'Incarnation' asks us to treat all human persons with reverence

Irish theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama visited Melbourne in May.

Irish theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama.

By Muriel Porter

June 5 2016The biblical texts are “profoundly incarnational”, reflecting bodily reality, according to Irish theologian and poet Pádraig Ó Tuama. The word ‘incarnation’ derives from the Latin ‘carnis’, meaning ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’, he explained in a lecture he gave at St John’s Camberwell last month, ‘This is my body: Stories from the edges on the feast of Corpus Christi’.

Mr Ó Tuama drew on the Eucharistic truth that we receive Christ in each other and must treat all human persons with reverence and awe. Corpus Christi, he said, is the “daring risk of seeing the Corpus Christi [the body of Christ] even in those we do not wish to”.

The leader of Corrymeela, a Northern Ireland community committed to reconciliation, Mr Ó Tuama is currently in Melbourne as poet-in-residence for the Uniting Church’s Commission for Mission in Victoria/Tasmania.

He used several biblical texts to show Christ’s deep respect for individuals regarded by others as unworthy. They included St Luke’s account of the anointing of Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee by a ‘sinful woman’, presumably a prostitute. Jesus, he said, saw her as a real person, rather than as the ‘bringer of taint’ that Simon saw.

Noting that Luke says Jesus turned to look at the woman although he was addressing Simon, asking him ‘Do you see this woman?’, Mr Ó Tuama said that Simon did not really ‘see’ her at all. Although she had come to a place where she was not welcome because of her supposed blameworthiness, she nevertheless offered Jesus the hospitality, the welcome, he had been denied by his host. “She covered the lack of the host, offering a welcome where she was not welcome”, he said.

Jesus, however, saw who she was and what she offered so generously. In the same way, marginalised people can provide liberation to us, he said, and show us how we can extend liberation to others.

This was one of the Gospel texts Mr Ó Tuama used in discussions he had with leaders of 35 Ugandan Christian aid organisations as part of the concerted effort in 2009 to stop draconian anti-homosexuality Ugandan parliamentary legislation. The legislation would have imposed stringent penalties, including the death penalty, for those convicted of homosexual acts, and long jail sentences for those who ‘promoted’ homosexuality. The bill’s harsh penalties had been encouraged by US Evangelical Christians in a workshop held in Kampala.

As a result of their reflection on the biblical texts, 30 of the aid organisation leaders decided that the death penalty was not appropriate, he said.

Opposition to the planned legislation from world church leaders had been initially disappointing, he continued. “I wrote to every church leader I knew,” Mr Ó Tuama, who is himself gay, explained. To his dismay, he learnt that while some efforts were being made in private to stop the bill, nothing was happening in public. “We are here to bear witness to life and death,” he said. “We are called to be faithful to something that might kill us. We have some work to do in global Christianity!”

In the end, the bill, though passed by the parliament, was declared unconstitutional on a technicality in 2014. Mr Ó Tuama suspects it was a measure that allowed the bill to be defeated to avoid international censure without loss of face.

Uganda, one of 38 African nations that continue to criminalise homosexuality in some form, “just goes a bit further than others”, Mr Ó Tuama said. Even where homosexuality is no longer criminalised, there are still forms of violent opposition to gay people, he said. In Northern Ireland, where homosexuality has been decriminalised since 1982, young gay people still come to Corrymeela for refuge from discrimination. He works with those who have been damaged by ‘reparative therapies’ – therapies that supposedly ‘cure’ homosexuality. He is also doing work in this area while he is in Melbourne.

 Noting the bipartisan public apology made by the Victorian State Parliament to people who had been convicted of homosexual acts before decriminalisation in 1980, Mr Ó Tuama said that the apology “was the sort that the Church should have made”.

“There is some theological reflection that needs to be done. Our inclusion is a demonstration of our faithfulness, not despite our faithfulness”, he said.