Thursday, March 30, 2017

Caveats and Labels

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. --Galatians 3:28

I've been thinking about this verse lately, especially as we have increased conversations on gender. For most of my life, I would've easily used this verse to say that the sexes are equal; men should not get special treatment over women. I wouldn't now disagree with that notion, of course, but I do think it takes on a more radical bent, given the current context.

I would never argue that Paul, or whomever wrote this particular passage, were trying to make a modern statement on biology, society, or theology; I believe we are, sadly, consigned to our own time and place, even under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - however, I do believe the implications can mean something different in context than they do in theory.

Paul was very much against divisions. It was part of his radical transformation from Pharisee (and thus VERY concerned about divisions) to Christian. For him, this notion of people being separated was nonsense, because Christ came to forgive and include all. There are, and quite likely will continue to be, intense debates about whether Paul was consigning Judaism to the trash bin of history or expanding its purview in a universal sense, but in either case, he's arguing for the breaking down of barriers. The social constructs and expectations of the past were now utterly demolished and reformed in light of Jesus Christ.

The very notion that there are specific gender roles - expectations for people based on biology - seem entirely foreign to at least this particular passage. It is not that Jews and Gentiles cease to exist, their varying backgrounds, histories, and traditions rendered moot - this is the stuff of cults and brainwashing - but that those differences are not to be held for or against anyone moving forward. Another way of looking at it is that societal expectations for someone with a Jewish or Greek background no longer applied in the Church (meaning the body of people following after the way of Christ). Jew and Greek might still be acceptable adjectives as history, but not as applied to the future.

You might have been told this is the "Jewish" way to do something, or that "Greeks" don't participate in such things, but these ideas belong in the past. The same could be said for slaves and free. Christ himself demonstrated, on the night he was betrayed, a willingness to do the task of a slave to demonstrate the sacrifice required by love. You might call this the equivalent of cross-dressing (if such a term is still acceptable) for social sensibilities. The "inappropriateness" of the action from the perspective of polite society is precisely the message.

The gospel calls its adherents to constantly put themselves in the place of the "other." If lines are drawn between "us" and "them," Christian must cross those boundaries to identify with "them," thus blurring the battle lines. The point, though, is not to mix identities, but to reject them. People are people - full stop. Any other label we come up with might be helpful in some lesser purpose of identification or description, but it can't be used for definition.

I am "American" because I was born in Michigan and have a certain nation on the front of my passport. While there are certainly any number of American stereotypes that I may fit, there's no way to argue "American" defines me in any way. Even as my life and upbringing in the United States has serious implications for who I am and what I've become, those effects can easily be differentiated from every other person who is similarly "American." While the term might be helpful in locating me within the larger category of "human," it does nothing to explain or enhance one's ability to know me as an individual.

My experience is unique.

That's the crux of the argument in this verse. Labels are dangerous. Jew and Greek, slave and free, might describe some part of me, maybe 70%, but they can't describe all of me. Because of that, using them ends up using me - it depersonalizes the individual in question. We put each other into boxes rather than connecting relationally. Labels are barriers, not benefits.

I don't think we can say those things about Jew and Greek, slave and free, without also extending them to male and female. I know this same verse is written in Colossians 3 with different categorizations that don't include gender, but I think the gender part is consistent with both the idea of both passages, as well as the whole testimony of scripture. From the very beginning, humanity is described genderless, until Adam is split from Eve - even there, in the very core of the Hebrew words, is an equality that rises above complementarianism and division.

We need gender for reproduction (although, with modern technology, maybe not for long), but we don't need it for anything else. Now that biology is showing us that things aren't even as cut and dry there as might have once thought, we're just going to have to get used to the idea that a once comfortable definitive paradigm just isn't what it used to be (and probably never was).

I know we're more than comfortable embracing an extra caveat in scripture when scripture ads "except for marital unfaithfulness" in one prohibition of divorce - so maybe we can get used to accepting the extra caveat here, too.

In the end, we like our labels and our descriptions and our boxes, because it gives us control over people. Our animal instincts to categorize are a survival mechanism. This thing I don't know looks like this other thing I do know, so I have some idea how to treat it, friend or foe. We've grown beyond the need for this, so perhaps we should grow beyond the use of it as well. Categorization dehumanizes people, because it fails to treat them as individuals, consigning them to definitions and stereotypes. We know this, heck we practice it. We just need to extend it farther than we're used to and we'll all be better off and better Christians for it.

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