July 2015 saw the beginning of Rainbow Christian Alliance (RCA) as a joint program run in partnership between Tuggeranong Uniting Church (TUC) and Diversity ACT community services. RCA was initiated to provide a Safe Place for LGBTIQA+ people of faith, their families and friends who wanted to be able to get together in fellowship in an environment away from the judgement, hurt and pain often caused by Christian Churches and other faiths to the LGBTIQA+ community.
RCA gathers on the second Sunday of each month with a dinner church format, meeting with LGBTIQA+ people of faith and their allies; gathering, chatting, eating, then sharing in a variety of worship styles including modified liturgy, readers theatre, discussion groups, guest speakers and the evening is usually wrapped up with dessert and much more chatting!
Initially the RCA project was set up utilising the space in the Erindale Neighbourhood Centre, next door to TUC, but since the arrival of COVID-19 and the requirements for modifications including increased space for those gathered, RCA has been meeting in the TUC auditorium.
Following the commencement of RCA in July 2015, an invitation was extended by Rev Aimee Kent and a partnership was also created with Goulburn Grace Community. Dare Café commenced in Goulburn in February 2016, meeting monthly, and later incorporating a Bible Study group. The Dare Café and Grace Community has been impacted by COVID-19, but Pastor Amy Junor is now keen to work with the Dare Café group and keep things moving where possible.
Over its six years, RCA has provided support to many people, including Ministers or Pastors who lost their congregation or Church because of their own sexuality, as well as people who faced exorcism, conversion therapies or even had lobotomies performed on them to cure their sexuality!
RCA also provided information to other congregations on LGBTIQA+ education and issues, including at the very stressful time of the Marriage Plebiscite. Following the June 2016 Orlando shooting at the Pulse night club in the USA, where 49 patrons were killed and 53 were wounded, RCA partnered with Canberra City Church to hold a Blue service for Orlando which was catered for with heart warming soups and fresh bread rolls by the City Church Congregation.
In more recent times RCA has had increasing support from TUC Congregation members, who provide a core support group to assist with set up, catering and running of RCA, giving more space for the leadership team of Rev. Miriam Parker-Lacey, James Ellis and Rev. Elizabeth Raine to concentrate on working with the group activities.
RCA has provided a safe place for many and has had steady numbers of attendees of approximately 20-22 people at each gathering over the past 6 years. Obviously there has been changes as to who attends, but the numbers have remained steady and in recent months there has been an increase in LGBTIQA+ youthful attendees. These younger attendees may not face some of the issues older generation LGBTIQA+ people faced but there are still many ongoing issues for LGBTIQA+ plus Christians.
Sadly, since the Marriage Plebiscite, there has been an increased push from certain quarters to demonise Transgender or Non-Binary people, and the current Olympics has been used to push fears that Trans people are stealing women’s rights and your children! (The “protect your children” fears was also previously used to push the falsehood that homosexuality equalled paedophilia.)
There are ongoing pushes for legislative changes being introduced by Mark Latham in NSW to prevent even mentioning LGBTIQA+ issues in classrooms. LGBTIQA+ people are also faced with possible legislation to be tabled by the current Federal Government on ‘Religious Freedom’. Initially the Prime Minister promised to look at legislation to keep LGBTIQA+ young people safe, but there is much cynicism as to what may be introduced and many LGBTIQA+ people fear exclusion or even loss of employment because of their sexuality or gender identity
The Rainbow Christian Alliance continues to provide a Safe Space for people who have been hurt or marginalised within society–even by the church–to gather, relax in each other’s company, and share their faith.
I recently participated in a workshop on Advocating for First Peoples, led by Nathan Tyson, an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. (This was part of the excellent Out Of The Box mission conference held in July.) Nathan is currently working as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, in the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.
The workshop had two parts. In the first part, we explored what we know about the history and current situation of First Peoples. In the second part, we considered what actions we might take to work with and advocate for First Peoples.
What do we know?
In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First Peoples of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders across the continent, and in the associated islands linked to this continent.
The five areas were: the impact of invasion and colonisation — the many massacres that occurred, and the almost complete absence of calling British settlers to account for these massacres — the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting claim of terra nullius about Australia — the Stolen Generations — and the current push to tell the Truth, listen to the Voice of First Peoples, and establish Treaties with the various nations of the First Peoples.
First, there is the story—now becoming well-known and widespread— of the impact on First Peoples from the invasion and colonization that took place from 1788 onwards. (I use these terms deliberately; describing the British colony as a settlement is far too benign; it ignores much of the harsh reality of what took place.)
The period of invasion and colonisation saw innumerable massacres take place. As well as the thousands of Aboriginal deaths that occurred through these massacres, British invasion also led to the deliberate marginalising of people in many of the Aboriginal nations that existed at that time.
Third, Nathan referred to the rationale that was driving both the colonisation of the continent and the massacre of First Peoples—the Doctrine of Discovery, promulgated in medieval times and driving the expansionary colonisation policies of many European nations, including Britain. It was this Doctrine which formed the foundation of the claim of terra nullius—the notion that the there were no people in the land who were settled in the land.
Fourth, Nathan noted the issue of the Stole Generations, a blight on the history of Australia since the nineteenth century. This matter was addressed in Bringing Them Home, a highly important report issued in 1997. The commission that produced this report was led by Sir Ron Wilson, a High Court judge who had served as UCA Moderator in Western Australia and then as the fifth national President (1988–1991).
The continuing saga of Aboriginal children being taken from their homes remains with us today, to our national shame. Even in the 21st century, indigenous children continue to be taken from their families. In fact, there are far more Aboriginal children in out-or-home care now, than there were in 1997 when the Bringing Them Home report exposed countless stories of terror and tragedy amongst the Stolen Generations.
The final area canvassed in the first part of the workshop focussed on the theme of Voice. Treaty. Truth. This was the theme for NAIDOC Week 2019. It consists of a call to give Voice to the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a representative body to advise federal law makers; to establish a Treaty with each of the nations that were in the land before the British sent their invading colonisers; and to tell Truth about the history and the present situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Nathan encouraged all of the workshop participants to learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, and their aspirations, and to approach First Peoples with an open mind and with a compassionate heart.
What can be done?
In the second part, Nathan then provided a comprehensive set of practical pointers for us to consider. Given what we know about the situation and perspective of our First Peoples, what can we do to support, collaborate with, and advocate for these peoples? Here are the practical steps that Nathan provided for us to consider and adopt:
Put yourself in the shoes of First Peoples and try to walk the journey with them as they experience it
Talk with family and friends about the issues that you hear about, encourage truth telling, stand up against racism
Develop relationships, listen deeply to the needs and aspirations of First Peoples
Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples
Undertake simple advocacy activities to support the needs and aspirations of First People’s (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty)
Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples, eg those advertised by FISTT (Fighting In Solidarity Towards Treaties, a Facebook group)
Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local organisation
Employ First Peoples in your business, purchase goods from Aboriginal businesses, collaborate in social enterprises and community initiatives
Make your church space available for use by Aboriginal Community, for elders, community, social gatherings
Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives
Use the system: help a person to lodge a complaint with agencies such as NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Anti-Discrimination NSW, NSW Office of Fair Trading, Ombudsman for Telecommunication Industry, Energy Industry, Community Legal Services (for civil matters)
There are plenty of practical suggestions in this list. It is worth the effort to start implementing some of them!
Jesus, fully divine, was yet also fully human. So we affirm: in creeds, in songs, in sermons and prayers. As fully human as each one of us, Jesus—like us—grew and developed, broadening in his understanding and deepening in his maturity over the years. This growth into maturity took place as Jesus learnt. He was exposed to new experiences, offered different perspectives, given fresh insights, and so, as he learnt, he grew.
Indeed, we read this claim quite explicitly in scripture, in the only place in our canonical Gospels that explicitly deals with Jesus as a growing child: “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40), and then, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52).
If we accept this claim—consistent with the creeds and articulated in scripture—then it is quite legitimate to ask, “from whom did Jesus learn?” Perhaps from scribes in his local synagogue, as he grows and develops in his understanding of Torah. Perhaps from others of his age in that setting, as they delve deeper together, sharing insights about their customs and scriptures. And perhaps from members of his own family, as a young child, encountering new things each day as he grows.
In all of this, Jesus is “one who in every respect … [is] as we are” (Heb 4:15). He was fully one of “the children [who] share in flesh and blood, [who] himself likewise partook of the same things” (Heb 2:14), who “in the days of his flesh … offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7). His full humanity must surely also mean that he learnt from his interactions with all manner of people in his life.
Including women. Including his mother, and perhaps his grandmother, if she was still alive during his childhood. Including the feisty Syrophoenician woman he encountered near Tyre, as well as the sisters of Lazarus whose home he visited in Bethany; and including Joanna and Mary of Magdala who followed him faithfully, as well as other women whom he encountered at various times during his travels in Galilee and Jerusalem. Jesus learnt from each of these women.
This is the thesis that is proposed, explored, and advocated in detail by North American biblical scholar, James McGrath, in his most recent book, What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade Books, Oregon, 2021). The book has twelve chapters, and deals with the interactions between Jesus and a dozen women, with conclusions drawn about what Jesus learned in each instance.
If the notion of Jesus, the human being, needing to learn and grow, is problematic for a reader with a strong theology of Jesus as “fully divine”, then the claim that this learning was from women is sure to antagonise those who lay claim to the (unbiblical) notion that women ought not to teach men. But of course Jesus developed, of course Jesus learnt, and of course he learned from women.
In the 16 page Introduction to this book, matters of method in interpreting biblical texts are canvassed. In the 10 page Conclusion, a summary is provided as to “what Jesus learned from women”, and some pointers for other possibilities to explore are offered. If you don’t want to read the whole book, dip into these bookends. But the book is most certainly worth reading in full!
Each of the intervening chapters begin with a creative monologue, from the perspective of the woman in the encounter or another woman closely involved. These creative monologues draw heavily on what we know, from decades of scholarship, about the cultural customs and religious practices of Judaism at the time when Jesus lived in Galilee.
What follows, in each chapter, is a careful discussion of the key issues identified in those monologues. The chapters show thoughtful interaction with contemporary scholarship, with judicious use of footnotes enabling Dr McGrath to engage in the more technical interactions with other scholars. Indeed, there is a comprehensive bibliography of 26 pages at the end of the book, signalling that the author has canvassed other scholarly views most thoroughly.
This book is readable and engaging. The scholarly foundations of James McGrath’s thinking are evident, but these do not, for the most part, impair the flow of the writing or the stimulus of ideas canvassed. Indeed, because I’ve known James in person for many years, I feel confident to say that the book is equally as engaging and enjoyable as the enthusiastic and energetic author is, himself.
That’s not to say that every detail is amenable to my own predilections and beliefs about various aspects of the biblical texts that are explored. I don’t think that chapter 3, that pins a lot on what a fanciful second century document claims about Jesus’s family (Joseph and Mary, and her parents Joachim and Anna), really works–at least, not for me. Nor am I taken by the harmonising down into one incident of the various accounts of the woman who anointed Jesus, dealt with in chapter 7—although I do quite like the notion that the woman, in this incident, functions as a divinely-inspired prophet, foreseeing with clarity the fate of Jesus.
In the longest chapter, treating perhaps the most well-known woman in the life of Jesus (apart from his mother), my willingness to run with the creativity of the opening monologue and the claims that then followed in the ensuing 30 pages, was severely tested. I was minimally persuaded by reliance on abstracted explanations and hypothetical extrapolations from some isolated sections of the late second-century Valentinian gnostic work, the Gospel of Philip.
The kiss that Jesus gave Mary of Magdala, referred to in that work, must be read, I believe, not as a physical act, but as a spiritual claim: Mary was loved more than the one identified as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in John’s Gospel. The distinctive connections of salt and Jonah with Magdala seem too far fetched to me; was not salt, for instance, widely-used in the ancient world? And yet, the proposal about the relative ages of Jesus and Mary, the economic context of Mary, and the explanation of how the demons left her, have some attraction.
When I arrived at the final substantive chapter of the book, dealing with Joanna, wife of Chuza and one of the witnesses to the empty tomb, I was well-schooled in the McGrath style of beginning with a creative, dramatic-style monologue (in italics) followed by a careful, academic-style analysis of what the ancient texts (biblical and others) report. By the end of the chapter, I was thinking: why was not all of this in italics? That is to say: this whole chapter felt like a free-wheeling historical drama set in the ancient world, not a closely-argued forensic analysis of the character.
I’m a confirmed sceptic about the identification of Joanna with Junia (the apostle named in Rom 16:7). It comes from the work of one scholar, known for his dramatic hypotheses, and not substantiated by other scholarly work. The Nabatean origins of the name Chuza seem to rest simply on one inscription noted in an 1898 archaeological work. The possible relationship of Paul to the family of Chuza and Joanna (perhaps Andronicus and Junia?) does not seem to be demonstrated, at least to my thinking. It’s a creative chapter, but it’s relationship to history is tenuous (like the Star Wars saga that McGrath alludes to at the end of the chapter).
However, a number of the other chapters have strong persuasive power, at least to me. It is clear that the Mary who is depicted in Luke’s Gospel expresses views strongly consistent with key teachings of Jesus (compare Luke 1:46–55 with 4:16–21 and 6:20–26). Was this because the same person authored these passages? (as is most often assumed by scholars). Or was it because Mary in fact taught her son Jesus these central scriptural insights when he was a young child? (as James McGrath advocates in chapter 2). The possibility is enticing, and plausible.
I am also persuaded by the chapters which explain what Jesus learnt from the woman he encountered beside a well in Samaria (chapter 4) and the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre (chapter 5). The way that each of these encounters is reported in the Gospel narratives (the former in John, the latter in Mark and Matthew) provides clear validation for the claim that Jesus did, in fact, learn significant things from each of these women. It seems to me that the discussion in these chapters does a fine job of amplifying what is in the text. And the encounter by the well in Samaria gave the inspiration for the wonderful artwork on the cover of the book, by Indianapolis artist Macey Dickerson. (See https://www.maceydickersonarts.com/)
And, despite my earlier comments about the historical implausibility of the chapter on Joanna, I found the brief discussion of the “intersectional” nature of life for people such as Saul/Paul and Joanna/Junia, living with two names that signify their two cultures, two languages, two places of being. That dynamic is so important for contemporary living in the global society.
The “thickest” chapter, in my view, is the chapter dealing with the young woman who was “presumed innocent”. We know her in Christian tradition as “the woman caught in adultery”—a story told in a section of text that is missing from the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel, and also floats into Luke’s Gospel in other manuscripts. The chapter draws from passages in Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic texts to shed light on the scene. Who knew that dust on the mosaic floor in the Temple could be such a vital clue to this reconstruction?
Dr McGrath reconstructs the scene develops a thesis about what took place in a detailed, well-researched argument which is quite rabbinic in style and character. In the end, the chapter offers a creative interpretation that I find at once persuasive in many aspects—yet enticingly unresolved. Did Jesus learn from this woman the importance of not judging, and the imperative of not assuming one person is any more “without sin” than any other person?
Perhaps the most interesting claim that is made in this book is nestled into a footnote in the consideration of “two suffering daughters” in chapter six, relating to the woman who had bled for 12 years and the twelve year old daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader (Mark 5:21–43). Noting that the world of the time was a strongly oral society, Dr McGrath proposes that the written Gospels “may well have served as memory aids for those who reflect stories about Jesus in Christian communities”.
Functioning in this way, those who used these written narratives may well have elaborated and expanded on them, drawing from what they knew as people of the time, and responding to questions from those hearing the stories. This fits very well into what we know of ancient (and, indeed, modern!) Jewish practices of storytelling.
We know that the Pharisees (and Jesus), and the rabbis in later centuries into the modern era, were masterful storytellers, using exaggeration, expansion, elaboration, and dramatic techniques to “get the point across”. And ancient synagogue congregations were not at all like the sedate, restrained congregations of contemporary Protestantism—schooled not to interrupt or ask questions! Synagogue gatherings were hectic, bustling, noisy events.
So what does this mean, then, for the whole enterprise that has developed, of careful, meticulous, written scholarly examination of each and every word in the biblical texts? Are we overegging the enterprise in our zealous focus on minute details, given the hypothesis that the texts were simply the springboards for more expansive and creative storytelling? As someone who thrives on that scholarly enterprise, I am stunned by this possibility. But it bears further consideration.
Yet the suggestion that the written text formed the basis for a more extempore, elaborated account of each story involved, is an enticing prospect. And we know that it can work, since the book itself shows how the biblical text can generate a fuller story, offered in the creative monologues at the start of each chapter (and at the end of some).
That’s one of the great gifts of this book—along with the theological affirmations that Jesus was human, and thus did learn from other human beings; and that, in fact, he did learn from women at multiple points throughout his life. For establishing the reality of these insights, through this book, we are most grateful to James McGrath.
Postscript: I have read this book in company with a group of friends, from three continents, meeting once a week online to discuss a chapter at a time. It’s one of the gifts of the pandemic—we have learnt to be agile in the way we function online. It’s meant we can draw together people who are geographically dispersed—including, in this case, the author himself! It’s been a great way to explore a whole host of ideas that have emerged within the book, or during our conversations about it.