Christ, Wilderness and Empire

December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent

Mark 1: 1-8

If you’re around me long enough, you’ll learn that I’m really into film and in particular, genre films. Like films that fit pretty specific niches like horror movies, psychological thrillers, sci fi. But there’s one kind of genre film that I’ve generally not enjoyed and that’s Westerns. And much to my chagrin, I grew up around a lot of men who were really, really into Westerns. Like they had life sized cutouts of John Wayne in their living rooms. But as soon as a western would come on TV, I would immediately feel this palpable terror in my body  and I’d find some excuse to quickly leave the room. Because while the men in the room were identifying with the fiercely independent rugged cowboys, I was afraid of that kind of masculinity that sought to control and dominate all that surrounded it. As a kid who always knew that he was different, I instead identified more with the wilderness and all its cast of characters that didn’t quite fit into civilized society. I felt more in common with the women in the brothels, the drunks in the saloons and with the Native Americans who experienced the cowboys as intruders, than I did with the men who were meant to be the heroes of those stories. I felt like I was one of the ones these kinds of movies were trying to put in their place.


And so, this week, as I was reading “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and about the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” all these memories about Westerns and my discomfort with the hypermasculine culture I grew up around came flooding back to me. And I experienced this moment of profound sympathy for all the people across time whose true home is the wilderness and who fall outside the rigid and destructive norms of patriarchy and Empire. And then it hit me that Jesus, the Christ, the One who loved us so much that he slipped into human skin and walked with us, that his mission to the world begins in the wilderness. Jesus is the one who shows ultimate solidarity with the wilderness. His liberating mission is born outside the city walls, far from the male-dominated power center of the temple and the courts. His mission begins in a deserted, barren landscape, at the side of a manic and homeless wanderer, John the Baptizer, and it is from this place of wilderness that Jesus comes to dismantle and destroy the ego of empire. Because ultimately that is what the wilderness is – it is the places in this world and in our lives that exceed the rigid confines of empire. The wilderness is all that has escaped the totalizing grasp of power and privilege and it stands outside the walls of the city and of the temple, outside the the gentrified neighborhoods, outside the corporate campuses of Google and Amazon, and outside the halls of Congress and the Hollywood stage lot, and the wilderness proclaims that there is another way.


The wilderness gives us hope that we are not destined to be cogs in a machine, that our complexities and differences, and both/and moments do not have to be smoothed over for the sake of civilization and order. The wilderness stands as a testament to the wild creativity and beauty that our wildly creative and beautiful God has implanted in each of us. The wilderness is God’s invitation for us to be who we were made to be, and to resist any message that says we must sacrifice or silence parts of ourselves for the sake of ___________ fill in the blank. And this was really good news to me, at this time in our history, we are being made keenly aware of the deplorable frequency with which women have been asked to sacrifice their dignity for the sake of their careers, politics and men’s privilege.Or how often black and brown people are asked to sacrifice justice for the sake of a more orderly white society. And how often immigrants are asked to sacrifice their safety for the sake of the Anglo economy. All of which are examples of humanity bowing to the demands of Empire over and against the value of people and life itself. They reveal how often we buy into the lie that what is most important is our civilization and the systems of power that keep it in place. They reveal how often we allow Empire to win.


But the light of Christ came into this world in rebellion against the forces of Empire and to reveal that it is from the wilderness that our salvation comes. And yet, it is so easy for us to forget this and to allow our image of Christ to be held captive by the demands of Empire. This week, I was made acutely aware of this when I received a tweet from a concerned Christian. It was a photo of a bumper sticker she had seen that said, “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.” Yet, what sentiments like these fail to recognize is that Jesus with a gun isn’t Jesus at all. Because we are not saved by our guns, or by our privilege, or by holding onto our Senate seat at all costs. We are saved by the Christ of the wilderness, who comes to set us free from the violence of Empire. Who comes to set us free from the lie that we must sacrifice ourselves or someone else for the sake of things running smoothly, or for the sake of our party remaining in power or for the sake of getting that job we so desperately want.  


You know one of the phrases that is used to explain this moment in history is “toxic masculinity.” And when we have a Cowboy hat wearing child molester as a viable candidate for congress, much less the “molester-in-chief”, it’s hard not to see the truth behind the idea of toxic masculinity. However, there’s also something about this phrase that obscures a deeper truth because it makes it seem like the thing that makes it toxic is masculinity itself. As if masculinity just builds up slowly like a poison and that eventually it will cross the line. But if God made some people male, then how can that part of God’s male children be inherently corrupt? So, it cannot be that masculinity itself is the problem. The problem is masculinity when it is in the service of Empire. When masculinity is believed to look like John Wayne and only like John Wayne, and not like the infinite number of  other shades of masculinity that do not depend upon power and violence for their identity.


And I say this, not as someone who believes he is free from the ways that Empire distorts my gender and my view of the world. Even as a gay man, I am not free from seductiveness of male power and privilege. When I was younger and dating, I came to a point where I realized I was chasing after men who embodied all the worst characteristics of masculinity under the influence of Empire. You know, the kind of frat boy, abercrombie and fitch look. And I endured mistreatment from these men because the allure of that kind of masculinity was just so strong. And then my partner Brian came into my life and Brian is a drag queen. I remember the first time he invited me over to his house when he was getting ready for a show. I had a knot in the pit of my stomach. I was fighting back all the John Wayne voices in my head that were telling me what a man was supposed to look and act like. And I was terrified that I would not be able to overcome the din of those voices. But then we walked out onto the street together. Brian, now transformed into Fruitbomb, towered over me with her heels and multiple wigs. She was a force to be reckoned with. Yet, the thing I remember the most is how I felt this enormous weight lift from my shoulders. And it was the weight of John Wayne and Westerns and Abercrombie & Fitch. It was the weight of masculinity held hostage by empire being set free. And I liked that feeling. I liked that feeling a lot more than life without a drag queen by my side. You know, Brian has this thing where he says that drag queens are like lighthouses. Not only are they tall, but also, if you’re queer or you feel weird in any way and you see a drag queen, you know you’re safe.


And from where I stand, the light from that lighthouse, that’s the light of Christ. The light that shines out from the wilderness so that we all know we are safe and loved just as we are. And that no matter how much we have been weighed down by Empire in the past, the wilderness is our true home, and that God is waiting for all of us outside the city walls.  Amen.

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