What’s a Christian Response to Transgender Rights?
Continuing my series of sermons on challenging topics, I am speaking today about what’s a Christian view on transgender rights. Appropriate for national coming out day.
This issue is front and center in America’s culture wars where books are being burned by authors perceived to be transphobic, while on the human level, 40% of transgendered people have considered suicide.
This might be the toughest cultural issue not being openly discussed in church. Let’s give it a try today. As I said last week, if I offend anyone in my interpretations or statements, forgive me. My goal is to see if we can open our minds to better understand this topic so long in the shadows. Let’s begin.
All of us at birth had a doctor write on our birth certificate that we were either male or female based on our genitalia. In some rare cases, babies are born with both genitalia and doctors make a decision and sometimes engage in surgery.
Being transgender is a realization that though you were born into as one gender biologically, you identify as the other gender. Often you’ll take steps to look and act more like the gender you feel comfortable in and that can mean anything from the way you dress, taking hormones, or having surgery. It’s a different journey for each person.
What can we learn from the Bible, insightful teachers and experience to better understand how Christians might respond to this issue?
Let’s start with the Bible and the texts we read today.
I’ll be moving through the Bible quickly within our short time together today, so please feel free to take notes for our question time where I can go into more detail.
Looking first at the Genesis creation story we see that God created us male and female. Does that make this an open and shut case? I don’t think so. First, we need to understand there are two creation stories. In the first one, creation is described poetically in balanced terms: light and darkness, oceans and land, male and female.
Take night and day as an example. Does this mean God didn’t create lovey sunsets, dawn, or the northern lights? No, God creates everything in between each of these poetic descriptions including gender.
In the second creation story, written by a different author, there’s a being Adam who holds the female within him, and it is pulled from his rib to create Eve. Then there are two. I’m not saying, Adam was transgendered because Adam didn’t exist as an actual being, but is symbolic of the creation of humans, and raises an interesting question interesting for the potential for male and female within us.
The favorite passage against transgendered people is the one we read from Deuteronomy that says men shouldn’t dress as women. Clearly, case closed, right? Not so fast. This doesn’t work on a couple of levels.
First, no one takes all these passages from Deuteronomy literally today and thank God. iI you look a few lines down it says in terms of marriage: “20If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 21she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.22If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.
Anyone picking one verse is stuck picking all of them literally, which they do not—thank God.
These passages reflect a certain time and space and are not relevant to our time.
Okay but even then, let’s talk about dressing like a female. The famous actress from the 1930s, Tullulah Bankhead, had a funny line speaking to a high-church priest carrying the incense:
“Darling, I love your dress, but your purse is on fire.”
The way ministers dress today would be seen as women’s clothes. Jesus wore a tunic and likely had long hair; did he dress like a woman? I’ve got Scottish ancestors. Are the Scotch condemned to hell for wearing kilts? The answer clearly is what it means to dress like a man or a woman is cultural and changes constantly. Everyone knows that fifty years ago if a woman wore slacks she was ridiculed. Getting hung up on how we dress is getting caught up in cultural norms.
What else does the Bible offer?
There are other gender-bending stories in the Old Testament such as the story of Deborah who leads the Israelites into battle. And remember Joseph and his technicolor coat? Many scholars ascribe that coat to a feminine gown, which explains why his brothers hated him so much and why his father was so protective. I don’t know, but I’ve got an open mind.
There’s lots of talk about eunuchs in the Bible, seen as genderless people.
Eunuchs are not the same as transgendered people today but are often seen to be the closest thing in the ancient world. They were usually men who had their genitals removed to serve as close advisors or servants to kings. Castration was often used to make sure you wouldn’t assault women in the palace and that you had no plans to move your own family forward. It was also done to conquered men who served their conquerors without fear they’d grow a nation.
This was very common in the world, for example, there were at one time 100,000 eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty alone. The last Chinese eunuch died in 1996.
Jesus speaks about eunuchs in a passage that scholars still struggle with and mostly ignore which is why you’ve probably never heard it.
In response to a question on marriage, Jesus speaks of eunuchs as a spiritual path saying, “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12).
Jesus is answering a question on marriage and eunuch is often interpreted in this setting to mean people who give up sexual activity as forced celibacy. Origen, one of the early great Christian theologians became a eunuch himself based on this passage as a sign of his devotion to God.
Eunuch’s also appeared as we read in the Book of Acts, when Cornelius, a eunuch for the Ethiopian queen is studying the Hebrew Scriptures. The disciple Phillip is guided to help him understand the prophecy is about Jesus. Cornelius is so excited that he asks to be baptized right there and then.
Let’s pause here a second, and recognize the Phillip overcomes racial issues as Cornelius is Black. He overcomes the gender identity issue as he’s baptizing a eunuch and he overcomes the nationalism issue as he’s not an Israelite.
Was Cornelius a Black transgendered person? Again, I don’t think we can apply current labels to the past so easily, however, the overarching message of this story is that the early Christians were radically inclusive in their outreach. This is why it grew, and this is what we have lost.
Cornelius goes down in history as the first non-Jewish convert to Christ. Despite our inability to tag this directly as a transgender story, we can unquestionably say this is a story of the radical inclusion of Jesus Christ. That’s something that should guide all our thinking today.
I’ve taken you for a whirlwind through the Scripture and I haven’t don’t it justice, but again we can save those questions for our discussion time.
Swedenborg and most all of those who read him take this as a literal definition of men and women. The ideal marriage is when love and wisdom are brought together in two straight people. He saw couples in heaven who so represented this marriage that they were seen as one lovely being, a mixture of the masculine and feminine—love and wisdom.
Here’s a radical idea. If it is true that the ideal is a marriage of masculine and feminine energy, might transgendered people actually be closer to that ideal within one person? Might they be an evolved level of spiritual development? Much like the way native Americans revered Two-Spirit transgendered spiritual leaders. Rather than pariahs, might they be spiritual leaders?
It would align that those who are most misunderstood and persecuted are often called to represent Jesus’ message.
But, I’m not the only one that thought about this way. You have probably heard of the great French novelist Honore de Balzac.
In one of his less-known books called Seraphitus, the main character is loved by both a man and women and both see this androgynous person as the gender opposite themselves. It’s a transgender or gender fluid story. De Balzac presented this character as the highest form of a spiritual person because of the ability to hold within them both the masculine and feminine.
Where did de Balzac get the idea for this character?
No other than the writings of Swedenborg. He dedicates an entire chapter in the book to explaining Swedenborg. This character is the story is of the ultimate evolution of love and wisdom. This is worth contemplating. (As an aside, even the author’s name has a double meaning here. I’ll let you ponder that one for a while–de Balzac?)
Okay, we’ve looked for guidance in Scripture and Swedenborg, what about our experience?
In the early ’90s in Boston, I joined the board of the Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Youth group.
I played a very minor role during my time on the board, but I got to meet the director who was Grace Sterling Stowell a transgendered-women. Grace lived a life of complete service to kids who were abandoned. She is truly a heroic figure and still at it. This year, she received another well-deserved award. She’s quite a saint and quietly and humbly lives out a life of love of others and those without a voice, which is the very definition of what Jesus calls us to do.
Whenever I get too caught up in intellectualizing this topic, I remember her and her path and her service.
We can all use more “Grace” in our lives and becoming a friend to a transgendered person will transform you.
We’ve now looked at the Bible, teachers and experience to understand this issue.
I want to leave you today with the teachings of Jesus as you figure out your own answer.
I don’t have the time in this to get into the politics surrounding this topic in this sermon. I’m not a fan of any movement either pro or against that seeks to shut down voices or cancel people. Those using this strategy to support or shutdown transgender rights won’t win the debate. Efforts to silence people on this issue using social justice warrior tactics will hurt it. We can discuss current event questions in our discussion period today.
While we can’t find a literal one to one story in the Bible on transgendered people, we can learn from Jesus. The gospel story of healing the blind man today teaches that people are born with a wide diversity in God’s creation. This diversity is not a punishment, it’s the reality. The religious establishment in the gospel and today is more set on their rules than recognizing the beauty of someone healed. I believe this relates to how the church responds to differences, including trans people.
I’ll also point out that what the world sees as a disability is often a gift. Helen Keller in our book “My Religion” speaks about her blindness as a gift to better see spiritually and why this opened her to Swedenborg’s teachings. What the world belittles, God uses for leadership.
For me, the Christian response to the transgender community is to welcome them with open arms and understanding. They may also be our teachers in ways we don’t yet know. We are all created in God’s image and deserving of nothing but love.
Let’s seek more to understand and less to be understood on this issue and seek God’s grace and understanding.