Austen Hartke: “transforming: The Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians” – The RavenCast

What might the Bible say about being transgender and Christian?

I recently sat down with Austen Hartke to talk about his book “transforming: The Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians.”

Austen is the creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian.” He is a graduate of Luther Seminary’s Master of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies and he won Luther’s 2014 John Milton Prize in Old Testament Writing.

You can contact Austen and find out more about his work at austenhartke.com

A transcript of the conversation is available below.

Transcript of Austen Hartke on RavenCast

ADAM ERICKSEN: Hi everyone and welcome to this episode of the RavenCast. My name is Adam Ericksen and Raven cast is  a product of the Raven ReView, an online magazine where we talk about Mimetic theory and the rivalry and scapegoating that so often divides our country, our lives, our families and our world. And today I am so excited because I have Austen Hartke with me today and, Austen, thank you so much for being here. 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Thanks, Adam.

ADAM ERICKSEN: Well am excited to have you here because you wrote a book that really encouraged me and gave me a lot to think about called “transforming: the Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians”. [Oh goodness, we kind of lost you, okay you are back]

AUSTEN HARTKE: Here we go. Now I am back, I don’t know what happened there. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Ok, That’s awesome, I don’t need to tell you this, but I’ll tell the audience you wrote a book called “transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians” and Austen is the creator of an amazing YouTube series called “Transgender and Christian”, and you can find that at AustenLionheart?

AUSTEN HARTKE: YouTube.com/austenlionheart 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Fantastic! And we are going to talk about this, because it’s one of the things I love about your book and love about your YouTube series is you take the Bible seriously. You are like going through every book of the Bible and telling us, not just relating it to transgender but also just like the beauty of that we find in these ancient scriptures. And me, as somebody who is a progressive Christian and who loves the Bible, I appreciate that a lot. So thank you for your work on YouTube, I highly recommend it. Austen graduated from Luther Seminary with a Masters of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies and, Austen, you are the… This is kind of a big deal. You’re the winner, this is cool, you are the winner of Luther’s 2014 John Milton Prize in Old Testament writings.

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, that was for my senior thesis.  

ADAM ERICKSEN: What was that on? 

AUSTEN HARTKE: It was on Isaiah 56 which I actually talked about in the book, that was sort of my first dive in into that piece of scripture. It was my senior thesis there. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Well, fantastic let’s dive into it right away, since you brought it up. So what’s going on in Isaiah 56?

AUSTEN HARTKE: So, Isaiah 56 was or is a passage that really resonates with me that I had never really read before, despite having… The year before I started seminary, that’s about 2011, 2012, I decided I was going to read the whole Bible cover to cover like many of us attempt to do in our lives. I attempted it many times before that, but this is the first time that I …

ADAM ERICKSEN: When you get to Leviticus, you are like oh no…

AUSTEN HARTKE: It’s really like you make it through Genesis and you get to the second half of Exodus and that’s where you are like, oh no, I’m hitting the wall. But I was like am going to do it. This time am going to do it because I am like prep for seminary. And I was going to seminary already feeling like because I wasn’t out as transgender at the time but I was out as a bisexual. I came out as bisexual when I was a teenager, so I knew I was going into seminary already with this identity that might cause some people to doubt, sort of, my credentials or should I even be there and that kind of thing. So I thought like am going to read through to whole Bible so at least I feel like I have something to hold on to when people doubt that, doubt that I am supposed to be there. 

So I read through the whole Bible, but I still didn’t come across this passage in Isaiah until a couple of years later. I must have just skimmed over it. It didn’t hit me right then, but a couple of years later when I was thinking more about gender, I came across Isaiah 56: 1-8. And it’s this passage where God speaks to the prophet Isaiah and welcomes into the community of Israel this people that were at the time outside the bounds of gender and sexuality and they are welcomed in, despite having been told they would be outsiders, back in Deuteronomy. So it was just a huge moment like affirmation for me that this inclusion of different kinds of people is not a new thing. This is something that’s been happening throughout the scriptures.

ADAM ERICKSEN: That is fantastic and it leads me to question about interpretation and hermeneutics. Like one of the things we often hear is, “oh, the Bible just says this” and you’ll refer to like a law or something like that. But throughout you get stuff like Isaiah, you get stories of is it… How would you interpret that when it comes to the law? Is it going against the law, is it fulfilling the law, is it moving beyond the law?

AUSTEN HARTKE: That’s actually exactly what my thesis was about. My senior thesis was about how do we understand that Deuteronomy… The short story here is that Deuteronomy 23:1 says that nobody who is castrated should be allowed into the community of Israel. And we don’t totally know whether that meant at the time people were not allowed like really into the community or that just meant they weren’t allowed to worship in the temple. We are not totally sure what that meant there. But then in Isaiah 56, hundreds of years later, we get this new proclamation through Isaiah that says, that eunuchs, these people who are castrated for one reason or another are now going to be welcome specifically back into the temple, specifically back into a worshipping community and they are going to have a place in that community. And so the question is essentially like, has God changed God’s mind? This like something that God gave us a law and later was like… In my personal feeling about that is that, there is a… Like if human beings are in a relationship with God, then God does change things based on what humans do. Because it’s a two-way relationship, it’s not a one-way relationship. So what God saw was the Israelite people several hundred years after Deuteronomy was written, many people has been castrated because they had been taken into slavery in Babylon and Syria and Persia. So like God was responding to that need for the community to be reopened to those people who have been put out at first. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: It’s this wonderful including… like I was listening to a rabbi talk about this; he was like Jews for some reason has been able to get ahead in the game on this than Christians. You’ve notice this too?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Jewish Communities, in general, are way, way ahead of Christian communities on LGBT inclusion. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: And the way he talked about it was, Jews has been marginalized, scapegoated, talked about as “other” for most of all of their history and so that allows them to empathize with people who are also otherized, particularly by religious. Is that how you would interpret that too or…?

AUSTEN HARTKE: I think that’s true, but I also think that most Jewish interpreters and scholars and faith leaders have a more than openness to that sort of relationship with God, where things change and go back and forth. Whereas Christians really like to hang on to the idea of God is a static thing that doesn’t really change much in relationship to us. And I don’t mean to say, maybe that’s not the right word God changes, I don’t mean to say God is not, who God is at all times, but the idea that God might not change identity but change actions in God’s relationship to us. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: It was like kind of a sad commentary, I thought, because it feels like we have to reclaim our Jewish roots as Christians. After all, Jesus was Jewish and Jesus was marginalized and scapegoated by many of the religious authorities at the time and by the political authorities and all of that. And so, am like wow, we have really lost this kind of sense of that in Christianity. 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, I think one of the things that’s so important to remember is that the  Judaism that we, our neighbors and our siblings, are practicing today is not the Judaism of Jesus’ time. So it’s not like Judaism came along and Christianity built on top of that, like we are the successor to that. We are more like cousins, like we both have this root but we are two diverging, sort of, path ways. So when we can speak together about sort of some common history and I think that’s really, really cool. I am always so wary about Christians being super-sectionist and saying like well, we are the ones who have the right now and … So I always caution against that. But I think it’s amazing if Christian communities and Jewish communities do more especially text study together, I think it be really cool. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, I love it, and that’s one of the things, that I love about your work, your focus on the Hebrew Bible. And so we have already talked about Isaiah. You also talk about Genesis a lot, and you do this brilliant talk about Genesis. 1 and the creation story, and reframing it. Can you do that a little bit for us?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah. When I talk about gender identity or gender in scripture, there are sort of three passages, and we are familiar with the seven or so passages that have traditionally been used against lesbians and gays and bisexual folks, but there are only about three that are ever really used against transgender folks. Because gender identity is a different thing from sexual orientation. So, we’ve got different passages we are looking at here. So one of the passages I just talked about is Deuteronomy 23:1, it’s got connections to Isaiah. Another passage that people tend to look at is Genesis 1, where it says, God created people male and female. So there is that sort of sense of  people kind of take that ,you know, as straight up law, like God created people male and female  period, end of story. That’s all there is. The interesting thing about Genesis 1 is the way it is written in this sort of poetic structure. This is our origin story, this is our great narrative about beginning of the world. And it’s not written like the legalese we see in Leviticus and the later parts of Exodus and it’s a different structure altogether. So in Genesis 1, see God creating the earth, and separating it from the sea and you see God creating the sky and the earth and separating those things. God sets up the sun and the moon. Everything is done in separation and everything is turned into binaries. Sets of two things that are opposing in some way. 

And so, it shouldn’t be surprising to us when we get to the end of Genesis 1 and God is creating humans and God creates them male and female. Because everything else it’s split into two, so humans are split into two as well, and this sort of poetic repetitious style. But the thing is we recognize that they are parts of the natural world that don’t fit into the narrative of Genesis 1, and yet we don’t deny that they exist. So, for instance, you know that there are places where the land and the sea meet. We know that we have estuaries and marshes and coral reefs and things like that are not just land or sea, but we also know that God created those things and they exist. And so I think for people that are outside of the male-female binary, in some way, it can be helpful to think about that sort of spectrum or widening of things as we think about it more like from an A-Z perspective rather than as a two box perspective. So my friend M Barclay who is working in the United Methodist church and is a non-binary trans person, they explain that when we say God is the Alpha and Omega, we don’t just mean that God is the first and last. We mean that God is all in all From the first to the last. How might we see things like being created male and female in that same light? 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, I love it. Like you said God is the God of the marsh, right?

AUSTEN HARTKE: All those liminal spaces and all those middle spaces. And those are the spaces in ancient Israel and in the scriptures of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, those middle spaces are the places that are seen as in some ways closest to God. So that’s why, for instance, the mountain top is about that place where the sky and the land meet and that’s is the place where you meet God.  So we see that a lot of times throughout the scriptures. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, I love it. We have already got some comments in the comment section and we got some viewers and Alicia and Lindsey has been commenting, just saying hi back and forth. So, hello to both of you. And if anybody has comments or questions, feel free to bring those in the discussion. Austen, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got interested in this topic?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, my sort of story starts out in the Evangelical church, sort of the non-denom evangelical churches, that’s where I grew up and I think that’s where my sort of real affinity for scripture probably comes from because I grew up doing a lot of scripture memorization. So that was sort of my background and as a teenager, my family moved out of that church and into a more conservative Lutheran church. If you are familiar with Lutheran denominations, it was LCMS, (Lutheran Missouri Synod church), which is sort of a more conservative side of Lutheranism And so that was my first experience with sort of mainline churches. But it was also at the same time that I was coming out as bisexual and that was not approved of in that church. So there was a lot of friction there between me trying to understand myself, as I’m a teenager and growing up. And then, this sort of faith sense that I only had this experience of faith as something that was really negative about LGBT people. 

So there was a lot of tension in there and for a while, it kind of threw me off religion altogether. Well, I shouldn’t say that, it threw me off Christianity altogether. Even though religion still really interested me, in general. So as a teenager I kind of walked away from the church then, trying to figure out who I was, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I started getting more interested in it again. And it was at the same time that I was trying to figure out, what I was thinking about faith, and what I was thinking about religion, that I started thinking more of gender. So like I said before, I came out as transgender when I was in seminary. Officially right after I graduated, because I wasn’t sure, they give me my degree. But I came out as Trans after that. So all of my work since then has been about, making theological education and specifically like scripture study accessible to LGBT people who traditionally have been kept out of traditions and organizations that allow for that kind of study. Really bringing that voice in has been kind of the thing I have been most passionate about. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, it’s awesome, beautiful. Lindsey says that God is the God of the middle spaces, and she says I love that. Beautiful stuff. Alicia says note to Austen, “I am a male to a female transgender person. I have a masters of Arts in Religion and masters of Sacred Theology from Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I am an ELCA Lutheran”. I grow up in ELCA too. 

AUSTEN HARTKE: That’s what I am now, I sort of move from well LMCS to over ELCA as I got older. Nice to meet you, Alicia. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: That feels like a good home for you in ELCA? 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Ummh, yeah.

ADAM ERICKSEN: You don’t have to answer that. It is not on the prescribed questions. 

AUSTEN HARTKE: No it does, it does, I think one other thing is that, we are struggling with right now on the LGBT side we have kind of gotten in 2009, we this vote that allowed LGBT people into ministry. And that was a big, big deal for our church. It was a big split. But there hasn’t been much said about gender identity and the affirmation of transgender people. And so there is work that we are still trying to do around that. And then, of course, the other thing ELCA is really struggling with right now is dealing with racism, because we are the whitest denomination in the US. So it’s a home for me but it’s like kind of like a fixer-upper. Like I know we got a lot of work to do, but it’s my home. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Aren’t we all fixer-uppers?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, it’s true, that’s true.

ADAM ERICKSEN: I like that. And you know, the prophets were all about, what do we need to do better. You know so I  think that’s a beautiful thing.

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, for sure. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: So, one of the struggles that I have, in this conversation, I recently experienced at my church. My church is UCC. We are open and affirming. And I had a visitor come after worship and wanted to talk with the pastor, and I was like oh man… here it comes. So I happened to be wearing my rainbow color on that day, and he said, are you trying to make a statement. I was like you are damn right, I am trying to make a statement… 

AUSTEN HARTKE: What do you think do you think I am doing?

ADAM ERICKSEN: We are open and affirming. He told me that I was not living up to the gospel. And as he was trying to tell me this and tell me that I was compromising the gospel, I was looking out on at my church members who were actually cleaning up, putting Christmas decorations away. And we had a gay person doing it, a lesbian doing it. We had somebody who was married to a transgender man doing it, and I just looked out there, I was like, ‘I am not, I don’t want to have to justify the presence of these people in my church to you.’ You know there was kind of this low… I remained “Listen, Paul took care of this, back in the first century, when he said in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, and everybody is invited to the party that  is the kingdom of God.” Like why do I have to tell you this? So, and this is coming from straight white male and I don’t have to live with this all the time. And you talk about minority stress, in your book, and that was one of the most impactful parts from me. So, can you talk about that and your experience with this? 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah. I think you are exactly right that pastors… I am thankful for pastors like you who are not necessarily a part of the LGBT community but will sort of taking on some of that work, to explain this to folks. Because as a person who identifies as trans-Christian and bisexual Christian or gay Christian, we are constantly asked to defend ourselves and constantly asked to tell people why we should be allowed in. So it’s really helpful when we have allies around us who can take on some of that weight. Minority stress is something that affects all kinds of different minority populations. It was a theory in the social sciences and in sociology that came about, I believe, first in the late 80’s . And it was first used to describe the stress experienced by specifically racial minorities and also by people who are identified as gays or lesbians. 

And specifically, the idea of minority stress is that people who grow up in a system that is not built for them experience stress because of that. So that means like you don’t see role models like you out there, like in popular media. You don’t experience organizational things that kind of allow you to be part of a community. You may experience stress because of profiling, or for whatever reasons. And so, that kind of constant stress in your life can cause negative mental health outcomes. So that’s why we have high rates of things like depression and anxiety in LGBT communities because we are constantly dealing with that stress. 

And so I think a lot of times people kind of get the chicken and the egg thing backward on this and say like well if there are so many people in the LGBT community that have mental health problems, surely that must mean that something is wrong with LGBT people. But it’s actually kind of the other way around, we are existing in a system that is not designed for people like us and that causes a lot of stress.

ADAM ERICKSEN: When you talk about racism earlier, too, you can start to internalize this thing and start to believe the lie that you are somehow less than. Well, hearing you say that it is good to have people like me stand up and do some of this explaining and teaching is good for me to hear. Thank you for that. 

One of the other things, when we have this conversation, is, and you talk about this in the book beautifully, is that a lot of people like me are afraid of making mistakes. Afraid of saying something stupid, and that’s kind of at the snowflake inside of me, I guess? 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Aren’t we all? The snowflake thing, let us be tender, that’s alright to be tender.  

ADAM ERICKSEN: Snowflakes. It’s okay. But that’s one of the things that I love about your work is that you have this… there is a sense about you in which there aren’t really enemies in this. Like this last week, the Trump administration banned transgender people from the military, and I am like “well, I don’t want to go on the military,” but I know I’ve got this kind of mixed feelings about it, but is a blow against trans identity. And you also have Mike Pence and his wife who is working at a school that doesn’t allow transgender people at the school. I guess one of the questions is when we have these cultural events and these powerful people saying things like this, what do we do? How do we hold on to this like beautiful spirit that you have on your videos and in your book that refuses to make people into an enemy?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Oh gosh, I wish I knew, I wish I knew all the right answers to these questions. I think based on what you just said, I have got like three different lines. The first line is just affirming what you said about legislative moves against transgender folks or against anybody that disallows any sort of right given to the rest of the population is going to negatively affect us, regardless of whether we want that particular right or not. So I also have conflicting feeling about the idea of people in the military, but the idea is if we are going to say these certain people are not allowed the right that everyone else has in this particular way, that is going to, that’s just going to get worse, that’s just going to snowball. That automatically marks these people as outsiders and not as people who should have the same right as every other person in this country. So, just affirming what you said there. 

The second thing that kind of came at me is that you said sort of how do we deal with feeling afraid or say we the wrong thing? And I think that’s such a common fear and okay for you to have. Because I think what that means is that you feel empathetic towards people because you don’t want to say the wrong thing, not just look stupid yourself, but you don’t want you also don’t want to hurt people.  So, I think one of the best things you can do is educate yourself – read books, read the stories of people who are in whatever community you are trying to be an ally for, so that you feel you have a little bit of a  grasp on the language. So things like what should I actually not say, and things like what are pronouns, why are they important, getting some basic information like that. And once you feel comfortable with that basic information, if you are in a relationship with people of whatever group, if  you have friends who are transgender, they are going to know you are doing your best to try to figure this stuff out. And they are going to correct you lovingly and it is not going to be like you going to get dog piled on. 

So like be careful of the internet because we love to dog pile on people on the internet. Because that’s why we have to have in person real life friends. And most of the times, if you say the wrong thing, like if somebody used the wrong pronounce for me, I will be like it’s truly okay. I will tell you what they are and like it’s not a big deal. I think the main thing people have to watch out for is accidentally over apologizing and making a way bigger deal about things, because sometimes if you say something wrong and somebody corrects you and then you go on for ten minutes about how sorry you are,  that makes the whole thing worse. So just kind of acknowledging you goofed up, I will do it this way next time and move on. It’s totally not a big deal, so we don’t have to be scared about that. 

Yeah, and trying to think what that third thread was about, oh, how we sort of don’t see people in these places as enemies or how do we see them as…  is that kind of what you were saying? 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, it’s just kind of in our conversation here, and in your book, and in the videos, you have this very, clinical, pastoral education, which would be a very kind of a non-anxious presence, kind of a peaceful presence in this, kind of a presence that refuses to, well, a presence that seeks to love even those we may call our enemies. So, that’s kind of the sense that I get from you. How do you do that? 

AUSTEN HARTKE: I think, I think different people are going to be gifted with different personalities for different work in this sort of larger community. For me, I am a person, who tries to sort of stay calm and stay compassionate, and stay sort of tender in that conversation, in a way that allows for people to feel that they are being heard. And that’s sort of what I try to do, but I wouldn’t be able to do that work without the people who go out and yell and hold signs and picket and march in the streets. I think we are gifted for different things in this movement. So, we kind of like finding your place within that, is really important. And recognizing that, for instance, I would not want to be a person who is really combative about things because I recognize that even though am a transgender bisexual person, I look to everybody else as like a straight white man. And so, I would want to be careful about what my place would be in that movement, I would rather, lift up, the people who are experiencing more marginalization within my particular community. So, we can just have to fine what our place is, within the larger community you are working with.

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, I like that, that’s really helpful. So we have talked about the Hebrew Bible quite a bit, but you also go into the New Testament and talk about this. Isaiah and eunuchs, and you talk about Jesus and eunuchs, and you also talk about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. And these are all powerful stories and you shed new light on them. I was wondering if you could talk about those and why the eunuchs are important to you?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Well, I mean, there is sort of this line you can draw through the scripture that as I was reading more and learning more, it just became clear there was this line all the way from the first reference of eunuchs in Deuteronomy 23:1 to Isaiah to Matthew to Acts. There is this line that moves from exclusion to inclusion throughout the whole of scripture. And there are, I think, we have a hard time sometimes reading the Bible as individual stories, but we also have a hard time putting it all together. So seeing the sort of like the line that goes through, this act towards inclusion was something that was really surprising to me. The reason that I am sort of stuck to that topic around the eunuchs is because eunuchs were people in the ancient world who were outside the bounds of sexuality and gender in several different ways. 

So usually eunuchs, as defined in Deuteronomy 23:1, were people who were assigned male at birth, but then were castrated. And probably for the majority of folks, castration was something that was done to them in slavery and something that was done to them against their will, but for a percentage of people becoming a eunuch was something that was actually chosen. Specifically within the Persian and Babylonian empires that allowed you to move within the society in a different way because both Persia and Babylon, they allowed for existence outside the male-female binary in a way that the Israelite society didn’t at the time. So there was this sort of weird movement where people would sometimes choose to become eunuch because of the social mobility and movement at the time. 

What we have seen in the ancient world is that these eunuchs, where people that could move between gender and spaces. So a lot of time we think of eunuchs as people who keep the harem, and that was because they weren’t going to challenge anybody’s paternity. That was why they were allowed into women spaces. They were kind of seen as a third gender. And so because these eunuchs were seen as a third gender, and because they were seen as outside the bounds of sexuality because they weren’t quite male, and weren’t quite female, seeing them as having similar experiences to LGBT people today, was, I think, a helpful comparison. Is not a one to one comparison, there are a lot of differences but they are grade sort of for understanding how we might incorporate people of gender and sexuality minorities today.

ADAM ERICKSEN: You talk about throughout the ancient world this kind of like the Hebrews fell into a dualism, is that fair to say?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, I think its part and parcel of the mosaic law that tends to separate things in to…  like in English we translate  it as like clean and unclean, but it’s essentially like things, it might be more better translated as sacred and profane like things that are sacred and things that are not. And because things were sort of separated in that way, people ended up sort of being separated because of different… whether it was your parentage or if you were a woman, after childbirth, like if you were a woman and you gave birth to a boy, you were unclean for a lot less long, than you were if you gave birth to a girl. So like there were ways that, kind of, people will be categorized in one of two ways,  and if you fell outside of that dual system, nobody knew what to do with you. So it was kind of a system that was set up, that was not necessarily a great thing for people that fell outside of binaries. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: But you mentioned the Babylonians had a different way of viewing at it, Native Americans had a different way of viewing about it. You talked about this a little bit in the book. What they can offer to this discussion, those ancient cultures?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, I mean it’s not even in ancient cultures, just like you said, Native American folks today still. There are lots of folks all over the world that have cultures wherein there are more than two genders and that’s a recognized thing. There is Fa’afafine people in Samoa, there is Muxe in Mexico, there is the Hijra in India. There are cultures all over the world that recognize other genders and that doesn’t necessarily mean those people are treated well. For instance, the Hijra in India are really not treated well. They are seen as lesser than in a lot of ways and deal with a lot of discrimination but the culture allows for that kind of diversity in a way that, for instance, our culture intends not to. And now I will also bring forward the existence of intersex people, and there are being diversity in sex as well. Intersex people being people that are born with differences in sex development, that means, they are not categorizable as just male or female based on their sex characteristics. So if God created this diversity in humanity, and we recognize that we are all created in the image of God, there’s something we have to recognize about the dignity and the reverence that we should have for each other because of that. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Beautiful, beautiful stuff. You talked about Jesus reverses parts of a patriarchal system and this is a big deal, in the progressive movement, the patriarchy. What do we do about the patriarchy? How do you see Jesus doing this and why is this important? 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Well, I think it’s something that feminist and womanist theologians have talked about for a long time, this idea of Jesus tending to lift up women and treat women in a way that was a lot better than what they may have been used to in that culture at the time. But I think that it is also true for people of what we would think of today as different sexual orientation and gender identities. Of course in the ancient world, those concepts didn’t exist in the same way, so we want to be careful not to be anachronistic. But for instance, Jesus uses eunuchs as a positive example in Matthew 19, where Jesus said some people are born eunuchs and some people are made eunuchs and some people make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. And that’s the  only time Jesus mentioned eunuchs, but it’s in a positive way where he is saying like these people get it. To a lot of scholars who look at that passage, they kind of go, this is what Jesus does everywhere where he takes the people that are at the lowest end of the social ladder, and says these people get it, we are turning it upside down. It seems to be what he is doing with eunuchs and, of course, there is discussion about whether Jesus means literal eunuchs, whether he means people who chose to be celibate and because it comes in the context of a talk about marriage. But regardless of whether he meant it literally or not, he is using the real eunuchs of the time as a positive example. And so there is so sort that turning the word upside down we see Jesus do a lot there. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, Jesus has this way of doing that, so does Paul. And Paul is often used in not positive ways sometimes when it comes to that. But you, actually you quote Paul frequently throughout your book, what do you make of Paul?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Paul is somebody I have been trying to love for ages, it’s hard work. But I really appreciate a lot of his metaphors, I think are really helpful because Paul is the first person that is like,  I will go as far as to say, Paul created Christianity. Like Christianity did not exist prior to Paul. He was the one that kind of said, we are doing the whole new thing here because of this guy Jesus. And so, Paul is helpful for us in putting, like some of the more ancient things that we don’t understand into a context that is more similar to ours. The main problem I have with Paul is that he did all that within a Greek and Roman system which we don’t have anymore. Even though we have a lot of things in our society that come from Greek and Roman systems. So, a lot of what we see in Paul ends up being what we will think of as problematic about things like slavery and treatment of women are things that were essential to Greek and Roman culture  at the time. 

So, we have to find ways to take the things that are good from Paul, he is like really creating this new wonderful thing, versus the parts of the Greek and Roman systems that are not involved in  Christianity and just happen to be there at the time. I think we are doing a lot of the same thing today, but we are trying to figure out, what is essential to Christianity, versus what is U.S. nationalism. Like that should not be a part of this conversation here, it’s not part of Christianity and yet those things have become so intertwined that we are not sure how to pry them apart again. And so I think in a way, Paul can be really good sort of model for us on how to do that. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yes. Nationalism, nicely done, U.S. nationalism. Wow, yeah, its, I don’t …

AUSTEN HARTKE: You don’t know where to go from there.

ADAM ERICKSEN: Fantastic and I want to dive into that a little bit, with you. The ancients Christians, went around saying Jesus is lord, and progressives, have a hard time with lord language. But I love that statement because it meant Caesar is not. And Caesar wanted people to make religious sacrifices to Caesar to show their allegiance to Caesar and Jesus wants us to show allegiance to Jesus. The one who is as you have been saying this Jewish man who flips things upside down so that we go out and include more and more and more people into the fray. And nationalism does the opposite. Nationalism is all about keeping things, I don’t know, 1950’s what, or I don’t know.

AUSTEN HARTKE: There is this, nationalism is about the preservation of us and Christianity is about the expanding circle that we are drawing the circle wider. And it’s not like… what are we supposed to do as disciples? We’re supposed to spread a gospel. And for me, I feel very strongly that the gospel, the good news must actually be good news for the people that are hearing it. If the gospel is only good news for the people telling it, it’s not really the gospel. And so, I think the thing that I really appreciate about Paul is he was in that same tradition of drawing the circle wider that we saw from Deuteronomy to Isaiah, Paul was going even going further. Like you said, Paul, is essentially saying that we are just going to keep opening this up, and opening this up and opening this up until all people are drawn to Christ. That’s sort of what we get in Revelation and I really love that sort of the end of the scripture that in Revelation you get all people of all languages, all different background, they are all coming to this one place together. And that feels like such a satisfying ending to a story that began with something that was specific just for a small group of people and suddenly it’s like huge now.

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, and when you go back to the calling of Abraham, this kind of small group of people. The calling of Abraham is Abraham is blessed so that he will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Right. I mean this is the original call and everything after that is how we all tend to get it right sometimes and get it wrong sometimes. That’s what I love about the honesty of the Bible is the critique of how we often mess that up. 

So those were, I think, all of the questions I had for you. And we have got one last statement from Melanie. And she writes this specifically to me, but it’s just for you as well, Austen, “You speak the truth so eloquently which I have grown to understand and try to live according to the great generosity that I experienced in the heart of the name, the name of the divine. I  appreciate your strong voice for justice.” Austen, that is a perfect way to end the conversation and because it expresses what’s in my heart for you. And thank you  so much for being here. 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Of course, am so glad I got to do this. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Yeah, thank you. And if people want to keep up with your work, they can go and pick up “transforming: [I highly recommend it] the Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians”. It would make a great book study.

AUSTEN HARTKE: It’s true, I have been talking to a lot of churches that have been doing it as a book study, like on four consecutive Sundays, or whatever, and it’s been really fun to go and talk to them. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Brilliant, that’s a great idea, so, if your church wants to do that, go ahead and do it and fly Austen over to your place. Would you be up to do that?

AUSTEN HARTKE: Oh, yeah. I am always ready to go on and talk to churches.

ADAM ERICKSEN: Fantastic, awesome. Great, work. How else can people keep up with you and what you are up to?

AUSTEN HARTKE: You can go to my website which is Austenhartke.com. I was almost going to say my email address, is Austenhartke.com. And it’s spelled, A U S T E N. People often don’t realize that I  spell it weird and that’s how you get to me. Everything is linked there, book stuff, YouTube stuff, traveling stuff, speaking stuff, it’s all there. 

ADAM ERICKSEN: Awesome, fantastic, well, Austen thank you again and for being here, and thank you everybody, for joining us, thank you for your questions, your comments,  and you can stay up to date with the Raven cast at the Raven Foundation Facebook page. So, until next time, peace be with you. Bye bye. 

AUSTEN HARTKE: Bye, everybody.

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