My straight heterosexual marriage still doesn’t fit the vision of The Nashville Statement

Dear Rebecca:

My wife is a sturdy woman.

This sounds like faint praise, I admit. But it’s nothing less than fact: She’s taller than I am. She’s outweighed me for much of our marriage. And lest that fact mislead you, she’s also stronger than I am. While I was working a desk job early in our marriage, she worked produce at the local grocery store, hefting 50-pound sacks of potatoes and big boxes of vegetables while I typed happily at my keyboard.

Where would we fit, exactly, in the vision of The Nashville Statement?

You see, the underlying idea of The Nashville Statement is complementarianism, the idea that men and women have different bodies and thus different roles in marriage, and that marriage requires this balance of bodies and roles – in the same exact way, every time – in order to be valid in the sight of God.

There’s a photo that went viral this week supposedly, to the minds of its champions, illustrating this principle.


What I want to say about this picture: Good for them. It works for them. In this moment, at least.

It wouldn’t work in my family. I can’t carry my wife. Some of that is the surgeries I had a few years ago – I’m really not supposed to carry anything much heavier than a gallon of milk, to my enduring shame at the grocery store when she lifts everything and I have to just watch. But some of that is: She’s a sturdy woman. Even at my best, I wasn’t carrying her around.

But: Since my surgeries, she’s used her strength a number of times to help me out of baths, to stabilize me when I’m weak, to do chores that I need to let go. We are complementary, just not in the way (apparently) we’re supposed to be.

Matt Walsh, who posted the picture above, writes elsewhere this week: “’Gender roles’ are founded on biology, not bigotry.”

That’s only mostly true, and not true enough for our purposes.

Yes: Men are generally bigger and stronger than women. Women are generally smaller and weaker than men. Generally. Not always.

The problem with complementarianism is that it takes those general truths and insists they govern lives at the individual level, whether or not — as in the life of my family — it may not be practical or even desirable. The Nashville folks tell us we have to live this way too.

But I don’t wanna.

When we started our discussion of The Nashville Statement, I suggested it was the “triumph of learned theology over lived experience.” This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Theology that doesn’t permit the influence of actual lives is just airless ivory tower hypothesizing. Theology that only permits the influence of lives that affirm it – and disregards counterexamples – is tendentious hypothesizing. Either way: The Nashville Statement doesn’t look like my life, my family’s life, or the life lived by many friends of mine.

I’ll stick with my family and friends.

Respectfully, Joel

St. Eugenia and the Nashville Statement

Dear Joel,

The preamble to the odious Nashville Statement captures the anxiety of conservative Christians about changing notions of gender, not just gender orientation. Declares the Statement:

It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

That is, conservative Christians aren’t just worried about the challenges that trans identity delivers to their traditional ideas of gender. They are also worried (for 40+ years now) about cismen and ciswomen’s challenges to gender. And, holy moly, this isn’t just personal. It’s going to ruin not just individual lives but “human life.” (If this sounds familiar, you may have read about it in chapter 5 of God Hates.)

In the 1970s, a host of books about “traditional womanhood,” with titles like Fascinating Womanhood and The Total Woman, came out to direct women how to stick with traditional gender roles even as second wave feminism was opening up new opportunities for them. In the 1990s, we saw a similar effort for men through Promise Keepers and books with titles like Raising a Modern Day Knight and The Tender Warrior.

We might see current anti-trans work like the Nashville Statement as part of this work to maintain strict gender distinctions in conservative Christianity. Fans of the Nashville Statement see it as a necessary effort to protect gender boundaries.

But… why?

I mean, if gender boundaries were as natural as essentialist readers of the Bible say they are, wouldn’t we just conform without the policing? Would we need book after book of Christian advice on how to be a woman or how to be a man? Wouldn’t we just know? If this stuff is built into my very anatomy, why does it need to be defended so vigorously?

The need to police speaks to the desire to defy.

Which could mean that the “solution” to the defiance of those norms is to get rid of them. Or, if conservative Christians can’t quite bring themselves to do that work, at least loosening them up a bit.

Fewer rules about gender mean fewer challenges to them.

St. Eugenia

Above, a detail of St. Eugenia, taken from the Church of the Archangels in Ioannina, in Northwestern Greece. In the third century, Eugenia was about to be forced by her pagan parents to marry a pagan. A Christian, she disguised herself as a man and fled to a monastery, eventually becoming the abbot. Whether they are trans or cis, people who threaten patriarchy are subject to gender disciplining and need to stand together against it.

I’m not saying that if women were allowed to wear pants to church or pray before mixed-sex audiences or if more men worked in the church nursery that would mean that fewer people would be trans. (Fewer people being trans isn’t the goal here, and being trans isn’t reducible to simply wanting to do the tasks associated with a different gender.) I’m saying that tight control over gender gets cis and trans people all down. A queer tide lifts all boats, or something like that.

Which is just why conservative Christians want to marginalize trans people right out of the kingdom of heaven–because the whole thing won’t work to the advantage of the most powerful if everyone’s not on the straight and narrow in terms of gender and gender identity.

Conservative Christians’ denial of transphobia and claim to love trans people might ring a little truer if it didn’t seem to be more linked to their desire to also limit cismen and ciswomen in their roles.

Unless, I mean, transphobia is related to misogyny. (Hint: it is.)





The Role of Private Parts in Salvation (Yes, I’m absolutely serious.)

Dear Joel,

(First, I originally used the word “genitals” in the title of this post, but FB flagged it as spam and wouldn’t let me post it. Sigh.)

Thanks for the notice that the Nashville Statement has been published. For those of you who missed it, the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which 30 years ago produced the the Danvers Statement, is once again up to no good. Danvers is anti-LGB, and Nashville is anti-T (that is, anti-trans).

The Nashville Statement has 14 articles, each with an affirmation and a denial. For example, article VII:

We affirm that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture. 

We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purpose in creation and redemption. 

What you see, when you read each one independently and then together, is that the Nashville Statement signatories believe that

  • All physical bodies neatly fall into categories labeled male and female and always have, since the creation of Adam and Eve, “the first human beings” (article III). (For more on why a literal Adam and Eve had to exist and had to be distinctly male and female in their anatomy in order for the rest of conservative Christianity to hold water, see my guest post at Righting America, Susan and William Trollinger’s companion blog to their book Righting America at the Creation Museum. )
  • Physical bodies that don’t conform to the anatomical standards of male or female (Wait! That contradicts the last point. But never mind.) are going to need to fall into one whether they like it or not. “Physical anomalies or psychological conditions” (which is what National Statement folks think being trans is) don’t undermine the “God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.” Those with “a physical disorder of sex development” should “embrace their biological sex insofar as it is known” (article IV).
  • Bodies determine gender, which means that bodies also determine which roles people can take in different domains of life (Biblical complementarianism, as explained in article III).


Image result for karoly patko adam and eveAbove, Karoly Patko’s 1920 Adam and Eve shows the full length of Adam’s body from behind and Eve’s from the front. She reaches to pick a red fruit from a tree at the center of the image. Conservative Christians who sign onto the Nashville Statement seem to think that the genitals are the most important part of this story.

For those who are feeling disheartened by all of this, I think there is good news.

First, the Christians of the sort who sign onto this voted heavily (81% of white evangelicals who voted) for a serial sexual assaulter, adulterer, pornographer, and abortion advocate. Nashville Statement supporters who have been critical of Trump (and there are some of those one the list, too) have reneged on their commitment to help their own co-religionists to “walk orderly” in favor of pointing out the speck in their neighbor’s eye. The fact that they keep talking, as if anyone outside of their rapidly shrinking circle cares, is embarrassing to them but shouldn’t hurt those of us outside of that circle. As you point out, they supported a man who violates all their sexual standards and yet they think that trans rights are going to be the ruin of America. Jesus has some words for those people. And they aren’t nice.

As you argue just today in The Week, Trump supporters need to understand what their legacy will be.

Second, we all see through the language of compassion and love. In lots of places in the Nashville Statement, the authors say that God loves and can save trans people–if they conform to the “Biblical standard” of sex and gender (which are the same thing in this model). The Nashville Statement never uses the word hell, but it’s there. Sure, God loves everyone, but he will send even those he loves to hell if they don’t express their gender in ways that align with their “biological sex” (a term that the Nashville Statement never defines).

This is the most dangerous, dishonest part of the Nashville Statement. The mournful eyes. The “this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you” tone. Truly, I respect the honesty of Westboro Baptists, who don’t confuse God’s love with hatred, more. The fact is, these Christians don’t love trans people. They demean them, and want to take away their basic ability to exist in the world. They use a politics of disgust to whip up public sentiment. The Nashville Statement calls on conservative Christians to use incorrect pronouns and deadnames for trans people (“speak truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female,” from article IX.)

If you are trans, walk on by this language because it does not describe how God loves the diversity of creation. If you love a trans person, call this language for what it is: hurtful, nasty, mean-spirited, lies trying to hide as the theology of “Christian faithfulness and witness” (article X).

Third, the Danvers Statement was a shot fired in the battle against gay rights and same-sex marriage. Conservative Christians have lost that battle in the law and in culture, and they are losing their churches over it. All they have left is some fighting about whether florists should legally have to arrange flowers for same-sex couples’ weddings. While such arguments are important, as the Supreme Court’s decision to hear Masterpiece Cakes this year indicates, it’s the end of the argument. Even if they win that case, all they win is the right to huddle together and discriminate against people. It does matter that queer couples have access to all the same consumer experiences as straight couples. But by the time we’re arguing about frosting and flowers, the battle is almost over.

Fourth, as you say, the Nashville Statement makes this kind of Christianity very unattractive. And that’s good, because it is a Christianity that narrows the wideness of God’s mercy. It’s a religion that affirms the powerful and threatens the weak. It shrinks the awesomeness of God and uses it as a weapon. It is not spiritually dangerous like the religion of Jesus should be–a danger to the status quo–but to those who hold it.

The Nashville Statement is going to make news for a little while. Conservative Christians are going to pat themselves on the back for taking such a “courageous” stand against a culture that is becoming more, not less, expansive about what it means to be human. Today, it hurts trans people and especially trans Christians and especially those queer people in conservative churches. We should care for them tenderly right now. And we should keep fighting for their rights.

But the Nashville Statement would not have been written if anti-queer Christians didn’t already feel threatened. There is some encouragement in that.


The Nashville Statement

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 10.23.43 AM
Some real evangelical “heavy hitters” signed onto The Nashville Statement.

Dear Rebecca:

Have you heard about The Nashville Statement? Here’s a taste:

WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenantlove between Christ and his bride the church.
WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.
WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

There’s more of this stuff, but you get the idea.

I never really want to tangle with people who express this stuff. Either you believe it or you don’t. I don’t. But I’m operating on different premises than these folks, and arguing with them would be like a German person and a French person debating, in their native languages, without use of a translator. You’ll get that there’s a difference of opinion, but not much way to bridge the gap.

But in a time when we’re led by a president who values women more as trophies than as individuals, who issues pardons that make it possible to oppress Latinos, who makes casual threats of nuclear war … to look at the country and decide that the real problem is that two men might love each other, or that a woman might try to be a soldier … strikes me as misguided. It’s a triumph of learned theology over lived experience.

It certainly doesn’t make me think a return to evangelicalism is in order for me.

Respectfully, Joel

Coast Guard as Anti-Trans Proving Grounds

Dear Joel,

You know that I’ve got ambivalent feelings about Trump’s executive order banning trans people from military service. Trump probably doesn’t care any more about trans soldiers than he cares about the ten sailors who were lost at sea last week when a navy ship collided with a cargo ship. (Which is to say, he does not care.) His indifference to them is like his indifference to everyone who is not actually Donald Trump, which means that he’s quite willing to harm them to bolster himself. You’ve noted The Week that it’s an effort to keep the losers in the culture wars on his team because the culture wars are the only thing he has–and, even here, he’s going to lose.  This executive order, like everything Trump does, is a way to gin up rating, reassure the Religious Right that they matter to him, and exercise power over people who are less powerful than him, just like bullies do. At the same time, I don’t think anyone has the right to kill other people, and the military and warfare are generally places of oppression, not liberation, sexual or otherwise. I would like to see us offering new visions of freedom and civic duty to trans people so that military service isn’t even attractive.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not worried about the ban.

Here’s why:

The ban includes the Coast Guard, which is organized under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense. Prior to the creation of Homeland Security, it was part of the Department of Transportation. During times of war, the president can transfer the assets of the Coast Guard to the Department of the Navy–and this has, indeed, been the strategy that most presidents have taken during a time of war. But, right now, the Coast Guard, while part of the military, doesn’t fight wars.

Image result for coast guard

Above, members of the Coast Guard take a photo with drugs they’ve intercepted. On an average day, the Coast Guard seizes $9.2 million in drugs. Trans people can do this job without any risk to “military readiness,” so why ban them?

Now, Trump’s argument that trans service members undermine our ability to win wars is incorrect. (We don’t win wars for lots of reasons, but trans people aren’t one of them.) But if we accept that argument, including the Coast Guard in the trans ban doesn’t make sense. It’d be like banning trans people from serving in ICE or Border Patrol or FEMA or Customs or TSA or the Secret Service. All of those fall under Homeland Security, too.

And we wouldn’t ban trans people from serving in those ways, would we?

Unless, I mean, this is a larger effort to make it justifiable to get rid of trans employees for any reason. Which might just be the promise that Trump is dangling before his transphobic voters.



Hellboy, and the difficulty of giving up white privilege

Dear Rebecca:

Are you a Hellboy fan? No? Well, let me bring you some news from the world of entertainment:

After Ed Skrein was cast in the forthcoming reboot of Hellboy, frustration quickly surfaced over the white actor being slated to play Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character from the comic books. It was the latest installment in the Are We Seriously Still Talking About This? chronicles of studios racially miscasting roles in film and television. But, in a big twist, Skrein announced Monday that he will depart Hellboy to make way for a more appropriate actor, explaining his “moral” decision on Twitter.

In a response to both whitewashing complaints and Skrein’s decision to exit the film, Lionsgate has released a statement of their own today saying they are now committed to casting the role of Daimio correctly: “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”

28-ed-skrein.w190.h190So. We can argue whether the ethnicity of a fictional character is set in stone, but I’d like to leave that aside for now and say that what Skrein did was very, very laudable. He got a job based on a number of factors – he’s a talented prettyboy, after all – but also, probably, because Hollywood still finds it easier to cast white people in Asian roles than the other way around.

To his credit, Skrein didn’t try to rationalize this. He gave up his privilege.

Here’s the tough part: Giving up that privilege was probably, for Skrein, relatively easy. He’s been in movies before; he’s got several more in the process. He wasn’t giving up work, exactly — he was giving up this work. When you’re rich and (somewhat) famous, that’s a gamble worth taking, especially if you calculate that keeping the role might make you look like an insentive racist to part of the viewing audience.

Down the socioeconomic ladder, it’s a little harder.

I understand why a lot of folks don’t want to hear about white privilege. Maybe it means they get harassed by the cops less, or maybe they find it a little easier to get a job, and getting a job is goddamned difficult enough that it doesn’t always feel like much of a privilege. And hey, I’ve got kids to feed, too, so why should I give up my $40,000-a-year job to somebody else who deserves a shot?

The other thing: The situation isn’t usually so clear-cut as Skrein’s. He took a job that had long been envisioned for an Asian face. When I take an editing job,it’s rarely a “black” job, I take.

This is why folks like Trump win elections. Losing privilege is a loss, especially when it gets down to zero-sum questions of who gets this job.

So what Skrein did was admirable. It’s also not really an example to solving the problem.

Sincerely, Joel

You can’t spell “resistance” without “rest.”


Dear Rebecca:

This morning in church I was asked to read from the writings of “Kansas poet” William Stafford. Stafford died in the 1990s, but these particular passages seemed very well suited to our Internet-Trump era.

He speaks of writer whose work seems to be to

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits…

Fascination with things as they are becomes addictive; stronger and stronger shocks become necessary. People want even their entertainments to satisfy their lust for fear, cynicism, and disgust…

We must suspend the old course in current events, in order to protect the young. And even the old, battered, disoriented, blasé, can no longer register human feelings in the blizzard of our time.

Sanctuary, sanctuary — what lives needs sanctuary.

Sound familiar?

It seems to me these days we are governed by provocation and provocateurs. On social media, we swim in a tide of constant outrage — the “blizzard of our time” — and our passions, my passions certainly, are governed by the need to respond to those outrages, to make them right. “Someone is being wrong on the Internet” is a motto for our generation.

And more specifically, we are literally governed by a man who seems to want to find limits that have prevailed and break them, to be more brutal and obscene and violent.

What if we stopped being provoked?

I’m not suggesting we absent ourselves from politics. As many have pointed out, that’s something you can do when you’re privileged, when politics don’t happen to you.

But I am suggesting maybe it’s time to disarm, to stop responding to every provocation with a torrent of outrage. What if we don’t go apeshit every time our leader pokes us with a stick?

What if we follow the logic of sabbath? You can’t spell “resistance”without “rest” after all.

I don’t know exactly what this looks like. I don’t know how, precisely, to avoid being provoked when our leader’s every action is provocative. But I suspect that finding such an approach would rob the provocateurs of their greatest power, their greatest advantage. Maybe the slyest rhetorical weapon we have in this age is … the shrug.

There’s so much to be angry about. Our rage is earned, and righteous, but I increasingly suspect it’s a way of controlling us. There are benefits to dispassion, after all, to the pulled punch and the shot gone unfired.

Sanctuary, sanctuary. What our lives need is sanctuary.

Restively, Joel