Opinion: Difficult Times Are About Grace, Not How To Be Graceless
The election has been called, candidates and potential leaders are boots on the ground, stomping down the campaign trail. Photo ops and public appearances have been in abundance, but bubbling under the surface is the growing hostility from conservatives toward the LGBTQIA+ community.
If you’ve been following the news, or (God forbid) wandering through the wilderness that is social media, you’ve likely come across the ruckus that’s been steadily brewing since the Safe Schools program in 2016. Since then, public dialogue around sexuality and gender has devolved into the criminalisation of transgender healthcare and banning of anything supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community and actually led to legislation outlawing trans healthcare in places like Texas and Florida. It’s also been something that simmers beneath the surface of the Uniting Church if we’re going to be honest about it.
In light of what’s happening to our queer siblings, let’s take some time to unpack some of the bigger myths about gender, sexuality, the church, and how we can be more Christ-like in these discussions. There are gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in our congregations; it’s likely that our communities also reach out to gender diverse and transgender people too.
1 – Homosexuality is a sin, Leviticus says so.
One of the things that happens all too often is that people will pull a very specific line of text from the Bible because this one line justifies or reinforces a particular point of view. Instead of taking cherry picked verses at face value, we should be exploring their context and unpacking what the verse and its surrounding content might actually suggest for modern Christians.
On the issue of homosexuality in the context of Leviticus, where people start and stop is “x is bad, so people who do x are bad”. When you read about homosexuality in Leviticus, the particular prohibition is built around a text forbidding incest. In his opinion piece for the New York Times titled The Secret History of Leviticus, biblical scholarDr Idan Dershowitz outlines how as a text the book of Leviticus suffers from what other books in the Bible suffer from: editing or ‘translating’ meant to suit those in power at the time.
By the time we get through to Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in BOOK, what we see is someone talking about two specific things: sexual acts being used as a way to demean and degrade someone through dynamics of power, shame, and forced submission (rape); and sexual acts being pursued out of lust. These are things that are even touched on in the article by Dershowitz about the Leviticus prohibition.
It is also helpful to keep in mind that Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality may well come from his shock at the Ancient Greek need to have sex with everything. Paul came from a more conservative part of the empire; he likely felt he needed to tell them to calm it down a bit!
2 – The Bible is explicit on the issue of being transgender, it’s an offence toward God
The bible actually makes no specific references to transgender people. The only way transgender issues are able to be discussed is by relying on a very literal reading of the creation myths in Genesis. Not only does a literal reading of Genesis ignore modern scientific understanding of biology, it also demeans our communities from diverse backgrounds, who have understood third gender and gender diverse people for generations longer than the modern Christian church.
Like the arguments against homosexuality discussed above, and the violence in the rhetoric attached to it, much of it relies on Old Testament texts – for example, citing Deuteronomy 22:5, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests those who do this.”
Eliel Cruz, writing for The Washington Post highlights how this is talking about crossdressing; those who invoke verses like these make a common mistake in conflating crossdressing and being transgender, two wildly different things. While a crossdresser may wear clothes of the opposite gender, they often have no intention of transitioning, where as a transgender person seeks to live full-time as a gender different to the sex they were assigned at birth. Such literal interpretations erase the tension that exists between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law in favour of a rigid morality that only results in large sections of the Bible being used as a cudgel wielded by those who prioritise out-of-context snippets over the complexity of the wider passage.
When we rely on literal interpretations of passages from Genesis, Leviticus, Paul, and others, a problem begins to unfold. When we read Genesis as factual evidence that God created only ‘man’ and ‘woman’ it becomes easy to ignore cultures outside of our own and begin hypothesising without proper exegesis or learning. Where we often end up is a position where we are condemning people for being who they are, or as God made them. When we consider sex, gender and relationship, this often leads to us treating with hostility the very people Jesus calls us to reach out to, be graceful toward, and liberate from the oppression of a society that seeks to do them harm.
It is rarely our intention to do harm to others. Perhaps during this election season and beyond, the best action we can take is to listen and learn from those around us with different experiences to our own. As transgender rights continue to be used as a hot-button issue to divide otherwise united people, it becomes an issue of social-justice to create safe and inclusive spaces not just as a church community, but also as individuals. Thankfully the there are guides on how we can start this. You may also wish to reach out to people with different lived experience. I personally do a fair bit of educating on Twitter especially around the issues the transgender community faces and recently held a fairly successful Q&A on what being trans is like for me as both a trans woman and theologian.
At the end of the day, as in all things: the challenge is how to approach a situation with grace, compassion, and humility. To sit with people in times of trouble or crisis and offer them a chance to speak – not speak over them, to approach with understanding instead of condemnation. Most importantly, to put our own bias and prejudice aside and call out hatred when we see it. This doesn’t just affect the trans community, it affects our partners, our friends, our families. It ultimately affects all of us and reflects what kind of community we want to live in.
We can’t do this alone.
Music references: The Jezabels ‘Unnatural’ – CHVRCHES ‘Down Side Of Me’
Sarah Alice Allcroft