The Least Of These
The Grace and Lace Letter
1998: Christmas Remembered
Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
One way to gain insight into a person's character is to observe how that person treats those who are not in a position to defend themselves. Cruelty to animals and children is a hallmark of a mean-spirited individual. Violence against women and girls is pervasive and even sanctioned by some governmental - and religious - authorities. America's historic national shame was the mistreatment of black people when they were powerless to defend themselves.
Transsexual persons are still among those vulnerable to abuse. Our numbers are so small we will never have political influence; we must convince our elected leaders to protect our rights simply because it's the morally right course. Many of us "stand out in a crowd" and so are at risk of physical attack. Almost all of us experience economic hardships related to job loss with transition and the consumption of our life savings for surgical expenses. We don't have the money to buy influence.
It's easy to take cheap shots at transsexual persons. Who stands up in our favor? Could we be some of "the least of these" brothers and sisters of Jesus - a measurement of one's love for God?
In the summer of 2003 the United Church of Christ, meeting in General Synod, approved among numerous resolutions two which were directed toward persons who comprise a group so small they are usually not even mentioned by such policy makers.
In that same year, the spokesmen of the Catholic Church issued a proclamation from the Vatican which was directed toward that same group.
From the UCC Synod in Minneapolis came this news item:
Contrast this to the story reported by Catholic News Service in January of 2003:
There is a profound difference in the way these two church organizations treat a small, politically powerless group. This difference reveals the essence of each church's interpretation of its "Christian" mission. The UCC and similar churches see God as love, calling all persons to experience love which includes us all, letting that love flow out into the world in ministry, in sharing, in acts of kindness.
The Roman Catholic church can surely point to many acts of kindness and loving ministry over the centuries. The overall pattern of their actions through history, however, is one of strict enforcement of their interpretation of "God's law." A religion which uses guilt and fear to control its followers is built around confession and acts of penance. A quick look at church history may help us understand why we are treated in such a non-loving manner.
Catholics share with fundamentalist Protestants a need to convert the world to their particular belief system. The only true religion is their religion, and all others are doomed. This creates an "us versus them" position which unites the masses and gives them a sense of shared purpose. Unfortunately, it also requires the creation of an enemy - "them" - to conquer.
The enemies are given names. "Infidel" and "heathen" have been popular variations over the years. For most of the Christian era, such enemies have been easy to identify. One group were active combatants against the "armies of God" which, all too often, were literal armies. These knights traveled to the lands of the Bible to reclaim them for the Church, in the process killing the inhabitants of those lands without respect for women and children. All in the name of God! These wars did little to make "true believers" out of those who survived the carnage, but they did create an enmity which persists to this day in the hatred many Islamic persons bear for Westerners. History repeats itself as we try, in political and military power, to "convert" their world into American style democracy. Our goals are still based on the assumption that we have the right way - and they don't.
The armies of the Church - Catholic and Protestant - also spread out over the globe in the centuries following the Reformation, finding in the native peoples varying degrees of welcome. (It was said of the first missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands that they "came to do good and ended up doing rather well.") But where resistance was encountered, it was met with violence. Some tribes in South America and Mexico were massacred without any remorse, perhaps in imitation of the Old Testament descriptions of the slaughter of the Canaanite peoples. In the United States, such massacres occurred less frequently, but the Church's contempt for the "savages" was reflected in the government's forced relocation of tribes to clear their homelands for white settlers.
By the twentieth century, most frontiers had been conquered and civilized. It was still commonplace to treat persons of racial difference as less than fully human, but a unified "heathen enemy" was no longer so apparent. Where would all these "Christian soldiers" march as to war?
New enemies were not hard to find. The rise of the Leninist government in Russia produced a ready foil in "Godless Communism" which reached hysterical proportions in the very real nuclear threat of the Sixties and Seventies. The churches were much slower to recognize the threat of Nazism, probably because the Nazis labeled themselves "Christian" even as they planned their murderous atrocities. The Communist enemy lived on for decades after the Nazis were defeated, but finally the Soviet empire collapsed from the massive inefficiency and bankruptcy of its own internal bureaucracy.
What now would the spiritual warriors find to attack? It would be entirely reasonable to raise the question "why attack anybody?" Why not just spread God's love to everyone, without expectation of making them "just like me"? But those who have been raised with the us-versus-them paradigm do not give it up easily. With no convenient external enemies, they turned inward and began to attack those among their own people who were in some way "different."
There are many ways in which Western society falls short of God's ideals. Jesus himself might identify modern day Saduccees in the fat cats of industry who have bought control over elected governments in order to guarantee their continued economic dominance. He might indeed call "Pharisees" those very legalists who are the subject of our essay. Everywhere we turn there are human tragedies: domestic violence, child abuse, greed, hunger. Persons risking their lives to find opportunity in a new land. Addiction, despair, suicide and homicide. One might think that, against such a background of grief, pastors and priests might find many ways to focus their energies.
Instead, the group which includes the Catholic church and many of the more rabid fundamentalist Protestants have chosen to focus on the "abomination" of sexual and gender minorities. Despite all the rampant violence which slaps us in the face in each morning's news, these people get in the pulpit and on the radio, and they come close to hypertensive strokes screaming about "Sodomites." The very idea that two people of the same sex should enter into a committed loving relationship! Or that persons would "mutilate" their bodies for purposes we don't even want to think about, brothers and sisters! Why, we must be in the end times for certain! These are just the worst things in the world!
This is one reaction to sexual and gender minorities. In the tradition of the crusaders destroying the infidels, they preach hatred toward GLBT persons. Because they hate us, they make God over in their image and claim God hates us too. Is it any wonder that violent crimes against transgender persons occur more frequently than expected for our small numbers? Recently at the annual "Remembering Our Dead" memorial service we read the names of over thirty transgender persons murdered in the past twelve months. Most of the killings displayed excessive brutality. We who are "out" live our lives with the prospect of such hatred also. The two most common motives cited for the killers are, first, homophobic panic from fear and ignorance in violent men; and second, a religious zeal to get rid of the abomination.
This is not of God. People may hate us out of their own fear, but God does not hate us. God loves us, especially when we are at risk of harm from those who misuse God's name.
The second reaction to sexual and gender minorities is more insidious, but it still has as its goal our elimination - through trying to make us "like everyone else". This has been called the "ex-gay" movement. Entire ministries are devoted to the idea that Christ can work a miracle in the life of the GLBT person and make them "straight."
(There is at least one prominent "ex-transsexual" Web site which I have visited. It's a strange story of someone who was preoccupied with the clothing and the sexual aspects of the female role, rather than living a normal woman's life. His story doesn't resemble mine, or that of my friends.)
BUT what if his story had been identical to mine? That is, identical up to the point where he turned away from his transition? More power to him, I'd say; but I would add that he couldn't possibly have been any more fervent or sincere in his prayers for a "cure" than I was. This I know because I lived through it. Christ chose NOT to bring that "cure" about for me, and instead gave me the strength to get through transition with my faith still alive. I no longer have to live in denial and despair, as I would had I not transitioned.
The Web is crowded with stories of "ex-ex-gays" who gave up and admitted the "cure" didn't work. Some of them have found their new life partners within the ex-gay movement. Those who are honest with themselves and others have acknowledged that their sexual orientation never changed; they just live each day "as if" they were straight - in other words, living a lie. Just as I did for years.
Neither of these two ways of dealing with our "least of these" minority represents the type of love and acceptance that Jesus showed when he spent his time with society's outcasts. He came to include us in his love also.
There are ministries which follow Jesus's example in sharing love with our diverse minorities. The "Grace and Lace Letter" which was started by Lee Frances Heller, and still forms the basis for these essays, continues to have both an online and a print edition. "Whosoever" is an online magazine for GLBT Christians. Mel White's Soulforce is an activist ministry dedicated to bringing justice to God's GLBT children. As we show our love for the least of these, so we show our love for Christ.