Growing up I received all sorts of weird messages about my body. And not just my body but bodies in general. I grew up in a very conservative church that had a lot of ideas about what it meant to be someone in a body. And especially, as someone who was born into a body that was assigned female at birth, there were a lot of rules. I had to dress modestly. I had to not have sex. I definitely couldn’t be queer or trans. And on top of that there was all of this language about how our flesh was evil. It was where our sin lived. We were supposed to fight against our flesh and not give in to our desires.
As someone who was growing up and into a body that didn’t feel that great these messages made sense to me. They gave me a reason to hate my body. And they allowed me to spiritualize those reasons. Because after all bodies were bad. They were lustful and sinful and all sorts of icky things.
I can’t remember hearing a single positive sermon or message about bodies in my entire time in that church. Not one.
And when it came to things like what our bodies would be like in Heaven, even there the teaching was that our bodies would be completely new. They would be different. They would be perfect. And maybe we would get to fly? I don’t know. That part was always a little sketchy but I also kind of felt like we would get to fly.
But our bodies would definitely not be these sin infested sexual bodies that we had now. They would be free of disease. If we had scars those would be gone. If we used a wheelchair or had been sick or had lost a limb all of that would be “corrected”.
And again, as someone who had a troubled relationship with my body I internalized all of these messages. I saw my body as my enemy. I saw it as a container for my brain. I saw it as something I had to put up with.
Can you remember the first messages that you got about your body? Times when you were made to feel shame for the way you carried your body? Can you think about the parts of your body that still cause you to want to cover them up?
We all have these messages that we’ve internalized from our churches, from our parents, from culture. And for those of us with queer and trans bodies our relationships with our bodies are sometimes even more fraught. We learn from an early age to watch how we stand or sit or move so as not to give ourselves away. We learn how to speak and not to let our gaze linger on someone else’s body too long. We learn that our desires are suspect. That our touch is dangerous. We learn and we internalize. And then we start to believe. And it messes with us.
I grew up hearing the story of Doubting Thomas. Poor Thomas. You have one bad day, one bad moment and you are saddled with a nickname that lasts for centuries. Doubting Thomas.
I re-encountered this story in my second year of seminary. I was exhausted. Everything in my life seemed to be coming to a head and I just didn’t know how much longer I could take it. My work load in school was intense, I was doing an internship at a church, and I was still bartending to pay some of the bills.
On top of all of that I’ve begun my medical transition which is both physically and emotionally draining. I’m trying to stay on top of things but to be honest I was sinking. I am a walking transgender 101 class: everyone thinks they have a right to answers about my life and my body. I get asked about “the surgery” and what’s happening and how my family is taking it and how I can justify it with the Bible and and and…and I was tired.
When I left my evangelical church, I left behind my emotional connection to faith. In order to preserve my sense of self I needed to deconstruct everything that I had been taught. I needed to learn how Biblical interpretation worked outside of my evangelical bubble, I needed to learn church and theological history; all things that had been kept from me.
I knew that because of my identity I would be asked to defend myself over and over again. I knew the Bible would be used against me like a weapon and so I learned everything I could to use that same Bible as a shield. I took apart the “clobber passages”, I learned the Greek and Hebrew and the historical contexts. I did the work so that I could prove myself to the people who would hate me.
My faith became intellectual. In order for it (and me) to survive it couldn’t stay the same.
In my second year of seminary I take an exegesis class. The professors teach us to take apart Biblical passages so they can be thoroughly understood. We are then taught to put the passages back together so that they can be preached. I enjoy the class because I like the research. It’s giving new perspectives on Bible passages I had been familiar with all of my life.
I’m having trouble seeing this as anything other than an intellectual exercise. Don’t get me wrong, I love the intellectual, but in lately, I am missing the days when I saw the Bible as God’s love letter to me. I am missing the days when I could pick it up and feel like everything applied to my exact situation. I am missing the days when the Bible was a comfort instead of a weapon or a shield.
We were studying this passage about Thomas from John 20. Jesus had been crucified and the disciples were hiding out for fear of the authorities. Thomas wasn’t with them. The reader is unaware of where Thomas is (I think he was out on a beer run, but that’s just my interpretation). Jesus appeared to the disciples and they were amazed. Then Jesus disappeared and Thomas returned, and the disciples were like, “Dude. You just missed the coolest thing.” And Thomas, not knowing whether they were pulling a fast one on him, or wondering whether it was too good to be true, tells them that unless he sees Jesus and touches him he’s not going to believe.
Jesus came back, and this time Thomas was there. He saw Jesus and the two had this really interesting interaction. Jesus offered to let Thomas touch him, but Thomas just fell to his knees and said that he believed. Then Jesus delivered a bit of a rebuke: “You believe because you have seen, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe.”
In my upbringing we were taught that we were the blessed ones because, after all, we hadn’t seen Jesus but we still believed in him. But in this moment, in this seminary classroom studying Thomas, I saw this passage differently.
Every time I come out as transgender to someone, I can pretty much chart how the conversation is going to go. Inevitably someone is going to ask “so have you had the surgery? What do your scars look like?” Maybe they’ll ask it in a whisper or maybe they’ll ask it loudly, either way it feels like an invasion. It feels like they believe that I am such a freak that they have a right to know what my body or my genitals look like. It feels like they see me as less than human. And in those moments I always struggle with how to answer. I try to juggle my intense discomfort with giving someone the benefit of the doubt. I push aside my own feelings in order to educate someone. I feel like I owe them an answer because, after all, how else would they learn? Have you experienced that? Whether it’s because of your gender identity, your sexuality, or even the way that your faith has changed over the course of your life? You feel like you have to defend and justify and explain even if you don’t have the bandwidth to do so.
When I read this interaction between Thomas and Jesus, I heard the echoes of all of those conversations. What if we could find a middle ground? What if we answer questions but also let the asker know that their questions are inappropriate? We see in Jesus an example of someone who has the courage to say, “Why do you need to see my scars in order to believe I am who I say I am?” But we also see an example of someone who offers grace and forgiveness for the insensitive asker.
This was a pivotal moment for me in reclaiming the Bible as a text that speaks to my queer and trans experience as well. We are allowed to read the Bible from our own queer and transgender perspective. The Bible isn’t just a weapon or a shield, it is a text that speaks into our experience. It’s a text in which we can see ourselves in all of our complexity.
But there’s something else in the Jesus and Thomas story that’s stunning. Jesus, in his resurrected body, keeps his scars. I had always been taught that when we got our new resurrected bodies that they would be perfect, but Jesus still has his scars! He doesn’t get some new and unblemished body, he keeps the wounds that were inflicted upon him. And yet, this isn’t a cause for despair, it’s a cause for hope. Because if Jesus still has his scars then we don’t have to be ashamed of the scars that we carry.
When Jesus showed himself post-resurrection he taught us all that our bodies aren’t just sin infested flesh. They aren’t just things that carry around our brains. They aren’t something to be warred against. Our bodies are good. They have meaning. They matter.
When I think about resurrection now, I think that it doesn’t make our scars go away, instead it makes our scars holy. Our complex and flawed bodies and lives are made perfect in their complexity. We aren’t fixed into some image of perfection with a size 0 dress size or a set of six pack abs. Instead we are scarred and wounded and oh so holy.
And what a message that is. That we can love our scars. That we can embrace our bodies in their queer and transgender goodness. That we can be at home in our skin. That even when people want to harm our bodies we can claim them as good. Scars and all.
We don’t have to internalize the messages that say that the only good bodies are straight bodies. The only good bodies are cisgender bodies. They only good bodies are white bodies. They only good bodies are married bodies. The only good bodies are celibate bodies. No. All bodies are good bodies. We are good even if we are queer and transgender. We are good in our sexuality. We are good being sexual. We are good alone or with other people. Our touch is good. Our flesh is good. Our scars are good.
What would the world be like if we embraced all bodies? What would the church be like if we embraced all bodies? If we set aside our notions of respectability and instead claimed holiness in the midst of the mess.
If, every time we stand at the altar. Or in the bedroom. Or on the street corner. We hold up our scarred and holy hands and we say:
“This here, this is resurrection.”
This article was published by Fr. Shannon Kearns
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