By Rev. Linda Hart Green
Is difference dangerous? There are those who think so. Even proximity to differences is hard for some to accept.
Yet diversity is a main characteristic of divine creation. Just look at the plants and animals living on this island, the sea creatures swimming in the ocean, the faces of human beings who populate planet Earth.
Instead of embracing differences, some people spend their energy trying to squeeze other people into the molds of one set of beliefs and values.
Fear is a powerful motivator of this way of thinking. I wonder if those who are so afraid have questioned where all the fear is coming from. Are the threats real or are they being used to attempt to control? People tend to give up freedom when they are afraid. Maybe their worldview needs rigid boundaries for them to feel safe and comfortable. Experts in human behavior, including theologian Brian McLaren in his 2021 book “The Second Pandemic: Authoritarianism and Your Future,” are estimating that 30-35% of the population cannot tolerate ambiguity.
In a small community like ours, 35% can feel like a lot. I want to share with you an experience that opened my eyes to the wideness of God’s beautiful creation that is only called good in the biblical story. It changed my life.
I had a clear call to ministry at an early age and proceeded to theological school directly after college, entering Princeton Theological Seminary at age 22 during the height of the sexual revolution. Because I had witnessed injustice to the poor at home and abroad I chose a social ethics concentration, which included a required class in sexual ethics. My Black female professor — an inspiration to me and other young female seminarians not only because she had broken through cultural barriers to land such a teaching post, but also because of her forward thinking — believed we budding ministers needed to know what was going on in the rapidly changing world of medical science. She arranged for us to study the same materials as the medical students at nearby Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and team taught the class with the medical professor, guiding us through a very detailed and groundbreaking medical book about the innumerable ways sex differences are manifested in human biology, both in body and mind. (“Man & Woman, Boy & Girl: Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity” by John Money and Anke Ehrhardt, 1972, republished 1996.)
We learned that doctors assigning sex at birth could make mistakes! We saw movies interviewing all different kinds of people about their experiences of their bodies. We learned how sexuality is a continuum and how one’s gender identity is a matter of one’s whole physiology, including one’s brain.
This naive young woman’s eyes were opened. My worldview changed. I realized the diversity of God’s creation is much bigger than I had known. I had been taught that everyone was created in God’s image and that God loved everyone. But now I realized, who was I to limit who or how God loved?
During my 40 years of serving churches, I was called to be in ministry with people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. I counseled families who were struggling. I counseled people wrestling with their sexual orientation who were depressed and contemplating suicide. And I was pastor to other clergy who were serving churches while living in the closet.
I often wondered over the years if I had not had that one class — which was ahead of its time in the mid 1970s and taught by a woman ahead of her time — would I have been able to effectively care for people coming to me in their time of need?
I ask you to step outside yourself for just a minute and wonder what it might be like to not feel at home in your own body? To be brave enough to state publicly who you love only to be rejected by the ones you hold most dear? To be a young person bullied at school and excluded at social events because you were not “girly” enough or “manly” enough? Or to be living in a community where your right to gather with friends and celebrate and feel relaxed and have fun for just one day is questioned and viewed as dangerous?
You don’t have to go to theological school to answer these questions. You just have to take a look inside at the source of your fears. And if you can, you can celebrate that the divine creation is wonderfully diverse, even if you don’t understand it all. Or at the very least, you can allow others who think and feel differently than you to celebrate who they are.
Linda Hart Green is Pastor Emeritus of Emmanuel Church, Ridgewood, N.J. and co-owner of Shady Ladies Art Studios and Gallery in Fernandina Beach. She holds an M.Div. and a Certificate in Pastoral Leadership Development from Princeton Theological Seminary.