Forming Faith Blog

Gender Identity & the Image of God (Justice)

It is critical that we celebrate and honor the image of God in our transgender siblings, listen to their experiences, and act to counter injustice.

A person waving a transgender flag. It is critical to honor our transgender siblings as co-bearers of the image of God.
Copyright: inkdrop
Do Justice

Happy almost-summer! You may, or may not, know that this Forming Faith blog publishes weekly Scripture reflections on the upcoming Narrative Lectionary reading during the main program year (this past year it was Sept. 12, 2021, to June 5, 2022). But in the summer, I loosen up and write posts in series on various topics related to faith formation.

The series starting today is intended to be five weeks long, matching the five lessons of our new Learning Together: Do Justice curriculum unit. If you are not aware, Learning Together is our latest product series. This series is broken down into independent, topical units with five lessons each. These units can be used with children and intergenerational classrooms, VBS or Sunday school, traditional or rotation. So, flexibility is key!

Note: This blog series reflects on the subjects of the five Learning Together: Do Justice lessons (image of God, shalom, the vulnerable, loving our neighbors, and the kingdom of God). However, I will be applying some of those lessons in specific ways that are not covered in the lessons themselves. For example, my focus in this post on gender identity is not a direct reflection of the “Honoring the Image of God” lesson. That lesson addresses the topic of the image of God and justice in a more universally applicable way.

Justice, Systems, and Shalom

Justice is the godly work of bringing shalom (the topic for next week) to all people, specifically those to whom justice has been denied. Shalom is a Hebrew word often translated as “peace,” though “wholeness” would be a better word. Shalom isn’t just the lack of violence or noise; it is the state in which all people have everything they need to thrive (which does include lack of violence and times of quiet). Shalom involves the entire community, which includes the social, political, and economic systems that keep things moving. But if one or more of those systems disrupts or prevents shalom to certain members of the community, then that is systemic injustice. Systemic injustices require systemic changes. But more on that next week.

Justice and the Image of God

The foundation for justice for all people is found in Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them.

Genesis 1:27

We are created in God’s image. What does this mean? Well, specifically, that’s hard to answer and different people have different explanations as to what makes up the image of God. But we don’t need to understand which parts of us are in the image and what aren’t, because, practically speaking, this teaching is about what we do with it. The concept of the image of God is used in the prohibition of murder (Genesis 9:6) and even how we speak to each other (James 3:9). Because the people we meet are made in the image of God, we should treat them with love and honor.

What Is Gender Identity?

June is Pride Month, a time set aside for people who have been marginalized and oppressed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Pride Month is a month to celebrate LGBT+ people, give them space to celebrate themselves, and reflect on the injustices done to this diverse group of people and what we can do to address them. You can check out previous years’ pride posts: Pride and Pain and Pride, Identity, and Belonging (where I also discuss the difference between labels and identifiers).

Briefly, the acronym LGBT+ tries to encompass everyone whose sexual orientation or gender identity is considered by our heteronormative and cisnormative society as “different.” Specifically, it stands for (L)esbian, (G)ay, (B)isexual, and (T)ransgender, with a (+) to include everyone else who doesn’t identify under one of those first four letters. Sexual orientation is about who you like (are attracted to): people who are your own gender (lesbian, gay), another gender (straight), multiple genders (bisexual or pansexual), or no one (asexual). It gets a lot more complicated, but that’s some place to start.

However, I’m focusing more on gender identity in this post. Gender identity is about a person’s internal sense of who they are in terms of maleness, femaleness, both, or neither. This might match their biological sex (cisgender) or be different than their biological sex (transgender). Someone who is transgender might identify with the “opposite” gender (trans-masculine or trans-feminine) or outside of the binary of male or female (therefore agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary).

While sexual orientation is an important part of our self-identity, our gender identity is more central. And, while people who are LGB are rejected and denied equal justice, in the U.S. (at least), there is more of an outright war on those whose gender identity is not cisgender.

Honoring the Image of God in Our Trans Siblings

Justice for transgender people starts with honoring them and their inherent dignity. “Honoring” in this way is when we recognize a person’s equal and inestimable value and treat them accordingly. Now it’s important that we are not honoring a trans individual because of their gender identity and definitely not in spite of that part of their identity. We are honoring them purely because they are human and bear the image of God. But it’s also important to acknowledge and celebrate a person’s gender identity and defend them from injustice.

Faith Formation, Gender Identity, and Justice

So, what does this look like in your faith formation context?

  1. Listen to transgender people and their experiences. If you have transgender people in your context, listen to whatever they choose to say (and don’t press for more). Also, listen to the experiences of others outside of your congregation or community.
  2. Be educated about gender identity. This doesn’t matter if you are in charge of the kindergartners or senior citizens; gender identity is with us our entire lives.
  3. Be a safe person. Make sure your participants know that you are a safe person to confide in and will love them no matter what.
  4. Use their chosen name and pronouns. It’s a most basic sign of respect, regardless of gender identity. If William wants to be called Billy, that’s what you do. If Katherine wants to be called Kenneth, that’s what you do. And, it might be awkward at first, but you do the same with someone’s chosen pronouns.
  5. Create a safe space. Use whatever authority and influence you have to ensure that your class or group is a safe space.
  6. Act for justice. Work with your faith formation participants, especially any transgender participants you have, to advocate for the needs of transgender individuals, especially if your state or community is actively hostile to them.

Everyone is more than their gender identity, but it is also a very important part of our overall identity. And if a person is not cisgender, then they are receiving messages every day that this part of them is wrong, sick, or even sinful. This is a critical point.

The primary message that transgender individuals are receiving in our societies is that their identity is wrong and invalid.

Without actions and loud voices that counter this message, this is what they often hear, even in the silence. As representatives of Christ and his Church, it is imperative that we step forward in love to honor the image of God in our trans siblings.

Shalom to all,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

VBS, Summer, and 2022-2023 Faith Formation Resources

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