I’ve been watching the hubbub around the Vanity Fair cover of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner with some interest. I have been trying to figure out what exactly I was most impacted by and who those emotions were related to. I’m only 30 so I was unsurprised to see that most of the people I’m connected to online were unreservedly happy and “proud” of Jenner’s cover and decision to undergo transition. And I was unsurprised to see comments from more conservative friends and older people that made me shake my head in sadness.
First let me say, though, that transgender issues are incredibly sensitive and confusing issues. Christians who have a clear sense of moral boundaries on this issue often operate almost entirely based on what transgendered people should not do: assume the identity that they perceive rather than body. While I certainly understand the impulse to lean hard on the boundary marker, the Church, specifically the conservative wings of the Church, has little to say to transgendered people about what they can do. I think that straight guys like me who have no problem inhabiting the expected gender that I’ve been biologically assigned (see, even the language we use to talk about these things can be tricky), have a very hard time imagining what it feels like to be what we call a transgendered person. But we who hold to conservative ideas about sexuality, gender, and identity need to be able to empathize with the very confusing experience that people like Bruce lived with for most of their lives. Can you imagine being so disconnected from your own body that looking into the mirror felt like some cruel joke? I can’t. I look at the mirror and think, “Man… you need to work out more” or “I wish my nose wasn’t like an eagle’s beak.” I do not, however, look in the mirror and say, “Everything about what I see is wrong. My anatomy is totally wrong.”
Trans people feel ill at ease in their own body at a deep level that it is hard to connect with for most of us. It is incredibly callous and cold to make jokes that demean that emotional turmoil or to pretend that they’re just choosing to make some bizarre choice for… popularity? To see naked people of the opposite gender? That is driving by the wreckage of their emotional lives and trivializing it because, I think, it’s too uncomfortable to try to sit with them and mourn. I cannot imagine this mockery pleases God. I’m not saying that surgically and chemically altering your body to switch genders pleases God either. But the suicide rate among trans people is frighteningly high. Mocking someone who is publicly transitioning does not help those who suffer in silence. We need to find some “can” language. Trans people can find listening ears in the Church. Trans people can find a community that will walk with them in their deepest questions of identity. Trans people can be loved by Jesus and by us even when they ask questions that we don’t understand. This is “can” language and we need to learn to speak it. And beyond that, what do we tell trans people if we don’t believe they can or should switch their gender assignment? I don’t know. It’s really, really hard. I have no glib answers for anyone. Hopefully someone who has struggled and strained for joy like Bruce Jenner did would find me someone that says more than, “Well you can’t do X.” Hopefully I’d be a faithful friend to them as they figure out what faithfulness to Jesus looks like.
Primarily, what I was interested in, though, is the way that people celebrated the cover with Caitlyn’s image. Almost universally on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I found messages that basically sounded like this: “You go girl!” There was celebration and high-fiving of digital hands. Collective hating of the haters. It was like everyone went out of their way to embrace this cover shoot and this person.
What I never really heard, though, was why people felt this way and why they felt like it was so criminal and backwards to not feel this way.
By this I do not mean, “UGH HOW COULD YOU THINK THAT?!” What I mean, in a normal tone of voice is, “Why is this morally praiseworthy? Why is this not just something you find to be acceptable, but something you celebrate?” What I would really like to hear (but never do) is a rationale for what is being celebrated.
I think that really interesting conversations would happen if people talked about why they make choices of one kind or another. I think that conservative Christians who aren’t just being vile and bigoted but have real moral objections to the kind of choice that Jenner made would point to things like design and obligation for what they believe and decide. But I think the contrary stance might have elements of “design” in their rationale as well. After all, Jenner did not choose to feel as he did/she does now. Who would choose that kind of life? Who would choose to feel alienated from their physical reality?
But I don’t really ever hear that from the celebrators. The moral reasoning for many people gets simply reduced to this:
“Whatever makes you happy, do it, just so as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.”
Perhaps someone could correct me if I am oversimplifying, but I do think that this sort of rationale is the moral philosophy of our day, starting with sexual ethics and moving to just about everything else. What I think we need to have a conversation about, though, is a) whether or not this kind of thinking is something we actually believe in and b) whether or not this kind of thinking has enough moral strength for us.
Let me put forward a scenario:
Let’s say that someone has a compulsive, overpowering case of kleptomania, but in a non-clinical sense. They absolutely ache to steal things. They just love it. It makes them feel alive. Well, we would tell them not to steal, right? Not only does it never address why they don’t feel alive without stealing, but it harms another party. But let me ask this question:
What if there was a store that was vast and with limitless inventory. There were sections of infinite items that no one ever even wanted. Moreover, the purveyor of these infinite unwanted goods had no reputation stake in his store. She is very wealthy and well-respected. Everyone loves her. There is absolutely no way that she or anyone else is harmed by our thief coming in and swiping something. In fact, in this scenario, the thief comes back later to put it all back. No one even knows it was gone except the thief. The thief feels better for doing it. No one cares that it was gone. No one is ever hurt.
How do we judge the thief? That person has relieved themselves of a deep need, has given themselves some sense of life they did not have. No one was injured and it was impossible for them to be injured in anyway. Are those actions something to be celebrated?
I honestly do not know what the response would be from those who celebrated Caitlyn Jenner’s revelation. I think, if they were being consistent, that they should indeed celebrate the thief’s actions, their self-care. But I don’t know if people actually would be so quick to praise them.
What I’m not saying is that Bruce Jenner’s transition is the same as theft. That’s not the question at hand. The question at hand is: Do people who either celebrated or condemned Jenner’s transition have the moral resources to make a judgment on this scenario and can they explain their judgment with a rationale that’s consistent with the one they used to react to Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn?
Honestly, I think many people cannot explain why they go with the flow and celebrate what others celebrate or condemn what others condemn. This isn’t because people are stupid. It’s because we really don’t culturally value that kind of thinking or work about abstract issues. And that’s not a conservative or liberal problem. That’s an American problem. I culture will simply give themselves to celebration of Caitlyn Jenner almost entirely because “They’re happy now, so I’m happy.”
But is happiness a good enough gauge? Are the things that make us giddy necessarily the things that we always should recognize as good?
I really don’t think so.
This is where Christians have a fundamentally different set of moral instruments at hand and where we inevitably have conflict with popular culture. We simply do not make choices the way that others are making choices. Someone who is being thoroughly Christian in their thoughts on this does not hate trans people or make jokes about their experience just because they’re different and incomprehensible to us. It’s not because “they’re gross” that we disagree. It’s because we don’t believe the question, “Does this make you happy?” is a good enough question. Our question is this:
Does this make you holy?
Christians believe that woven into our very being is intention that is aligned with Divine character. When who we are aligns with what God finds praiseworthy (which flows out of his own character), we find deep fulfillment and meaning that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Many times, what makes us deeply happy aligns with what makes us holy. But we do not believe that it is always so. We believe that rattling around inside us is a competing force, a nature, that sometimes induces us to love or be delighted by what takes us far away from what makes us holy.
Culture willingly admits, “Nobody’s perfect. Don’t worry.” Christians say that that pervasive imperfection is devious and destructive, not merely something to note about the world. That “imperfection” is taking us somewhere and that somewhere is far from where we need to be. Our happiness, in other words, is a fickle instrument to fly by.
This kind of distinction is easy to make when we are comparing ourselves to someone like Caitlyn Jenner. The difference between us and them is vast and seems like an uncrossable span. But the truth is that we make micro-choices like this all the time. We ease our own perceived suffering by doing what is easier and happier and “better” for us without even thinking about it. And we become indignant when anyone dares to tell us we’re wrong. The problem with the Church’s response to Jenner is often that we think that we are radically different. Maybe we should be more healed, more holy, but we’re not. If we recognized this simple truth, perhaps we’d be a good deal more gentle and empathetic in our judgment.
But even as we probe ourselves with self-examination, we also should ask this question of the people who celebrate without thinking: Is this enough? Is happiness enough? Is “you’re not hurting anyone” good enough? Is this how we should recognize what is praiseworthy? And is a society that makes that decision this way better than a society that holds to a more robust definition of the good?
I’d argue that it isn’t. The good life has to be better than “I’m happy and you’re not hurting.” I think it’s a nice beginning, a decent floor. But I don’t think that this definition of the good, the praiseworthy, provides us enough shelter to live under together. I think there’s much more to be said about a better moral framework, a more praiseworthy moral universe. I think that we can shelter in a moral structure with pillars and walls and a compelling vision that transcends happiness. I think that Good Life is out there.
But this post is already long enough. More on that idea at some other time.