Ujamaa and IAM pilot a contextual Bible study for trans diverse inclusion

By Hanzline R. Davids and Charlene van der Walt

Transgender diverse bodies are often excluded and erased from conversations in church, academy, and society. Religious transphobia is systemic and structural, and is constantly informed by heteronormative and gender binary readings and interpretations of scripture in general, and the creation stories found in Genesis 1 – 3 specifically. A literal reading of Genesis 1 – 3 argues for a binary, male and female understanding of biological sex and gender, and insists on aligning biological sex with gender expression and sexual orientation.

As one way to combat this exclusion and erasure, Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) and the Ujamaa Centre in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) started the process in 2020 of developing a series of Contextual Bible Study (CBS) processes to contest the conservative readings of the Bible that are often life-denying towards Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ+) people. This series of CBS resources not only aims to contest heteronormative discourse, but also seeks to assist participants in reading the biblical text by and with LGBTIQ+ people. In this way, the Bible could become a life-affirming source that affirms sexual and gender diversity and opens the possibility for LGBTIQ+ human dignity to be recognised and celebrated.  We hope that this will increase and improve equity in access to education, health and legal services, and human rights, which are often denied because of religious homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.

On 17 November 2021, IAM and the Ujamaa Centre facilitated an online CBS with a group of post-graduate students from UKZN. The students have been exploring issues of masculinity and gender in a post-graduate module of the Gender and Religion program in the School. The Bible study centered on the Ethiopian Eunuch that we find in the book Acts 8:26 – 40. Eunuchs in the Bible were figures who lived on the margins, excluded from religious and cultural practices, according to the culture and religion of the Ancient Near Eastern times. Eunuchs were usually appointed as court officials, tasked with serving and protecting women in the palace, amongst other things. They were seen as “safe” because they would not be sexually attracted to the women whom they guarded (the term eunuch is derived from the word for “bed guards”).

Among the questions students were asked to think about were, “who in contemporary church and society are the eunuchs? How do the church and society traditionally respond to them?” Students identified those who are othered in the church and in the broader society. Participants identified a diversity of vulnerable groups and people. Those who live with disabilities, sex workers, those who experience xenophobia, women without children in family and culture on the African families and culture where reproduction determines their worth, trans, diverse and intersex people.

Students made intersectional links to various forms of oppression. The Contextual Bible Study ended by asking, “how does it challenge you to respond to and journey with Trans, Intersex and gender diverse people in your community?” Responding from their embodied diverse contexts, they concluded that trans, intersex and gender diverse people need to be treated with respect, and institutions that deny respect need to be challenged for better access to services. This reading of the story speaks of inclusion for all, and for the recognition of the gifts of those who are seen as ‘other’ or on the margins.

Both IAM and the Ujamaa Centre remain committed to developing CBS resources to assist faith communities in grappling with sexual and gender diversity and enable LGBTIQ+ people to claim the Bible as a source of liberation and change.

See IAM’s new resource, The Bible and “Homosexuality”: A Toolkit, to read more on Eunuchs in the Bible.