What could cause a university to cancel public performances of a play portraying the life of Jesus, written nearly 20 years ago by multiple Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally? He summed up the play thusly for BroadwayWorld: “All men are divine. That is the simple, universal meaning of my interpretation of [Jesus’s] life.”?
The university in question is Mennonite school Eastern Mennonite University, and in the play, Jesus is gay.
The play was meant to be the culmination of four years of education for Christian Parks. It is Parks’ Senior Play, the practical portion of Parks' senior thesis, a requirement in the Theater program worth 3 full credits. On the written portion of the thesis, Parks received an A. By all appearances, Parks is a deeply involved and beloved member of Eastern Mennonite University’s community. Take a glance at EMU’s Facebook page and you’ll see Parks at the front of an MLK solidarity march, leading a gospel choir for a university-wide chapel service, and narrating a publicity video for prospective students. Over on Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s page, see Parks preaching for a morning service full of pastors.
There was every indication that Parks’ rendition of Corpus Christi would be moving, insightful, and well-attended. And yet, EMU is a Mennonite University, and in the play Jesus is gay.
The play is hardly a stranger to controversy. 17 years ago, the play’s original producers nearly pulled the show altogether for fear that protestors would follow through on violent threats. According to the New York Times, on opening night there were about 200 protestors:
“The Rev. Benedict J. Groeschel, of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal on East 156th Street in the Bronx, led the protesters in prayers and song from the spot where they were corralled about 100 yards from the theater. ‘We want this terrible blasphemy to be removed from public life,’ Father Groeschel said.”
But that was then, in 1998, when Corpus Christi opened the day after young gay man Matthew Shepard was strung from a fence in Wyoming and left to die; as Liberation Theologian James Cone has pointed out, much like Jesus was hung from a tree.
In 2008, a revival in New York saw an opening night with not a single protestor. According to Jason Zinoman, who reviewed the revival for the New York Times, it’s an earnest and faithful play, one that has hard-won sentiment, and a wit rarely seen in the Bible. As one of the characters says, this is an “old and familiar story. There are no tricks up our sleeves, no malice in our hearts.”
But of course, EMU is a Mennonite university, and in the play Jesus is gay.
So what is it that could stop a Black, queer, genderqueer, talented and faithful, peacemaking leader, beloved community member from performing an earnest and faithful play for the public about the life of Jesus written by a four time Tony Award-winning playwright for their senior performance?
EMU is a Mennonite university, and in the play Jesus is gay.
The preceding was stolen - reprinted, I mean! - with permission - from Jennifer's wonderful blog, QueerMenno, from a recent post entitled "In the play, Jesus is gay." Please check it out, I think the tone and range of the blog is very much in-line with Germantown.
I wanted to ensure there was ample context for Chris' piece below. Christian Parks attends Germantown Mennonite sporadically, but I got to know them during a rainy, muddy weekend a couple of years back in Hot Springs, NC during the Wild Goose Festival.
On February 19th, at an all-campus assembly at the Lehman Auditorium on the EMU campus, with both students and faculty in attendance. Christian shared their thoughts with a piece entitled, "The Benediction."
When someone asks me how I've been doing these past few weeks, I say one of two things: either 'Walking in grace,' or 'The cross before me, the world beyond me.' Both of these became my mantra. They became the words that rooted me as a storm of life blurred the way of love.
I wrote my entire senior thesis about how the power of love gives us the courage to embody its fullest blossom of encountering the Other. In my director’s notes, I explained, “In a world full of war, misogyny, patriarchy, white supremacy, and oppression, we are constantly choosing isolation. Not isolation out of true hatred for “the Other,” rather we choose isolation out of a deeply felt fear. This mode of navigating the world is a perpetual cycle, and if that is so, then it can and must be broken. Alongside isolation, as the yang to its yin, stands true and authentic community. The power of community is created by a true understanding of the Other which allows them to be known and interwoven. This power penetrates the heart of isolation causing a fracture in the perpetual cycle of fear."
I stand on constantly creating spaces for a truest encounter with the Other. I am committed to offering tables of hospitality wherever I go. The process in the last several weeks surrounding my senior project invited fear and mistrust to the table. In my momma’s house, I was taught that once the water ain’t clear anymore, you don’t drink it. My table, the one I worked to create, the one for which I was seasoning the last dish, was no longer clean. It was now muddy with fear, wounds and harm. With gunk. I found myself asking where the love had gone. I wrestled like Jacob with an angel who had left him limp, except this blow was to my heart.
The cross before me and the world behind me. As I follow Christ, I am continually reminded in the scriptures of what that actually means. It means I have to trust God enough with my spirit so that I give it to the Divine Spirit from Day One. It means I do as Peter, and walk on water. Trusting God to the fullest measure that I can believe, then see, and see as I believe. That Jesus-type power. At the beginning of this Lenten season, I had the honor of seeing the story of this Christ in real time, embodied.
We know the end of the story, Christ rises. Christ’s purpose was to rise from glory to glory. Corpus Christi suggests, 'What if it is all our purpose to rise from glory to glory?' Out of my groundedness of this narrative and recognizing that it is built on an ethic of radical inclusive love, I went to my cross. I cancelled this show.
I regret to inform you but this show is not about me.
This Jesus story invites me, yet it is also not about me. Corpus Christi became the dividing wall of hostility, according to Ephesians 2:14, for if Jesus is our peace then in his flesh he has made us one and has broken down the hostility which is the wall dividing between us. I believed this to be true, but I waited for God to show me. I’m stubborn. I always need to see it.
I saw Jerry Holsopple in the VaCa office. He showed me the Russian Orthodox Trinity Icon and whispered God's voice in my eyes. He helped me see the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Ghost, as they sat at the table and created the world. They met as equals at the most sacred place I know, the table.
As I looked at Corpus Christi and what it had become, there was no longer a table. That was the reality. I saw my fate. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone reflects on the faith of Martin Luther King, Jr., and what that did to his work. I believe he was a visionary who had the gift of sight to even see death. What still blows my mind is that MLK stared at physical death with the eyes of Christ and saw resurrection. He was committed because God gave him the vision.
This show started with one vision and I am seeing resurrection. I am seeing the spirit moving again because hearts are captivated and ready to listen. My goal was the broader Mennonite Church, my vision was to get this show to Kansas City. Go big or go home right? I quickly learned that intention and impact are two very different things. I quickly learned that the microcosm of the Church, EMU, was not ready. The wound was/is still too raw. I learned I caused harm. Harm was invited to the table on both sides. I couldn’t find love, I couldn’t find God. Then I found it was masked because I and the show was/is in the way.
The administration will be explaining this one for the coming months. Know that they are open to meeting with anyone here, they have assured me of that. When I saw love, I saw resurrection. Something had to die. I cancelled Corpus Christi. It was my cross to bear. So here I stand, waiting for my spirit to rest again, a vessel waiting for God to fill. I come bearing good news that the story isn’t over. I come bearing the word that Christ rises. So go tell the story that God’s reign is peace and the law is love. Go out and tell the good news that he’s not dead, he is alive in us. It is finished. Thanks be to God.