On Palm Sunday on the streets of Portland, Oregon, two rectors in scarlet chasubles paraded down a sidewalk with their congregants, a bright red wagon, a stuffed llama, palm leaves, and rainbow streamers. With jubilance they sang “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” to the greyed maritime skies, likely perplexing those they strolled past on their way to the church building. Their throng of color, formality, harmony, and comedy exuded dissonance, but this was the summoning of a divine and subversive power, calling out a cry of relief and possibility.
The service was held just outside of the church doors that day, the Rev. James M. Joiner preaching. In the opening of his sermon, Rev. Joiner compared the perspective of the horse vs. the donkey when approaching a parade, throwing his body into the gait of each animal—his were excellent donkey impersonations. As he went further into the description of the “king” on the back of the donkey, he described a person who was largely interested in turning the powers of the world on their head, subverting dominance, violence, coercion, and greed. The donkey would be the perfect fit because Jesus had absolutely no interest in looking like anything that screamed “Pax Romana.” Later he noted something else about Jesus via social media—Jesus was a Drag King.
Rev. Joiner wrote:
Jesus is King the way Drag Kings are. Drag Kings clown tropes of patriarchal power, often but not always from a base of something femme, whether that be a femme body, or a femme socialization which never fit, or a genuinely femme disposition. Gentle Jesus riding a baby donkey into town (which, cute) is all that, a clowning of militaristic, patriarchal power (as is the original reference in Zachariah.) Jesus is a great King.
His description not only caught my attention because it was the first time I had heard Jesus being described as a Drag King, but it so happened that my own Palm Sunday plans included moderating a panel of drag queens for a Q and A led by Hanover’s very own Queens and Kings student drag organization. Donning my own unicorn-in-a-bowtie ensemble, I settled into a comfortable chair with a large moose marionette behind it and started the round of questions. What came through in the tiny Zoom screens were lavish, incandescent sequins of wisdom, proclaiming radical love and compassion for all of God’s people.
Several of the performers on our panel have showcased their talents in Hanover’s student center on stage, and one particular queen that I remembered was Miss Mossy Stone of Indianapolis, IN, who in a Halloween performance threw bits of paper out into the audience as Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frank N. Furter. Each little paper read “You are loved. God made you just the way you are and delights in you.” This was distributed to a wide audience of Hoosiers, many who had like Miss Mossy come from a religious space of an angry god that despised their being, their essence, and their sexual and gender expression. Some of us were high school students living in strained homes, or college students who endured years of spiritual trauma.
Chanel, a student at Hanover and member of the Hanover Queens and Kings.
At the panel, Miss Mossy Stone spoke of the origin of her character, giving reference to a Wordsworth poem. Living in a basement in the Dakotas at wit’s end after deployment in the U.S. military, the joyful, jubilant figure came into being out of trauma and pain: there was nothing left to do but find beauty and claim compassion (“A violet by a mossy stone/half hidden from the eye/fair as a star when only one/is shining in the sky”).
In the whole of our conversation together, a theme of self-discovery, resilience, and self-possession emerged, an acknowledgment that drag was a paradoxical theatre of revealing the truth through smoke and mirrors. That which was false would be ridiculed: hyperbolic displays of the feminine call heteropatriarchal definitions of the beautiful into question, the playful gestures and bawdy humor subverting systems of dominance, possession, and conquest. Each and every body shall have a right to exist, to thrive, to have a life abundant. None shall have their agency or autonomy taken by another, nor have their purpose decided by anything other than God herself.
On Palm Sunday, Drag King Jesus was redefining the definitions of glory and majesty in God’s terms, a faithful reframing of reality unto humiliation and death. Rome and its empire would be utterly ridiculed, the vocation of Jesus kept whole. In the grim turning of events as he made his way into the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus would have nothing left to do but return to the origin of things: back to beauty, back to compassion, descending into the depths to claim this origin. The stern-faced Roman guards participating in his public execution would no doubt clutch their spears with a grip of deadly seriousness, but they have been completely left out of the joke, and have no idea that a heavenly being in flashy clothing (likely with glitter) is going to show up in a few days to an empty tomb. Their prowess had nothing on a Drag King riding a shaggy colt into town.
Vocation, it turns out, is knowing what is true and what is not. When we can get a glimpse of a divine origin, we will know what to laugh at, high heels kicking.
To listen to an interview with Miss Mossy Stone, who hosts monthly book readings for kids at Indy Reads in Indianapolis, click here. Sources of image at top of post: Lorella Sukkiarini (Italian drag queen); December 20, 2009. Photo by Dedda71; Wikimedia Commons.
Rev. Dr. Catherine Knott is a Presbyterian (USA) minister serving as the Ball Family Chaplain at Hanover College in Hanover, IN. She also teaches in the English Department, and enjoys collaborating with students to help them better live out their belief system(s) in varying roles on campus. She lives with her spouse and three rowdy but affectionate terriers, and loves walking in the woods. Click here for other posts by Catherine Knott.