Baker Academic

Monday, June 29, 2015

Does Jesus Really Have Nothing to Say about Gender Identity?

credit: Southern Poverty Law Facebook Page
If you have traversed in higher learning to any degree this century or last, you are aware of the notion that every truth claim carries a power dynamic with it. Allow me from the start to affirm that this is true. What’s that smell, you ask? Oh, that’s just the sweet aroma of power wagon-trailed in by my truth claim. Truth and Power are the Bo and Luke Duke of the hermeneutical world. You'll never meet one without the other. But it has only been recently that I realized how closely these dynamics relate. Truth and Power are the kissiest of cousins.

Of late I’ve found that even the shrug of my shoulders cannot escape the relationship in question. Every professor, pastor, rabbi, physician, and Apple employee understand the virtue of the shoulder shrug. Allow me to give you an example from my world.
Q: Does God command genocide in the Bible?
A: Well the word HRM doesn’t quite mean “genocide”; it’s a bit more complicated. But, honesty, you’re not going to be happy with any answer I have for you on this one.
Q: So how do you deal with that?
A: I really don’t have a good answer *shrugs shoulders* but what I want you to know is that God is love. I don’t believe that God would endorse any form of genocide.
As you see here, the shoulder shrug allows the answerer to reorient the conversation. This is a kind of hermeneutical jiu jitsu whereby the answerer can sidestep the force of the question and use the momentum of the questioner against her/him. If done well, the questioner goes flying over the broken bridges of Hazzard County into the hayloft of God’s love. 

So the power dynamic of the shoulder shrug works a bit differently. Instead of advancing on the Father of Lies (cf. Boss Hogg) in a full-frontal attack, the shoulder shrug allows the good ole boys of truth to say “I don’t know” with a humble smile and thus deflect any attack against them. I’ll admit that I’ve used this move myself. In fact I love this move about as much as E. Honda loves to slap dudes.

So you probably clicked on this link because the title promises something related to Jesus and gender. So far all that I’ve given you is a ramble about the Dukes of Hazard and karate moves. Okay, then, consider another example from my world:
Q: Does Jesus ever talk about gender or sexual orientation?
A: No.
Q: What about the whole “some are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” stuff?
A: That is a very enigmatic saying. And frankly *shrugs shoulders* scholars aren’t sure what to make of it. But what I want you to know is that God loves everybody, regardless of gender, orientation, etc.
Raise your hands if your not guilty of this sort of power move. Okay, you can put your hand down Dale Martin. We’ve all read your book and promise to read it again soon.

Recently I had this conversation with a friend who asked me if there is a “standard scholarly interpretation” of Matthew 19:12. My kneejerk reply was basically that nobody really knows what to do with it. And then I caught myself and realized that I was participating in heteronormative a power play. Because, in truth, queer theorists have been studying the various possibilities of this saying for decades. But most (all?) seem to agree that Jesus is indeed saying something about the larger questions about gender, birth, choice, etc. and not simply the specific case of Lord Varys. To shrug my shoulders concerning Matthew 19:12 allows me to keep Jesus out of the contemporary debates concerning gender identity. Worse, the shrug allows me to reinforce whatever pop-culture box I've constructed for Jesus.

Truth wagontrails power even when we do-si-do around it.



  1. Still shrugging those shoulders, dude.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      For more on my reading of Matt 19:12, please see my recent book: The Wife of Jesus.


    2. Who comments as "Anonymous" anymore!?

  2. In the end we are like the angels in heaven. Neither male nor female, but rather andrgynous? Or like the sometimes effeminate priest, or Jesus.

    1. Interesting question. Well, for what it's worth, angels were not thought to be androgynous by many people in Jesus' time. Angels are almost always male in biblical narratives.