Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘unbinding’

Transgender Remembrance: Freeing Ourselves, Freeing Others

John 11:38-44

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The Binding of Gender
It is not a stretch to claim that religious people, more specifically Western Christians, have had quite a lot of trouble with the idea of gender. We could spend hours discussing the patriarchal history and embedded male dominance of the Christian Church from its inception to the current day. So it only follows that the church has a poor reputation as to how it treats people who identify as transgender or gender fluid. For example, the recent bathroom access controversy has been spurred on by so-called Christian groups. They claim that transgender use of public bathrooms poses a “danger” to others. Of course, this crazy and unfounded fear is based on their idea that God does “make” mistakes, and since they believe that male or female is the only possible gender identification or expression, God must then work only in binaries. Anything outside of that rigid definition cannot be from God. Of course, that is neither Biblical nor consistent with any of Jesus’ teachings. It does continue to confuse and frustrate me how so many Western Christians struggle to accept that God is bigger than us, and therefore, gender is bigger than our limited perspectives.

Of course, a lot of it goes back to the scriptures and how people interpret them. If someone interprets them literally, then they assume that this is the very Word of God, unchanged. But they never do take the Bible literally. Instead, they impose their own agendas and interpretations to fit their own social, political, and moral perspectives. We all do, really. Just for fun, let me say this: if those who claim to take the Bible literally really did, well, surprise!

Jesus would in fact be transgender.

I’ll get to that later, but first we have to recognize, in all seriousness, the great harm that the Christian church has done to transgender people. It goes beyond religious marginalization. The church has bullied trans folk, physically and mentally harmed them, and the church has even killed them. We must admit to this.

According to the Human Rights Campaign and GLADD, in 2015, there were 21 reported murders of transgender people. Already in 2016, there have been 26 reported murders. This is just in the United States alone. This does not take into account those who are bullied and pushed to the brink of suicide, and those who go through with it. Friends, in a time in which hateful rhetoric has amped up against certain people, this should wake us up. We are not talking about gang violence or narco trafficking. We are talking about people being targeted and killed because of their gender identity or expression. The church, all Christians, we are responsible. We cannot allow this to happen. We must take a stand. How, you may ask.

First, maybe some of us need to learn. I know that I admit to knowing very little. I do research, read all the transgender and LGBTQ literature I can get my hands on, I ask questions of my transgender friends, family, and colleagues. I still have a lot to learn. We all do. We must listen. We must learn. To start, here are some terms to be acquainted with:

Terminology

Gender Identity:  a person’s innate, deeply felt sense of being male or female (sometimes even both or neither)

Gender Expression: external, and based on individual and societal conceptions and expectations

Transgender: gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex

Gender Fluid: a more flexible range of expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day.

Gender Queer: a fluidity of gender expression that is not limiting

By no means an exhaustive or all-encompassing discussion. Please comment and add your thoughts and added insights and knowledge.

Lazarus Bound, We Are All Bound
mummy
This brings us to the Lazarus story. Lazarus, like many transgender friends of ours in this world, was bound. He was bound with mummy-like burial cloths in a cave, a tomb. His friends and family thought he was dead. Jesus came along and told his sister Mary not to be so depressed about it, that Lazarus would live. Mary, in her binary thinking, agreed, but she was thinking about heaven. But Jesus was talking about today. No one understood, but it didn’t matter to Jesus. He went to the cave, a metaphor in the Gospel tradition for transformation or metamorphosis—the caterpillar’s cocoon. Roll away that stone. Lazarus, COME OUT OF THE CAVE! He did come out of the cave, but he was still bound. He was not yet alive, that his, until Jesus spoke the all-important words: Unbind him; let him go. Unbind Lazarus, let him go. Let Lazarus be Lazarus, whoever that may be. Stop limiting his life to your perspectives, or religious beliefs, or social conditioning. Let Lazarus go. Unbind.

The Unbinding, Freeing Jesus
The people were sure they knew who Lazarus was [he was dead to them], but Jesus reminded them of how limited their thinking was—not just about God, but about people, too. Jesus of Nazareth could indeed heal Lazarus, but in order for Lazarus to be truly free, the people had to unbind him.

Honestly, I cannot imagine what transgender people have gone through and go through. I can only listen to their stories and then stand with them. I have never experienced what many of them have—to be criticized, marginalized, or even targeted—not because they committed a crime, or fought in a war against you, or did or said something bad to you. Just because they are. That is brutal. Absolutely devastating. And as Jesus taught, we cannot follow God if we do not stand with those who are truly marginalized. I’m not talking about fake marginalization, I’m talking about people who are clearly targeted and attacked physically, mentally, and spiritually—who are told that their bodies and minds don’t matter. This is beyond wrong. This is evil.

transgender-1030x1030
I told you I’d come back to this business about a transgender Jesus and the Biblical interpretations and so here we go. Suzanne DeWitt Hall, in her article Jesus the First Transgender Man in the Huffington Post, makes an interesting point. For all those who say that transgender people are outside of God’s natural order, let’s apply their so-called literal translations of the Bible. The teachings of the ancient church through today, in general, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood person. He was born of Miriam [Mary in Greek], so therefore, he was carrying her DNA. Also, the Bible [and Christian church] has taught that Jesus was the new Adam, born of the new Eve. Stay with me here. The Hebrew book of Genesis states that Eve came from Adam’s rib, obviously a male rib, right? And then Eve became female. So she was male, and then was female? Transgender Eve. Oh, and fast forward to Jesus. He was born of Miriam [Mary], but not of Joseph, if you believe in the whole incarnate birth thing. So…Mary was the new Eve, passing on her gender fluid identity to Jesus.

Add to that the creation stories in Genesis which state that God created humans in God’s likeness, male and female. So what is God? Man? Woman? Both? Neither? Uh-huh, you feeling me now?

It’s a joke when Christians try to say that transgender people or those who are gender fluid, are not living as God intends. They make their faulty arguments all the while ignoring the Bible itself. Most people will be quick to tell you that God is not a man, but if so, then why do they continue to insist on calling God “he” and not “she” or neither gender? Look, it’s time for the church, it’s time for Christians to grow up and to actually read the Bible. And it’s time for Christians to embrace people of all gender identifications and expressions as they are.

Take a quick glance at the dictionary definition for the prefix “trans.” It means across, beyond, through, changing thoroughly. Hello, Jesus. Christ crosses all borders and limitations; Christ is beyond the church, beyond religion; Christ is through all and in all; Christ changes people thoroughly and helps them feel alive again. So yes, Jesus was/is trans. Jesus showed us what it can be like to just love and accept people as they are. That kind of relationship is healing. Friends, we must see all of our trans neighbors, friends, family members, and colleagues as we see ourselves. They are beautiful, they are good creations, they are deserving of dignity, respect, and love. No more binding. No more hating. Time for all to be free.
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Unbinding to Be Alive

John 11:1-45

cutezombieNow look, I don’t know if you watch The Walking Dead on television or if you’re into zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead, REC, Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, or 28 Days Later. I am not sure if the idea of a once-dead human being rising from death to be “alive” again intrigues you or if it just plain freaks you out.

Regardless, it’s appropriate to talk about zombies, because the story of Lazarus is a zombie story.

I like the Brick Testament’s Lego version of Jesus and Lazarus…

lazaruscomeout

lazarus

So it is only a few weeks away from when we talk about the death and resurrection story of Jesus, which also is a zombie story. That’s why most people think of the Lazarus story as just a prequel to Jesus’ resurrection story. I’ve said before, however, that when anyone projects things and ideas onto the scripture stories, one can go to crazy extremes. So how about we just read the Lazarus zombie story as it is and then go from there? I think we’ll find more meaning and hopefully more inspiration to live as more loving and compassionate human beings…who are alive.

 It is also my hope that we’ll be creative people who use our brains; after all, so far no one is actually eating anyone’s brains.

 So who was Lazarus?

He was from Bethany, and his name means a Galilean. Why should you care? Well, Jesus was a Galilean and the Galilean Jews represented a particular ideology and world view. The short version is that the Galileans weren’t in love with the Roman Empire or the religious temple system. You see, when we talk about “the Jews” in a NT context, we don’t just mean the people who lived in “the Holy Land-Jerusalem” and that they all believed the same things. “The Jews” were [and are] a diverse group of people—geographically, culturally, and religiously. Galilee was a northern province. Judea was a southern province [where Jerusalem was]. Galilee, the north, was more diverse ethnically and culturally due to the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century B.C.E. The influence of other religions and cultures [Hellenistic] was widespread.

Galilee was separated from Judea by…Samaria.

Politically, Galilee was set apart from the rest of Judea, resisting Roman rule. Galilee was also a major place for resources—good fishing and agriculture. Galileans also spoke a unique form of the Aramaic language. Imagine Jesus with a thick accent in which he drops consonants from the end of words. And religiously, Galileans were not thought of highly by their Judean neighbors to the south. They were far from the religious epicenter of Jerusalem, they did not maintain as strict or strong Jewish traditions, and they were definitely influenced by the Greeks.[1]

This is all very, very important in the story.

Jesus, from the north, was not considered by many Judeans to be as religious or culturally relevant. He was not accepted overall in the south as a great prophet or teacher.

It is in this context that we meet Lazarus, who happens to be sick.

Actually, the word in Greek for sick is better rendered as lethargic or weak.

Lazarus was pretty much like a zombie.

Then John’s Gospel reminds us that those of us reading this in 2014 in the United States have some work to do. Verse 2 of this story mentions Mary, the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Turns out the zombie Lazarus is her brother.

Oh, right, except there’s just one problem:
The story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume hasn’t happened yet.

How come John’s authors assume we already know that story before it’s told?

Friends, this is yet another example as to why I argue that we need to read Bible stories as they are in their literary, social, and historical context. John’s Gospel isn’t for you and me. It was written for a specific group of people who already knew the stories and were now getting a different interpretation of them. So as we read this, let’s walk in their shoes and enjoy it even more.

Lazarus was as sick as a zombie.

But even when Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus secretly that he should do a pastoral visit, Jesus didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He stayed two more days in the place where he is. No urgency. Finally, he eventually said to his friends: “Let’s go to Judea.”

Uh…Judea? The south? They just escaped from there and barely! Are you crazy?

But Lazarus was Jesus’ dear friend, and according to him, there was still the light of day with which to walk. So why not?

Lazarus was just asleep, so why not wake him? The disciples understood…or did they?

They assumed Jesus would just say to Lazarus: Wakey, wakey, Lazzie…

But Jesus was referring to death and then the life that would come after.

It seemed like the only disciple who got it was Thomas, who assumed that if they did go to Judea, things would not end well.

Sure, Jesus, let’s all go to see Lazarus, so we will all die.

Man, that’s a bit depressing.

But the story throws us for another loop, because apparently, Thomas and the others didn’t go. Jesus alone eventually makes it to Bethany to see Lazarus.

Maybe he followed the smell.

You see, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. The professional Judean mourners were already there. Mary stayed with them and Martha went to meet Jesus. An interesting dialogue occurred.

Martha was convinced that if Jesus would have come earlier [i.e. NOT hanging out and partying for two days with the disciples in Galilee-Vegas], for sure Lazarus would not have died.

Then, she affirms her generic religious response: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

But that’s not what Jesus was saying at all.

He was saying: Your brother Lazarus will rise…TODAY.

Martha’s religious dogma and doctrine was set. Resurrection in the last day? Check. Messiah, Son of God, coming? Check. But it was all in the future and tied to tradition.

So let’s find Mary, shall we? Martha whispered to her [pssst..the teacher is here] because the Judean mourners were still there [remember what I said about the Judeans and Galileans not getting along?]

So Mary went to see Jesus and repeated [like a zombie] just what Martha said:
If you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died.

Uh-oh. Mary wasn’t sneaky enough, though. The Judeans followed her to where Jesus was.
Would there be a fight?

No, actually. Jesus saw everyone’s great sadness. He empathized. He cried, too. But he was more than just sad. He was angry, too. The suffering was real. Jesus did not ignore it.
But, in spite of Jesus’ empathy and compassion, some still wondered why he didn’t come earlier.

Time to go find Lazarus.

The tomb was a cave and a stone lay against it. Caves were metaphors for transformation or metamorphosis—kind of like the caterpillar’s cocoon.

Take away the stone, says Jesus.

Martha is hesitant to do this now, because, um, it smelled bad and apparently they ran out of incense.
But Jesus didn’t care. As the people moved the stone, Jesus prayed.

Then he shouted: Lazarus, come out!

At this point in the story, Lazarus is actually no longer a zombie [tired and weak], but more like a mummy.

mummyHe was still wrapped in burial cloth, after all.

And that’s fitting, because Jesus’ one-liner, climatic line is:

 Unbind him; let him go.

Indeed. Unbind him; let him go.

Throughout the whole story, Martha, Mary, the disciples, and the Judeans were limited by their understanding of life and death; they were limited by their religious views and socio-political conditioning.

In short, if someone was dead, he/she was dead. End of story.
If someone was poor, it must be meant to be.
If someone was limited by gender, language, culture, or geography—so be it.
Everyone thought that Lazarus was a zombie, but they were the zombies.

They were conditioned [even brainwashed at times] by their experiences to think that their own humanity fit into someone’s category and that G-d’s great mercy and love were meant for only a select few.

But Lazarus emerged from his cave-cocoon with life.
What they thought smelled awfully like death would now smell like sweet perfume.

But Jesus’ last words in this story stick in my head:
Unbind him; let him go.

It was up to the people in the story to unbind Lazarus. They had to let him be free.

Man, do we need to hear this.

How many people do we bind in this world—limiting them? How many people do we write off as dead and useless?
Unbind them. Free them.
Or help them unbind and free themselves.

And how much do we notice our own zombie tendencies in day to day life?
Are we just asleep?
Are we fatigued, weak, lethargic?
Or are we dead?

We can say the same thing to G-d:
If only you had been there…maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Where are you, G-d?

Or we can try to comfort people who suffer by saying:
Pray about it.
Just hang in there.

But their suffering [and ours] is real.
Living as fully human, we can stay in that moment of suffering and get angry, sad, and upset.
Ignoring the our own suffering and the suffering of others will fool us into thinking that we’re all meant to be zombies.

Well, we’re not.

We’re meant to live as resurrected people…and now.

So how will you unbind yourself and let go this week?
Who will you help to unbind and be alive?

 

[1] R. T. France, Commentary on The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT, 2007)

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