Recently I listened to an interview on NPR in which experts were interviewed on the topics of gender, sex, and sexual orientation (all distinct). For the purposes of the conversation, sex was defined as the biological body, as it were, that a person is born with; gender identity was the gender apart from sex that a person identified with; and sexual orientation was who a person finds attractive.
In that sense, a person may be born with the paperwork showing an infant’s sex to be male; the person may grow up feeling that their gender is female, and then has a slew of choices about how to live into that reality, including being a transvestite or even opting for sex change surgery; and the person born a boy but feeling female may be attracted either to women or to men. If the person born a boy who feels female choose a sex change operation, becoming a woman, that resulting woman may be attracted to women – thus a lesbian – or men – thus straight – regardless of the original sex of the person.
Aside from the practical pastoral care concerns of church life – what if you hold an old-fashioned revival series, a woman comes forward to the altar crying, she accepts Jesus, and later you find out this individual is someone who had a sex change operation, and now she wants to know who she is in Jesus Christ (beyond the obvious – a beloved child of God) – there’s actually some deep anthropological and theological considerations at work. It brings to mind something Dr. Chris Bounds said a little over 10 years ago in my Systematic Theology class: the defining theological consideration of coming years would be anthropological (what it means to be human).
Asking if gender is a burden or a gift isn’t quite accurate according to the above definitions; according to the above definitions, I ought to ask if sex is a burden or a gift (once again, to be clear, not sexual intercourse, but sex as a biological set of features classifying a creature as male or female).
Recent conversations in our society and pop culture about identity, and in particular the relationship between sex and gender, have been weighty and painful. In fact, when you avoid taking cheap shots (Eve didn’t say “sorry Adam, God formed me from your rib as a woman, but I feel like my true inner self is a man and I need to live authentically”) and listen quietly to the voices swirling in our atmosphere, you hear the level of pain for what it is: a tortured groan. The kind of groan we think of when God’s Word tells us creation groans, longing to be set free. There are people down our streets and in our grocery stores feeling their bodies as a burden, a weight – a lie, even – to be escaped.
There are also people who feel less that their body traps them and more that their body is a DIY project in process: not everyone has lived in secret pain for years. Reading about an interview with Miley Cyrus, who explained that she was up for anything with consenting adults over 18 that didn’t involve animals, reminds one that while it may seem extreme to older generations, today’s young adults truly do engage in activities that follow certain trends, and that our current zeitgeist seems to pull sexual expression in the tide of customization: tattoos and piercings no longer push the envelope as body modification. If you really want to get attention for body modification, consider sex change, or, at the least, push the boundaries of who you choose as a sexual partner (or simultaneous partners). Cyrus explained that she didn’t really feel like a boy or a girl and didn’t really care if she took boys or girls as lovers, as long as they wanted to (sexually) love her.
Former Disney stars-turned-cultural-envelope-pushers are nothing new (Britney Spears) and, I think, simply illuminate what it means to be a wealthy party girl these days.
For those, however, who feel a battle with their flesh and bone, it’s important for the church to listen for their heartbeat and the heartbeat of the scriptures. There is a fascinating dualism at work, for instance, for those who claim that gender identity can be a construct separate from biological sex. Some voices have been quick to point out that if a man can decide he’s a woman, who’s to say a white woman can’t identify as a black woman? What’s really at work here is a negative strain of dualism: the eager separation of soul and body, spirit and flesh. And while there’s what many Christian philosophers of religion consider to be a healthy history of dualism in Christian thought – body and soul, physical and spiritual – the church has pulled back against a denigration of the flesh.
In short, those who hate their bodies and want them physically altered to match their inner feeling are not far removed from early church heretical Manichean thought that held that matter is essentially evil (related also to gnosticism).
For centuries, Christian thinkers have spoken in terms of spirit and flesh, as indeed biblical writers did. In Romans 7 the Apostle Paul famously expressed the tug-of-war of identity that can leave us groaning in near-despair:
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
What if, deeper than gender identity or sexual expression or orientation, what if the tug-of-war that leads to phrases about “authentic self” or “self-actualization” is simply a very old struggle wrapped in new vocabulary? In other words –
I’m groaning, but I don’t know why. My inner self and my physical self struggle against each other. I see my sex as a liability and my gender as an escape. I am being ripped apart. Who will put me together?
And psychiatrists bound in, charging exorbitant fees to help people on their way to authenticity. Plastic surgeons bound in, charging exorbitant fees to help people on their way to authenticity. Doctors with syringes of hormones bound in, charging exorbitant fees to help people on their way to authenticity.
Jesus Christ crawls past on his hands and knees, rough wooden planks on his back, blood dripping, the crowd cat-calling, whispering, “I am the Word Made Flesh. See, I am making all things new.” Eternal God has taken on every ounce of pain that human embodiedness can throw at us. Emmanuel, God-with-us, redeems the fallen, broken, shattered pain of our flesh – our sex – our gender.
Christ redeems our bodies. We do not need to mutilate them in order to be authentic. The Word who became Flesh has been singing authentic fulfillment and truth throughout the cosmos since the origins of life.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Sisters, brothers, we all struggle with the pain of what it means to be flesh and blood in this world. Our bodies cause us frustration and suffering, whether we see our sex as a liability, foreign and unwanted, or whether we experience the pain of chronic illness or degeneration. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, 8:22-24, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”
But we believe that our flesh, our bodies, our sex, are valuable – frail, broken, sometimes, but valuable – because God saw everything that had sprung into being and deemed it good. Because when the frailty and brokenness came and shattered the direction of life, God took on that groaning flesh and blood, as the prophet Isaiah saw:
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Flesh-and-blood lives hurt. We lose loved ones, stub toes, grapple with finitude, see poor examples of what it means to be male and female, mourn violence and breath uncertainty. Life in these organic, faulty bodies can feel like a burden.
Life in these organic, faulty bodies is a gift. Your body is a gift, a blessing, even in the darkest hour. Life in your sexed body, male or female, is a gift, even in the darkest hour.
Do you feel like things are not quite right? That somehow they’re “off”?
They’re not right. They are off.
Hear these words from Jesus, found in the Gospel according to Luke: “do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Do not be afraid, little flock. You are precious in God’s eyes, you are defined by the Body of Christ, given for you, poured out across the universe. Christ came to put things right but we all groan for the day when every tear is wiped from our eyes.