“Future-Present” Tension and Gospel Ambassadorship

American Christians, especially those that identify as evangelical, love to “share the Gospel”. In many small group circles and among friends, weekly check-ins may include a delighted, “I shared the Gospel 3 times this week!” or a dejected “I didn’t share the Gospel with anyone. I need to do better.” We keep a scorecard, like golf, or bowling.

I was reflecting with my friend Dan Crain, a pastor and community leader I’ve co-led a Be The Bridge group with and become good friends with, today about what it means to be a peacemaker on behalf of Christ. I had a revelation in that moment. Those of us who profess Christ in this particularly American way think of ourselves as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the people of Earth. But this model separates us from the people who we wish to see join us in our understanding of who Christ is. In order to fully understand our purpose, we have to get a bit transcendental. We have to step outside of the present tense and operate with multiple views of time. In this way, we obtain a fraction of the view that a God that lives outside of time has.

Romans 5:6-8 talks about how Christ died for us while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Christ’s act at one point in time in the past reaches into our present, pulls us out of a present depravity into a future hope of reconciliation of all things. Most of us accept that truth and rejoice. We gleefully report, as Paul did in Galatians 2:20, how “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

But we don’t follow the next step. As we declare ourselves peacemakers and ambassadors, we proclaim we are already citizens of Heaven, and we’re coming to broker a deal with those unfortunates that haven’t filled out their applications yet. To get a complete understanding of this, we must combine our perceptions into a “future-present” view of reality.

The future tense speaks of things that will be. The present tense speaks of things that are, right now. As Christians, we live in the intersection of the present, our flesh with its infirmities, the brokenness of the world we see around us, and the future, a kingdom and family that we will be a part of for eternity. Christ mediates this transcendent breach in the order of time’s arrow and allows some portion of us to live in that future as if it were the present! We get to experience glimpses of the full acceptance of God and the completion of our future hope in our present.

This is undoubtedly good news. However, the part that we miss is that we are also still beings of the present. We are not God’s diplomats, sitting at the table overseeing the reconciliation between some sinful “other” and God. We are the rebellious, haughty party sitting at the other side of the table from our neighbor. We have been wronged, yes, but we have also done much wrong. And we are in need of an external mediator to complete the reconciliation to our neighbor and to receive the wisdom our neighbors have.

When we approach mission or literal evangelism in this way, we carry a humility and an openness that allows us to experience more of the fullness of God. We gain the capacity to learn how to more rightly see God from our neighbor rather than educating them on our narrow and limited glimpse and attempting to snuff out their light or make it shine on our particular frequency. We can meet needs without thinking we are the Provider of Good Things. We can carry the layers of our intersectional identity in the present while neither giving them primacy over our future identity nor diminishing them to irrelevance when they shape so much of how our present is experienced.

We are each carrying different, infinitesimal sparks of that incomprehensible glory, and only by recognizing our true position, as a member of a warring faction that is only now learning to lay down their arms, as a humble creature that has far more to learn than it has to teach, can we share a true Gospel laden with future hope that speaks to a present reality.

Fifty

Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
 
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
 
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
 
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
 
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
 
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

On Reconciling Christian Principles with Government Programs

President Trump recently proposed a budget which makes a number of cuts to discretionary spending across government agencies. Liberal-leaning folks are predictably up in arms. Conservatives range from mild concern to relief that Trump is finally realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of “reduc[ing] [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” People on the left are wagging their fingers about the hypocrisy of professed Christians being so concerned about performance of programs designed simply to feed the poor and hungry. Conservatives answer with their standard retort that being Christian doesn’t mean you advocate that the government do everything. To them, it’s the job of churches and private citizens to step in and take care of the poor and needy. Who’s right?

As usual, the answer requires a bit of nuanced thinking. Conservatives have a point about their Christian obligations not extending to an explicit call to fund government programs. Other than giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus himself says little about how we respond to government authority, though he says a lot about how we should individually behave. Paul says more, generally telling us that we should generally abide by the government’s rules and authority, even if we are encouraged to live in a socially countercultural way and not allow human law to subvert God’s law. Generally, the commands on how to live and treat people speak to individuals, not governments. So it is technically fair to say that there’s no call in the Bible to engage in aid through taxation or government programs.

That said, it requires a narrow interpretation of the Bible to assume then that government programs that execute Jesus’s mandates are inherently bad, or even just inherently worse than a church or individual doing the same. While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, why would God not be pleased about a government that distributes some of the taxes it collects for programs to help the poor or needy? Corruption is certainly found in government, but what is forgotten by many who prefer limited government is that government is ultimately just comprised of people, just like any institution. Churches and individual hearts are no less susceptible. In fact, churches have to be on special guard because of their perceived proximity to God’s desire for humanity.

Another challenge with the standard conservative Christian position on the role of government is that churches have both an inward-facing and outward-facing obligation. The churches may have mission that they engage in locally or far away, but a primary objective is the cultivation of spiritual life and community among their attendees. While it would be better if people gave more in general so that church coffers were overflowing and churches were able to step into the breach for the needy across the nation, that’s simply not the case for most churches. The churches that do have lots of money often struggle with the challenges Jesus warned us that money brings.

Also, the outward-facing missional work of a Christian church is usually tied to evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel. Conservative Protestant denominations tend to interpret this fairly literally, with telling the message being as important or more important than showing and patiently modeling in one’s life. So, then, what if a person refuses the Gospel? What if they don’t wish to come because they know that that’s what will be served with their soup and bread, or with the clothes they are given? I’m not encouraging anyone to shut their mouth about the Gospel. I’m just asking if the church expects that it can be effective at meeting all types of needs.

On top of all this, the Christian church is no longer hegemonic in America. By this I mean that it’s not the default, dominant framing for most citizens. As church membership declines and more people turn away from faith as it’s historically been understood, the weight on the shoulders of each remaining member increases. It simply isn’t reasonable to assume that the church can serve the needs of everyone.

Even if other people start chipping in out of pocket, we’ve already seen what that looks like. Go to GoFundMe and see which medical requests get funded and which don’t. Popular, well-connected, attractive people get more money than the unpopular, the undesirable, the forgotten. We give to people we care about or think we care about, dropping $25 here, $100 there, while we leave the masses of the invisible at the margins and mercy of government programs that we want to cut so that “real charity” can begin. Why do we think a post-tax world would look any different than GoFundMe writ large, with individuals and small shelters and nonprofits spending more time putting on a good face for well-heeled donors than servicing the needy?

This is the part where some would point out that the liberals or non-religious people out there should put their money where their mouth is and give a lot more to charity. The response: they do give, in the form of taxes. The government is able to achieve some economies of scale with the support programs it funds. Taxes are also a great way to get everyone to participate in programs that improve the state of the society as a whole rather than relying on the goodness of individual hearts. The concern often raised following this assertion is that too much government money is going to the undeserving. I always find the notion of being deserving of grace to be a funny thing to be promulgated by people whose entire faith is predicated on receiving a gift that they did not deserve.

Moreover, when we unpack the notion of an unworthy recipient of government largesse, we often find ourselves envisioning someone very different than ourselves, someone with a different style of dress, different way of speaking, different way of acting, possibly different complexion. Our biases have a way of working themselves into our decisions about who should get what, whether it’s our tax dollars our just our attention.

I consider myself fairly generous, but I hold too tightly to my money, forgetting that I’m only a steward. I don’t manage as well as I should. Why would I assume my neighbors would on average fare any better? I’m always in favor of examining places where we can cut spending waste, where private organizations can serve people more efficiently than government organizations, or where government organizations can be restructured to be made more nimble. What I am not in favor of is the replacement of tax dollars that are helping millions with a reliance on the kindness of each of our individual hearts and our willingness to cheerfully give. I fear that switching to that model will find us coming up painfully short, with a net increase in suffering, all so that we can be satisfied that someone isn’t getting what they don’t deserve.

 

 

Which Bible Hero Are You?

No, this isn’t a Buzzfeed quiz.

I was talking with a Christian friend at breakfast the other day and he raised the point about how his Christian friends who are having problems always are likening themselves to Bible heroes. “This is my Gideon moment.” “I feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel right now.” That sort of thing. Even for those that don’t believe, historical stories with general applications are likely to be useful ways of putting problems into context.

The problem that he, and I, have seen, is that Christians often want to identify the story before the experience is over. Following the tradition of Christian writers and speakers I respect the most, I’ll use myself as an example. When I decided to prepare to run for Congress recently, I received the instruction to do so as a specific and direct call from God in a way that I had only heard a few calls in my life. In my fear, I likened myself to the prophets. I read the call of Jeremiah and was encouraged. “I’m like Jeremiah”, I thought. “God will put the words I need in my mouth and if He wills it, I will be given authority.”

Well, as my last post pointed out, I ended up not running. I wasn’t discouraged by this at all, but while talking about the experience with the friend I had breakfast with, I realized I actually felt something like I imagine Abraham did when he found out he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his son. Abraham brought his only son to a mountaintop to sacrifice him because he believed God told him to. He was stopped at the last moment by an angel and was given a ram to sacrifice instead. Obviously, running for Congress is not exactly the same as sacrificing a child (and, to my knowledge, child sacrifice is not yet required to pass legislation). However, I can relate to the idea of being given an incredibly difficult task, preparing for it because God said to, and then being relieved of having to do that task at the last moment.

If I had become too fixated on the Jeremiah analogy, I might have decided that God was going to raise me up, miraculously put hundreds of thousands of dollars at my disposal, and magic up my speeches so that I would win the hearts of the people in the face of a race that I had no statistical reason to place higher than fourth. In my fixation, I wouldn’t have heard the still, small voice telling me, “Well done. You may go.” when it became clear that I wouldn’t win this particular race at this particular time.

In the same way, if we decide too soon who we are in the story, we restrict our ability to follow the path God has actually written for us. Sometimes the lesson is different than we think, or contains parts of multiple stories we know to form a new story. Sometimes the lesson is a simple idea (albeit a challenging implementation), such as patience, or trust. Our goal is to stay grounded and move in faith, one step at a time, knowing that at each step we will be given what we need. I emphasize the word need because what we need doesn’t always look like what we would like most, or what is most comfortable. In doing so, we let God tell us our own story.

So next time you’re searching the Bible to figure out who you are most like in this moment, ask God to help you to have patience and trust as He reveals the story He’s writing with you as the hero. The Biblical stories are a great source of wisdom and encouragement, but only time tells our story, and we cannot predict or optimize it by being more devout or well-read.

Injustice for All?

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”

-Rorschach, “Watchmen”

One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.

I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.

I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.

Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?

I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.

I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”

At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.

I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.

This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.

I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.

I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.

I am still figuring that one out.

Sin Substitution – A Useful Technique

This post goes out mostly to my Christian friends, as evidenced by the title. If you’re not Christian, don’t tune out though. . . there may be something useful in here for you if there’s something you do that you’re not happy about and would like to change. Please don’t let the religious terminology cause you to miss something that might help you be a more compassionate and joyful person.

I was talking to a good friend of mine, Rudi, about a problem we were seeing that was being dismissed. It’s not the type of thing you’d typically get up in arms about.  He jokingly said, “well, I’ve got this woman on the side, but no big deal, God understands me.” The implication was that we wouldn’t casually commit adultery and assume it’s a sin that God would shrug and go “oh well, you’re just weak, I get it, it’s cool bro.” So why do we make that assumption about other sin?

Sexual sin gets us, well, all hot and bothered. It’s easy to identify and point out, even if we don’t all agree on what constitutes an actual sin. Some of the no-brainers like murder and theft, we all agree are wrong; it’s easy to identify unjust taking of life or property. But what about those secret, soft sins? What about how jealous we are of our friend for whom everything seems to come so easily? Or how reliant we are on money for our sense of self-worth? Or how unwilling we are to listen when someone is lovingly correcting us, because we know we thought this through and have to be right?

One of the most helpful things my church taught me was a fresh perspective on idolatry. We tend to think of only the most extreme cases when we’re thinking about idolatry; people like the junkie who lost everything, or the slave to lust who blew up his or her marriage. But how many times have external factors in the world changed our emotions and claimed our focus? We wring our hands, weep, and fret over that relationship we couldn’t have or that isn’t going as well as we would like. We rack our brains to come up with a way to make a little more money so we can feel safe. We are raising our love or our money in these situations as idols with the power to determine our joy or take it away. Another perspective, taught to me by a church a while back, was that the definition of worship is what claims your time. Again, in these situations, our energy is not focused on what God’s will might be for us, but on what these things can do for us.

A useful technique to evaluate whether you’re being dismissive of your sin is to perform one of these substitutions. Take your problem that you don’t find abhorrent, but that you feel in your conscience is wrong, and substitute it with one that you do find abhorrent. Most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable stealing a car from a parking lot, for instance. So pretend instead that instead of chasing money, or worshipping a guy, you were stealing cars and couldn’t stop. What do you think God would have to say to you about that sin then, if you were to ask? What do you think your conscience would say to you? And how serious would you be about fixing it? When you’ve got a good handle on the feeling of conviction, and your feeling about how earnestly you’d like to change if you were that person, keep those feelings and apply them to the current situation.

A non-Christian objection to this notion of sin is that it’s a cosmic guilt trip. I view it a bit differently. One of the things that I find most interesting about Christianity is that everything works in reverse. We don’t fight our human nature and act good so that we can gain the favor of God and be spared wrath. Rather, because we believe a triune God sent a part down as a human to pay the debt we had accrued for past, present, and future wrongs, we fight our human nature that just wants to rack up more debt and serve ourselves and instead seek to know, reconcile, and ultimately be united with this being.

This is why Christians prefer to seek conviction over guilt. Conviction tells you something is wrong, just like guilt does. Guilt, however, carries a seed of wrath; you are either planning on punishing yourself or awaiting external judgment. Conviction carries a seed of forgiveness; as we turn back to God and renew our commitment, we receive the forgiveness that permeates the entire universe and binds its brokenness. I use “receive the forgiveness” rather than “we are forgiven” because it’s easy to confuse the latter with “we’re forgiven because we repent, conditionally”. Forgiveness sits in God’s open hand, and it’s on us to take it and choose its joy and consequence. Of course, we can choose not to take it, but that’s not denied forgiveness; that’s rejected forgiveness, rejected by us.

Oddly, I feel compelled to answer the obvious question my title engenders at the very end: what is sin? I’ve been taught and believe that sin is that which separates us from God, or is anything that we place above God in priority. However, what if your understanding of God is different, or you are currently having trouble believing that there is a God at all? If you’re currently in that place, I think it’s useful to think of sin as something that causes us to choose ourselves over others, or to choose a short-term victory over a long-term one that we know we could have if we persevered. Sure, there are edge cases, but exploring at the margins doesn’t help us get to the center of a truth; it merely tests the limits of that truth. The center is where we wish to be for now, so ask yourself: where am I choosing my desires over the legitimate needs of others? Where am I chasing a short-term win that is destroying my long-term prospects? Then, try swapping that problem with a more serious and urgent one and see where it gets you.

The “Genderqueer God” and the Affirmation of Identity

Here in Atlanta, it’s Pride weekend, where LGBTIQ (and imagine A as well in a few cases) people and their allies celebrate the freedom to define themselves and their identity. While walking in Midtown this Friday, I passed St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. They had an electronic sign in the front posting messages about services as well as affirming messages such as “you are a child of God and you are welcome here.”  One message gave me pause, and it was this:

Sign reading

My personal theology is evolving, but is fairly liberal. I am pretty comfortable with “live and let live” with respect to people’s personal identities, and am staunchly in favor of civil liberties for all people regardless of orientation or identity. However, this made me angry to read in a way that I didn’t expect. Intuitively, it felt like a willful misinterpretation of Christian beliefs as stated in the Bible. Since I consider myself fairly liberally-minded, having what I viewed as a conservative reaction bothered me. I decided to do some research and reflection rather than assuming that the statement was wrong or accepting it on its face.

First, we should define the term “genderqueer”. Wikipedia defines it as:

“a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.”

For those just joining the bleeding edge of identity concepts, cisnormativity refers to the bias toward a understanding of the world where men identify only as men and women identify only as women.

Given this definition, at first, the statement sounds a little less crazy. God is not defined as male or female and does not conform to the gender binary. We refer to God as male because we grew up in (and the books of the Bible were all written in the context of) a patriarchal society. I actually would rather refer to God using the pronoun “it”, but that word is loaded with problematic nuance that doesn’t work in English. Does this mean that we can refer to God, then, as “genderqueer” and have that be as accurate as saying “God is not male or female”? I’ll get to that in a minute.

The verse referred to in the image, is Deuteronomy 4:16, which reads:

“beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female”

I’m not sure what this verse has to do with the assertion that God is genderqueer. As far as I can tell, this is a restatement of “don’t make graven images”, which is part of God’s drawing of a distinction between the Hebrews and the other people of the area, who worshipped multiple gods and viewed idols as focal points for worship. I get that it’s asserting that God’s likeness can’t be captured as male or female, but it goes on in the next verse to say you can’t use animals either. So let’s look at a verse that has some more relevance; Genesis 1:27:

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

So if man and woman are both created in the image of God, this would mean that the image of God encompasses both masculinity and femininity. More evidence that God does not conform to the gender binary. So we ask again, does this make God “genderqueer”?

I’m not a minister, and not even particularly well read on theology and religion, so I welcome thoughtful insight and counterpoints from pastors and ministers out there on this. However, one key theological tenet that I have taken to heart is that one cannot submit the Creator of the entire universe to the Creation that was made. When we define God as an old white man (or even just as a man), we are reducing God to conform to the rules of that creation. However, by the same token, if we try to box God into any characteristic of human identity, we’re doing the same thing; conforming God to the creation made by God.

God does not have a gender; God created gender, and created each person that subscribes to a particular gender identity as well. The irony of using that part of Deuteronomy to justify the assertion that God has a particular gender identity that is affirming to the non-standard binary is that in making that assertion, we are creating a different kind of “graven image”. We are trying to fit God into our understanding of how things should be so that we can comprehend, and be more comfortable, and have God accept us.

This is where the beauty of the Christian understanding of grace comes in. Those who believe in this believe that God created each of us the way we are, complete with our strengths and weaknesses. We don’t need to reduce God to make God accept us where we are today. Now, once we take God’s proverbially outstretched hand, Christians differ on what outworkings there may be on that based on your gender identity and sexual orientation. Some believe that having a non-standard identity or orientation means that you must live with it without changing it or acting on it. Others believe that there are paths for everyone to experience the fullness of earthly love, partnership, and self-definition in a way that is not offensive to God and in line with each person’s identity and orientation. Picking a side there is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Ultimately, though, if our affirmation is in an acceptance of the grace outlined in the Gospel, we don’t need a God that looks like us and behaves like us to be validated and affirmed.