50.50: Opinion

‘Christian supremacy is a front for power’: Reverend Alba Onofrio explains

She describes herself as a queer evangelical from Southern Appalachia – and among a growing number of people reclaiming God from supremacists. 

Reverend Alba Onofrio
13 October 2020, 8.27am

What is Christian supremacy? It’s that cooptation, that taking of Christianity and using it like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – using its language, sacred texts, and traditions, to cause harm, to perpetuate domination, imperialism, racisms, sexism. That mixture, that marriage, that unholy union between power, systems of power, and religion – we call that Christian supremacy and that must go. 

People of faith, like myself, need to take God back from this idea that God is about punishment, death, and harm particularly against the most marginalised. Part of how we do that is by healing our own religious trauma, and the spiritual violence that has been done against us, as women, LGBT people, immigrants, and so on. 

We go deep into the Bible, the tradition, and the texts and without fear we look at what God has to tell us. Then, strategically, we work on where it is in the world where Christianity is being used to withhold or deny the rights of marginalised people. We work with activists, groups and churches on the ground in different places around the world and try to make it better. We try to stop Christianity from being the reason why harm comes to our beloved communities. 

My mother’s family is Roman Catholic and my father’s family is Southern Baptist, which is a very fundamentalist Christian evangelical community. I’m in the southeast of the US and that community is very strong here. I was raised in this part of the world and I got a lot of Bible and a lot of wonderful theology – that taught me things that I couldn’t unlearn even when I was no longer welcome in the church. 

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Things like ‘God is as close as my own breath’; like ‘Jesus loves me this I know’ – a ton of things that just stuck and I couldn’t let them go. I definitely still identify as an evangelical. My message is different, but the outcome is no less urgent. I am someone who believes in going deep and believing in a God that is bigger. 

And the group of people that I am in community with – believers, non-believers, activists most particularly – are people who work towards liberating theologies.

“I definitely still identify as evangelical. My message is different, but the outcome is no less urgent.”

While the bible may be the inspiration of God, it requires the minds and voices of human beings to interpret it meaningfully. Where my organisation Soulforce works we focus on something called the ethics of life. We are not a faith-based organisation. I’m an ordained clergy in an inter-faith tradition and local church, and most of my ministry is with LGBTQ activists and rights defenders.

We believe that theology that leads to death is bad, period. Biblical texts that are used to lead to harm is bad, period. End of discussion. So what do we do if there is this way of thinking that says homosexuality is awful, and another way of thinking that homosexuality is a gift from the divine and should be celebrated, embraced and loved (that would be my opinion), and the same thing with trans people, with immigrants, and so on. How do we decide between those two ways of thinking? 

Ethics is how we decide. We take responsibility for the implications of our beliefs. So if my beliefs as a Christian cause harm to other people, cause death, take away human rights and dignity, those are not justifiable, those are not ethical beliefs. And the opposite is true: you don’t need to be a believer in order to believe in ethics and have a system of morality that says life and equality and life abundant. 

Trump and feminist resistance

So many Americans and people around the world were surprised by the election of Trump, because he is one of the least religious people you’d ever want to see in your whole entire life – both from his example, his words, and his utter lack of basic things like how you pronounce Bible passages or books. 

But what we need to understand is that Christian supremacy is a front for a system of power and so the reason that Trump was ‘okay’ for his voters was because they were voting for white supremacy. They weren’t voting for evangelicalism or even Christianity per se. This is what made Trump the obvious candidate. 

I was so grateful to be able to go to eastern Africa last year and Kenya was our last stop, doing a theological conference for women of faith – lesbian, bisexual, trans, gender non-conforming women – with a group called the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. It is very important that we recognise that there are these alternative, liberating theologies and one of them that is very important is a womanist tradition and that is where black women are centred – their daily lives and experiences are centred not only as important, not only as holy, but as a place from which one begins to theologise, from which one begins to imagine what God is like. 

Previous liberation theologies didn’t have much of a gender analysis and this is a next step. Every generation I feel like we have feminists coming in that transform the narratives and offer us deeper analysis. The conferences that I was an invited guest at, in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya last year, alongside womanist scholars and theologians, were phenomenal. It was amazing – the people who are doing this activist work for our communities rights, for women's rights and LGBT rights, are phenomenally strong and powerful even with less resources than they deserve. 

“Queer and trans theologies are just exploding right now, in terms of their proliferation and their reach”

You need to know that you are a beloved child of God, that you are not disorder, that you are not unnatural, basic things like 2,000 species of creatures that the divine created on this planet practice some sort of non-heterosexual sexual activity. This makes us utterly natural, utterly mundane in the scope of sexuality and gender across species. But this kind of information has been withheld from us; there are specific interpretations of the Bible that we have not been allowed to access. 

For example: all of the places in the Bible where God is a feminine creature, a feminine being. We have endless examples where God is plural as well as singular, where God is not just a ‘he’. We have gender diversity in the Bible. It has never been – as it is not now – male and female only and there are examples of that in the Bible, and of love between people of the same sex or same gender.

But because of who was looking at the texts, who was interpreting the tradition, and who had power and wanted to keep it, those things have been withheld from us. Therefore, part of our work around womanist theology, feminist theology, mujerista theology, and queer and trans theologies – which are just exploding right now in terms of their proliferation and their reach – is to do that, to say: it does matter who’s reading the text. Because we’ve always been here and we’ve always been part of cultures and there is a reason why we haven’t heard those stories.

The thing that gives me the most hope is seeing people like Arya Karijo and other folks all across the world because as soon as we recognise each other, when we see each other, we find family. I am delighted by the possibility that whether from a Christian perspective or outside of Christianity we can all collectively understand that we are worthy of dignity and life and love just as we are. That is plenty for us to push back against systems, denominations, infrastructures that seek us harm.  

* This is an edited transcript of Reverend Alba Onofrio’s comments during the openDemocracy webinar Don't LGBTIQ people have a right to religious freedom, too? on Thursday 8 October 2020.

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