Cross above Colca Canyon in Peru
Living beyond categories
July 17, 2023
For better or for worse, Christianity is about living beyond categories. These can be cosmic in scope: take the strenuous efforts of early church leaders to consider how categories of divinity, humanity, immortal, mortal, flesh, and spirit were united by the person of Christ. The Gospel of John says that God loved the world, with no exceptions. God loved the world so much that God chose to commit a category error, knitting divinity to flesh in a scandal that rocked the foundations of Hellenistic philosophy.
But they went deeper, into categories of human emotion. Unlike the Stoics, who sought to conquer sorrow through a passionless approach to living, Christians sought to place joy and sorrow side by side. This was powerfully expressed in the mystery of the cross, when God does not abolish human cruelty and torture and imperial power. But God does indicate forever that these things cannot defeat the power of God to redeem and restore what humankind arrogantly seeks to break. In the end, love beats power. Every time.
These transcended categories have been simple human ones. But, though “simple” when compared to the scale of cosmic mysteries and human emotions, race, class, religion, and gender can be anything but.
We see this today, as the discomfort many feel with our transgender friends and neighbors—the discomfort many feel with me, as I am myself a member of the trans community—has boiled over into a full-blown panic. This reaction is rhetorical and demonizing: trans people are regularly called groomers, child abusers, mentally ill. They have their appearances mocked and derided by people who go to church on Sunday. Sometimes they are called these things and mocked in this way during church on Sunday.
This discomfort has also had a swift legislative reaction: in the state of Florida, for example, I could be charged with a misdemeanor if I simply used the bathroom in certain public buildings.
And this law was passed by Christians, by a Christian governor.
And so no, human issues of race, and especially gender, aren’t easy. Christians get them wrong. But they are issues that, for better or worse, Christianity has a long history of trying to transcend, as we try to say that God loves all people and wants all people to know love in turn. Paul says that this scandal results in a world where Jew, Greek, slave, free, and people of both genders are now the same (Galatians 3:28). God’s love, as expressed in Christ, eradicates boundaries, for better or for worse.
I say for better, because this can be a vision of all people living their lives fully despite their differences. As Isaiah foretold, all nations will one day gather on God’s holy mountain. When that day comes, a wolf and a lamb will neither fear nor devour each other, because their banquet is laid by the very hand of God (Isaiah 11:6-9).
And yet, as they feast together, they remain wolf and lamb.
But I also say for worse, because Christianity’s expression of togetherness and unity across differences and without regard to boundaries can sometimes take a rather distressing turn.
Instead of transcending difference and honoring it, Christianity can become something worse: the eradication of difference and the enforcement of conformity. Eradicating human difference, especially, usually means the oppression of human people, and perhaps even their extermination.
Human issues of race and gender aren’t easy. Christians get them wrong. But they are issues that, for better or for worse, Christianity has a long history of trying to transcend, as we try to say that God loves all people and wants all people to know love in turn.
Jews have known this all too well. Jewish scholars and teachers constantly remind me, when I am tempted to quote Chrysostom or extol a passage of Luther or expound on my love of Bernard of Clairvaux, that each of these men have gone on record making statements about Jewish faith and Jewish people that have led to the eradication of Jews. Our Christian history is littered with luminous thinkers who wrote some writings of magnificence and other writings that have justified genocide.
Women know this too: their historical memory resonates with the trauma of their oppression. They emerged from the gender egalitarian first-century movement of Jewish preachers and teachers and early Christ-believers into a world where their own leadership, desperate to appeal to Roman norms of propriety and sexuality, bottled down that newfound liberation as hard as they could and created centuries of repression. Instead of honoring the diversity of women, they insisted on their conformity to roles that were too tight to fit well on the fiercely divine fire that hides within each woman’s heart.
And queer people feel that oppression quite keenly. We have been told that the price of our Christianity is visibility: we can either be queer or Christian, but not both. We are told that we must conform to sexual roles that bring us pain, wear clothing and be spoken to in ways that cause such psychological distress that many would rather choose to end their lives rather than continue to hear the words “Yes Sir” thrown in their direction by a well-meaning cashier or bank teller. We are told that salvation is only attainable if we sacrifice the joy in our hearts, the warmth of our skin against another’s, the happiness of twirling in a dress on a Friday night and laughing all the way home without worrying that we’re being followed by someone who wants to kill us.
And now we face a terrifying political moment: trans people just trying to buy bathing suits are called satanic. We are told that a book simply mentioning our existence in a public library exposes children to sexual content. We are called groomers, child abusers, pedophiles, degraded monsters. Some states, including Tennessee, Texas, and Florida, have written their laws in ways that are so vague at defining “drag performance” that a case could be made for arresting me or any trans person existing in public in the “wrong” clothing. Such vague laws are directly aimed at creating a chilling effect that scares trans people enough to prevent their visibility in public.
And church is no comfort: we are often unable to attend churches because Christian pastors mock us openly from the pulpit. Sometimes, mocking is the best we can hope for. Some Christians openly call for us to be driven from public life.
Some call for our extermination.
And this attack is geared precisely at one thing: to make us conform. The aim is to eradicate our expressions, our cultural touchstones, and our ability to live any part of our lives in public.
Christianity is about to choose the worse option. Instead of transcending categories of difference by inviting us all to the table, we will transcend them by eliminating differences altogether.
But what Christianity has unbound on earth and heaven, it can also bind. What is a Christian to do?
Before going further, please note that I’m not asking all Christians to agree with transgender people or change their minds about gender, sex, or anything else. Even if I think you should, and I do, I need to practice what I’m preaching here. Think what you want. Wave a rainbow flag, or not. God’s heavenly banquet might mean I’m sitting down with you anywhere, and I’ll have to get over that on my own time.
I’ll leave the big transformations to the work of Holy Spirit. You don’t have to think through two centuries and more of scholarship on gender overnight. Just know that joy will come with the morning, and I’ll pray for the day that you see that dawn. I’ll be there to welcome you, if I can manage it, as one of the workers who was in this vineyard before you.
But here’s what I’m asking: Act, before it is too late, to protect me. I’m asking that you help keep me alive. I ask that you secure and defend my right to access the healthcare that keeps me feeling safe and mentally whole. I ask that you defend the rights of families with children, even young children, to make difficult emotional, social, and medical decisions for themselves. I’m asking that you say that I can speak my truth in a book without having that book banned. I’m asking that you let me go to the bathroom in a way that preserves my safety and security. I’m asking that you let me play sports with other people without making me into a spectacle, a laughingstock, or a threat.
I’m asking that you act, every day, like a Christian. Act like someone whose religion, for better or for worse, is about building a community of love and commitment across all the human things that divide us from one another.
I’m asking you to be vocal and public in your community. Recommit to the actual content of your faith, that in Christ Jesus there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.
When loud voices insist that all must behave the same way: stand up and behave differently. When angry extremists try to ban books, stand on the steps of the public library and read them aloud to each other whether you agree with the books or not. When mafia-like gangs of Christian white supremacists ban the teaching of the history of racial oppression and racial justice from your schools and public colleges, stop voting for them just because you think taxes could be lower.
Because when you take actions like these, here is what you are doing: you are committing yourself to a world in which our differences do not make us weaker, but stronger. You are insisting on a world where the Body of Christ exists to honor all its many and distinct parts and needs rather than making every single person within it into a closed fist.
You are saying that the vision of the world you love is one where queer people do not die. You are saying that the vision of God’s beloved community is one where we are welcome to eat with you. You are saying that, despite the lies they tell about us, you know that we are members of your community and not threats to your children. And you create the world where your own children—children who may one day express a need to be different—do not find themselves hounded out of public life because they chose to be the person they are.
I’m asking that you act, every day, like a Christian. Act like your religion means that when God gathers all nations and tongues to remove the shroud from our eyes, we will see each other, despite our differences, as friends. And we will see our differences as our beauty. Act like someone whose religion is about building a community of love and commitment despite the human things that divide us from one another. Act like this is what it’s about, for better or for worse.
And choose to do it better.
Madison McClendon obtained their M.Div. from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2012. They are the Vice Moderator of North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, and serve on the boards of BJC and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz, in addition to previous service on the board of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. They live in Chicago with their fiance, Todd, and a sweet Staffordshire terrier, Moira.