It is a challenge to live as a whole and integrated self in a world that wants to see one slice of me – if it wants to see me at all. Moving into new communities – as I have done this year in North Carolina – restarts the task(s) all over again. Who am I now? What unites and holds together my identity in the face of the fragmentation driven by our categorizing, labeling culture? I’ll come back to this question; but let’s look a little deeper at the fractures we sustain in this life.
There is an ancient fault line between sexuality and spirituality (as recently blogged at patheos.com), rooted more in the Greek dichotomies that infected Christianity early on than the Christian tradition’s Judaic roots. The slippage along that fault line gave Patheos’ question its creative tension. And yet, it’s important to remember there are other fault lines, other earthquakes erupting, and that sexuality is not the only aspect of embodiment at risk of dis-integration from our spiritualities. (Even to describe oneself as “having” a “spirituality” implies some dis-integration, some degree of divorce between the self and what it “has.”)
Since I’m continuing to plow through some of Judith Butler’s work, gender comes to mind. This central division among humanity is thoroughly accepted and embedded in our culture. The medical industry makes a decision with the birth of every child: male or female, based on visible genitalia, primarily. But science is beginning to reveal what experience has claimed for years: there’s more to gender than male and female. Sometimes the physical expression of what we label gendered biological presentation is ambiguous, as in the case of intersexed children. Sometimes the internal feeling state of the person does not match up with society’s expectation of what a person with a certain physical construction should embody.
All of this wreaks havoc, as Butler points out, with the ability of persons to live into our full humanity. Our society polices gender norms, officially – through medical decision-makers, premature surgical interventions, state identity documents – and unofficially, as is indicated by the acceptability of disdain for anomalous gender presentations (effeminate men, butch women) and – more ominously – as the high rates of violence against transgendered and genderqueer folks attests. For persons whose gender experiences and expressions don’t fit the binary, the possibilities of life are in serious question. When one’s very self is deemed an impossibility, how can life be/come viable?
In the wee hours of this morning, my muddled waking thoughts wanted to introduce the apostle Paul to the evangelist Judith. Recall Paul’s word in Gal 3:28 – “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul was speaking not only of the apparent and label-able differences in the early Christian community, but also of power. Jews looked down on Greek members (read: Gentile) because they were uncircumcised, believing a person had to be a good Jew before they could be a good Christian. Free people had more power than enslaved people, and men carried more social, political and economic clout than women. As with all generalizations, there were exceptions: while the Jews may have had the insider’s edge in the synagogues where the Jesus way initially took root, Greek members of the community may well have had more power and wealth in their secular surroundings. Enslaved people were embracing freedom in Christ to an extent that made some nervous (including Paul; see the Letter to Philemon). And women were serving as house church leaders and evangelists.
In the face of all this variety and flux, Paul tried to center the community on the One it was following: Jesus. Jesus as direction; Jesus as gravity; Jesus as centripetal force.
Well and good. But let’s pause a moment over that one line: “There is no longer male and female.”
What if there was no longer male and female? If we no longer divvied up humanity into these two buckets? If, as Kate Bornstein describes, we become gender transcenders?
In Christ Jesus, there is no longer male and female.
Which is to say …
In the love of God, there is no longer male and female.
There is no longer a gender binary, with accompanying power differentials and cultural sarcophagi. Each of us in our infinite variety is able to be seen, able to thrive, able to seek healthy and just and loving expression.
One reason why not is that – as Bornstein points out – the gender binary is necessary to maintain male privilege. In that case, let’s review: In Christ Jesus – in the love of God – there is no longer male privilege.
If it seems impossible to imagine, then we are suffering from the same paucity of imagination that pertains among white people who can’t imagine a world without racism. If I can’t imagine it, how can I work for it?
It is hard to get out of this construct, and our churches with all their attention to unity and justice can be just as stuck as any other cultural institution. To wit, the hymn we sang Sunday – “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service” – was written for a women’s breakfast “to celebrate the partnership of women and men in service of the church.” The third verse reads “Men and women, richer, poorer, all God’s people young and old ….” It struck me as I sang: men and women. The binary is everywhere.
Noting that will open me to chastisement from those who will say I am taking the political correctness police thing a bit too far, or those who believe rendering our hymnbooks inclusive has already bled them dry.
All I can say is, I noticed. It’s a fault line. Change around that line of slippage may come slowly, an inch a century, and sometimes it may come quickly and with disruptive power, with rebounding backlash against those who insist on living into the freedom to become, who claim the right to belong.
Here is what I want to remember: in a world where my identity faces fragmentation by our categorizing, labeling culture, what holds me together is the healing power of a love that does not end, that no division can separate me from, that death did not and cannot conquer. Love as direction; Love as gravity; Love as centripetal force.
In closing, let me step back a bit. Let’s take a wider, longer look at the natural environment of the human being. Writing in Anam Cara, John O’Donohue explores and debunks another false binary, as he describes the habitat of the human this way:
“We should avoid the false dualism that separates the soul from the body. The soul is not simply within the body, hidden somewhere within its recesses. The truth is rather the converse. Your body is in the soul, and the soul suffuses you completely. … Your soul reaches out farther than your body, and it simultaneously suffuses your body and your mind.”
Does the soul have a gender? Does it have a color? A nationality? A documentation status? Is there something key to our identities that transcends the unique and lovable distinctives of our bodies? Is that something the soul?
If so, I want to hold this transcendent, enveloping, reaching-out soul in tension with my respect, love and admiration for the multiplicity and beauty of humanity’s forms, and my desire for all human beings to live in justice and peace, and the well-being of true shalom.
In saying there is some aspect of our selves that transcends our physical forms, I am in no way disparaging physicality, or its need for justice in order to achieve viability and abundance.
Rather, I am taking on the challenge to think that there is something more to me than what I can see, that my soul is larger and more encompassing than my limited body-self, that this soul is always already in contact with the souls of those around me, and to see what that means for my ways of being in the world, for my need to become and belong.
I am more than the sum total of the labels applied to me by the world. I am even more than the holism my healing, integrating self appears to be. And I am asking the Beloved to show me the nature of that more …