WHAT WOULD JESUS DO FOR CHELSEA MANNING?

There has been much discussion about Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning this past week, with a range of responses to her actions, her sentencing, and her statement coming out as a trans* woman. (Trans* is a term meant to be inclusive of a range of gender nonconforming expressions and identities.)

Unfortunately, Manning’s decision to release classified information to Wikileaks has largely been fused to her trans* status. This has shifted the focus of the national debate, to some extent, toward Manning’s mental health and personal life and away from the data content that exposed possible U.S. participation and complicity in murder and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan.

People of faith, Metropolitan Community Churches, people of conscience, and the nation as a whole will come to conclusions that span the full spectrum. But whether we understand her actions to be treason, patriotism, conscientious protest, or more, it is important to separate Chelsea Manning’s crimes and conviction from her gender identity. It is imperative we give her the respect and dignity concerning gender self-determination due to every child of God.

Admittedly, it is hard to say what Jesus would do in modern instances that were never raised in his time and easy to simply project our own opinions about these situations. Yet it is significant that in our gospel tradition Jesus himself repeatedly breaks the law and emphasizes that the law is designed to serve humanity, not the other way around. Jesus reserves his sharpest criticism for those he calls “hypocrites” and worse, who use law and custom to withhold compassion and generosity from the people who need it most. Jesus stresses that the greatest law is to show our love for God by loving one another – including outsiders, “strangers,” and enemies! – and demonstrates that love himself by healing, touching, feeding, freeing, and forgiving.

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As the violent death last weekend of Islan Nettles in Harlem heartbreakingly demonstrates, trans* women and other gender nonconforming folks continue to be at risk for verbal, physical, and sexual violence. In prison, in addition to incarceration’s intended consequences of lost freedom, franchise, income, and autonomy, trans*-identified inmates “experience high levels of sexual and physical assault, harassment, medical neglect, self-harm, and placement in solitary confinement or administrative segregation. Many are prevented from or punished for expressing their gender.” (For more about the rights of and risks to trans* prisoners, see for example the NCLR fact sheet.)

For these reasons and more, Metropolitan Community Churches understands trans* folk to be among those communities most representative of the ones Jesus targeted for ministry.

There is much that can be done by those who follow Jesus’ examples and all justice-seeking people to make the world safer for trans* and genderqueer people:

—   Honor the expressed wishes of folks who ask to be called by their preferred names and pronouns, without making social comfort, grammatical correctness, or biology the final arbiters of gender legitimacy.

—   Work to notice and interrupt transphobic victim-blaming impulses. People who do not conform to gender expectations are not “asking for” and should not “expect” violence. Rape and assault is not “par for the course” for inmates and no one “deserves” prison violence. Develop empathy for prisoners and learn to advocate for safer and more dignified treatment.

—   For those inclined toward radical transformation, work with Black and Pink, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Dean Spade, and others to create and build alternative models of justice to the prison industrial complex that do not rob people and communities of human rights, dignity, safety, and redemption.

—   Talk about what we’re doing to support trans* folk and why. Engage with friends, family, co-workers, fellow congregants, and organizations to help persuade others of both the importance of gender self-determination and the changes needed to protect those who exercise it.

Please don’t underestimate the power we have as engaged participants in social change. Within a day of Chelsea Manning’s statement, NPR had shifted its position from one stating that it would continue to use the name and gender assigned to her at birth until Manning’s transition “actually physically happens” to honoring Manning’s preferences. This change happened because the organization heard from and was persuaded by the advocacy of staff, colleagues, and regular listeners.

MCC and the Global Justice Institute are already working to help realize this and other social change efforts, including work with the Lesbian Education Project in Pakistan which is taking steps to expand its programming and services to include trans* people. Read more at our Facebook Page.

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Rev. Miller Jen Hoffman is the pastor of Open Door MCC in Boyds, Maryland and was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches in New York. Miller’s thesis, “Every Woman Will Make Herself Male: Genderqueer Expression in the Early Church” was deposited in the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary in 2004 and earned him the Roswell Dwight Hitchcock Prize in Church History. Miller’s writing explores the places where personal action meets and impacts social change.

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