Tuesday, May 17, 2016

God's Gender-Neutral Facility


At some point around the fifth grade, I discovered Deuteronomy 23:10. Even the King James Version gave me a giggle: "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord." I remember my Sunday school classmates asking what it meant and then bursting into laughter when they learned what "stones" and "privy member" represent. Put into simpler language, that verse tells us that "no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord" (NRSV). Admittedly, I am no Torah expert, but I understand the thrust of that verse. There were certain expectations of those who would take part in the Lord's holy congregation. Borrowing (unfairly) from the language of Leviticus, the Lord is holy, so his people are to be holy, too. And, in that time and place and culture, an injury or abnormality in the male reproductive organs would single one out as unfit for admittance into God's holy gathering.

So what sort of people would Deuteronomy 23:1 exclude? Again, I'm no expert, but I imagine that there were some individuals who had been injured in a construction project or a farming accident, perhaps even gored by a bull. Others may have suffered from a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis, which may have resulted in castration. Maybe there were even a few boys whose circumcisions had gone tragically wrong, ironically rendering them unfit for participation in the Lord's assembly. More commonly, of course, certain men were chosen to be eunuchs--likely from an early age when they were unable to weigh the ramifications of an irreversible surgery. They were docile, impotent, and had no real sexual identity. Because they were unable to violate the ruler's wives, they made good workers for a harem, as we read in Esther 4:4. Regardless of the cause, men whose sexual organs were nonfunctioning were excluded because they did not belong amidst the holy people of God.

Many years after grade school, I discovered Isaiah 56:3-5, which seems to undo everything I thought about Deuteronomy 23:1.
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 (NRSV).
I trust that the prophet knew the Torah well enough to know what Deuteronomy 23:1 plainly states about who is not allowed in the Lord's house. Still, he wrote of that time when "God's salvation will come, and [his] deliverance be revealed" (56:1b) as a time when even the eunuch would find a place in the Lord's temple--and not only a place but "a monument and a name better than sons and daughters." For the prophet, even the clear prohibitions of the Torah seem overcome by the Lord's vision for that one-day justice on which the whole world waits. Indeed, in the Lord's house, when all of God's dreams are fulfilled, the one who is defined by his sterility will no longer think of himself as a "dry tree."

I don't know about you, but I think it's pretty silly for people to confuse a belief in the bible with a desire to prevent people from using whatever bathroom they want to use.

I don't mean to suggest that transgendered individuals are the same thing as eunuchs. They aren't. I don't think transgendered people would really appreciate being lumped together with those represented by an anachronistic biblical image. Transgendered identity is more complicated than that. But, in biblical times, whether completely castrated, partially castrated, or sexually abnormal for another reason, eunuchs were individuals who did not fit into the prescribed male or female boxes that society laid out for them. They did not belong. They were neither male nor female, which is why they did not fit in God's holy assembly. Isaiah, however, saw things differently. He understood that the transformative, unifying power of God could overcome even those differences that seemed antithetical to the holiness of God.

I wasn't alive in 1956, so I don't know what it sounded like or felt like when Governor Shivers of Texas ignored the order of a federal judge to integrate the Mansfield school district and called upon the Texas Rangers to assist him in maintaining segregation. I wasn't alive in 1957, so I don't know what it sounded like or felt like when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to support the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in response to Governor Faubus' deployment of the National Guard to support the segregationists. I wasn't alive in 1963, so I don't know what it sounded like or felt like when Governor Wallace gave his inaugural address with the infamous line "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." I wasn't alive back then, so I can't say for sure, but, through the hindsight of history, the arguments made by those three governors sound and feel a lot like those who are decrying efforts by the federal government to protect the rights of individuals who want to use the bathroom that reflects the gender with which they identify. Does Governor Allen of Texas or Governor McCrory of North Carolina or Governor Bryant of Mississippi or Governor Hutchinson of Arkansas or Governor Bevin of Kentucky really want to be on that side of history? Do the people of God want to stand with them?

For some individuals, gender isn't as simple as male or female. That's true today, and it was true way back when the bible was being written. Eventually, God's prophets realized that gender confusion wasn't a reason to exclude someone from God's house. Thousands of years later, why would we let nontraditional gender identity be a reason to exclude someone from a public restroom? Perhaps someone could make a case for such discrimination, but I don't think the bible supports that view, and I don't think the constitution does either.

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