Tony McDade, 38, was killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 27. McDade’s murder—two days after George Floyd’s—sparked outcry from advocacy groups and became a rallying cry for the protection of Black trans lives.
Helle Jae O’Regan, 20, was proud of her trans identity. On Trans Day of Visibility in March, she posted on Instagram: “I was looking at the pictures I used to take before I transitioned versus now and it made me realize I’m way happier than I used to be. I love myself now. Thank you to everyone who’s ever supported me and to anyone who hasn’t I hope you come around. I’m happy and proud to be myself.”
These are two of the thirty-four transgender or gender non-conforming people murdered this year in the US whose loss we mourned this past Friday on Transgender Day of Remembrance. Their profiles were published by the feminist fashion magazine, Elle. The majority of these people were young, black transgender women. They lived, as the authors of the article point out “at the intersection of racism, homophobia, and transphobia.” The founder of the day of remembrance, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, said that when the observance first began,
Trans people were nameless victims in many cases. Our killers would do their best to erase our existence from the world. And law enforcement, the media, and others would continue the job.
Today’s story from Acts also is about someone who is nameless. Though this official of the Ethiopian court had access to privilege, their lack of personal identity in this story suggests that their prevailing experience in life was one of erasure. Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney explains that:
In order to work for most monarchs in the ancient Near East and North Africa, men had to be surgically neutered. The monarchs did not want top-level employees trying to pass on power to their children and establishing dynasties of their own, or forming adulterous liaisons and undermining the government.
Gafney argues that rather than viewing eunuchs as “anachronisms,” or “relics of an ancient time and antiquated social system,
We can allow them to represent anyone who is treated as a “sexual and social outsider,” anyone who does not fit into our neatly constructed gender paradigms as neatly as we might wish.
The more I ponder this story, the more foundational it seems to me for our understanding of the Gospel, of the good news of Jesus. It strikes me as a narrative that we need to center as we seek to wrestle our faith away from the grip of colonialism, and to reclaim its liberating essence.
The book of Acts is an account of how the message about Jesus spread among Jews and Gentiles alike, how this good news brought people of all kinds together, to share a faith, to eat at a common table, to live as one body. Certainly, Acts does not gloss over the difficulty of this process of community formation. The early church navigated bitter internal disputes over money, possessions and authority. Many saints of the movement were jailed and some shared in the violent death of their founder.
Philip—the evangelist who appears to the eunuch in the wilderness—is quite a fascinating guy. We first hear of Philip in Chapter 6 of Acts. As the church grew, a controversy arose because the Greek members believed that their widows were being neglected in the community’s distribution of food. The Greeks cast blame on the Hebrews. The original twelve disciples recognized this issue for what it was: an experience of growing pains. However, as their response showed, even they didn’t fully understand the good news of Jesus they were called to proclaim. They called all the believers together and said to them: “’It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” Philip was among the seven men chosen to “wait tables.”
This story is ironic and really quite funny, of course, given that the whole Christian movement centers around a sacred meal, and calls us to emulate a servant-leader who washed feet and waited tables. And the irony intensifies as the apostles stay put in Jerusalem while Philip brings the Gospel to the far corners of the world, including Africa.
The story of a black queer court official from Ethiopia worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem and reading the scroll of Isaiah in their chariot is not as strange as it might seem. The eunuch was probably a Jew. You see, according to Ethiopian Orthodox church tradition, Judaism came to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon. And the middle-of-nowhere meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian court official was no accidental encounter. According to the biblical text, an angel of the Lord sent Philip to the very place where the chariot would rumble by on a zig-zagging wilderness road, and the very place where the bumpy desert highway neared water for baptism. I also don’t think it was a coincidence that the eunuch was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
I believe there was something very personal in the eunuch’s question, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” The eunuch, it seems to me, was drawn to this particular scripture because they identified with the silenced, shorn lamb. They were looking for assurance from Philip that they were loved by God and included in God’s people. They wanted to know that the people of God sought justice on their behalf. The original text simply states that, in response to the eunuch’s question, Philip “proclaimed to the eunuch the good news about Jesus.”
Wil Gafney underlines the fact that, even as we Christians read the Hebrew Bible with Jesus in mind, we must honor the text’s other layers of meaning. Within the Israelite community, the prophet’s words lamented the innocent ones who suffered along with the guilty, or even on their behalf, during the time of the exile, when so many were killed and whole generations of the people were separated from their homeland. The life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, Philip believed, stood in continuity with this ancestral tradition. The good news about Jesus is that in his own body, Jesus gives flesh to divine love that accompanies us through our experiences of persecution and humiliation, our moments of powerlessness. This love affirms the humanity all who suffer. It speaks the names of all who are erased. This love births sacred community that honors the foot-washers, table-setters and meal-servers for their integral and transformational work. This love builds a world of hospitality, justice and equality even amid our seemingly insatiable human need to exclude, marginalize and dominate each other.
God didn’t just reveal Jesus to the eunuch. God called the eunuch to reveal Jesus to all of us, because Jesus was in fact uniquely present in the body of a black queer Jew from Ethiopia, in their experience of the world, in their sorrow and joy. And God calls each of us to embody Jesus as well. What is the “‘you’ you hide?” as the hymn we’re about to sing puts it. Where is that place in yourself that is vulnerable, that is afraid, that is unnamed and erased? Where do you feel the pain of exclusion? Where is there intense pressure to conform to the violent norms of patriarchy, racism or trans phobia? That is the very wilderness where the evangelist is sent to meet you.
This year we give thanks amid very difficult circumstances. I pray that even as we set our tables in isolation, this ancient message of inclusion and incarnation will feed us. I pray that as we mourn the sickness and death all around us, we will also find the strength to serve each other. And I pray that, even as worry for our future grows, the good news of Jesus, too, will grow within us, and will be our guide through this wilderness time. Amen.