Music legend Prince passed away on Thursday. And immediately the radio and internet filled with laudatory praise for his creativity. But of course Prince was not always celebrated. Near beginning of his career, back in 1981, Prince opened for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles. The football stadium packed in 100,000 fans eager for the familiar sound of the Stones.
They didn’t know how to react when Prince came on stage. Prince always dressed provocatively. That day he wore calf high black leggings with a black bikini; bare chested except for a scarf around his neck. All of which accentuated his hairy chest and pouty lips. Even now I’m not sure how to describe it - a boldly masculine femininity?
Prince’s self-presentation on that stage in LA embodied the song he would soon release, “Controversy.”
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? Controversy
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me? Controversy
Back at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1981, the crowd didn’t care for his uniquely funky rock any more than the outfit. Jeering started, racist calls and homophobic taunts; followed up by cups and bottles. Some people say Prince left the stage in frustration, but in truth he played through his twenty minute set despite the hecklers. As NPR music critic Ken Tucker said, “despite it all, Prince played magnificently.”
Tucker captured what was best about Prince in one of the low points of his life: Prince played magnificently on stage where others thought he didn’t belong.
You might be thinking that Prince makes an odd opening act for scripture too, but this ability of Prince to transcend cultural norms of this or that, of good and bad, of male and female gets to the heart of Peter’s story in Acts. This Sunday I want us to think about Peter’s call for a spirituality that rises above distinctions; with Prince in mind, we might call it a “purple spirituality.”
The controversy of inclusion shaped our story today. The believers in Jerusalem heard Peter had baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius and the people in his household. They criticized Peter. In our reading Peter defended his actions, justified why he broke the unwritten rules of the community in order to reach out and welcome in Cornelius. To be clear: Peter and the first believers struggled with this question: what distinctions define our community? Who's going to be inside and who will be outside?
The shape this question took 2,000 years ago might not grip us. Back then the community debated circumcision. Could uncircumcised men belong to the community? That question doesn’t concern us and I know reading about it makes us a little squirmy. But in the first century this question of circumcision was as hotly debated as homosexuality or transgender concerns in the church today.
Peter’s defense in Acts intrigues me for two reasons. First, Peter makes no appeal to scripture. Peter doesn’t try to defend his action on the basis of one of the prophets, doesn’t talk about something from the history of Israel, doesn’t look for some proof text for his position. Instead, Peter talked about his own experience. “This is what happened to me,” he told his critics, “and it changed my mind.”
So often in our debates about inclusion, I notice how tentatively we move out on our own experience; as if we’re walking on thin ice. We feel this way because most Christians want to base everything on the Bible. They critique us, saying, “But the Bible says!” and “This is what scripture literally says so you can’t include those people.” They just remind me of that saying, “All the noise comes from the shallow end of the pool.”
Which is why I treasure this story of Peter standing on the strong ground of his own experience. Think of what Peter said. “I had a dream, I met a man, I changed my mind.” In all of it, Peter described God speaking through his experience. It didn’t matter that Peter’s experiences didn’t fit the confining categories of traditional expectations.
I often hear our members say they don’t know scripture well. I think almost all of us feel that as a spiritual deficit. I’m not saying, “don’t read the Bible.” But I want us to leave behind the weight of what we don’t know and instead claim the authority of what we do; to share how God speaks to us in our own experiences; to know that when we dream of a more inclusive Milwaukee, or when we meet an immigrant fearful because of hateful rhetoric, or when we change our mind about a social question that it’s God working in our hearts.
The second reason I love this story of Peter is for the way he takes the criticism of the community and turns it into a new and more probing question. When he came back to Jerusalem from baptizing Cornelius, the community wanted to know, “How could you welcome that outsider?” He made his defense and then ended on an even harder question for his critics, “Who am I to hinder God?”
Experience led him to see what God was doing. And so he asked, “who am I to stop God?”
In our culture people increasingly make a difference between “being religious” and “being spiritual.” Another way to frame this distinction might be with the concept of certainty. Peter’s critics were certain, “how could you?” Peter expressed uncertainty, “who am I?” What if we saw Peter as modeling a spirituality of uncertainty?
Science already provides a role for uncertainty. Back in the 1920’s Werner Heisenberg articulated an uncertainty principle that suggested a fundamental limit to what we can perceive of the physics of a particle: the more accurately we perceive momentum, the less we can capture location, and vice versa.
In an analogous way, Peter discovered his judgments could not be perfectly precise - he could not measure the momentum of the spirit and its location at the same time.
Peter’s critics were certain. And plenty of religious people are certain in our age too. Throughout the South they are passing so-called religious freedom laws that require the certainty of conservative Protestants to become the law of the land, including judgments of who belongs in what bathrooms. It’s become a national discussion as a result of the bathroom law in North Carolina. That law would make it criminal for someone to use a bathroom that didn’t correspond to their biological sex as identified at birth. People like Mike Huckabee strongly advocate for such laws, conjuring up fears of men lurking in women’s bathrooms. But proponents are unclear who’s going to check. Does Mike Huckabee want to stand outside the women’s bathroom checking privates? “Oh, no loo for you.”
That’s nonsense. I’m with Peter, finding meaning in a spirituality of uncertainty.
Claiming the divine power of our own experiences while embracing our own uncertainty marks out for me a “purple spirituality.” It leads to an ambiguity about identity and judgment. Of course that’s what I find in the heart of Prince’s best music. The 1981 song “Controversy,” in which Prince played off questions of his own sexuality, included a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. How do we categorize that?
Or his most famous album, “Purple Rain.” One track included “Darling Nikki,” a song which explicitly talked about sexuality. And then there’s the movie clip. The song so offended Tipper Gore that she called for a boycott or at least labeling.
The album also included, “I Will Die 4 U.” Conservative Christians now claim it as a faith testimony, hearing in it the voice of each member of the Trinity. They heard God when Prince sang:
I'm not a woman
I'm not a man
I am something that you'll never understand
They heard Jesus too:
I’m not your lover
I’m not your friend
I am something that you’ll never comprehend
No need 2 worry
No need 2 cry
I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why
And the Spirit:
I’m not a human
I am a dove
I’m your conscious
I am love
I’ve listened to Prince’s songs for a long time; I never imagined he was singing about the Trinity. Yet that kind of ambiguity shaped his work. So that on the same album, sometimes within just the same song, Prince could seem to embrace a Christian faith and then in the next shock a Christian sensibility. Neither red nor blue, Prince defied simple categorization, embodying a purple spirituality.
Prince’s refusal to not conform to social expectations in how he presented himself meant the world to his LGBT fans; in many ways creating the social space for us to find our own identity. As one gay musician said of Prince, “He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.” That refusal to conform didn’t just include the binary of heterosexual and homosexual, or of male and female. With the discussion we have now on racial equity we can see how Prince refused too the confining roles accorded black men in America. His rebellion against distinctions and stereotypes created space for lots of people to discover themselves.
The space Prince opened up for LGBT people mattered; and because of this many of us were confused by a 2008 interview in which he came out against same-sex marriage. By that time Prince had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. So perhaps it reflected a new-found identity. But in the same interview Prince came out against our partisan culture, which divides every issue between Red Republicans and Blue Democrats. He explained:
“Here’s how it is: You’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to this.” He pointed to a Bible. “But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum you’ve got blue, you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right.”
Purple uncertainty. “Neither of them is right.” It doesn’t answer all my question about why the gay icon Prince seemingly changed his positions. But it reminds me of his continual embrace of ambiguity.
Which is what Peter did with his own purple spirituality in Acts. Peter refused the binary categories of clean and unclean, believer and outsider. Instead, Peter created a spiritual space for others to find their own identity, name their own experience of God, and treat each other with the grace born of uncertainty.
As Prince might say, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life [by embracing our purple spirituality].” Alleluia and Amen.