We live in an age of individual choice. It is a time when autonomy is celebrated, when rights are our gods and the opportunity to make personal decisions are our hallowed temples. You can’t tell me what to do and I can’t tell you what to do. It is an ironic era where those considered wisest are those who tell us to follow our own hearts, or heads, or guts, or presumably any other body part that seeks to direct us. It’s “his choice”, it’s “her body”, it’s “their life”, etc… Much of what makes our culture the unique thing that it is stems from this glorification of individualism. But, as poet W.H. Auden said, “there is always another story / there is more than meets the eye.” (“At Last the Secret is Out“)
In an op ed piece in the New York Times, journalist and former professor Elinor Burkett speaks at length about the potential fallout that transgender agenda could bring to women’s rights. She is troubled by the idea that the struggles women have faced in their own pursuit for fair treatment and justice could be undercut by the desires of transgender people to blunt the definition of what it is to be female for the purpose of ensuring that transgender people do not feel left out in the cold without a real gender to call their own. It is a fascinating opinion piece that deserves reading (“What Makes a Woman” – Elinor Burkett) but it also calls us to look at a broader issue in the world as well.
In her piece, Burkett points out that, for transgender people, “Their truth is not my truth.” In the pursuit of their own right to declare themselves to be what they believe they are, they inadvertently encroach on territory that they did not have to struggle to gain. Women have had a long history of subjection and frustration in their pursuit of egalitarian acceptance in society, and so for a man to declare himself to be a woman and then attempt to change the definition of womanhood through semantics or opportunities is a bit of an insult to women who have been clawing uphill their entire life just to get to where they are. (I realize that this is a more nuanced issue and I am not attempting to hit it with a “drive-by” opinion…my point, which will become clear below, is illustrated from a broad view of this tension between the advent of transgender issue in popular culture and the longstanding pursuit of equality and rights by women in Western culture – please don’t throw out the point of the entire post based on disagreement with this illustration)
Carl Jung is quoted saying this about the dark side of the relationships we have with each other,
It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts.
– Carl Jung
What happens when we begin to stake our claims to our individual rights? Does this have no fallout in the world around us? Just because we feel we are owed something, and even if we are actually owed something, are we always justified in collecting what we are owed?
To put it simply: what we do, what we say, how we act has a bearing on the course of other people’s lives; this bearing is sometimes obvious and other times not so plain. No matter how much we want to be autonomous we will never find ourselves on a piece of ground that is not shared with someone else. We exist on communal real estate in this world, there is no other way to accurately view life. When I angrily treat the world around me like a punching bag because I’m having a bad day everyone who I come into contact with is tempted to become defensive so as not to become victimized by my aggression. This leads to retaliation on my part and then reciprocation on their part and before lunch my entire world can easily become a battle royal with everyone taking shots at everyone else. The evil in me can easily bring out the evil in others, and vice versa.
This makes one of the core messages of the New Testament a remarkably valuable guiding light for us. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offered three pictures of what life looks like for those who are looking to the kingdom of heaven for their ethics and not to the kingdoms of this present world. He says that when you are told to give up your coat, you give your shirt as well. When you are commanded to help an agent of the state, you voluntarily do twice as much as you have been instructed. And finally, when you are slapped across the face you are to turn your head and present the other cheek to be slapped as well.
What Jesus is doing here is the mirror image of what Jung said. When evil is presented to us we do not have to continue the cycle of wrong, which inevitably escalates into a full-blown war. But when we respond to evil with good, to violence with sacrifice, to imposition with generosity then we find that we have not only ended the cycle of wrong but we just might have begun a new cycle of grace.
Declaring our rights, getting what’s ours, choosing to ignore the concerns or plights of others is not a reflection of the ethics of the kingdom of God. To the contrary it is a mockery of the connected reality of our world. Perhaps what Jesus was saying was, “Watch how you step in this world, it is better to become a bridge than a steamroller. One leads to beauty and grace, the other to violence and hate.”