From Florida to Arizona, state legislatures across the country are advancing transphobic bills that seek to “protect” the rights of school teachers and administrators to call students by pronouns that align with the sex listed on their birth certificates (or official school documents).

The claims put forward by the proponents of these bills are scientifically dubious. Yet these arguments are just as flawed on theological grounds, the very foundation that their proponents present as unshakeable.

By giving a teacher absolute autonomy to address a student as the teacher wishes, these laws seek to enshrine a dangerous and unorthodox notion of religious freedom. The most cherished religious value risks becoming the ability to disregard the other, to refuse to recognize their personhood. If this strikes you as decidedly un-Christian, you are on the right track.

It is particularly brazen to see this “biblical” perspective attributed to Jesus. To be fair, modern concepts of sex and gender, and their appropriate terminology, were not on Jesus’ mind as a first-century Jew. But he was crystal clear about the religious duty to recognize the full humanity of one’s neighbor, especially those in the most vulnerable positions in society, whether because of their health, wealth, profession, religion or ethnicity.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus looks at those before him with a love that does not seek to objectify or encapsulate them, but rather allows them to become themselves in his presence. Where most of us bring to relationships what we think we know of a person, Jesus seems uniquely capable of recognition without preconception.

This is especially evident in the gospels’ accounts of how Jesus calls his disciples. Given the importance that the disciples will have in his life, one might expect Jesus to take his time choosing the right individuals. Instead, it feels more like love at first sight. Take this passage, in which Jesus collects not one but four disciples, a full third of his coterie, on a single stroll.


As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18–22)

Jesus’ metaphor about fishing for people is a powerful piece of foreshadowing but no doubt a bit befuddling for the fishermen themselves. Yet such is the power of Jesus’ gaze – the feeling of being truly seen – that they drop everything to follow a strange man they have never met before.

This kind of looking, rooted in true regard for the other, has the power to transform human relationships.

The great 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber argued that most of the time, even when we think we are respecting the person in front of us, we are really objectifying them, treating them merely as an “it.”

True relationships involve engaging the other in a spirit of genuine reciprocity. When we do that, Buber says, we treat the other not as an “it,” but as a “you.” And when we really engage in I-you dialogue, he suggested, we open ourselves to the divine, the other beyond all others. Jesus’ great gift, according to Buber, was to stretch out these moments, to remain in “I-you” relationship with all those he encountered.

Jesus’ example might be impossible to emulate perfectly, but it provides a powerful point of orientation. The first step toward this kind of transformative looking can be something as prosaic yet important as addressing someone by their pronoun, the one that aligns with their experience and their identity.

If state lawmakers are as keen on pursuing biblical precedent as they claim to be, they would do well to take their lessons on grammar from Jesus. The most important pronoun, he teaches us, is always “You.”

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