Saturday, October 10, 2015

Demanding a biological basis for gender identity

Some years ago I read about a male pastor who was kicked out of his denomination because it came out that he sometimes wanted to identify as a woman. Most of the time he was fine with presenting himself as a man, but some of the time he wanted to present as a woman and even chose a female name for that part of himself.

His church freaked out, of course, and gave him the ax. Yet there was a reasonable explanation for this pastor's behavior. Before he was born, when he was still in his mother's womb, he had a fraternal twin sister. Instead of separating and becoming another person, she somehow ended up fusing back with him so that the two of them formed a single person. As a result he was, in his biological make up, 70% male and 30% female. There is even a term for someone who is has two different sets of DNA as a result of absorbing a fraternal twin back into their body in utero: human chimera.

In the current debate over transgender people, many Christians are saying that it is just plain common sense that if someone is biologically male then he should view himself as male, and if someone is biologically female then she should see herself as female. Period. With no room for debate. If this were an ideal, unfallen world prior to Genesis chapter 3, I would heartily agree. But here and now, living in this messy, fallen state of humankind, it is not so. Instead we have this case of a pastor who was biologically both male and female. If biology directly determines one's personal sense of gender self-identity, then this pastor was being true to that principle. Even the proportion of time he wanted to spend as male versus female was true to the proportion that he was biologically male versus female.

Yet the reason this pastor was run out of his denomination was that he looked physically male and therefore he was expected to act and identify as such exclusively. The basis for his wanting to identify partly as female was hidden from the human eye, and yet it was very real. It could even have been scientifically proven through genetic testing.

In the case of transgender individuals, just because the basis for their desire to identify with a gender opposite of their (apparent) biological sex is hidden from our eyes, that doesn't mean it isn't real. Are we really so arrogant that we can dismiss this crisis of identity that they feel, as if we know everything there is to know about human beings, our mysterious formation in the womb, the human brain, genetics, and the origins of gender identity? The discovery that human chimeras exist is a relatively recent one. Who knows what else there is to discover about ourselves as human beings?

Here's something else to consider. Why do Christians need to know if there is a scientific explanation for the transgender experience before we stop our mistreatment of them: this merciless sneering and mocking and condemning of people whom we have made zero effort to understand? I thought the Bible was the basis of everything we do. We already know that Jesus commanded us to love people and refrain from judging them, because after all we do not see the heart and have no idea what sort of challenges they may be facing.

Of course, we can always wait around for science to uncover the reasons for the transgender experience--someday--before we feel like taking seriously Jesus' command to love these people. It's just that, given the way we normally scorn modern science almost as much as we do transgender people, I think that would be extremely ironic.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Is polygamy next?

Jonathan Rauch has made these arguments many times before, but in case you missed it, he explains once again why the legalization of civil same-sex marriage doesn't open the legal door to polygamy.
Now, people who want to take issue with the theoretical and empirical literature on polygamy should feel free to do so. What they should not do is what Chief Justice Roberts and Fredrik deBoer do, which is to ignore the literature altogether. Blandly asserting that there's no good reason to oppose polygamy once gay couples can marry makes no more sense than saying there's no reason to oppose date rape or securities fraud once gay couples can marry. It doesn't follow, and it isn't true, and the intellectual laziness implicit in asserting it is epic.
To find out why Rauch thinks so, read his article here.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Looking back and moving forward

Fourteen and a half years ago I wrote an essay called, "A Conservative Christian Case for Civil Same-Sex Marriage." I wanted to show that Christians can still hold to a traditional understanding of the Bible on homosexuality without being guilty of committing political and social injustice against gays and lesbians. I also wanted to point out how engaging in an earthly battle that prevents a minority group from receiving their legitimate constitutional rights only tarnishes our Christian witness to the hope of heaven through Jesus Christ.

Yesterday's SCOTUS decision is, in my view, the prevailing of earthly justice. Given the way our constitution is written, plus the history of the civil rights movement in this country, it was inevitable that this day would come. What's important for Christians is not that this day has come, but that we reflect upon all the years that have led up to it. How honorably have we conducted ourselves these past fifteen or so years? How profitably have we redeemed the time? Have we adorned the gospel in our interactions with the LGBT community? Is there anything we wish we could have done differently?

It has often helped me to realize that when you follow Christ, you follow him alone. You don't take your family with you, though you'd like to think you can. You can't take your friends with you. And certainly there is nothing you can do about everyone in society. All that's under your control is how obedient you are to Christ in your own personal relationship with him.

But we don't want to be his disciples under those conditions. We want to obey only if everyone else is doing the same thing. If same-sex marriage is wrong, we aren't content to hold to that belief with a clear conscience before the Lord. We want everyone else to believe it too. We don't want our children to have anything to do with it. We don't want society to approve of it. We definitely can't handle the idea that God may be leading us to view it as a sin and yet be leading someone else to the conclusion that is it okay.

What everyone else is believing and doing is irrelevant to your responsibility toward Christ, which is to follow him yourself, alone, according to how he is instructing your own heart. You can't know what God is doing in the lives of others, and you aren't meant to. When Peter pointed to the disciple John and asked Jesus, "But Lord, what about this man?" Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" (John 21:21-22)

You follow me. There is freedom and joy in doing what the Lord asks of you without fretting about what he is asking of someone else. Without fretting about where society is headed and whether we are still a Christian nation and whether the next generation will believe things and do things the way you want them to. Moving forward, here's hoping the next fifteen years will be about less fretting and more lonely, single-minded discipleship.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Yarhouse on the transgender phenomenon

I recommend Mark Yarhouse's recent article in Christianity Today, "Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon," for Christians who are looking for a beginner's introduction this issue.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

T is for Transgender

I've been thinking about transgender issues for a number of years now, but I've been somewhat intimidated at the thought of writing about it. The main reason is that the vocabulary involved is not only endlessly complex, but I've noticed that people who are in-the-know can be very offended when novices like myself come into the discussion and misuse terms. So, in the interest of full-disclosure of my limited knowledge, here's a summary of what I've learned thus far.

I know that you say "transgender" and not "transgendered." I know that there is a difference between "sex" (which has to do with your biological makeup) and "gender" (which has to do with your self-identity). I also know that non-transgender people like myself are called "cisgender." And I've learned that sexual orientation and gender identity issues are separate from each other; that cross-dressing is not necessarily an indication that one is transgender; that the term "transition" means taking steps toward making your outward identity and personal expression match your inner gender identity; and that some people transition "male-to-female" while others transition "female-to-male."

Even though I have found some of the vocabulary terms difficult, the basic human issues are not. For instance, as a straight person writing about gay issues I really had to wrestle with the idea of same-sex sexual orientation, but as someone who is cisgender I relate rather easily to having a strong inner sense of gender identity. I know I'm a woman, not just due to my biology but because I know myself to be female inside. So when I hear that a transgender woman feels the same way I do, except she is in a body that does not properly express her gender identity, the tragedy of that situation hits home.

Few things are more central to our sense of personal identity than gender identity. Through my friendships with gay and lesbian individuals, I've learned just how important sexuality is to us as human beings. When someone says "being gay is who I am" I understand what he or she is trying to express. If sexuality is that important to one's sense of self, gender identity is more so. In the beginning "God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). As creatures of dust, gender is so integral to who we are created to be it is mentioned in the same breath as being made in the image of God.

If you're a Christian, you understand that the world didn't continue on as God originally made it in Genesis 1:27. Because of Adam and Eve's sin we now live in a world that isn't so neat and tidy, which probably has something to do with why some people's gender self-identity doesn't match up with the gender indicated by their biological sex. Perhaps some people are born with a male soul (or male brain) in a female body, or vice versa. Like many fallen conditions this dilemma is nobody's fault, and it is very real and painful to those who are born into it. Unfortunately it cannot be eradicated any more than you can go back in time and eradicate the Fall, so the thing to do is not to quote Bible verses at people as if we are still living in Paradise. Instead we recognize that during this time of Romans 8-style groaning, we need to respond to it as we would to any human pain: with compassion and understanding. I'd suggest, too, that it is wiser not to pass judgment on the decisions people make to alleviate their own pain, especially if you have never walked in their shoes.

Many Christians believe that such talk is dangerous, because it means we won't be taking male and female gender distinctions seriously. I beg to differ. What could be more illustrative of recognizing gender differences than a trans person who feels the need to have his or her outward appearance and presentation match his or her true inner gender? If a trans person is saying that there really is no male and female distinction, then it shouldn't matter to him/her how they present themselves to the outward world. Male . . . female . . . who cares, right? Yet it obviously does matter to them. If you feel you are female inside, you want to look like a female and be accepted as such. The same goes for those who identify as male. The oppressiveness trans people experience when they are treated as if they were one gender when they really identify as the other demonstrates how seriously they take these gender differences.

But here's something else to consider. While God did originally create human beings to be male and female for marriage and procreation in this earthly life, there are also strong hints in the New Testament that in the new heavens and new earth, gender won't be that important. Jesus said that after the resurrection there will be no marrying or giving in marriage because everyone will be like "angels of God in heaven" (Matthew 22:30). Paul said that in Christ "there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), which is a statement that anticipates the radical equality of men and women existing as co-heirs in heaven. There is no doubt that Paul and Jesus still affirmed and recognized gender distinctions and gender roles in this earthly life. Yet at the same time they were looking beyond to the world to come where we will be so transformed in glory, everything we recognize now as male and female in our earthly bodies will be elevated to such a transcendent existence, we may very well be beyond gender categories. As Jesus said, we will be like the angels.

If a brother or sister in Christ is dealing with being transgender, why not allow them the freedom to seek whatever temporary relief they need to make their earthly journey bearable until all is resolved in glory? Someday the resurrection and glorification of the body will bring permanent peace to the trans individual, but only God can give that gift. In the meantime, the gifts he asks us to give to them as they labor through this earthly pilgrimage are our love, sympathy and understanding.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ten Things I've Learned As a Straight Conservative Christian Blogging on Homosexuality

1. No straight person can fully appreciate how difficult it is to be gay in a largely heterosexual world.

2. As soon as someone equates "homosexuality" with "having gay sex," the rest of what they have to say on the subject will be pretty much useless.

3. When some Christians hear the word "love," all they think is "liberalism."

4. "Gay Christian"--until you can think of a better, more accurate term, it stays.

5. You can't understand someone else's sexual orientation unless you first understand your own.

6. Christians who are determined to be persecuted by gays can't be convinced otherwise.

7. How much you believe God loves and accepts others in Christ is a reflection of how much you believe he loves and accepts you.

8. Love begins with listening to what people have to say about themselves.

9. Conservative Christians should have no problem with celibate gay Christians, unless they have a problem with the gospel.

10. Don't assume God brought someone gay into your life so you can teach them. Chances are it is the other way around.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

What will happen if I love?

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." - G.K. Chesterton

There must be a reason Jesus told us that loving our neighbor is the greatest commandment next to loving God. He not only commanded us to love but he went out and did it himself without regard for his own reputation, safety, popularity. . . and ultimately his life. The rabbi who defended adulteresses and prostitutes. The holy man who touched lepers and other unclean types. The king who was abandoned to torture, mockery and a humiliating public death.

We speak of his suffering in reverent tones because that's how he atoned for our sins. That's the theological side of the story. But the human side of the story is that his sufferings came about as a direct result of loving all those despised, unwanted people. The hatred, the persecution and the outrage that led to his crucifixion came about because he healed a withered man's hand on the Sabbath and stood up for a prostitute who dumped a fortune in perfume on his feet and other such scandals. So when Jesus commands us to love as he loved--and also commands us to suffer as he suffered--he is speaking of two sides of the same coin. You cannot love the way he loved and not suffer the kinds of consequences he did.

Many Christians will fight you tooth and nail if you dare to bring up loving gay and lesbian people. The way they talk, you'd almost think there was a verse in the New Testament where Jesus answered and said to his disciples, "Know that you should love one another, as long as the conditions are right. Amen." That must be it, because all I ever hear is: I know we should love people, but I oppose the gay agenda. I know we should love people, but I'm not going to approve of their sin. I know we should love people, but they're indoctrinating my child at school. I know we should love people, but I'm not going to be manipulated by a bunch of sob stories.

What I'm actually hearing is this: Love sounds like a great idea, but I'm afraid if I love I something bad will happen. Yes, something bad will happen, but not what you think. Loving gay people probably won't lead you to approve of sexual sin, but it will most likely get you accused by fellow Christians of approving of it. It won't mean you'll support schools indoctrinating your children about homosexuality, but you will have to face the more real worry that the church is indoctrinating them to despise gay people. And you will definitely listen to people's sob stories, but instead of feeling manipulated you will never stop aching over the needless pain and injustice so many gays and lesbians suffer on a daily basis.

Simply put, loving gays and lesbians will mean many of your friends will forsake you, you will never be a part of the "in" crowd at church, your reputation will be tarnished, and you will carry the sorrows of others around in your heart until you feel like you're going to break. Downside: you will suffer. Upside: you will know the blessing of following in the path of a certain Someone who walked in those sufferings before you.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Discomfort level

I just heard recently that a gay Christian friend of mine is going to be leaving his conservative church. Even though he is not in a gay relationship and never has been, he is being shunned by a core group of people in the congregation. The only excuse they have given for the way they treat him is, "We're not at a place where we feel comfortable interacting with gay people."

Sure, I get it. That's my favorite Bible verse too. The one that says, "They will know that we are Christians by the way we love only those brothers and sisters with whom we have come to a place where we feel comfortable interacting."

Which also brings to mind some of my favorite passages out of the Gospels where Jesus goes around touching, healing, befriending and sharing meals only with the people with whom he had gotten to a place where he felt comfortable interacting. Because if you want to change the world, that's the winning formula right there.

Speaking of changing the world, I can't recall any time in church history where the gospel caught fire and spread because Christians were interacting only with those respectable people with whom they felt comfortable. Saint Patrick, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, largely ministered to slave girls who suffered being raped regularly by their masters. John Wycliffe was the first to translate the Bible in English for the benefit of lay people, whom the church of his day regarded as "swine." John and Charles Wesley were condemned by the clergy of their day for preaching the gospel in open fields to the uneducated masses.

If there's any spiritual lesson to be learned from the past, it is run, don't walk, from any temptation to center your Christian life around being comfortable, respectable and insulated. No great spiritual advancement has ever happened in the kingdom of God because Christians were afraid to love the really tough-to-love people.

Which is why there's hope for my gay Christian friends, because I see so many of them struggling to love their straight brothers and sisters in Christ in spite of our perverse ignorance and obnoxious self-righteousness. From a certain perspective we are the really tough-to-love people, not them. We need to understand the true nature of our spiritual situation. If we don't get our act together and learn how to love, the kingdom will surely march forward without us. And gay Christians will be leading the way.

Am I being sentimental or hyperbolic when I say that? Let me put it this way. If you want to know how God is working to advance his kingdom, observe what he is doing among the people on the margins. The poor, the homeless, the persecuted, the forsaken, the ill, the feeble, and the despised. God calls his people from within those situations and uses suffering to train them in love, forgiveness, patience and meekness. They may never get to be senior pastor at the newest megachurch everyone is flocking to. They may never even be allowed to lead a Bible study. They may struggle just to be accepted in their churches. But they are the ones whom Christ will lift up, they are the ones he will strengthen, and they are the ones he will reveal himself to. If you despise them, you do so at your own spiritual peril.