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Monday, May 23, 2016

A Christian Defense of the Identities of Transgender Persons Part 5: Positive Arguments


This is Part 5 in a series that starts HERE.

Staying Positive (I have no idea who this guy is)
I'd like to begin by summarizing my argument to date. Using the hypothetical example of Wanda, an individual you (the hypothetical pastor) knew first as "Bob" - who comes to you and announces that she (whom you originally knew as "he") is in fact transgender, has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and has decided to transition to a more female typical body using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) among other things - we have been asking whether you ought to affirm Wanda in her female gender identity. I have argued first that there is no logical reason that we ought to deny the possibility of Wanda's claim, and that we ought to trust her. I then took two posts to look at what the Bible has to say on the subject (one looking at directly applicable passages and one looking at passages which might infer a negative conclusion) and I concluded that the Bible does not condemn or disallow the possibility that Wanda is correct. So we have established that Wanda's claim is possible and that it is not contrary to the Bible. But now I want to take a look at whether the Bible might affirm Wanda's claim.

Parallel to my conclusions in Part 3, I don't think that there are any passages in the Bible which directly affirm Wanda's claim. While there were ancient cultures which understood the existence of transgender people to greater and lesser degrees (check out "two spirit people" in several Native American cultures, but there are examples from all over the world) they don't seem to get any attention in the Bible one way or the other. In the absence of direct passages, we move to looking at the indirect implications of Biblical teachings and here there is quite a bit to be found.

1. The fundamental role of Love

Jesus is very clear in teaching that the most basic principle from which all of God's commands are derived, is the dual command to love God and to love our neighbor [Matthew 22] (and since Jesus includes even "enemies" in this category we are talking about loving everyone). One basic aspect of love is that it seeks the good of its object [much of 1 Cor 13, Philippians 2:3, John 15:13, Romans 13:10, 1 John 3:17 etc...]. Of course most Christians are agreed on this. The difficulty comes in figuring out what it means to seek a particular person's good in a particular situation. So far, in parts 2,3, and 4 in this series I have tried to show that, since Wanda's claim is inherently possible and does not contradict any of the direct teachings of the Bible. This, provided we are interpreting correctly, can work as a short cut to letting us know when certain things are or are not good for us. Then, in light of the lack of biblical proscriptions, the responsible choice is to turn to the best science and research we have to ask whether an affirmation of their gender identities is the best for transgender people. Here the evidence is clear and rapidly growing stronger. Transgender children who are accepted and affirmed in their gender identities are as healthy as cisgender children (in stark contrast to transgender children who are raised in non-affirming environments who face horribly elevated risks of suicide, depression, anxiety and other harmful effects). Identity affirming treatments like hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) are shown to effectively alleviate gender dysphoria when applied according to WPATH's (the World Professional Association for Transgender Health) standards of care. So affirming Wanda's gender identity is likely to have a positive impact on her mental health and is not contrary to any teaching in scripture. It is therefore the loving thing to do.

Are you asking someone to carry this when God isn't?

2. We are not to impose heavy burdens on people

In contrast to the burdens the Pharisees put on people [Matthew 23:4] Jesus claims that His charge is "light" [Matthew 11:28-30]. In contrast to those who would kill, steal, and destroy, Jesus claims that He came so that we could have abundant life [John 10]. When we look at applying these principles to the situation of transgender people, the application is pretty straight forward. When trans people are not accepted in their communities and/or have the legitimacy of their gender identity claims rejected or denied; when transgender people are subjected to "reparative therapy" and forced to conform to the gender identity and role society has based on their body, the load is far to often, heavy beyond what they can bear. Common outcomes are depression, anxiety, and death. (Check out studies here, and here)


3. Our bodies will all be different one day

Incogneto Jesus on the road to Emmaus
We only get a picture of one post-resurrection body in the Bible, Jesus' body. What is particularly relevant to this conversation is that Jesus' body after the resurrection is significantly different from His body prior to the resurrection. He is able to configure his form so that even close friends don't recognize Him [John20, Luke 24], enters a locked room without anyone realizing it and seems to be able to teleport (or something) [Luke 24, Mark 16]. In theological terms, Jesus' post-resurrection body has been glorified and is significantly different from His own body prior to the resurrection and from the bodies of Adam and Eve prior to the fall. For the great majority of Christians, it is an important doctrine that our bodies are going to be glorified as well as our souls, and from the few hints we have, that glorification seems to indicate a degree of plasticity in the body. Given the fact that the process which brings us (more or less depending on how reformed you are) closer to glorification (sanctification) is happening in the present, it is worth asking whether transgender folk who work to bring their bodies into closer alignment with their gender identity are finding a greater degree of wholeness which would read theologically as part of the sanctification of their bodies.

4. Christian Love is not epistemically arrogant

The second half of 1 Corinthians 13 (verses 8-12) is a reminder that we do not know everything and placed there, it should particularly remind us that we do not need to know everything in order to be loving. I think a lot of Christians feel somewhat paralyzed lately by a combination of the fact that the empirical evidence seems to pretty strongly suggest that transgender people will benefit most from having their gender identities affirmed, and the fact that many popular leaders of the evangelical movement are stating loudly that "transgenderism" is somehow sinful and that affirming transgender folks in their gender identities is paramount to enabling a harmful delusion. I think it is really important to note that when Jesus [particularly in Matthew 23], Paul, James,and John speak about love they prefer the doing of actual, calculable good to others over the preservation of a theological speculation. I am inclined to think that evangelical America is so overwhelmed and with a fear of having the wrong theology that we are often prevented from doing the good that is there in front of us to do. Try bracketing the theological question "Is it sinful to affirm the gender identities of transgender people" for just a second and look at the question "Are transgender people better off when we affirm their gender identity?" Study after study show that they are (check some of them out here, here, here and here). So now bring those theological concerns back in, but bring them in together with the interpretive questions and exegetical complexities I have been raising throughout this series, and I think the picture might look a little different. If we begin by prioritizing love and admit to the complexity of interpreting the "relevant" passages of scripture, the clear call of the Bible is to do that which is best for transgender folk, without ruling out a full and encouraging affirmation of their gender identities.

In Conclusion

This should be a safe and affirming place for trans people
I hope (and on my good days, believe) that Christians of all stripes genuinely want to find the best, most effective way to love transgender people like Wanda. My reading of the current scientific, medical, and psychological data, and study of the relevant theology suggests that while (as my friend Michael Raburn is forever reminding the world) each person and situation is unique, we ought to be wide open to recognizing and affirming the gender identities of trans folk we meet. Before all else, we need to be for them. For their health, for their flourishing, for their dignity, and for their acceptance in our communities. Any conservative Christian will feel legitimately pressed to remind us that actions and attitudes which contradict any clear teachings of Scripture ought to be seen as non-loving for those involved since God has given us revelation in order for us to flourish (though flourishing often does not look like what many people might assume or what our cultures try to portray). As I believe I have shown though, a full affirmation of a transgender persons's gender identity is clearly not in contradiction to any teachings of scripture and, while I would not presume to suggest that there is a one-size-fits-all response to any pastoral or relational questions, a welcoming, caring affirmation of their gender identity is very much on the table and, in my opinion, ought to be the default response of churches, pastors, and individual Christians.


Further Resources

I have mentioned a few of these before but if you are really interested in learning about transgender Christians and theology here are some tremendous resources:

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