Transitioning in Christian Community: H. Adam Ackley & APU

The story of H. Adam Ackley has caught a significant amount of media attention in recent weeks, as noted over at Theoblogy, and at greater length at the Religion News Service website.  In short,

A California Christian university has asked a professor who was once its chair of theology and philosophy to leave after he came out as transgender.  Heather Clements taught theology at Azusa Pacific University for 15 years, but this past year, he began referring to himself as H. Adam Ackley. “This year has been a transition from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” he said.

My friend Carrie Marjorie Peirce has taught in the department of global studies and sociology at APU for many years, and in the time I have known her it has been as a fierce defender of human rights and dignity for all members of the human community.  What follows originated as a Facebook post for friends, and as I read Carrie’s thoughts, I was struck by her remarkable ability to synthesize the issues, stand in the middle of complexity, and focus on what it means to be community.  With permission and a few edits, here is what she says:

I know my response to the way Azusa Pacific University has been working with HeathAdam Ackley as a transgendered person is one about which many of my students and colleagues will be disappointed. However, I am very pleased with the hospitality, love and respect the Dean of Theology and the “Powers That Be” have shown during this difficult period in HeathAdam’s life within the very messy context for the life of our university community.

There is no doubt in my mind that the university will accept transgendered students with unconditional love and acceptance. But, faculty have a different obligation to our community which includes keeping those in administrative capacities both in Theology and the larger academic administration, informed of this kind of extremely significant and very acceptable changes in someone’s life–especially those who are transgendered.

As a faculty member, I am paid by the university who is supported by donors who are more conservative in their ideas about sexual and gender identity in a way that is in contradiction to their commitments to Christ’s love; but we must respect their perspective as well as affirm HeathAdam’s transition–while at the same time we rejoice in his freedom to finally be the person he was always meant to be.

My understanding is that no one was fired but that all parties came to a mutual understanding that the best plan of action would be to part ways and the university would provide for the faculty member until the end of this academic year.

Social media and the press are having a field day with this– sensationalizing and really missing the true nature and intent of the larger APU community. My hope is that Azusa Pacific University will be characterized as a community who is trying to live and negotiate hospitality within very difficult circumstances. If anyone–students, faculty, staff has problems with the way the situation was handled than we have the responsibility to walk out in protest and forfeit the salary the university pays us. That is the kind of protest that would authentically reflect our perspective on this situation and HeathAdam’s transition.

To be clear, we are all complicit in ignoring our commitment to living the life Christ calls us to. And we are all responsible for responding in love and with hospitality to all–even those with whom we may disagree.  COMMUNITY IS ALWAYS THE PLACE WHERE SOMEONE WE DO NOT WANT TO INCLUDE LIVES WHERE WE LIVE–that is inherent in the content of any community.

It is easy to offer hospitality to those who think like we do. It is a challenge to extend hospitality to those with whom we vehemently disagree.

Given APU’s culture and the expectations that are made abundantly clear when we become part of the university–particularly as it relates to faculty and staff–it is only natural for there to be a range of responses to this situation. Attempting to be hospitable is by it’s very nature fluid–always changing as we grow in our understanding of difference and the qualities of a hospitable community.

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Sometimes we must make decisions that protect all members of our university community. Indeed, it is not HeathAdam’s desire to be who he really is, who he has been all his life, that is transgressive.  He has found the freedom to make a courageous choice.  He is finally who God made him to be.  It is our inability to be truly hospitable that is transgressive.  But, just as I refuse to judge HeathAdam for choosing sanity over mental illness, I will not judge the university for making decisions that protect the financial solvency of our institution.  After all, I continue to take a paycheck which makes me absolutely complicit with the University’s decisions.

In my perfect world, all of this would have played out differently: the University would be throwing open their arms to draw all into the community despite their struggles or their desire to transition from one gender to the other. But we do not live in a perfect world, so, like with so many other difficulties in our lives, we must muddle through this with a sincerity and authenticity that is in line with the Christ of Matthew 25, at the same time knowing that this is a paradox without resolution.

Having said all this, I hope those who disagree with me, or are disappointed with my response, will trust in the person you have known me to be.  I hope I have proven myself to be someone who desires to speak for the marginalized and oppressed.  I hope you will reflect on what I believe about love, hospitality, and inclusiveness.

The entire APU community: students, faculty, staff, administrators and donors have failed to take the risk necessary for including–unconditionally–HeathAdam and for loving him the way we are called to love as Christians. But we continue to try to do our very best to love and open our hearts, houses and minds to all who challenge our view of how the world should work–or how we think it works.

I hope we can work all of this through together as members of a flawed community who never seem to put “God First”–but every day we continue to try–and I have faith in our trying!

For more of my own posts on trans* issues and theology, click here and here.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • talker

    a private Christian university is well within its rights to ask the prof to resign as the views held by this person are not consistent with Biblical truth. By saying that ‘he’ is living a sane life after having switched genders is contrary to biblical truth

  • talker

    God created them “male and female”. He didnt make a mistake there. If a person has a psychological issue with their gender, then its a psychologiocal problem, NOT a biological one to be solved with a surgeons knife. It that needs to be seen as such and taken to God for healing– by His word, prayer and/or with Christian therapy or however He leads.

    • John G. Havrisik

      Amen talker!

      Even if it is a physiological
      disconnect between the internal wiring and the hardware it should not be
      solved with a surgeon’s knife, thus if God truly created Dr. Ackley
      transsexual then why is Dr. Ackley embracing to be changed physically?

      You have hit the head on the nail “talker” with your comment.

      It is obvious by Dr. Ackley’s own words that see sought out justification
      and verification through man’s secular psychology in making her self
      feel whole. She has in turn allowed her interpretation of the Holy
      Scripture to be tainted by her self-truth bias which is influence by
      that same psychology.

      Christ transforms us from the inside and we are to be made whole through Him who saves.

  • John G. Havrisik

    Re: “by the university who is supported by donors who are more conservative in their ideas about sexual and gender identity in a way that is in contradiction to
    their commitments to Christ’s love;”

    What a judgmental thing for you to say.

    No where in the Bible including all of Christ’s teaching will you come accross the term “unconditional love” the way you desire to present it, or “mere acceptance”.

    Christ’s love for us is unconditional on his part, as it is through God’s grace that He sacrificed Himself for us upon the cross.

    But to be forgiven and to forgive is one of the key elements in the love for and love of Christ.

    We can only love this way when we do put God first which the University has done.

    The fact is that being transgender is not normal, in fact if it is considered to be innate, it is a physiological disconnect between the internal wiring and the hardware one is born with. Thus it is a defect and God does allow people to be born with defect.

    But it is Christ who is to make us whole.

    The facts are that Dr. Ackley has chosen to seek her truth through secular psychology which then allowed her self-truth about her gender to come to being. In turn it is this acceptance through psychology that has allowed Dr. Ackley to misinterpret the scriptures in a way that attempts to distort the Truth.

    Thus her bias is now influenced her the way she see’s God and she attempts to justify her being within God’s word because she desires to see herself as normal when in reality she is not.

    Does this mean we should reject her? No, by no means, but when our self-truth bias effects the way we look at scripture then we are not vessels of the Truth in love, we represent an attempt at justifying who we are by diverting the Truth and manipulating it, (what you probably desire to call be creative with it).

    Those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior do not need justification, just as the Truth needs no justification.

    The problem with your humanitarian thoughts are that you would invite the fox in to the hen house or the wolf in to the fold and yet their purpose is not the same as the flock or the keeper or Shepard of the flock.

    This is not compare Dr. Ackley with the fox or wolf but to say that Dr. Ackley is not seeking Christ, that is the Good Shepard, first but is focused on her own gender identity and attempting to make sense of it. Thus this is what has consumed her and that is not judgement but fact based on her own testimony.

    We are not to be “creative” in our religion but to follow in the paths of Christ.

    The more I hear theology Ph.D. talk the more they remind me of the Pharisees of the past who misused and misinterpreted the scriptures constantly.