|Today’s scripture reading: Genesis 1:1-2:3||Sermon audio:|
As some of you know, I’m a fan of biblical cartoons. One of my favorites for this scene is a white-bearded man in a flowing robe standing in a laundromat, whistling at work. There’s a basket of clothes in the foreground, and a washing machine in the background with its lid open. The figure throws white socks into the washing machine, while other colors lay on the counter nearby. The caption: “And God separated the light from the dark…”
But think of the last time you tried to separate lights from darks in the wash—was it really so easy to tell which things go where? Unless you are doing laundry for a hospital or somewhere else with great quantities of the same kind of linens, you have to make judgment calls about what goes where. We do only two loads of laundry a week in my household, so all the bright clothes have to be split somehow between blacks and whites. I make rather arbitrary determinations, so the loads end up being lightish (whites, yellows, pale greens, lighter tans) and darkish (blues, browns, blacks and rich purples). It’s an imprecise system when you have to divide a rainbow of colors into only two loads of laundry. But it matters to do this with care, because if you place something in a load that is unfit, it bleeds.
When God separated the light from the dark, was it as complicated then too? I didn’t used to think about it so much—the Genesis text here seems to make it all neat and plain. Again and again, God creates what seem to be clear categories over and against each other. There’s light and dark; sky above, sea below and dry land in the middle. There is sun and moon, bird and fish, plant and animal, then humanity—male and female. Creation appears to be this ordered balance of complementary opposites, and that’s just what the writer intended. Textual scholars who study the original Hebrew here and elsewhere in Genesis see clues that this account of creation was likely written by Hebrew priests who benefited from (and thus communicated) a hierarchically arranged universe. What we have heard and shared in ourselves is a beautifully ordered, liturgical recitation of how things came to be. But we fall short of appreciating God’s whole creation if we think that only such binaries and complementary-opposite forms were created. Did God actually separate light from dark, sea from sky, and male from female? Or is it a bit messier when we try to categorize things, like doing the laundry?
Biblical scholar and transgender leader Austen Hartke, a friend who lives here in the Twin Cities, has recently published a book about the Bible and transgender Christians. He points out that “the world isn’t separated distinctly into land or sea; there are also marshes, estuaries, and coral reefs.” Water takes on solid-land characteristics when it’s cold enough to form ice. What about water vapor—does fog count as part of the sea, the sky, neither or both? Likewise, people don’t always fall exclusively into male or female categories. Something like one in a hundred people are born intersex, which means with indeterminate biological characteristics, or with sex organs of both males and females. Even if one’s plumbing is distinct, one’s interior gender identity (how I think of myself) and gender expression (how I live in the world) sometimes matches that biology and sometimes doesn’t. Those of us who are what’s called “cisgender”—
where gender identity matches gender expression and plumbing—may still experience the disorientation caused by rigid categories when our sexual orientation is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and we are attracted to people of the same gender.
See how challenging it can be to categorize people as though we were laundry? Fortunately, there’s room in the Bible for recognizing all of this diverse creation. When the Bible says that God creates male and female, Austen Hartke concludes, “this verse does not discredit other sexes or genders, any more than the verse about the separation of day from night rejects the existence of dawn and dusk, or the separation of land from sea rejects the existence of marshes and estuaries. …Just as we call God the Alpha and the Omega, implying all things from first to last and in between, the author of Genesis 1 is using a poetic device to corral the infinite diversity of creation into categories we can easily understand.”
Seen in this light, the Genesis 1 description is poetic and beautiful, with God stopping often to pronounce creation “good”. But if we get too hung up on the categories, and which people belong in the male or female baskets, the preconceived ideas become idols that take on more importance than God’s brilliantly diverse and queer creation. Dominant systems start to assume that God-given reality must be forced into the these systems. If there’s a foundational assumption is that there are no queer people, doctors, churches, marriage laws, and military institutions don’t know what to do with those who don’t fit binary assumptions. Since such a person doesn’t exist, the queer person must conform or go away. In the worst cases, queer people are like the bright laundry in an unfit place. Throughout history and to the present day, in our country and around the world, queer people bleed too.
This matters because I believe we’re all a little queer, a little unorthodox. We live in a soup of social assumptions about gender roles, good and evil, light and dark, etc. All those who don’t exactly match the stories and categories can find ourselves unfit, such as if we’re a man who cries, or a woman who doesn’t care to wear dresses. What in you is outside the customary lines, so queer that you think it must change for the sake of conformity? If we are inclined to hide away for shame any part of us, or feel we have to go away because we don’t belong, we too bleed.
Thanks be to God, though, for a creation
story that makes room for the vast spectrum of humanity and the wider
God-beloved, God-blessed queer world. We read this biblical story as Hartke
does, with the binaries establishing the range of possibility and not limiting
categories, so that ALL people might see ourselves within God’s creation, might
know ourselves with the belovedness which God created and calls good, very
good. No bleeding required, only pride. Amen!
 Austen Hartke, “God’s unclassified world” in The Christian Century magazine (April 25, 2018).
Cover image: Acrylic paint, free to use under Creative Commons license.