Dr. Cheng, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will be speaking at tonight’s Sager Lecture on “The Rainbow Theology.” He is the author of two books on queer theology and is currently working on a third. “The Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit” will be released in April and focuses specifically on people of color who identify as LGBT. He also blogs for The Huffington Post, using events drawn from politics to pop culture to highlight different conversations on religion, sexuality, and intersectionality.
Dr. Chen’gs lecture will center around two major themes: queer ideology and, more specifically, the tension between communities of color and LGBT groups. He additionally plans to touch on Quaker views of sexuality within a larger context of LGBT history in the United States, tipping his hat to the college’s heritage.
Using Christianity as a framework for discussion is one way Dr. Cheng plans to mitigate the complexity of identities encapsulated in his lecture.
“Christian theology should listen and bridge different groups,” Dr. Cheng said in a phone interview. “In general, LGBT and Christian [groups] have a bad reputation for not listening and communicating.”
The lecture comes at a pivotal moment for Christian-LGBT relations on campus. Earlier this week, a letter written by four students involved in Swarthmore Christian Fellowship (SCF) and Swarthmore Progressive Christians (SPC) ran in “The Daily Gazette” voicing support for LGBT communities.
Carolyn Anderson ’14, one of the writers and a member of both SCF and SPC, felt that the groups’ history of silence around LGBT groups may have caused potential members to feel alienated from the Christian community on campus in the past.
“People who have been hurt in the past by Christians won’t be first to come up and ask, ‘what do you believe?’” Anderson said. “It’s an issue that has a huge emotional impact, and I think that the burden is on us, because there has been so much negative discourse coming from the Christian community internationally, to show we don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Both Anderson and Dr. Cheng advocate for dialogue between communities that may not always understand each other. With the media and other interest groups exploiting tensions between LGBT groups and communities of color in particular, minding the gap becomes critical for cooperation in achieving common goals. As Dr. Cheng and Anderson note, it also applies to Christian groups, where more progressive groups and traditionally conservative factions are beginning to struggle over questions relating to LGBT roles in the church and family.
Despite the diversity of student groups on campus, Swatties may feel like the “rainbow bridges” that Dr. Cheng describes, straddling various identities that may feel incompatible. A student who wished to remain anonymous has seen identity clashes in LGBT and Asian Pacific Islander (API) groups in which he has participated. Students who may not identify with the culture they find at umbrella LGBT groups on campus can sometimes question their own sexuality, according to the student.
“Students who aren’t out think ‘is this what it means to be gay?’” the student said. “A lot of times it’s minorities [who feel this way].”
Groups like Persuasion, which cater to a more specific demographic (in this case, LGBT API students), offer students spaces to explore issues of identity. The closed nature of the group and constantly changing meeting locations additionally offer anonymity to students still unsure of how to identify.
Neither the student, Anderson, or Dr. Cheng seem to advocate for the acceptance of a particular narrative surrounding issues of race, sexuality or spirituality: rather, an emphasis is placed on respect for plurality and process.
Although Anderson felt strongly about the need to express her own opinion on the topic, she believes that support for LGBT communities — and relationships — is a “tough issue” for other members of the Christian community. Her view does not speak for others involved in the campus organizations.
“There are a lot of different positions you can take,” she said. “Even if you get to the same conclusions, you can use different evidence for your decisions. People are still making up their minds; they want to consider everything before deciding what they believe. I think that’s a really important process and a Swarthmore process, to spend time thinking over every piece of evidence you can get… I believe struggling with beliefs and opinions helps you come to better conclusions and a position you feel more strongly about.”
The lecture will take place at 4:30 in Bond Memorial Hall. Come and take part in the discussion.