Friday, June 13, 2014

SBC, Transgender Identity, and Isaiah

It's been out there, fluttering around on the outskirts of my social-media awareness.

The Southern Baptist Convention, recently in gathering, elected to pass a resolution condemning and opposing transgendered folks.  This is not surprising, to the point of eliciting a yawn.

Here, a staunchly conservative denomination in decline elects to make a bold stand against a tiny minority of individuals who are sexually different.  My gracious, what a surprise.

I'm assuming, honestly, that there aren't that many transgendered Southern Baptists.  I can't imagine why, in a free society in which one may choose one's religious affiliation, there would be.  And given that the Southern Baptists--like all religious entities in this nation--can have no power outside of the power to persuade, I just wasn't sweating it.

So long as folks are clear that their authority over me extends no further than my authority over them, we're good.  Believe as you will, and do not force me to your position, and let our views engage in the field of a free and open culture.

I don't generally like kerfuffle, or see much point in getting into the thick of one of those online yell-fests, and so I was ready to let this one get filed away.

Until this morning, when the actual wording of their amendment flitted before my eyes.  In it, something caught my mind's eye.

There's a whole bunch of language that amounts to "loving the sinner" in there.  The SBC academics who drafted this position statement tried, they do, to be gracious about their position.  Take this language, for example:
RESOLVED, That we extend love and compassion to those whose sexual self-understanding is shaped by a distressing conflict between their biological sex and their gender identity; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we invite all transgender persons to trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:15-16); and be it further
RESOLVED, That we love our transgender neighbors, seek their good always, welcome them to our churches and, as they repent and believe in Christ, receive them into church membership (2 Corinthians 5:18-20Galatians 5:14); and be it further
RESOLVED, That we regard our transgender neighbors as image-bearers of Almighty God and therefore condemn acts of abuse or bullying committed against them.
That, I can agree with.  Heck, that could be part of an MCC position statement.

But it's a strange welcome, because it is woven deep in the thickets of other, condemnatory language, language that makes the invitation seem a bit peculiar in context.  Words of invitation embedded in a diatribe against the person you're inviting have a tendency to be ignored.

"Hey transgendered people!  Your choices are evil, your hard-fought sense of yourself is an abomination, and you are an expression of all that is wrong and broken in the world.  We love you! Join us for the coffee hour after worship, and be sure to use the appropriate bathroom in the fellowship hall!"

Humans are so odd.

The SBC sociopolitical position is one I radically and fundamentally disagree with, but again, it is their right.  It is their house, so to speak.  I do not live there.  If they struggle with transgendered identity--and it is hard to grasp, for the vast majority of human beings do not experience that---but would not refuse transgendered persons acts of compassion and mercy, well, I'll let Jesus work our differences out between us.

None of those things struck me.  What bugged me was the misuse of scripture.

There are, to be fair and honest, many places one could go in scripture to justify opposition to sexual difference.  I know this, and therein lies the grist of much debate about scripture and the nature of its authority.

But the SBC used the book of the Prophet Isaiah to justify its position, in a couple of places.  That, I just can't let slide without dropping in my two cents.  Why?

Well, let's take one of the resolution-statements as an example:
RESOLVED, That we continue to oppose steadfastly all efforts by any court or state legislature to validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy (Isa. 5:20); 
The quote is, of course, just a single verse.  Just one.  This, in and of itself, tends to be a flag.  It's a snippet which says, basically, "Don't say evil is good and good is evil."

That's a moral principle, one to which I myself adhere.  But it doesn't have a single thing to do with the question at hand.  It does not illuminate.  Instead, it works under the assumption: "Our position is correct, and therefore the good."

If you knew absolutely nothing or very little about the Bible, and Isaiah in particular, you might just take that as authoritative.  But legalistic out-of-context prooftexting--a little here, a little there--is spiritually dangerous, as Isaiah himself noted thousands of years ago.

The problem you have with this, of course, comes when you read the Bible.  Because if you know Isaiah, you are aware that Isaiah is one of the books of the bible that talks about surgical gender modification explicitly.

Yes, it does. He didn't have much to say about smartphone addiction, or GMOs, or climate change, but Isaiah did talk directly to this particular issue.

Back then, it wasn't really a choice.  Being a eunuch was probably not most folk's first career choice, but it was a real thing in the Ancient Near East.  After what was probably not the most pleasant surgical procedure, individuals--now functionally genderless--were in a position to serve as overseers of concubines.

What was their place among God's people?

Isaiah spoke directly to them.  His specific message to them, and to the foreign stranger in the land: You are welcome in God's house.  Here's the quote...not one verse, but many, from Isaiah 56:3-7:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
    and hold fast my covenant—
 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.
What is Isaiah doing here, directly and explicitly?

To use the terms of the Southern Baptist Convention: He's "validating transgender identity as morally praiseworthy."

Sure, he's doing it with a groaner of a pun.  "Shall not be cut off?"  Dude, really?

But the point Isaiah is making is clear, and the context makes it directly applicable.

Those whose gender identity is nontraditional are loved by God.  If they embrace the covenant--which they are implicitly allowed to do--they should be valued as part of the community.  If that identity has been changed from the one into which they were born?

It.  Does. Not. Matter.

Isaiah does not bandy around, qualifying his language of welcome with thinly veiled contempt.  He just plain ol' welcomes the eunuch and the foreigner.  What matters is every person's commitment to the deepest truths of the faith: to justice, to mercy, to faithfulness in our relationships, and to a radical love for God and neighbor.

It seems so simple.

But the simple things are the easiest ones to mess up.