Caitlyn Jenner and the Challenge of Christian Love

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

An oft quoted aphorism from Audre Lorde suggests that:

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

This statement is about agency and power, owning one’s place and voice in the world and standing firm in one’s truth. Each of us can learn a few lessons about what it looks like to live our own truth out loud, haters and dissenters be damned.

So when Caitlyn Jenner tweeted her Vanity Fair magazine cover boldly revealing her new self to the world, I watched on the sidelines while she broke the internet, and people responded both in favor and opposition. I watched countless memes populate Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook that ranged from mildly tasteless to blatantly transantagonistic. I listened while a local radio personality on a Hip Hop & R&B station said “Bruce Jenner… uh… Caitlyn… ewwww… I can’t even talk about it.” I will never again listen to that radio station. I watched conservative Christianity have yet another meltdown over someone’s failure to live into a false and limiting narrative of human gender and sexual expression. All this, because Caitlyn refused to be “crunched into other people’s fantasies for [her] and eaten alive.” Howard Thurman talks about this personal agency and power when he says, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

Living one’s own truth is a powerful, and would that there were more people who were brave enough to transcend society’s expectations and “fanstasies” for them and truly live. Society is filled with puppets. We need more real boys… and girls.

There are many, a lot smarter and articulate than I, who will spend a lot of time developing a theology in support of the Transgender community. My hope is that whatever theology is developed, begins with listening and openness to be transformed. As a cisgender male, I cannot presume to know or understand what it is like to be transgender, but I can listen and approach a sister or brother with an openness to hear, reflect, learn, and grow.

When Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, he met someone who could not belong to the Jewish community because he failed to ascribe to the norms society attached to his gender. Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy barred him access to the community of God. And yet “the Spirit” of God sent Philip to the eunuch. After hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, the eunuch asked a penetrating and challenging question that speaks to us through the ages. Upon seeing a puddle of water beside the road, he asked “what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing bars us from the love of God that is poured out for us in puddles beside of the road of life.

The narrator felt it important to identify this man as a “eunuch” and yet there is no mention of him being rebuked because of it. The encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a story about the foolish love of God that is poured out for each of us, regardless of who we are, or regardless of which rules say we aren’t welcome. This is scandalous welcome – welcome that transforms each of us as a result of the encounter and relationship.

We are a beautifully diverse human family, and God’s love is poured out for each us, without measure. God’s love reaches Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, as well as the countless and unknown other transgender women and men. God’s love reaches them, even when the acclaim of magazines and social media do not. God’s love reaches them even when transantagonistic blog posts and memes assault them for not conforming. God’s love reaches them when families disown them, or when hospitals refuse them, or when churches reject them, or when society marginalizes them. God’s love reaches each of us because nothing can separate us from it.

One thing I read in Christian scripture is an ever widening definition of God’s love and community. A community, originally only meant to include Jews, was challenged by one of the first religious feminists, a Syrophonecian woman who challenged Jesus to think of his ministry more broadly. This community was broadened ever wider to include the whole world. God’s love knows no boundaries, for in Christ there is “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” The dividing walls of hostility, the limitations and boundaries we construct between ourselves, have all been torn down, and we are all held up as beloved children of God.

We are children of God, regardless of how we choose to identify ourselves, regardless of whether we conform to social norms or not, because I deeply believe that God’s understanding of who we are transcends social definitions, constructs, and categories. God knows us at an intimate soul-level. God’s love loves us into the fullness of our power and agency. God loves us beyond “fantasies” and “strings.” God loves us into our truth.

We’ve tried restricting God’s love to race, gender, class, and religion. It doesn’t work. It never works, because we can’t control God, try as we might. God’s love brings us into close, sweaty, intimate community with those whom we’d rather ignore, or attack, or demonize. God’s love challenges us to be bigger than we are. All of us may not be transgender, but each of us is called to be transformed  both by God’s love which is prodigally granted to us and God’s scandalously welcoming community which redeems us from isolation and brokenness.

God’s love is foolish. And I am thankful for it.

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