LUKE'S SECOND VOLUME, the Acts of the Apostles, tells the story of what happened to Jesus’ followers after they received spiritual power to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Beginning in Jerusalem, the movement proceeds north and west, eventually tracing Paul’s journey to Rome. But the plot takes one big detour along the way, heading south to the mysterious lands beyond Egypt, carried by a person more foreign and unusual than any other in Luke’s vast cast of characters. Only divine intervention orchestrates the encounter between the Jewish Hellenist Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.
What is the main thrust of this missionary story? Is it geography—a foray into “the ends of the earth” long before Paul reaches Rome? Is it religious ethnicity—the first God-fearing Gentile believer converting, even before the Roman centurion Cornelius? Is it the man’s undeniable African origins—straight from the lands of Nubia and Cush? Is it his wealth and connections to royalty that will enable him to bring Jesus’ gospel to Africa?
Luke likely included this story for all these reasons, but the text itself points over and over to what must be the driving force of Luke’s inclusive theology in this account—the rider in the chariot is not referred to by Luke as a man. Luke calls him a “court official” and a eunuch (8:27), and later calls him a eunuch four more times, but never a “man.” He has been castrated before puberty and trained to take sensitive positions not entrusted to males. He is beardless with a higher voice. Torn from his birth family and enslaved at a young age, he has no family of his own. Loyal only to his queen, he is “in charge of her entire treasury.”
Privileges and humiliations
Though this eunuch derives some wealth and privilege from his relationship to Queen Candace, purity laws were not so kind. F. Scott Spencer’s commentary Journeying Through Acts stresses the plight of the eunuch’s gender status when he comes to worship in Jerusalem (8:27): “this figure’s identity as a castrated male would have placed him in a position of extreme, irrevocable dishonor and impurity in the eyes of the conservative religious establishment in Jerusalem. The Mosaic law was clear and final: ‘No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 23:1). ... Unable to procreate or be circumcised and thus carry on the covenant line, the eunuch had no place in the community.”
One can imagine the frigid reception this eager God-fearer received when he tried to visit the temple! By the time Philip encounters him, he is puzzling over the text in Isaiah that speaks of the “humiliated servant” of Yahweh. He is “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, as one from whom others hide their faces.” He has even “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:3-4). “Who is the prophet talking about?” the eunuch wonders (Acts 8:34).
As Philip explains that the crucified and risen Jesus had taken on the job description of that suffering servant, surely he and the eunuch would have continued reading further in these Servant Songs, to Isaiah 56:3-5. Here the prophet declares, “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘to the eunuchs who ... hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’”
After a long and tender conversation, no doubt with many tears, they come to a stream. The eunuch says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer is—nothing! They stop; they go into the water. And “Philip baptized him” into the Jesus-community (8:38).
Liminal spaces between genders
Perhaps the reason we Westerners pay little attention to the eunuch’s condition in our interpretations of this story is because we lack a personal connection and assume we have never met a eunuch. We view castration as an aberrant practice done away with long ago.
In contrast, much of our society operates out of a binary understanding of gender—male and female, with nothing in between. U.S. society is just now beginning to better understand sexual orientation and to deal with the legal rights of lesbians and gays who want the privileges of marriage. Some biblical scholars have also used the eunuch’s story in Acts to call for positive theologies of inclusion of all sexual minorities, including gays and lesbians.
The T in the LGBT acronym includes people who are transgender: those who are physically one gender but who self-identify as the other, or those who are physically (and/or emotionally) intersex. In the news we’ve heard about military whistleblower Bradley Manning, who came out as a woman named Chelsea. In fall 2013, religious news carried the story of Heather Clements, chair of the theology and philosophy department at Azusa Pacific University in California, who self-described as having transitioned “from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, trans-gendered man” who now calls himself H. Adam Ackley. After years of struggling to conform to a female gender through hormones, therapy, and prayer, Ackley accepted his transgender identity after the American Psychiatric Association removed “gender identity disorder” from its list of mental illnesses.
As a result, the Christian university where Dr. Ackley had taught theology for 15 years broke its contract with him, and they are parting ways. Ackley did not think the university officials themselves had a theological problem with his new identity, he told Religion News Service, but thought the university took the action it did because “other people, such as donors, parents, and churches connected to the university will have problems not understanding transgender identity.”
It is important that we bring this complex issue into the light, lest it remain rife with miseducation, misunderstanding, and pain. According to an article in the science magazine Discover, one out of every 2,000 babies is born neither male nor female, about 65,000 each year in the U.S. In other words, either or both chromosomes and genitalia are not strictly differentiated so that the child is, in effect, between genders, or a part of both. In the 1950s, it was thought that gender identity was fluid until at least age 2. Often surgery was performed quickly and discreetly in such cases to make the child appear female. The medical establishment at that time perceived intersexuality as “a social and psychological emergency” and tried to “protect” children and parents from such ambiguity.
But these medical assumptions were wrong. By the time these intersex children reached puberty or even earlier, many knew and made clear that they were not female, despite the surgery performed to give them female genitalia. It is now recognized that gender identity is far more persistent than earlier thought. Now the protocols encourage genital surgery only if the person chooses it later in life.
The stories we rarely hear
With the Ackley story fresh in my mind, I asked friends about transgender issues. The personal stories that emerged surprised me. One woman taught second grade at a public school where a child who was physically male wore dresses and insisted she was a girl. They solved the “bathroom problem” by placing her in a classroom with a unisex lavatory. Another spoke of the tragic suicide of a young adult who struggled with transgender issues in a church that expected him to “be a real man.”
We now know that 41 percent of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide, nearly nine times the national average. A recent analysis of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, according to the LA Times, reveals, “Among transgender people who became homeless because of bias against their gender identity, 69 percent said they had tried to kill themselves. Out of those who had been turned away by a doctor because they were transgender or gender-nonconforming, 60 percent had attempted suicide sometime in their lives, the survey found.”
Sometimes we are too quick to criticize what we don’t understand. As the news about Adam Ackley trickled out, people made various assumptions about his behavior. “I’m not violating any sexual conduct, and it’s embarrassing that it’s implied,” he said. “I live a very chaste life.”
Today unwanted surgery is still performed on some intersex children in our culture. Many of us still assume everyone is fully male or fully female with corresponding behaviors and attractions. Those with certain religious convictions may cause even more suffering for persons who don’t and can’t meet certain gender expectations. Like ancient Hebrew purity laws, we have our own purity standards, which in many cases may have little to do with ethical behavior or God’s call to love.
And yet, right in our New Testament, we have a precious story about a person who lived between genders. Through no fault of his own, he could not enter the Jerusalem temple to worship God. He was not treated with honor by other men. But after he read the prophet Isaiah and learned about the “despised and rejected” servant who had “borne our infirmities,” he had the courage to ask, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And Philip used his Spirit-derived authority to go down into the water with him and baptize him into the inclusive Jesus-community.
When intersexual or transgender people today ask, “What is to prevent me from belonging to your church community?” let us answer with Philip, “Nothing!”
Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (2013), taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at www.eewc.com/Retas.