On Sexuality, Target, the Church, and True Courage

If there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout human history, it’s that human beings have a great propensity toward fearing that which is different.

And if there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout Church history, it’s that Christians are really good at justifying and legitimizing that prejudice by claiming it is God’s will.

The fact we are so quick to ascribe to God our own discrimination and bigotry is cause enough for mourning and repentance. But watching the pain, destruction, and death it causes as it is played out in real life is a million times worse.

Laws regarding transgender people – and specifically their use of public restrooms – have been all over the headlines the past couple of weeks. And the Christian response to these laws and headlines have largely been predictable and awful.

Those who claim to follow Jesus have sadly flocked to sign petitions and join boycotts over bathroom policies — as of this writing, over a million people have pledged to not shop at Target because the store decided to be inclusive and tolerant. (Given the history of success of Christian boycotts, I guess we can expect Target to soon become the world’s #1 retailer.) Like all knee-jerk reactions, however, people decrying transgender rights – especially in the name of God – simply do not understand what they’re opposing.

The initial reaction most people have is something along these lines: guys have penises and girls have vaginas. Somebody who has a particular body part and claims to be the other gender is gross and weird; therefore, it is wrong and we should fight against “normalizing” such behavior.

It seems pretty cut and dry. I’ll readily admit: up until a few months ago, that was how I viewed the issue as well. Then, I did a crazy thing: I actually started listening to people’s stories. I heard and read their experiences. And suddenly, “transgender” was not an “issue” any longer – this became about people.

It’s so easy to be against an idea. It’s infinitely more difficult to be against a person.

The Church does a phenomenal job of holding these sorts of discussions at arms’ length, of ensuring we don’t personalize them too much. It’s a lot like how the military trains soldiers, actually: dehumanize the enemy, and you have a lot easier time taking them out. For instance, it’s so comfortable to sit back in our privilege and say gay people shouldn’t be allowed to express their love through marriage; it’s a hell of lot harder to sit across from a gay couple, listen to their story, see the love they have for one another, and tell them they don’t deserve to be able to marry one another.

The same is true with transgender rights now as well. Dudes “pretending” to be chicks (or vice versa) instead of what they “really” are is gross, and therefore is wrong. Nobody should do it. But once you shut up and start listening to people and their stories, things begin to look a lot different.

(Side note: when it comes to discussing the transgender journey, we need to drop phrases like “pretending” and what somebody “really” is out of our vocabulary. Stat.)

After hearing and being affected by people’s stories, I went and checked out the science that explains what many of them are experiencing. Guess what? There is an actual, scientific difference between sex, which is biological, and gender identity, which is how people identify themselves. Biological sex and gender identity develop separately from one another in the womb. Hormones affect the development of reproductive organs in a fetus at different times and in different ways than they affect the development of gender identity in the brain. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the two end up in the same place. Every once in awhile, they don’t – and as a result, someone’s sex doesn’t match their gender.

(Another sidenote: this is known as gender dysphoria — and not every transgender person experiences it, but it is a useful place to begin our discussion and understanding.)

If we can understand this, it might stop us from the crude, snide, and mocking comments that have infuriatingly become the norm in the discussion on the “Christian” side of things.

In fact, we could say that gender dysphoria is no different than, say, depression — there isn’t something “wrong” with someone; this is simply something that happens to people. It should not be stereotyped or crudely joked about.

Which makes it all the more maddening and shameful that Christians are doing just that. I had multiple Christian friends over the past week or so share an article from a Christian satire site which mockingly intones, “Target Announces Senior Discount For Anyone Who Self-Identifies As Age 60 Or Older.” Not only does this article betray the author’s lack of understanding, and completely misrepresent the transgender community by inferring that they simply choose which sex to be for personal gain, it invites us to have a laugh at the expense of an oppressed and hurting group of people.

The more I saw this shared on Facebook the more sad I became.

I have wrestled with this topic for a couple years now, ever since meeting and talking to two transgender women in our church (both of whom were born biologically male), and I have come to this point in my own understanding: I see nowhere in Scripture proclaiming that being transgender is a sin. And I certainly do not see anywhere in Scripture that says using a bathroom based on your gender identity is a sin. Oh, sure, there’s the verse from Deuteronomy that says women can’t wear men’s clothes — but not only are we not under the Law any longer (let’s put this verse up alongside the ones about not wearing clothes with more than one kind of fabric or the ones about having to put tassels at the corners of your clothing and see which ones we want to pick and choose), folks who quote this verse don’t ever examine the purpose for this law or the cultural considerations that went into codifying it thousands of years ago.

The best anyone has ever done explaining to me why being transgender is a sin is this: gender is fixed at birth and transgender people are choosing to not be who God made them, therefore they are sinning. Even that philosophy is rich with irony, though: transgender people would say all they are trying to do is to embrace their gender identity and to be who God made them to be.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that somewhere in some hidden book of the Bible God clearly said that accepting your gender identity was wrong and being transgender was a sin. (Again: nowhere have I found where the Bible says this.) But what if it did? Would that make the jokes and the mockery and insults – the awful, horrific insults – shared in the name of Jesus any more okay? Would that make it okay to call transgender people monsters? Sexual predators? Deviants? To tell them that God detests them?

I cannot force myself to believe that response is the way of Jesus or the dream of God for this world.

To make matters worse, we hide our bigotry and fear behind a banner of supposed child safety. Christians sadly make the claim, either implicitly or in many cases explicitly, that “transgender” = “child predator” or “rapist.” I want us to pause and really let the hurtful nature of this argument sink in for a moment.

There has been no increase in public safety issues in cities with anti-discrimination laws that protect transgender people. On top of that, a coalition of 250 organizations who work with sexual abuse survivors are begging people to stop using that argument. It is nothing but fear-mongering divorced from reality. Besides, we all know how much criminals care about the law. (I find it ironic that the same people who say we can’t pass gun control because criminals would get guns anyway fail to see the same argument here that criminals will enter restrooms whether it’s legal or not.)

Beyond that, it’s pretty clear opponents of anti-discrimination laws haven’t really thought this thing through anyways. For instance, I can’t understand why somebody would want to force a person like Brae Carnes, who was born biologically male but identifies as a woman, to use the men’s restroom:

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And I can’t understand why somebody would want to force Michael Hughes, who was born biologically female but identifies as a man, to use the woman’s restroom:

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(Irony alert: opponents of anti-discrimination laws would undoubtedly try to stop Michael from using the women’s restroom, when it was their own bigotry that forced him into the women’s room to start with.)

Brae deserves to use the women’s room. Michael deserves to use the men’s room. And infinitely more than that, both of them deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Sadly, a lot of Christians these days appear to be incapable of such a simple, foundational thing.

What makes this all even worse is watching Christians congratulate themselves for these sorts of responses. I’ve seen so many replies that essentially pat someone on the back for their “courage” (this seems to be the word du jour) in taking an anti-transgender or anti-gay stance — and not just for taking that stance, but for belittling, attacking, and demeaning other human beings.

That’s not courage. There’s nothing courageous about hate.

Standing “against culture” by attacking and mocking a group of hurting people isn’t courageous. And before you say, “disagreeing with somebody doesn’t mean you hate them,” what we’ve witnessed from Christians the past couple weeks goes far, far beyond a simple disagreement. It goes straight to an utter lack of compassion, a lack of desire to even listen or know or understand, and a complete disregard for somebody else’s dignity and humanity.

You know what is courageous? Standing up for love. Standing up for equality. Standing beside people whose suicide rate is ten times the general population because of the shit that gets dumped on them – including and especially from “Christians” – and loving them. Helping them. Welcoming them. Accepting them.

Young people who are transgender are oftentimes bullied to the point they end up hating themselves so much they try to kill themselves. (So yeah, tell me again how teenage boys just say they’re transgender so they can get into the girls’ locker room — it sounds like a real party to be transgender.) You know what takes real courage? Coming out as transgender. That’s courage. Christians should be leading the way in protecting those on a transgender journey. Instead, we’re oftentimes the ones causing the most pain.

Look, it’s simple: one of the foundational themes of Scripture is a choice between life and death. That choice is presented a host of times throughout the pages of this story. In the Torah, God lays out the choice: “Look! I am presenting you today with, on the one hand, life and good; and on the other, death and evil… I have presented you with life and death… therefore, choose life.” Through the prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years later, God lays out the same choice: “And here is what you are to tell this people: ‘Adonai says: “Look! I am presenting you with the way of life and the way of death.'” The book of Hebrew Proverbs is full of contrasts between choosing life and choosing death. We are specifically told that our words carry the power of life and death. The story of a Tree of Life and a Tree of Death in the Garden, and the death which Adam and Eve chose, is reimagined through the lens of Jesus all throughout the New Testament. This choice of bringing life or bringing death is a central tenet of our faith narrative and who we are as a people.

How incredibly sad, then, that we have willingly and zealously chosen the way of death – bringing death both figuratively and literally, and too often physically – when it comes to gay and transgender people.

Once again, the Church has chosen bedroom (and now bathroom) issues as a hill to die on. When will we move on from our obsession with sex and truly just love people? We’ve gotten really, really good at saying, “I love you, but…” I love you, but this is a sin you have to change before I will fully love you. I love you, but you can’t have the same rights as I do. I love you, but I cannot accept who you are. I love you, but only if you conform to my preconceived notions.

I’m so ready to instead just say, “I love you.” Period. Or, perhaps, “I love you, whether…” I love you, whether you identify as a male or female. I love you, whether you choose to transition or not. I love you, whether your biological sex matches your gender identity or not. I love you, and that means I will walk with you in this struggle as far as you want me to. I love you, and I support your fight for equality and a life free of bullying and abuse and pain. I love you and accept you and there is no “but.”

And to those of us who claim Jesus, I’m begging you: choose life. Bring life. Stop talking, stop hurting people, stop mocking, and listen. Learn. And love.

Love Trumps Fear

Fear is a powerful and efficient motivator. But it’s not a good motivator.

Fear is ill-equipped to motivate us toward Good for one simple reason: we are called into love, and love casts out fear.

This is a powerful truth that can be applied to a myriad of different situations, but the dialog and discussion ugly arguments surrounding this year’s political races has me thinking about it a lot lately.

Donald Trump has built an entire campaign on a foundation of fear: fear of Mexican immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of black people, fear of Latinos, fear of strong women… his entire platform (to the extent which he has one) is nothing more than scapegoating minority populations to satisfy and stoke anger. It’s inherently driven by fear.

I don’t want this blog to get sidetracked with pro- or anti-Trump arguments — I point this out simply as an illustration of a larger point: where fear reigns, love cannot.

In fact, Donald Trump actually released a campaign ad on the subject of immigration that literally ended with these words: “Forget love. It’s time to get tough!”

This, then, is the message of Trump: Forget love. Embrace fear. Be afraid of the “other” and let that fear drive your decisions.

It’s not just the message of Trump, of course. Politicians have used this strategy for decades – probably for centuries – because selfless love would hamstring their campaigns. Stoking fear to gin up votes is part and parcel of the political process. Fear the terrorists. Fear corporations. Fear global warming. Pick your poison and swallow it whole, because earthly power thrives on fear. Trump just uses this more blatantly and more powerfully than those who came before him.

It was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, a man by the name of John, who wrote the famous truth that “love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Literally, love throws out fear. Love forcefully dumps fear in the trash can, where it belongs. The two repel one another like oil and water.

As we watch this political season dripping with fear (on all sides – Trump was just the easiest and most obvious illustration), something ironic happens: people opposed to fear-driven politicians react with new fear of their own. This is how I responded to Trump’s ascendance at first – I became afraid at what might happen if he actually got elected president. It’s as if we don’t actually believe that God is all-powerful or in control – so we see a self-feeding cycle of fear that perpetually grows, effectively insulating us more and more from the liberating power of love.

This idea of fear and love applies to infinitely more than politics, of course. Choosing who to vote for based on fear results in lousy decisions in the voting booth, and choosing anything else in your life based on fear results in equally lousy decisions. Whether it’s the powerful fear of failure, the fear of losing friends, fear of making a fool of yourself, fear of getting hurt, or any number of other things we can be afraid of, we oftentimes rob ourselves of the abundant life God offers when we choose to be guided by fear rather than by a courageous, selfless love.

Here’s the dirty trick of fear, though: fear does motivate well in the short-term and it does produce fruit quickly. But that fruit spoils just as rapidly and ultimately leaves us with nothing. Love – selfless, agape love into which we are called as Christians – does much, much slower work in us. It motivates well in the long-term. It takes a long time to produce fruit, but when it does, that fruit is ripe and good and remains forever. We are called to choose the slow work of love over the deceivingly rapid work of fear.

All of which is somewhat ironic, because many of us have unwittingly subscribed to a religious system that has built itself on fear. We can be guilty of using the fear of hell, the fear of punishment, or the fear of disappointing God to motivate people — and then acting surprised when the changes they force themselves to make don’t last.

We are called to choose the slow work of love over the deceivingly rapid work of fear. Click To Tweet

Instead of a fear-based religious system, Jesus invites us into a selfless love-based Kingdom. The difference between those two cannot be overstated. They will lead you in diametrically opposed directions: one directly into the heart of God, and the other directly down the path of those who Jesus attacked for “shutting people out of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We who are called into love are too easily duped into following fear. It’s why way too many Christians during these election campaigns seem to say, “Screw the fruit of Spirit. What’s their stance on brown people and gays?” No wonder the message of “Forget love!” resonates with so many people who are supposed to be following Jesus.

Lord, have mercy.

But again, it’s not just politics. If we are honest with ourselves, there are a number of areas in our lives where we’ve bought the message of “Forget love!” and find ourselves submitting instead to fear.

So let’s do something about it. Let’s choose love and dump fear in the trash can. Let’s proclaim with our words, attitudes, and actions that we believe the millennia-old truth that love dispels fear… that love trumps fear.

Will you join with me in proclaiming that truth in our lives? Here’s what I propose: whenever somebody tells us something designed to prey on our fears, let’s act to spread hope and life and love instead of fear.

With the tumultuous political scene as a backdrop, I’ve sat down with both of my boys recently and explained to them the concept of the charity Kiva – how we give money that Kiva turns into microloans so people in impoverished countries can start businesses and rise out of poverty. I showed them all of the businesses our family has helped start and all the people who have borrowed and paid back our money. Then I let them choose the next family and next business we would help. I did this as a lesson for them in giving to others, and I did it as a reminder to me that the Kingdom of God is not brought about through the presidency or through fear or through people arguing about who is “right” – the Kingdom is brought about by our small acts of selfless love.

So I invite you to join the movement and proclaim that love trumps fear. Instead of being afraid, choose instead to do something to spread love. Give to Kiva to help lift someone out of poverty or to charity:water to change somebody’s life by giving them clean water. Give to one of the many other charities spreading life and hope and love. Serve a neighbor. Take a meal to a homeless person. Invite somebody to stay in your spare bedroom. Buy the meal or coffee for the person behind you at the drive through. Bring cookies to your neighbors. Donate to or volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen. Leave a ridiculous tip. Write someone a card or a letter just to tell them you appreciate them.

By doing these small, selfless acts of love, we are giving fear the middle finger, we are becoming who God intends us to be, we are enjoying abundant life in his Kingdom, and we are giving others a small glimpse of what that life is like. This is how the Kingdom of God spreads. Let’s call fear’s bluff and become a community of people known for love. #lovetrumpsfear