I loved all that the theater programs in both middle and high school opened me up to as a teenager, and I had very much looked forward to my first visit to the big city. We saw a handful of shows while we were there, but the one that stood out to me and changed me forever was the evening we saw “Rent.” If you’re not familiar with this show, it is a loose adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's opera “La bohème.” It follows a small, eclectic group of artists who live in the East Village as they seek to make sense of life in the midst of poverty, drugs and the growing HIV/AIDS crisis.
As a young, conservative, evangelical teenager, this show was my first exposure to LGBTQ persons who didn’t seek to hide or cover things up. Some of the couples in the show are same-sex and some are opposite-sex, and that’s just the way the story goes.
One of the couples, Collins and Angel, were particularly compelling to me. Collins is a part-time professor of philosophy and an anarchist. He meets Angel, a street drummer and drag queen. They connect that over the fact that they both have AIDS when Angel tenderly cares for Collins after a mugging. Their love for each other as they seek to overcome difficulty, their shared dreams for a different future, and Angel’s heartbreaking death make their narrative one of the strongest threads running through the musical.
The song that impacted me then most deeply, I think, is “Will I?” It is sung at the end of an HIV support group gathering, as he sings about his fear of losing his dignity as he dies from AIDS. He sings, “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” and the other members of the group join in singing with him, his fear also being their fear.
I was taught in church, of course, that all of these people were unrepentant sinners and that much of their struggle and suffering was because of the moral and ethical choices they had made. Thus, though this was all sad, what they really needed was to repent and find Jesus. That’s what I was taught.
But the cold arithmetic in that theology entirely evaporated as I watched this show for the first time. I cared less about whether or not they were sinners and more about their struggle to claim some sense of dignity. These seemed like people who were remarkably good deep within, and at that time in my life I lacked the theology to articulate why.
I believe “Rent” was the beginning of the unraveling of my simplistic view of morality, as I began to understand that what matters most are people and the rule of love. Jesus himself said all the law and the prophets hang on love of God and love of neighbor — my understanding religion had cut people off as unworthy because of the law and, thus, this reading of the law, failed in the task of helping me love my neighbor.
Seeing “Rent” was also the beginning of my own construction of a positive understanding of goodness, mission and evangelism — one that began to realize that the characters didn’t need Jesus. First, they needed food. They needed somewhere safe to live. They needed medical care. Most importantly, they needed to be seen with dignity — and that requires real relationships, not simply evangelism. Indeed, many of them could actually teach me just as much (if not more) about Jesus than I could ever teach them.
Quite frankly, I needed these characters to evangelize me. Thankfully, they did.
Much of the conversion experience I had watching “Rent” parallels the need Christianity still has to repent of the church’s behavior and response during the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Those suffering from AIDS were ostracized in society and especially in the church, with those who had the disease being labeled as sinners due to their sexuality or their drug use. Some Christians went so far at that time to proclaim that the disease was God’s punishment for homosexuality. In 1987, Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is a lethal judgment of God on the sin of homosexuality and it is also the judgment of God on America for endorsing this vulgar, perverted and reprobate lifestyle.”
Even at the highest levels of our government, President George H.W. Bush said nothing as the death toll continued to rise. When he did speak, he said people needed to change their behavior. He opposed needle exchange programs that could have saved lives and passed massively inadequately funding for research in this growing health crisis largely because so many of the victims were seen to be culpable for contracting the disease. It was almost as though they were an expendable part of society.
“Rent” taught me how religion can blind you to seeing people, really and truly seeing people as people with inherent dignity and worth, ironically enough. It taught me that God’s love can exist in a variety of forms and that I, as a Christian, had some repenting to do. In the two decades since that trip, I’ve certainly changed. I’m now honored to serve in a church where we joyfully celebrate our LGBTQ members. I’ve had the privilege of officiating at a handful of same-sex weddings, both for parishioners and for community members. And, as a priest, I know very clearly that it does no good to preach at people when you ignore their basic needs of survival.
“Rent” taught me that what Jesus demands of me is love. That I truly love people. And I hope that as the legacy of this musical continues to grow, wider portions of the church will also find themselves convicted for their continued ostracization of LGBTQ Christians, their continued patronizing approach to the poor, and their continued finger-wagging at those struggling with addiction, telling people they just need Jesus when they also could probably use some excellent addiction-related mental health care.
I hope that wider portions of the church will find themselves convicted, will repent of their own response to people, both during this crisis and today. And I hope we will all be willing to learn anew what love truly demands of us.
About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.