God in the Box: The Marginalized Are Not Objects For Your Consumptive Compassion

Ah, Matthew Lee Anderson, we meet again. This time, Anderson is published in a slightly larger venue – Christianity Today­ – but still longwinded as ever. That’s not a knock on him – I imagine once I return to education, my tendency toward loquaciousness will return.* This time, however, Anderson is stepping out of his study of natural theology into an area he clearly doesn’t know much about, and as a result, ends up stepping in it. It being poor logical analysis created by an inability to actually engage in the empathy he claims to have.

In reviewing a book of theological exploration of the question that intersex people pose to the gender binary, Anderson relies on misconceptions, bigotry, and outright dismissal of any theology that is not white, cisgender, heterosexual and male.

But first, a definition of terms: intersex refers to people born with “ambiguous” (to the cisgender world) genitalia. This was formerly known as hermaphroditism, but like many terms, the more accurate and inclusive “intersex” is now in use. Frequently, intersex children are made to undergo “corrective” surgery in their infancy, encouraged by doctors who don’t want to be responsible for the health of an intersex child and by parents who feel more comfortable if the child has a “defined” reproductive characteristic. This “corrective” surgery is done on children so young as to be entirely unable to consent, and is one of the practices targeted by activism from intersex people.

I recommend watching this popular Buzzfeed interview with four intersex people to get a better perspective on what intersex looks like. Intersex is not interchangeable with transgender, though many like to place it in the same category. As Pigeon states in the video, intersex people frequently undergo surgeries they don’t want to conform to another person’s ideal of their bodies, while transgender people seek surgeries they do want to conform their bodies to their own internal sense of their gender identity.

Gender identity is one of those areas in which traditional Christian theology has failed. This is not a question nor a debatable statement. Traditional Christianity has not only failed, but they are actively bad at understanding and ministering to people whose genders sit outside the binary of cis male or female. Anderson’s review of this book about intersex theology demonstrates just how bad that response is, from treating acceptance of intersex people as the result of gender ambiguity extending from “the sexual revolution” to advocating for corrective, normalizing surgery for intersex individuals. Anderson’s strange take on such theology from the margins is the result of a failure of imagination common to most white men performing theology today.

Anderson goes so far as to call the theology of acceptance of intersex people as they are and the exploration of a potentially intersex Jesus (and by extension, the marginalized theology of a Black or Female or Disabled Christo) “selfish” and “self-centered.” Anderson’s argument seems to be that the theology of the margins imposes our “self-defined” characteristics onto the personhood of Jesus, creating a God who looks like us:

At the heart of DeFranza’s book is an assumption about what inclusion demands of us. But why, as a condition of feeling welcomed, must the Jesus we worship possess traits we deem “essential” to our self-understandings? And why stop at sex or race? Perhaps it will be useful to construct a Canadian or British Jesus for the expats among us. (The contingencies of geography may be just as essential and pervasive for a person’s self-understanding—as tourists in strange places will readily understand). Or maybe we should hold up a football-playing Jesus on Super-Bowl Sunday.

Anderson’s glib analysis here is insulting at best and harmful at worst. It misunderstands the nature of the social constructions of both race and gender, placing them in the category of “preference” instead of “identity,” effectively dismissing any and all discussion flippantly. (For more of MLA’s failures on the identity front, see my posts here and here).

Matthew Lee Anderson is a white, cisgender, heterosexual man. He exists on what John Scalzi would call “the lowest difficulty setting." Western theology is catered to his life as the default – his cis-ness, his heterosexuality, his position as an academic. In the world of conservative Western theology, he is already fitting in with the image of Christ as God’s ideal – the Euro-centric, White Christ whose maleness is as much a part of his Incarnation as his Godliness.

The suggestion, then, that Christ as a white male default does not contain with himself “the entirety of the cosmos” because his Incarnation is limited, deeply offends Anderson’s sensibilities. It is offensive to him to suggest that not everyone can see themselves in a white male cisgender Christ, that the marginalized might have some legitimate reason for seeking to see an Incarnation that reflects more of their own existence as God’s creatures. All of the Others must be content with our position as Others – all of us except for those who most closely resemble the male Christ. Those special few get the privilege of always seeing themselves in the eyes of Christ. The Incarnation and the “scope of the cosmos” never requires imagination as Christ always resembles their own image.

Anderson goes so far as to imply that the acceptance of intersex people into the church without correction of their physical sex characteristics is to treat a "disorder" as an identity. Instead of people in their own right, intersex people appear to exist for Anderson as "one more opportunity for Christians to bestow welcome, compassion, and support, even while affirming the binary of male and female for theological reasons."

Intersex people, thus, become yet another object upon which the white, straight, cisgender people of the church may practice their "love."

The failure here is then a failure of imagination. We are all Other to Christ, but some of us are more Othered. And those sitting on the outer edges of this Othering should apparently just accept that Christ does not look like them, that Christ does not resemble anything of their experience with the world, that Christ wants them to conform to this ideal of white maleness, as shown by his Incarnation.

What, then, does it mean to have a Christ who identifies with the marginalized in their suffering? What, then, does it mean to have an Incarnate God who knows us intimately if such a God’s experience of the world is constrained to a white male body? What, then, can the church say to the intersex except that they must conform to something that is impossible to conform to?

What, then, is the purpose of the marginalized if we only exist as a “challenge” to the white male default, if we’re only a conduit for the “compassionate” conservative? Are we able to contribute to the life of the church in our own right, or do we simply exist as cogs in God’s giant clockwork orange, a machine of set genders and lives, despite the mountains of evidence that gender and race and life are far more complex and beautiful?

Perhaps, as a creature of God created lovingly and wonderfully by God’s own hand, I exist not as a lesson to white men to conform more to their conservatism, but as a human being in my own right. Perhaps your compassion is not what we need, but rather your imagination – that we may be people, our own, beloved by a God who knows us an created us, instead of merely a two dimensional image of a flattened God of your own design.

*I hear those of you who follow me on twitter rolling your eyes. Don’t ask me how, but I CAN HEAR IT.