sexualities can be celebrated as ways to know God. For liberationists, no theology is neutral; it either supports or works against oppression. Much theology has supported the oppression of the transgender community, as well as any community considered to be outside the “heterosexual” norm.
Instead, for Marcella, “Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognize 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. (Althaus-Reid, 2003c, 4)
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Marcella experienced political and economic oppression under the dictatorial government. She also experienced patriarchal and heterosexual oppression, discouraged from ministry because women were not supposed to attend seminary. Eventually, she became a Professor of Contextual Theology at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, the first women to hold a chair in the school’s long history. Throughout her life she worked in communities of the marginalized. In community, her indecent and queer theology emerged. For Marcella, ‘Theology… needs to start from and with the lives of the excluded.’ (Althaus-Reid, 1998a, 254)
For Marcella, it is not simply that God walks alongside the excluded, God is the excluded. God is the female prostitute working the streets of Buenos Aires. For those of us taking her work forward, God is the transgender child telling his parents he is not really a girl. Jesus was George Floyd, suffocated to death by a police officer as others looked on. Jesus was Layleen Polanco and so many other people murdered because their sex and sexuality do not fit the dominating norms.
In her work, Marcella argued that we need to become indecent, to queer theology, to free God from the oppression prison of heterosexuality. God is a marginal God, expanding and becoming godself at what we call the “margins” of society. God lives under bridges with street children and it is only by queering ourselves that we can truly know God.
She collaborated with and inspired many theologians, including Ivan Petrella, Lisa Isherwood, Andre Musskopf, and myself. Working at the margins, we engage themes of sex, politics, and economics, and religion itself. Many activists and other liberationists are inspired by her thought but find her work difficult to fully comprehend, as it spans many disciplines.
This new book introduces the reader to key themes in Marcella’s work, including post-colonialism’s importance to help undo theology’s harms, the importance of women and woman-God to theology, indecency as a way to expand theology and queering as a way to build alternatives.
In essence, we need to de-colonize, de-capitalize, and de-heterosexualize our theologies. Marcella critiqued liberation and feminist theologies for focusing on issues of poverty and patriarchy without further analyzing other oppressions like heterosexuality, for example the philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussel.
“If the shanty townspeople go in procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and demanding jobs, they seem to become God’s option for the poor. However, when the same shanty townspeople mount a carnival centred on a transvestite Christ accompanied by a Drag Queen Mary Magdalene kissing his wounds, singing songs of political criticism, they are not anymore God’s option for the poor. (Althaus-Reid, 2000c, 25)”
Ripping away our capitalist, patriarchal and heterosexual assumptions changes everything in theology from God to sin and salvation. Couldn’t we be in a mutual relationship with God, rather than a subservient one? For Marcella, ‘As Queer Theologians, we are against the grain of the normal, and in this case, against Redemption as an economic metaphor for salvation.’ (Althaus-Reid, 2007d, 292) Theologies have told people that they are in debt to God because of their misbehaviour and that while we can never erase this debt, we can be saved.
Queering theology thinks about salvation and our relationship with God differently. ‘Grace is the work of freeing and delivering people and nature for free: conversion, the transformation of a person into a great lover of justice, equality and peace.’ (Isherwood and Althaus-Reid, 2004, 2) God freely gives grace to transform us to work toward justice. ‘Redemption can therefore be considered a coming out, an expansive experience..’ (Althaus-Reid, 2003c, 139) Marcella encouraged us all to come out of our closets and confront theology with our real experiences, hairy armpits, fetishes, and all.
Queering theology, in the footsteps of Marcella, frees us from the prison of norms, free to be ourselves in relation with God and others.
‘May we together, by the grace of God, stand always queer with love, courage and a passion for justice.’ (Althaus-Reid, 2004e, 37)
Thia Cooper is Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College. She has lectured widely in both the USA and Europe. Professor Cooper undertook her Master of Theology at Edinburgh's New College in 1999 and completed her PhD in 2005, both under Marcella Althaus-Reid.