by Ann Dixon Coppage, MAEd, LCMHCS
How many times in history have people bemoaned the disorientation and insecurity they feel with changes that are happening around them. Each of us copes with the changes that present themselves in different ways according to our natural inclinations(nature) and our personal life experiences(nurture). That others whom we respect see things differently can be confusing and disruptive, especially when it comes to things as personal as recent conversations on sexuality and gender. We forget that our current ways of thinking about these issues have been formed by what we and those who have taught us know, understand, and believe.
Let’s think about that, though. We use words in daily conversation that thirty years ago were probably not in our vocabularies…wireless, upload, megabite, to name a few. Some of us can remember being frightened of the very technology that we use every day now. Now, a couple of decades into it, we feel comfortable to varying degrees with this language and have varying degrees of understanding of what it means and how these advances work for us. This does not mean that we understand exactly how or why the technology works, but we are grateful that we can interact with those we love so easily, have remote access to our own church’s services, or watch from a distance as a relative who lives far away performs or receive an award.
Importantly, we also understand that the benefits of these technologies are only as positive as the people who use them and rely on the development and enforcement of laws to keep rogue operators in line. This leaves us free to incorporate new advances in our lives to the extent that we choose or are able. One person talks to “Alexa” or “Siri” daily about lights, alarms or music, while another has no knowledge or interest in this. In this day and age, these very different life choices are not regarded as a matter of morals or faithfulness, but of the liberty we have in nonessentials.
Does the topic of life changes that result from technological advances really represent a helpful parallel to the current gender and sexuality discussion? Clearly, in some ways yes and in some ways no. I use this only as a starting point to help us reflect on what might be making conversations and discernment about gender and sexuality so “loaded” and difficult to have.
We may lack the knowledge of the right words for what we want to discuss and so feel embarrassed or awkward.
In sexuality and gender discussions, many of us may experience a sinking feeling that is similar to those we experience when we must have a conversation about what we need our own computer, phone, etc., to do, or why we think it is not working right. We may lack the knowledge of the right words for what we want to discuss and so feel embarrassed or awkward. We do not view the expert that we are consulting as “fallen” or “evil” (unless we’re having a particularly bad day) because they have this new knowledge and understanding. Instead, we humble ourselves, experience the discomfort of not understanding some of what is being said, and do it anyway because it is important to us.
This humility is the attitude that we must have about the discussion of gender and sexuality. Why is this is coming up? Why does it matter? Why haven’t we heard this before? These and other thoughts and feelings can keep us feeling okay about staying out of the discussion and continuing to think what we’ve always thought. But what if it really mattered to us? Wouldn’t we want others who are knowledgeable and experienced about this to care enough about us to engage openly? Where do we think Jesus would be in this discussion… refusing to engage or by seeking out those who need to be heard?
That is the message that Jesus brought…. those that have seen me have seen God. Not a rejecting presence withholding love and respect until we toe the line, but family looking out for and running to meet a returning prodigal child. Jesus’ anger was not at people who were seeking to grow and heal, but at those like the moneychangers in the temple who were enforcing and benefitting from traditions that prevented people from access in the way that they understood, to forgiveness and God’s acceptance. The traditions of those days that limited access to God’s presence are not part of today’s Christian practice, but we have our own.
In the New Testament churches experiencing great numbers of conversions, significant changes to their previous understandings of what was understood to be required by God were happening. Giving up making blood sacrifices, beginning to eat pork and letting go of myriad other rules must have felt profound and scary. Even Jesus simply encouraging us to pray in the same way as his simple, intimate, and understandable “Lord’s Prayer” was radical. Many people of faith and good intentions probably resisted these changes, condemning or casting out those adopting these practices.
I’m not sure why these variations in gender and sexuality at this time in history are viewed as anything other than part of God’s creation.
So now we get to the questions of whether we really believe that God designed us? If so, biologically speaking, genetic variations are a part of this creation and work for our survival as part of God’s plan. People learned many hundreds of years ago, that having parents with genes that are too similar will result in weaker offspring rather than stronger ones; so we learned to marry/reproduce outside of our close family. The variations that occur in offspring conceived this way have more potential to produce traits that make human survival more likely. Some of us are stronger or faster or more artistic or musical or have better eyesight or skin or coordination or…. We recognize and talk about these variations of differences openly, as information. I’m not sure why these variations in gender and sexuality at this time in history are viewed as anything other than part of God’s creation.
Perhaps at part of the complication of understanding gender and sexuality is that sex organs that are visible at birth have been relied on for most of us as an accurate way to assign male or female. The expectation of the parents and society at that point is that when the child is mature, their sexual desires and attraction will be oriented in the way that is true for the majority of people with similar sex organs. For those for whom this is not true, these expectations can come to undermine a child’s sense of their own value. Rather than sharing their dreams and hopes for the future, they can begin to hide who they really are from themselves and the world. By rejecting their true natures, how can they believe they are valued by God?
In Jesus’ time, people only understood genetic variations in terms that are very different than we do today. Jesus was asked if the man was blind because of his sins or his parents’. Today we would ask a different question about what biological or situational thing caused someone’s blindness, because we no longer see a link between physical blindness and sin. How can human sexuality move into our modern world view? Being gay, straight, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, + is a core part of a person’s identity and worth. As with new technology, language continues to develop and evolve as needed to meet our needs. There are many effective tools for educating ourselves about this. At the end of this article is a link that could help you better understand the language that has developed to convey needed information. The truth is that the coming out of LGBTQ+ have created opportunities to understand in new ways things that have been hidden until now.
Changes in how things have always been understood can feel like a threat to our stability and by extension, a disregard of God.
When we tune in, it is amazing how effectively our bodies let us know what they need, work to heal our wounds and help to protect us from apparent threats. Changes in how things have always been understood can feel like a threat to our stability and by extension, a disregard of God. In World War II, women working in factories was seen as such a threat; decades later it is commonplace. For many generations, dressing up for church was seen as respecting God; now more relaxed, family friendly services are understood to welcome in the way Jesus would.
So, in 21st century life, things are changing in regard to sexuality and gender that we never expected or considered might. How do we adjust to these changes? For many of us, biologically, predictability and consistency allow us to relax and live our lives in satisfactory ways. We know what will happen when, and so we can relax. When things become unpredictable, we can feel unsettled.
God has created us to survive. Biologically, when we feel unsettled, we feel unsafe. When we feel unsafe, we are wired to become alert, scan for danger, focus on safety, and according to each of our own particular personality and life experiences, dig in and prepare to fight, or spring into action and take off, or freeze, unable to speak or act. We don’t consciously choose which physiological reaction(s) we have or when they will occur because they come from an instinctual part of the brain that is primitive and designed to keep us safe by acting ahead of our conscious thoughts.
Applying this biology to the life of faith is important. Ways of understanding scripture that define the essentials that we are to be unified about, how we follow the Lamb who has conquered so that all is done in love… these are the things that have historically, are presently, and will in the future create in us the uncertainty that can feel unsettling. How can God be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow if we are open to new understandings? Yet how can our faith be a living faith, inspired by a living God and led by God’s living spirit if God cannot open our eyes that do not see and our ears that do not hear?
And so here we are. This is the dilemma. Is God’s Spirit leading these new ideas and understandings, or is God’s spirit leading our resistance? How do we discern that? Certainly, our physiology will instinctively respond if things that matter to us are challenged, and our instinct is to dig in to resist them, or run away and leave the church, or to freeze, be quiet and hope it will go away. In the meantime, the voices of those who have suffered are crying out. How do we respond?
The life that is the fruit of God’s love looks different for each seeker.
As Christians, we believe that there is one true God, with a wide, deep, transforming love. The essentials that unify the church, when lived out in love, bring life. The life that is the fruit of God’s love looks different for each seeker. Let’s look at the Woman at the Well who experienced Jesus seeing her, going to her and interacting respectfully with her. What a healing moment that must have been for the woman, herself. I, personally think that she froze when she saw him coming over to her. Surely from her experience, she was expecting condemnation, judgment, or exploitation. So why did she not run when she saw him coming? Whatever the reason that she remained still as he approached her, a miracle happened. She experienced a healing encounter. Did those who didn’t understand what Jesus was doing when he approached her also experience a miracle? Did they go forth, changed, and able to engage and respond openly and with healing presence to people and situations they would previously have avoided?
When these topics like gender and sexuality come up, it is not uncommon that we go into that protective response that causes us to want to fight, run or freeze. My belief is that is partly because we know so little. I would encourage you to talk to someone who you know who is personally loved or loving someone outside of traditional norms.
It is also important to distinguish between violence, abuse and exploitation. These things are human behaviors and are not part of sexual identity or gender. A rape is a rape, child molestation is always child molestation, using someone sexually for your own gain is always exploitive. It is really important that all people seeking to understand this discussion know the difference. A gay person or a straight person can be a child molester. This is always illegal and immoral and should be reported and prosecuted.
The voices of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer/Questioning, + are calling out for justice.
As new knowledge emerges and God’s transforming Spirit continues to move, I am inspired to affirm Martin Luther King, Jr’s faith statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Many have suffered over the millennia because they were viewed as fallen, outcast, or more sinful than someone else. That is how simplistically and self-protectively humans interact if not actively seeking to hear and trust God to let us know what is essential in our own spiritual journeys. The voices of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer/Questioning, + are calling out for justice. How do we a Christians seeking to follow Christ respond?
Ann Dixon Coppage, MAEd, LCMHCS is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Supervisor with an active counseling practice at Full Life Counseling in Winston-Salem. She is married to the Rev. Jeff Coppage, a Moravian pastor.
Here is one link of many that are available to inform us of significant changes in language that describes sexuality and gender: