The Turning Away

The Turning Away June 16, 2014

PSSSSSsssttt. You guys. Somebody tell the Southern Baptists that the transgender crowd is not exactly queuing up to join their churches…

Is exactly the kind of snarky thing I’m really tempted to say right now, just a few days after the Southern Baptist Convention voted to affirm a resolution condemning transgender people. Because really, telling the transgender folks to get out of the Baptist church? That’s kind of like telling the Portland hipsters to stop shopping at Wal-Mart.

It’s almost laughable; that the body of the largest mainline denomination in America feels the need to make a public statement, rejecting a demographic of folks who have likely not darkened the doors of their sanctuaries for decades now.

Because… before today, they thought you MIGHT welcome them? I reckon they knew better.

Here’s the thing though. It’s not as easy as laughing off yet another episode of the Church contributing to its own demise. No. Because there are kids.

There are kids sitting in those churches who don’t get the joke. Kids who maybe don’t know what’s happening to them, or why they are different; or maybe they know exactly what’s different, but they haven’t summoned the courage to tell mom and dad yet. Because mom and dad go to that church, too. And that church tells the parents to reject their child, or to ‘love the sinner but hate the sin.’ That pastor is going to tell them that their child is ‘confused.’

I’m worried about that kid.

Gender and sexuality are tricky things. Also, they are not the SAME thing. Much of what we THINK we know about sexuality and gender identity, we got from magazines and movies more than we drew from scripture.  I know the Bible has some things to say about men and women, and who does what (and who’s allowed to say things in church). However, the cult of manhood/womanhood, as such—these images of biblical man and righteous woman that the traditional ‘church’ seems devoted to upholding–sorry, but that comes straight out of Victorian Literature. And modern day Hollywood. Those imaginary men and women come from commercials and 50’s sitcoms and comforting old movies in which nothing is ever ambiguous. But let us not confuse that with the gospel.

Outside of the cultural, the iconic, and the black and white, most of us have little understanding of what makes us tick when it comes to gender identification. And yet, an aging institution feels comfortable enough with its own doctrine to sanctify their condemnation with a formal resolution.

I can’t decide what is most troublesome about the resolution itself (you can read the whole thing, along with Patheos blogger John Shore’s counter-resolution: good stuff). Is it the fact that faith leaders with little to no background in actual science presume to strike moral poses about how people’s brains and bodies work? Or the fact that they can preach about God-intended human relationships, while cultivating rhetoric that will destroy those relationships? Or is it worse that they can go on about being created in the image of God; while failing to recognize that God’s creative powers might run far deeper than the surface characteristics we use to define each other?

I don’t know. All of these things make my heart hurt. As does the fact that I know and love actual Southern Baptist people. I know them to be kind and compassionate. They are fiercely loyal and unfailingly generous. They work hard, they value community, and they sing the best hymns that there are. Not to mention they put on a great fried chicken dinner. This hateful resolution emerged from corporate fear of ‘other,’ and runs utterly counter to the actual people I know who count themselves as members of this body.

The body, on the whole, continues to destroy itself from the inside.

In adopting this position, the SBC willfully calls for another mass exodus.  But they are also sacrificing some of their own children, like Tributes on Reaping Day.  An institution in decline will sacrifice a great deal to hold onto its own authority.  The Capitol—I mean, the Convention—has always maintained that authority by prescribing behavior and establishing norms. So at least once a generation, they make this sort of absolutist statement, turning out all who don’t fit the mold. Let the games begin… The odds are in nobody’s favor.

Ok, I digress into fictional imagery when I’m mad.

We can’t tell the Al Mohlers of the world what to think or how to be. They won’t listen to us. But what we can do is create a safe space for those transgender former Baptists —the few who will bother to seek a church home again, after this. We can also tell our SBC brothers and sisters that we love them anyway… that we know there is more to their faith story than this painful moment on the wrong side of history.

As people of faith, we are called to embrace the ambiguous. Rather than being fearful of that which defies explanation, we can witness the broad spectrum of human experience as an assurance that God’s not done with us yet. Rather than rushing to conform that which falls beyond our understanding, we can hold it as a reminder that we are, all of us, still becoming.

And we can remember that Jesus, himself, did not exactly fit the mold of ‘biblical manhood’ that some espouse as gospel. He did not father children; he was not ‘the husband of one wife’ (maybe); he did not toil in the fields, nor was he a deacon in his Baptist church.  By contemporary–and totally superficial– standards, Jesus was a pretty androgynous sort of dude. I mean, he didn’t even play FOOTBALL.

In other words… *“I do not believe that Jesus himself would entirely meet with their approval.”

How many times has he been turned away for failing to meet the dress code?


*Bonus points if you can name the book, character and context of this quote. Hint: It is not the Hunger Games.  

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  • User

    Hey! Great article, with a lot of really important and well-spoken points. One thing though: tr*nny is a slur and really, really shouldn’t be used. I know you probably meant no harm, but that word is really triggering for a lot of trans people and it might be best to switch it out for a less harmful term. I hope you understand where I’m coming from, and I hope you’ll continue writing more cool stuff in the future! Thanks.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      thank you so much for telling me. i’ll gladly change it out for other language.

      • User

        Thank you so much for understanding and for acting on it! 🙂 I hope you have a great day.

  • gimpi1

    As I understand it, the Southern Baptists are in decline, with membership dropping and dropping most rapidly among the young. This will continue to push out young people who have no patience with this kind of legalistic intolerance. I have to assume they don’t care. Odd, for people who truly believe that if people don’t hear their message, they may be lost forever.

  • This is spot on. Really great.
    I often talk about the fourteen year old queer kid in the front pew. The conservative church simply isn’t a safe place for that kid. IMHO, Church shouldn’t be dangerous.

  • “I do not believe that Jesus himself would entirely meet with their approval.”

    This is a paraphrase from “Anne of Green Gables,” and I’m pretty sure Anne is referring to Mrs. Rachel Lynde. 🙂

    I love this, it’s a very well-written piece!

    • *On second thought, Anne may have been referring to Diana Barry’s mother, Mrs. Barry. It’s been quite some time since I read the series. Time for a re-read, I suppose!

      • Erin Smallwood Wathen

        Yes! Anne is talking about Mrs. Berry. And Marilla is horrified at the blasphemy of it. But then she says “although if you leave God out of it, you’d be just about right.” 🙂