Friday, October 26, 2007

Meditation on St. Francis and the Leper

Francis Bernardone was a rich young man who had everything life could offer – but he was not happy.

Francis hated and despised lepers, more than anything else, much in the same way that my pharisaical Christianist brothers and sisters hate and fear gays and transgender people.

Lepers were treated terribly – everyone, at least everyone who wasn’t a leper themselves, hated them, despised them, feared them. They were outcasts who were forced to live in the dhadows, away from decent folk; who had to ring a bell and proclaim that they were "Unclean!" if they ventured out of those shadows.

Like his peers, Francis hated them and could not bear the sight or smell of them; he became nauseated, and he was afraid of catching their disease.

Francis himself recalled the experience of encountering a leper one day while riding his horse:

"When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. After that, I did not wait long before leaving the materialistic world."

Why would he have gotten off his horse to embrace a leper?

It was the first step in his real conversion – in his realization that only by loving even the least of God’s People that he could begin his spiritual journey in earnest.

After this embrace lepers were no longer hateful to him. He dedicated himself to their care and lived with them. As he did this, about sacrifice, forgiveness, and love.

My pharisaical Christianist brothers and sisters will sneer in pompous judgment that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality – but the truth is that people with AIDS may well be the test that they themselves are failing – these are the people they fear, the people they feel nauseated and repelled by, the people they must first embrace before they can hope to achieve Heaven. In a very real way, people with AIDS are among the least of God’s People, in much the same way as the lepers of Francis’ (and even Jesus’) time.

Many of them are so glib – they see Salvation being as simple as making the statement, "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior." The mere repetition of this statement, without any other effort on their part, then becomes their secret password to Redemption – or so they think.

The statement allows them to feel they can have a right to spend a tremendous amount of time and money working hard to persecute others for the sin of being different – and to do so in the name of a God who will be telling themon the day of Judgment that "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not." (Mt. 25:42-43)

Their hardness of heart, if it persists, will bar them from salvation – and yet they have time to repent.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In the Image and Likeness of God

Today’s reflection focuses on Genesis 1:27. (The following is the King James translation - see the note at the end of this essay):

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Just for flavor, here is the Douay-Rheims version:

And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.

Both translations are toward the “literal” end of the translation spectrum, and both grate on modern ears, in different places – “created he him” in the KJV, and “to his own image” instead of “in his own image” in DR.

And, from a "literal translation" point of view, I would give the award to DR for keeping to the literality of the Latin in the Vulgate:

et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam ad imaginem Dei creavit illum masculum et feminam creavit eos

What I remember from the Latin I was taught in the seminary, ad definitely comes across as "to" rather than "in," as much as the "to" might grate on the ear in English. On the other hand, I would probably render hominem in this context as "humans" or "human beings" or even "people" rather than the "man" used in both KJV and DR. One might argue that "man" was intended by the KJV and Douay translators in 1611 and 1609 to mean all humans and not just men - though the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, in stating "all men are created equal" wasn't really interpreted as including women, until 1920 when the Constitution was amended to allow woment ro vote, or 1964, when women were included in the Civil Rights Act of that year. I doubt that the translators in the early 1600's were any more enlightened than Thomas Jefferson.

On the far end of the spectrum are the “dynamic” translations that try to convey the meaning and capture the spirit, if not using the exact words of the original. One example of this is the Contemporary English Version (CEV):

So God created humans to be like himself; he made men and women.

It is interesting what happens when one gets farther from the literal translations and deeper into the idea of “interpreting” what the translator thinks the writer (or earlier translator) may have meant. The CEV version reads very nicely – it’s in modern English, but it doesn’t convey the meaning that I read in the more literal KJV and Douay.

But let’s return to the message, and the reflection – those more literal translations emphasize how all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. This is so important that it is repeated two times. And then we hear that we are created “male and female” in this image of God – that is, that each one of us is both “male and female” – it’s clear, at least from what I understand, that it is “male and female” and not “male or female.”

Despite the images we see of God portrayed as an elderly gentleman with a long white beard (perhaps the most famous image being the Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican), we actually have a God who is all-male and all-female, as well as being (at least for Trinitarians) a Triune Being, one God in Three Persons: Father, Son and Spirit. (Some scholars posit the idea that it is possible that even more Persons than the official three being supported by the Hebrew term Elohim, and include Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) and Holy Light (Santa Lucia) as “Persons” – even “female aspects” of God – but these are usually seen as being part of the Holy Spirit, and of course, then one gets close to the Roman idea of a corporate God, a Jupiter Optimus Maximus, into which all the various “gods” of myth, legend, and religion were being seen as aspects or persons.).

Male and Female.

Aside from the Taoist Yin-Yang and the Jungian animus/anima concepts, supporting the idea that every man has a “little bit of woman” inside and every woman has a “little bit of man” inside, the experience of many transsexual and transgender people seem to confirm the idea as well.

Even if we look to the mystery of fetal development, we can see that as a baby develops in utero, the early development is not sex-differentiated. Both “male” and “female” embryos have rudimentary sex organs that develop from the same cells, and in the same way, up to a point, and each initially has Wolffian and Mullerian “systems” in development. It is only after a few weeks that these cells develop into testes, ovaries (or ovotestes, in some cases), and prostate or uterus (or in some cases, neither), and a penis or clitoris (and yes, sometimes the development is something else). In most cases, the Mullerian system of ducts will disappear in boys, and the Wolffian system will degenerate in girls – but not always and not always entirely.

One resolution of the first Creation story with the second (the “Adam and Eve” story) is that Adam, as originally created in God’s image, was “male and female.” In the second story, this “male and female” Adam was put into a deep sleep while God separated him out into two people, Adam and Eve. The Hebrew story here is surprisingly similar in ideation to a creation story mentioned in Plato’s Symposium, attributed to Aristophanes, which also postulates a sort of combined “male-and-female” being as the initial creation, and posits that they were divided in two, though the Greek version shows a greater allegorical understanding of booth the nature of Eros and the idea that there are different sexual orientations. Not only are there “male and female” people being split in Aristophanes’ story, there are “male-and-male” and “female-and-female” people as well. On the splitting, though, each half is busy seeking its other half, whether that other half is same-sex or opposite sex. One might posit that the bible story covers the majority, but doesn’t necessarily cover everyone, if one is meditating on sexual orientation.

But we’re thinking about sex assignment and gender identity, and how most people see gender identity (or more specifically sex identity, as my intention is to refer to the feeling of “rightness” in being a man or a woman – something that is a given for those who are cissexual).

I take great comfort in knowing that I am, like everyone else, created in the image and likeness of God. I have had the experience of at least trying to assimilate as a man in accordance with the gender expected by society based on my birth-shaped genitals, while never feeling right in that assimilation (indeed, it was the source of a great deal of frustration, anxiety, and chronic depression usually referred to as gender dysphoria). I have the experience of being a woman, since starting the transition process, and feeling correct and comfortable with myself in this experience, finally not having to put on an act to be who I am.

I knew that I “should have been a girl” even when I was four years old. In my case, being created by God as “male and female” is perfectly natural, even if it is not the usual experience. My body developed with male genitals and a brain that is in part female (See Zhou J.-N, Hofman M.A, Gooren L.J, Swaab D.F (1997) A Sex Difference in the Human Brain and its Relation to Transsexuality. IJT 1,1, , reprinted from NATURE, 378: 68-70 (1995)). My underlying self-identity has always been consistent with that of being female even if my genitals were shaped differently. This is true even though I spent a very long time trying to deny that identity, and to construct a male “persona” to hide it. Early in my transition, I tried to continue to deny my essential identity, and for a time felt that I might have been “bigendered.” It was only through the process of resolving conflicts between my real feelings and those of the constructed persona I had built, that I realized that the real me was there all the time, and that I spent many years suffering by trying to keep myself in denial.

When confronted with the idea of transsexuals or gay people, many Christians feel a conflict. This is best noted by the Catholic Church’s Catechism references for how to deal with homosexuality.

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

The Catholic Church, at lease, takes the position that homosexuality can be “deeply seated,” though the assertion that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law is clearly incorrect on the basis of an understanding of science and nature that is more advanced than the writings of Aristotle. For a really wonderful exposition of scientific research see: EVOLUTION'S RAINBOW. Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People; by Joan Roughgarden, University of California Press, 2004.

Still, there is a conflict between the “Under no circumstances can they be approved” in Para. 2357 and the “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” in Para. 2358. The tension between these two paragraphs often underscores the Catholic Church’s approach to gay, lesbian, transsexual and transgender people. Under no circumstance can the Church be seen as condoning homosexuality, while at the same time the Church is compelled to accept gay and transgender people, and asserts that there should be no unjust discrimination against us.

This explains at least some of the actions of Catholic hierarchy. I was asked to leave my parish church in Valhalla when I started transition. At the time (August 1999), the associate pastor of Holy Name of Jesus, Rev. David Clifford, met with me and told me that if I stayed wt Holy Name, that I would be creating a “scandal in the Church.” He also said that I should go to some other parish where no one knew me as Paul. Doing so would avoid the conflict between “condoning” the transsexual and not “unjustly discriminating” against me.

The same sort of thing happened to a gay couple I know, Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorhees. They sang in a choir at a Catholic parish church in the Bronx. It was not a problem to the Church that they were gay. It really wasn’t even a problem that they got married in Canada. But when the news media covered the marriage, all of a sudden there was a “scandal in the Church.” The pastor told them that they couldn’t sing in the choir anymore, as it would seem too much like the Church “condoning” them. They now sing in a choir at an Episcopal church in Westchester.

Similarly, reports of the way the Diocese of Albany treated a retired Catholic priest who was a transsexual in transition, Rev. Denise Brennan, surfaced after the matter was investigated by a conservative Catholic publication, The Wanderer, and then got picked up by the New York Post. Initially, the diocese was supportive of Denise Brennan’s medical needs, but when the media picked up on it, steps were taken to distance the diocese from the transitioning Father Brennan. Once again, the attempt was made to be “accepting with respect, compassion and sensitivity” that got derailed when it started to look like “condoning” and “creating a scandal in the Church.

Many of the evangelical fundamentalist Christianist types who maintain a business of treating gay and trans people like lepers in our society make it clear that they don’t believe that transsexual or gay people can be “natural.” They believe that who we are is a matter of choice, and that we are all choosing to be sinners. So they believe their strident condemnations are a good thing and that this will gain them heaven, when it’s pretty clear that is not the case, and that if they don’t repent, they will almost certainly find themselves quite surprised to be numbered among the Goats on the day of Judgment (see my previous entry, and Mt. 25).

For me, I know that God created me as I am for a reason. I may not know that reason, but I am striving to try to make the world a little better place tomorrow than it is today. I am not junk – God does not create junk. I am special – perhaps closer to that initial creation than most cissexual people can experience. My very existence threatens them because they have never had the occasion to question their gender identity in any way, and are uncomfortable with people like me for whom the experience of gender dysphoria was much more than merely “a trial.”

Many gay and trans people, finding themselves rejected by conservative Christianists, themselves will reject religion. Others will find a denomination that does not treat them as evil. Our voices should be heard – if only to help bring the Christianists to the possibility of averting their assured eternal damnation.

NOTE: When I quote from the Bible in this blog, I will usually be using the King James version unless I note otherwise, because that is the version most of the six-day creationist evangelical fundamentalist Christianists use. With my Roman Catholic background, I suppose I should really use Douay-Rheims. In any event, these are both translations of earlier Latin Bible translations (though true for the 1609 Douay, in the mid-1700’s a Catholic bishop made some “corrections” to Douay based on then-available early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts), which are themselves one or two translations removed from the source languages. Muslims, at least, understand that translations lose something, and insist that their Holy Qu’ran is only accurate in Arabic. With the more modern discoveries of ancient texts (including but not limited to the Dead Sea Scrolls), modern scripture scholars have found that even St. Jerome’s Vulgate (the official Catholic Bible version, in Latin) is in many places a rather shoddy translation . Oh well – we work with what we have, I guess.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Will They Be Numbered Among the Goats?

I am terribly frustrated by the furor of the Christianist right wing over basic human rights for transsexual and transgender people, and people who don't fit into gender stereotypes. For example, Louis P. Sheldon of the "Traditional Values" Coalition derisively refers to the "gender-identity" inclusive version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 2015) as The Barney Frank She-Male Shower Bill.

For a long time, I have questioned the genuineness of the Christianity of people like Lou Sheldon, Fred Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and ) Tony Perkins (Family Research Council), James C. Dobson (Focus on the Family), and Beverly LaHaye (Concerned Women For America). I call them "Christianists" because theirs is a false Christianity built on a message of hatred for strangers and children; they pervert the Good News and make a mockery of religion in their quest to wrap their prejudice in the American Flag while lifting high the Cross upon which they have crucified me, and people like me.

They are all so consumed with an anti-Christian, anti-family, anti-transgender, anti-gay malevolence, that I fear for their souls.

Quite frankly, if they ever bothered to actually read the Bibles they thump so enthusiastically, they would know that God loves people like me who are strangers in the midst of a fearful cissexist heteronormative society.

The following is a homily I gave for the Remembering Our Dead services in 2005. It is as relevant today as it was then.

We have gathered together this afternoon for this Day of Remembrance to remember the silent victims of anti-transgender violence, many of whom each year are deprived of justice in addition to being deprived of their lives. Those who seek to murder us often wish to deny our existence, want to erase us, and want to see those of us who remain be relegated to the shadows and out of the clear light of day.

Before we take a look at the meaning of today’s readings, I think we should take a look at a couple of biblical verses that are often taken out of context by some who claim to be Christian, as a reason to vilify those who are transgender or gender variant.

Many of these "Christianists" will point to a single quote from Deuteronomy to demonstrate that transgendered people are an abomination hated by God, (Deut. 22:5): The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.

This is the same chapter that required the Hebrew people to wear clothing with fringes, and prohibited the wearing of cloth with mixed threads, such as cotton-polyester blends. It also required those who build houses to put battlements on the roofs.

Somehow, when it comes to those other things, the good Christianist would be quick to point out Acts Chapter 15, in which it was made clear that one need not follow the whole of the Jewish law to be Christian, need not be circumcised, but only (v. 28-29) "no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well." Certainly, if crossdressing was such a horrible thing, it would have been included in the short list of Jewish law applicable to Gentile Christians. It wasn’t.

But let’s look a little more carefully at the Deuteronomy quote. Rabbinical scholars have debated the meaning of this verse for centuries, and while there are differences of opinion among these authorities, the historical context, and the ascription of "abomination" seems to make it clear that this verse was intended to forbid the Hebrews from engaging in the religious practices of the Canaanites, whose worship of the goddess Astarte, believed by her worshippers to be the goddess of sexuality, passion, creativity, and of the fertility of women and nature, involved transgendered priestesses and for whom sex was a sacrament.

Even the allegorical history of the Book of Genesis makes it clear that Yahweh did not approve of the sacrifice of Cain the farmer, but gave his favor to the sacrifice of the lamb of Abel, the shepherd. The Canaanites were farmers, the Hebrews were shepherds – and goddess-centered agricultural and fertility faiths were seen as the competition for the god-centered animal-sacrificing Hebrews.

We can also look at that Deuteronomy verse by asking the question, "who is a man" and "who is a woman?" Intersexed, Transgendered and gender variant people represent the natural diversity of the human condition, and not all of us can easily be placed in the either/or boxes of the binary gender system, in which one must be either a man or a woman.

And that brings us to the second verse that is used to negate the existence of transgender and gender variant people.

Those Christianists will often point out Genesis 1:27 as indicating that humans were created to be only two genders, male or female. But a careful look at that verse seems to indicate that humans were created in the image and likeness of God as "male and female" and not "male or female." In one sense, each one of us is "male and female." That is acknowledged in other spiritual and philosophical traditions as well.

For example, have you ever taken a close look at one of those Taoist Yin-Yang symbols? The half of light has a little bit of dark in it, and the half of dark has a little bit of light in it. In the philosophical psychology of Carl Jung, men have an animus, with a touch of an anima, while women have an anima with a touch of animus.

If we look at the readings chosen for today’s service, we can surely see the conflict between the traditional Christianist understanding of Deuteronomy 22:5 and the image of the Loving God who includes among the People of God those who are eunuchs and strangers, as shown in our first reading from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 56:1-7).

And as to those who will point out the binary division of gender as God-given and God-willed, what could be a better answer than the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 19:12, in which Jesus lets us know that He is aware that there are several different sorts of "eunuchs."

There are those who are born different – those, for example, include both those who are intersexed and who have a visible genital anomaly at birth, and those who are transsexual, whose brains are formed differently from an erroneous genital-based sex assignment. There are those who are made different by men – and that includes those who seek surgical correction of the conflict between body and soul that the psychiatric community calls gender dysphoria.

And then there are those whom Jesus says are "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven." The Magisterium of the Catholic Church would have us believe that this is a call to priestly celibacy, but it is more clearly a direct reference to Isaiah 56, in which those eunuchs who choose faith in the Lord will have "an everlasting name which will not be cut off."

In our last reading today from the book of Acts of the Apostles, the message of both Isaiah 56 and Matthew 19:12 is reinforced, as Philip the Apostle encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, who just happens to be reading the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, just a couple of chapters before our reading – the quote from Isaiah in the reading is from Chapter 53 verse 7.

It’s pretty clear that in the course of their discussion, Philip and the eunuch got around to Chapter 56 with its accepting message – and that this is what prompted the eunuch a bit later to ask Philip for baptism.

The three readings today are not merely verses taken out of context, as the quotes often used by the Christianists, they are the authentic message of the love that God has for all, even eunuchs, even strangers.

And then, what is the message to those who hate us, those who kill us, those who want to eradicate us?

Let’s look first at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. When he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the current Pope (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) dismissively cited the story of Sodom and Gommorrah as follows "Thus, in Genesis 19:1-11, the deterioration due to sin continues in the story of the men of Sodom. There can be no doubt of the moral judgement made there against homosexual relations."*
*LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON THE PASTORAL CARE OF HOMOSEXUAL PERSONS – Homosexualitatis problema (Epistula de pastorali personarum homosexualium cura), October 1st, 1986, §6, paragraph 2
Apparently, the Pope has not read the story of Sodom as written in the Book of Genesis. It is a story that involves the suspicious and inhospitable inhabitants of the City of Sodom, who did not approve of strangers from outside the city who were visiting Abraham’s brother Lot.

They wanted to communicate their lack of hospitality for Lot’s visitors, by gang-raping them and then throwing them out of town. It was the ancient equivalent of tarring, feathering and riding out of town on a rail.

The idea of the gang rape of the visitors, was a very macho sort of thing – to show the visitors that the men of Sodom were "real men" and the visitors were "less than women."

This sort of misogynistic attitude, this mistrust of people who are different, or who are strangers in our midst, is not a characteristic of gay people, who are often slurred when they are called "sodomites."

What the Pope and the Christianists refuse to understand, is that the punishment of Sodom was meted out to those who do not accept strangers, and who hate people be-cause they are different. The real "sodomites" are the people who have a rabid hatred of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, because we are different, because we are strangers, because we are eunuchs.

But God loves us.

There is a further message in the Gospel for those who preach bigotry and hate, and who want to deny human dignity and fair treatment to those of us who are different because we are LGBT.
The message of Mathew Chapter 25:31-46 is a warning to the intolerant.

When the time comes for Judgment, they will be found wanting.

Whatsoever they have done to the least of God’s children, they do to God.

Those who insult and hate us, and shoot us in the back of the head, or bludgeon and stab us until we are unrecognizable and dump our bodies in a shallow grave, are not the only ones who will number among the goats.

Those whose intolerance in the name of Christ leads them to deny to the members of the LGBT community basic human rights and dignity will fare just as poorly on the Day of Judgment. Like the men of Sodom, their inhospitable and suspicious bigotry is an affront to God as well as to those who are the victims of their persecution.

These same Christianists, the real sodomites, also often wrap themselves up in the flag and claim that their concept of Christianity is also patriotic and American. The nation that supposedly guarantees its inhabitants the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, has a history of treating people with injustice. The treatment of slaves, of women, and of LGBT people, has all the same earmarks. You will know them by their works.

My prayer for them is this: May God forgive them, if they know not what they do. But they do know what they do, and they believe they are justified, and that is so much sadder, because they are more likely to die unrepentant. And so I pray for them, that they may become open to the knowledge and understanding they need, the strength and courage to change their ways and see the truth, and, inspired by Holy Wisdom, that they no longer be so hard of heart, and that they know peace and love.