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Sexual theologian plumbs new understandings

Who is Jesus for a transvestite? This is the type of question Marcella Althaus-Reid asks in her efforts to further the cause of liberation theology by reaching out to marginal people.

Marcella is a reader in systematic theology and ethics at the University of Edinburgh and was in New Zealand last month to present the Lloyd Geering lectures at St Andrews on the Terrace Church, Wellington.

Initially trained at the ecumenical Protestant seminary in Buenos Aires, ISEDET, Marcella has a Methodist background. She worked with Christian movements in poor neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires before going to Scotland at the behest of the liberation educationalist Paulo Freire to work in adult literacy projects.

Marcella's provocative theological writings look at what we consider decent and indecent and they explore the sexual basis of our Biblical understandings.

"The second generation of liberation theologians has a different agenda than the first. Liberation theology is about developing a theology from the people, from the grass roots. It’s about taking sides. But liberation theology cannot stand still, just as Methodism has to develop its social theology. We can't remain focused on Wesley and trade unions or we will become a piece of history," Marcella says.

"What I call indecent theology seeks to unveil not only the political ideologies of religion but the sexual ideologies. All theology is sexual theology. Heterosexuality is a particular perspective and therefore a particular way of reading the Bible. It is not a universal, it does not come from the Bible.

"Economics, politics, and sexuality go hand in hand. If we can go beyond and deconstruct the heterosexual understanding of God that's the foundation of Western theology, we can expand our understanding of how to be society. The can be done by experiencing God moving outside elite theologies."

Marcella says liberation theologians do not go to the poor as an act of charity. They go to the poor to become poor, to see how God reveals itself through the poor. Similarly different faces of God can be revealed through different sexualities.

Jesus, she says, was the "perverted messiah". The Latin root of the word perversion means to choose a different path. Jesus was perverted in the sense that he didn’t fulfil the traditional expectation of the Messiah but instead brought a message of salvation to the poor.

Liberation theology seeks to continue this tradition. Marcella says liberation theology is generally seen as a Catholic movement, but Latin American Protestant theologians have played an important part in it. They include the Methodist Jose Miguez-Bonino and Presbyterian Rubem Alves.

Pope John Paul II did his best to destroy liberation theology, she claims. He "re-Romanised" the church and pushed women back into traditional roles. Nevertheless, liberation theology continues and has spread around the world. Liberation theology is strong in South Africa and Australian aborigines have developed a liberation theology based on land.

"I'm not familiar with New Zealand but I imagine liberation theology here would emerge from racial, colonial, and environmental issues. As Christians we have to look deeply at ourselves and the injustices we have committed.

"God will surprise us and bring novelty to our lives. It will come from the perspective of what we are not, from what has been excluded. Christianity is the religion of the excluded."

Marcella books are Indecent Theology, The Queer God, From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, and The Sexual Theologian.