Last week we shared an interview with Kyle Kentopp on his experience as a transgender man who is also a southern preacher, and the lessons he feels this gives that inform his theology and which can help the church see God, others, and ministry in new ways.
As a followup to this interview, with Kyle’s permission we have been sharing excerpts of some writings Kyle has done on theology from the perspective of a transgender. In this final piece, we will see some reflections he gives on the ways in which Jesus’ life breaks the strict gender binary and what it can teach us.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Incarnation Beyond the Binary: A genderfluid Jesus
If the unified Godhead does claim and express a plurality of gender, then it would be expected that this same singular-plural within one body would be found in the incarnation as the cross section between humanity and the divine. There is little known about the historical Jesus as there are very few ancient texts which record his actual existence, most of which are in the Bible. It is therefore difficult to say with certainty who the man was or was not, except by scripture itself. Centuries of Christian tradition has largely molded Jesus to fit more neatly into an androcentric, patriarchal world and as such has highly masculinized both his personality and his ministry. Even so, there are hints recorded in scripture that give a more inclusive picture of the incarnate— one that not only may be used to argue that Jesus held women in higher regard than the ancient patriarchal society of his time, but that he himself held within him a plurality of masculine and feminine characteristics, roles, and responsibilities.
It should be first noted that Jesus had quite an unusual relationship with women of his time. To be a disciple of a leader at this time was a role restricted to men, yet the Gospels record that there were a number of women, both named and unnamed, who journeyed with Jesus during his ministry. These women were not “called” as his twelve apostles were, but rather took on the difficult price of ministry because they themselves felt drawn to this man. Furthermore, when all of the male disciples had fled after Jesus’ arrest, it was a group of women who persistently stayed by their Messiah in the crucifixion. One might wonder what it was about this leader that drew such women into his circles and caused them to become so wholly dedicated to his cause. Maybe it was the simple fact that they were allowed to join and take part in the Christ’s teachings. Later, after Jesus’ death, Paul records a number of women in leadership roles in the early Christian communities, including Priscilla, mentioned several times as in the New Testament as being part of a missionary team with her husband (1 Corin. 16:9, Acts 18:2-3, Rom. 16:3), and Phoebe, whom Paul greets as a deacon in Romans 16. It may therefore be seen that Jesus and the early Christian communities which directly followed him regarded women to have a more equal status to men (Phipps, 53-4).
Yet the women’s relation to Jesus seem to go beyond the fact that they had greater opportunities within his communities. William E. Phipps notes how Jesus worked around the antifeminism of his day in a number of ways: “First, he avoided the chronic male proclivity towards stereotyping women…. Rather, he viewed all humans as individuals, without classifying behavior as masculine or feminine” (Phipps, 59). Arguments for this come from Jesus’ parables, which were his primary mode of teaching his listeners. While several parables are told that are specific to male roles and jobs, there are also a number which are particular to the daily lives of women. That there is a range of experiences captured throughout these multiple parables specific to women (the leaven, the ten maidens, the lost cost, and the unjust judge) show that Jesus does not view women as one-dimensional persons as men at this time typically do. Rather, he recognizes the various demands on a woman’s life and speaks to them through his teachings in a way that might make clearer the kingdom of God to those who hear. Beyond this, Phipps points out that Jesus was angered by the economic discrimination against widows and chastised the “faithful” Jews who took advantage of the women’s situation for their own gain (Matthew 12:40). When one takes all of these factors together, it may show that Jesus attempted to give equal access, attention, and opportunity to both men and women. This brought him much criticism during his few short years of ministry, including multiple complaints from his own male disciples, but Jesus never yielded his inclusive and welcoming view of the genders. Phipps goes on to say that “he was devoted to carrying of the full implications of the doctrine that all men and women were made in the image and likeness of God” (60). No earthly societal structures were going to change Jesus’ view and dedication to the true equality of all those created in the image of God, both male and female.
One’s politics or worldview and one’s being are two quite separate things, even while they may influence one another. Was the ministry of Jesus feminized because of the influence of the women in his circle? Was his ministry attractive to women solely because of the greater available to them opportunities as opposed to those granted them in the surrounding societies? Or was it because women could intimately relate to Jesus, and Jesus could relate to women, across the plane of femininity itself through Jesus’ own claim to an internal plurality of gender?
Earlier, it was explored how God is recorded to self-disclose and self-identify in both male and female imageries. Similarly, if it is allowed for the incarnate to self-identify it is seen that Jesus is also known to liken himself to both feminine and masculine depictions. The most explicit example of Jesus self-identifying to a female representation is in Matthew 23:37, in which he describes himself as being like a mother hen, longing to gather her chicks under her wings for protection. Jesus connects to the femininity of this image not only in the role of the “mother,” but the responsibilities which follow, similar to have already been discussed in the previous chapter, of comfort, protection, guidance, and care. This calls to mind similar images, such as in Psalms 17:18 when the author is asking to be hidden in the shadows of God’s wings for protection from the surrounding wickedness of the world. Typically, when bird imagery is used specifically for God, it is often in the form of an eagle, a symbol of strength, vigor, and speed. Wijk-Bos notes how both male and female eagles are directly involved in the upbringing of their young and in the flight training, meaning that the image of the eagle and of wings in reference to the divine has as yet been gender neutral, with a slant towards the feminine because of the anthropogenic connotations of intimate care and comfort as a role of motherhood. Jesus uses this familiar image to underscore these promises of the responsibilities which he has taken on for his followers, but in identifying with a mother hen, Jesus is moving away from a slant towards the feminine to identify explicitly with the female (Wijk-Bos, 66-69).
This is not the only place when Jesus takes on a role or expresses a characteristic typically associated with women in his environment. Related to the image of the mother hen, Jesus is often recorded as having a preferential devotion to children, a characteristic usually assumed to be “feminine.” Each of the synoptic Gospels record an instance when the disciples attempted to shoo away children attempting to approach Jesus, and Jesus rebuked the disciples, saying that it is to these children that the kingdom of God truly belongs (Mt 19:13-4, Mk 10:13-6, Lk 18:15-7). Mark 9: 36-7 illustrates Jesus as taking a child up into his arms as he tells those listening that whoever receives a child in his name receives him as well. This incident with the youth shows the compassion and gentleness in Jesus’ nature towards others, particularly those more vulnerable than he. Further New Testament verses which speak to Jesus’ gentleness, a characteristic typically thought to be feminine, include Matthew 11:28-9 when the Messiah invites all who are tired to find rest in him for he is gentle in spirit and Paul’s mention of Christ’s gentleness in 2 Corinthians 10:1 (Phipps, 113).
Jesus’ emotions are not only tender such as the examples above, but can also reach great and painful depths. That Jesus is recorded as weeping in multiple verses is an outward expression of intense emotion that would be in opposition to the ideal image of a man as rational and fully control of his emotions. When Christ is moved deeply by a tragic event, he does not lash out in destructive rage, never takes up a sword, and never uses his physical strength to force his will. Rather, Jesus weeps. He witnesses the suffering around him, and he suffers too. He allows himself to feel the full brunt of the pain of loss (John 11:35) or of the injustice being done (Luke 19: 41-4). Of course, the climax of this suffering is in the process of the crucifixion, when Jesus takes on the suffering of the world so that the people might have salvation. Taking on such enormous pain and sacrificing oneself in order for others to experience a rebirth or a new life is a rather maternal image, and so one can see the direct connection between the incarnate and the Mother God (Phipps, 113-4).
Connection between the Christ and the Feminine Divine does not stop there, as God’s female manifestations move beyond solely maternal imagery and the Spirit. Divine Wisdom, or Sophia in Greek, appears throughout both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament writings and is always personified as female. She is representative of an ancient wisdom tradition, biblically most associated with King Solomon, who is said to have been granted divine wisdom (1 Kings 3). Proverbs, legendarily said to have been written by King Solomon, and Job are two biblical texts which directly stem from this tradition. In focusing on Proverbs, Wijk-Bos points out that the style of text comes in short sayings, meant to be taken one at a time and “function as models and as explanations. Wisdom addresses the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ of life” (79). Sayings may advise one how to address a certain situation, how one should act in a particular event, or they may challenge the listener to view an occurrence in a different light. Jesus’ use of parables might serve to directly tie him to the Sophia tradition. Raschke and Raschke note that the use of parables would have been a familiar style to listeners of the time and were effective ways of engaging the listeners to open their own minds in new ways without doing the work for them. Jesus’ teaching style was therefore an “old wisdom” recast to particularly speak to the coming of the kingdom of God and how his followers should prepare (Raschke, 51). Further than a direct association between Jesus and Sophia, Raschke and Raschke assert that in the incarnation, it was Sophia that Jesus was most specifically embodying.
Sophia as a personified figure has a unique role in the divine realm, and she is often shown to have an intimate relationship with humanity. She, like Jesus, has a preferential affinity for the vulnerable, those in need, and those the prim, proper, and pious of the age would not dare to engage with. In Luke 7:31-33, Jesus directly associates himself with a female Wisdom, and rebukes those who attempt to chastise him for being a friend to sinners. Furthermore, Sophia allocates justice and emphasizes righteousness. Though Jesus does not have the political power to allocate justice, he certainly advocates for it among the people and teaches them how to distinguish between the false righteousness of the religious establishment and the true righteous of God. Finally, Raschke and Raschke assert that Jesus is described as the “Word made Flesh” (John 1:14) may serve as a revelation of the connection between the Word as Wisdom becoming manifest in a human body (Raschke, 49-58).
Whether Jesus is an incarnation specifically of Sophia is up to interpretation, but one cannot deny the overlaps in characteristics ascribed to each of these figures, both representations of one divine. Jesus holds within one being a plurality of attributes that are typically thought to be solely female attributes and is also directly connected to a manifestation of the divine that is personified as female. Through scripture, one can see the various complications to the narrative bound in tradition that the Christian Messiah is wholly male/masculine. Biblical texts themselves paint a picture of an incarnate that claims and expresses both the male and female, stemming from a single, unified person. As Jesus is at one time both human and divine, so he is at one time feminine and masculine, and he makes no attempts to suppress, deny, or change any piece of his pluralities. Taken out of context to be inspected in isolation, he is the living example of ultimate harmony between what humans separate and typify as “opposites.”
If one is not quite ready to ascribe to the idea of Jesus as being genderfluid, or moving freely between male and female genders, one can still reference Jesus’ own words on how to respond to those who currently do embody both male and female within a single being. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus addresses different kinds of eunuchs, including those whom become eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Scholars debate on what Jesus meant in this verse, including whether he was speaking of these individuals themselves or making a metaphorical statement in reference to marriage, divorce, and celibacy. Megan K. DeFranza brings some insight to the issue by first contextualizing the now outdated term “eunuch” to have indicated in Jesus’ time a wide range of phenomenon in which an individual does not live up to the male ideal of sex and gender roles. Its therefore difficult to pin down exactly what the term truly expresses at the time, but it undeniably speaks to some gender variance in an individual. Particularly, it denoted a lived “in-between-ness,” whereas other divergences from ideal roles were brought into the fold of either male or female. For example, Augustine is recorded as recommending “hermphrodites” or “androgynes” (the appropriate modern-day term would be “intersex persons”) be classified as “the better sex,” but states that a castrated eunuch is “neither changed into a woman nor allowed to remain a man” (City of God, 16.8-7.24). DeFranza suggests that this is because intersex individuals may still have the ability to procreate, while eunuchs were sterile. This definition of what elements constitute an individual’s sex and their subsequent value to society underscores the Greco-Roman emphasis on the importance of the heterosexual pairing for procreative purposes as the cornerstone of Roman life (MacDonald, 211). The Jewish communities similarly turned eunuchs into an “other” as Hebrew scripture explicitly forbids castration and declares castrated individuals are to be excluded from the assembly of Israel (Deut. 23:1).
That Jesus ends his list of the kinds of eunuchs with a note that some became so for the kingdom of heaven, and with the comment for all to accept this teaching that can, may be interpreted in the eschatological thought pervading both Jesus’ teachings and early Christian thought. Similar to Paul, it may be seen as suggesting that one remain celibate in spiritual preparation of the coming kingdom of God so that one is not distracted by ties of earthly relations and duties. Certainly, this is a continuation of the strain of thought in which the spiritual and the material are two exclusively separate worlds in which the spiritual is equated to the holy while the material, including sex, is equated to the profane. At the same time, one cannot separate the marginality of eunuchs at this time from what is being said. Jesus’ words here are truly radical in that he makes no indication that these individuals are ill nor deformed in need of some physical, religious, or societal restoration. Not only does the Christ take them as they are, but holds them up as models to follow and learn from as “icons of radical discipleship” (DeFranza, 2015). DeFranza goes on to say that this verse reveals Jesus as approaching individuals first in their primary identities as humans in service to God and creation rather than as one certain gender or another. The unity of the human holds more importance to Jesus, and Jesus sees unity in this eunuch who had come to be outcasted in a number of communities expressly because of what is seen as inappropriate plurality in the individual’s mixture of stereotypically male and female anatomies and attributes.
In wholly accepting the eununch, Jesus is carrying on a tradition of thought that appeared before him in Isaiah and after him in Acts. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch has recorded in Acts seems to point to the same primary mode of welcoming acceptance due to the devotion of the individual in question. Therefore, between Matthew and Acts, Christians have a solid foundation for determining how they should treat eunuchs, and, in modern times, indications for how to treat people outside the patriarchal constructions of what it means to be male or female. Isaiah 56:4-5 records God as speaking to say that eunuchs who keep the Sabbath, choose to do what is pleasing to God, and hold to the covenant will be given “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). Is there another group of individuals who are ever promised a monument and name in the kingdom of heaven better than sons and daughters? The only other community that has received this intimate depth of promise has possibly been the Israelites themselves. This continually surfacing reference to the certain uniqueness of the eunuch with implications or express commandments that there is something in their faith or possibly their being to learn from recalls an earlier Pauline verse. Paul states in Romans that since the creation of the world God has self-revealed and self-disclosed through Creation and that therefore Creation itself holds revelations on God’s will, vision, or possibly even being. These verses on the eunuchs seem to indicate that there is a revelation waiting to be found in their experience as is, for they are the ones who will receive a greater name in heaven than the others if they follow God. Neither do they have to fix themselves with surgeries or rid themselves of the sins of their condition in order to do so. Whereas the eunuch’s surrounding societies wished to change them to fit more neatly into human constructs of gender and sex, Jesus and God welcome them into the fold as they are and promise they will be held in esteem and with respect for their devotion.
Exactly what Isaiah records and Jesus is speaking about when singling out the eunuch for inclusion and as a model for God’s followers is unclear. Is it their celibate lifestyles? Is it their turning to God for faith, trust, and comfort, in a society that sees them as deviants to some natural gender binary based on a coherent set of sex characteristics? Is it that they are singular beings which hold within them a plurality which causes them to constantly defy the human boundaries of these strict exclusionary worlds of all that is male and masculine separated against all that is female and feminine? Based on the evidence shown throughout this paper of an emphasis through the whole of the bible, both Hebrew scriptures and New Testament writings, on a shared way of being between the divine and humanity in the divine’s image which is the singular-plural. Transgender individuals are living expressions of the singular-plural in that they hold within one body a mixture of what society, culture, tradition, etc may try to segregate into what it believes should be two wholly separate ways of being. Just in their very existence, they hold in unity what is thought to be divisive and hierarchical. In doing so, they are speaking to themes that sits at the absolute foundation of Christianity to break down human boundaries to express a shared Oneness, to propose balance where there was once division, and to open the door wide for those who have been shut out by society based on these arbitrary boundaries and divisions.
Despite this, arguments against transgender individual’s rights, including the right to simply exist, are predominantly based these elements that have been alluded to earlier. It has been thought for centuries (though articulated in different ways) that it is a biologically natural phenomenon and a divinely ordained fact that all humans are restricted to a model of life dictated by a hierarchic gender binary for the purpose of procreative pairings and the essential family unit as the base of a healthy, moral society. As has been discussed above, both of these assumptions are wrong. In reality, there is great biological diversity what constitutes one individual’s sex to another, as there can be many points of variance between primary and the number of secondary sex attributes. There is also the significant presence of intersex individuals which complicate this narrative of a sexed binary. Secondly, it is shown that gender in humans does not stem directly from the sex of an individual. Gender identity may align with what an individual was “assigned at birth” by the doctors based on genitalia, it may align with “the other” sex, it may align with both at the same time or variably, or it may not align with either at all. Simply put, gender is infinitely more complex than has ever been truly understood in time past. Finally, the bible holds great precedence for the acceptance of individuals variant of the patriarchal constructions of sex and gender. Not only is there an underlying theme of singular-plural in reference to gender of the divine, humanity, and the cross section of these two in the incarnate; there is also explicit addresses to the kind of gender variance that was witnessed in this period and region. These addresses are not fearful, demonizing, or dehumanizing, but that welcome and dignify those individuals, holding them up as models to follow.