A little over a decade ago, I wrote an Easter play that got me into trouble with my church leadership. My project got canned because my church and I fundamentally disagreed about who Jesus was on Earth. My Jesus was a thought leader, a defier of corrupt authority, and a teacher who inspired students to love learning and experience liberation through education.
My pastor told me that my Jesus reeked of rebellion and she wouldn’t allow this play to be produced because it would inspire our young people to disrespect their parents and teachers.
The problem started weeks earlier when I was asked to write the Easter play and decided it should be a collaborative project between the youth ministry and me. I was co-leading our youth group until the church found a new youth pastor. I proposed a process to the youth: Let’s reimagine the series of events leading to Christ’s crucifixion as conflicts in a high school.
The woman caught in the act of adultery became a girl who’d betrayed a friend by sleeping with her boyfriend. Little attention was paid to the boy’s actions, but the girl was bullied and shamed, alienated from her entire high school community because she’d been a hoe. Just as she was about to be physically assaulted, another student grabs the new teacher Jesus and asks him to intervene. He asks the students who among them is so perfect that they didn’t need to offer grace to this young woman. Who had never done anything wrong at school or at home? Who had never betrayed a friend’s trust?
We created this scene together. Then we read the Gospel accounts of Holy Week and looked for other stories we could reset in high school. We talked about the characters in these biblical accounts — what their motivations were, what conflicts they faced, what the role of Jesus was in all of it. They’d never been so excited to study the Bible. Everyone, including the pastors, was happy.
Until we started making a storyline for the Pharisees. In traditional Bible study, the Pharisees are easily cast as villains. They are the religious leadership who sold out to the Romans for comfort and positions within the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, a land given to them by God. They are the religious vipers whose rigidity to the letter of the law was a tool of manipulation — it’s how they always tried to turn Jesus’ ministry into heresy and blasphemy. They were supposed to care for the spiritual well-being of of the Jews, but instead colluded with Rome.
When it was time to decide who the Pharisees of a high school saga would be, we decided that if Jesus was The Teacher, then Pharisees would have to be The Administration. And that’s when our project got the axe.
In our play, Jesus would offer his students a different kind of education — one that didn’t distort history, one that offered analysis and critical thinking rather than rote repetition of “facts”. Jesus was offering a liberatory education and the administration felt like this threatened the order they’d established. Jesus had also uncovered gross misappropriation of school funds.
This Easter play was finna be all types of radical, y’all.
Ultimately that’s why we couldn’t do it. The pastors said the play reeked of rebellion and encouraged the teens to question and disrespect their teachers and parents. (I found it telling that questioning equaled disrespect.) They fumed that Jesus was nowhere in there and “Where is the Resurrection??”
I countered that Jesus did, in fact, rebel against the established authority of his time. That he did, in fact, teach in such a way that people questioned the rules they were living under. That we actively worshipped that behavior every week. And that we hadn’t gotten to the Resurrection because the kids and I were still working on the play.
And just like that, no. No, we weren’t still working on it. And what little trust I had left in The Church died on that day. And on the third day it was still dead.
I couldn’t stop mourning that my church had flattened a gospel of resistance into a manual for unquestioning obedience. For some reason I also couldn’t stop going to church either, even though my eyes opened bright and wide to how my pastors positioned their prejudice and bias as Holy Doctrine, and part of that doctrine was that rebellion is sin and that questioning is rebellion. In the mourning I cried. I cried so much.
I cried when the church prayed for a Supreme Court justice’s cancer to advance enough to cause him to retire so that Bush could appoint a godly judge to the bench.
I cried when the pastor said the Lord had given her a vision. Just over and over again she kept thinking about the number 5, when God revealed to her that Keith Ellison represented the 5th District of Minnesota. God was not pleased that we’d sent a Muslim to Congress and that’s why the 35W bridged collapsed that day.
I cried and cried all the times that someone was discredited with the word “homosexual.” That’s it. Nothing else needed to understand why their word could not be trusted, and I know that’s why it took me so long to understand myself as queer.
I cried when my body was deemed a sin. Just having a female body and dressing to flatter its form was causing the brothers in the church to sin.
And yet I stayed there. Having my spirit assaulted and abused, because I’d been taught that the only way to be in relationship to Jesus was to be an active member of a congregation.
I don’t remember what finally freed me from the grip that place had on me, but I left. I found another church that deeply valued creativity and collaboration, and my gifts in particular. It was a church in the midst of a paradigm shift, centering the leadership and wisdom of youth. It was also a place that saw my single femaleness as a potential stumbling block to male congregants and saw my queerness as manageable as long as it was never spoken of. Ever. I broke that rule and asked my pastor, who had over the years become my family, to talk with me about it, about our church’s relationship to LGBTQ folks, and about how I got to be a full person in the place I consider home. And then he never responded. Just at all.
I left. And I found God in my queer community — how we love each other, hold each other, and become family by choice and by bonds. I found God in water, on my weekly bike rides to the Mississippi River where I sat and quietly meditated on the flow of waters and left prayers for my family in the water. I found God in relationship with witchy herbalist women, bodyworkers whose very touch was healing. They laid hands upon me and I was healed. I found God in writing, in pouring out the contents of my heart and having them witnessed and loved. I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.
Recently, one of the wild witchy healing women in my life asked me simply, “Irna, what is your relationship with Jesus like these days?” It was such a beautiful and quiet moment between us. The beauty of it was this — she knows and understands me as a Christian. I talk frequently of my Christian upbringing, of the absolute joy and community I’ve found there, of the emotional abuse I suffered there, and how I finally left because no matter where I went, I couldn’t find a space that loved me well as a black woman and as a queer woman at the same time. And what she heard was not rejection, but longing. She knows I deeply long for this place.
So how is my relationship with Jesus these days? I still believe that the spirit of Christ is resistance. The spirit of Christ is defying corruption and empire and subjugation, even facing death. The spirit of Christ is love, overflowing abundant love, but a love that demands accountability. The spirit of Christ is forgiving and graceful, but the spirit of Christ demands growth and justice. And the spirit of Christ is resurrection.
Resurrection is the breathing of life into that which was dead. When we resist, our individual and collective bodies respond and react to threats by beating them back and not letting them do harm. This is not always possible. Sometimes the threat is actualized and our safety and lives are compromised. When we innovate in the midst of it and carve out survival anyhow, we live the spirit of resurrection. That is the most Christ-like thing I know how to do.
I don’t know if anything can ever resurrect my relationship to the organized Church. But my relationship to Jesus, to the spirit of resistance which is the spirit of Christ, is fresh and new. And this is why I organize.
*This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos. You can see it here.