…After all God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!
For far too many years now the church of Jesus Christ has found itself divided over considerations of sexual identity, orientation, etc. This division is often characterized by name calling and shouting out trite statements like the one above, serving to undermine the church’s witness of love and grace in the world. These attacks, posturing and labeling never allows us the opportunity to have the sober and reasoned conversation about the meaning of identity, orientation, and creation that are necessary to creating a theological and ethical system that is consistent with God’s call of love.
An article in the New York Times today demonstrates the complexity of these conversations. This essay has nothing to do with theology or the bible. It doesn’t address the decision by the ELCA or the movement of some American Anglicans to leave the Episcopal Church. No, this article deals with one of the most important of American pastimes – sports.
Specifically, this essay focuses on the story of Caster Semanya, a world champion runner from South Africa, who is being investigated by running’s ruling bodies for not being a woman as she claims to be. Eighteen year old Semanya came out of oblivion this year to win the gold medal and this year’s 800 meter world championships only to have her effort questioned about her identity.
Of course we think that is an easy question to answer. “Just look,” I can hear some folks saying. And in fact some of her competitors took that approach in making the appeal to have her identity investigated:
“These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”
Mariya Savinova, a Russian who finished fifth, told Russian journalists that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test. “Just look at her,” Savinova said.
But the issue isn’t that easy, for as doctors continue to say, sexual identity isn’t always as clear as it seems to be.
Medical experts said assigning sex was hardly as easy as sizing someone up visually. Even rigorous examinations can result in ambiguous findings. Some conditions that give women male characteristics can be discovered only through intrusive physical examinations, and others require genetic analysis.
“We can get quite philosophical here — what does it mean to be male or female?” said Dr. Richard Auchus, a specialist in disorders of sexual differentiation at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
I am not the first person to suggest that the more we learn about sexual identity and orientation, the more complex our conversations about an appropriate Christian sexual ethic becomes. However, the basic question remains: What do we make of persons created in the image of God (as we all are) who don’t fall into the boxes that we have attempted to use throughout our history. What do we do when our attempts at taxonomy fail us? For that matter, is being created male or female as much a philosophical issue as a physical?
So where do we draw the line between men and women in athletics? I don’t know. The fact is, sex is messy. This is demonstrated in the I.A.A.F.’s process for determining whether Semenya is in fact a woman. The organization has called upon a geneticist, an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, a psychologist and so forth.
Sex is so messy that in the end, these doctors are not going to be able to run a test that will answer the question. Science can and will inform their decision, but they are going to have to decide which of the dozens of characteristics of sex matter to them.
Their decision will be like the consensus regarding how many points are awarded for a touchdown and a field goal — it will be a sporting decision, not a natural one, about how we choose to play the game of sex.
“How we choose to play the game of sex?” Isn’t that in fact what it has become in the church, a game we play in pursuit of power and control? At what point do we recognize that there are real people involved. There is an 18 year old kid who now goes through life with a big question mark that isn’t easily erased. In our “debates” and arguments, we can’t forget these questions are about real people.
This discussion over sexual identity and orientation is not a game. It is tough stuff of which there are no easy answers.