Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) wrote a variety of poems and humorous fables. Here I share one with you, called “A Strange Ride.”
A man was riding home on his donkey. He had his son run along beside. A traveler came by and said, “It is not right, sir, that you ride and have your son run. You are stronger than he is.” So, the father dismounted and let his son ride. Another traveler came and said, “Young fellow, it is not right that you ride and let your father go by foot. You have younger legs.” So, both mounted together and rode for a while. A third traveler came and said, “What sort of nonsense is this! Two blokes sitting on one weak animal? Someone oughta’ take a stick and chase the two of ya’ off the poor beast.” So, both climbed off the donkey and the three walked abreast along the road, with the donkey in the middle. A fourth traveler came and said, “You are three curious companions. Isn’t it sufficient for two to go on foot? Doesn’t the trip go easier when one of you rides?” So, the father tied the donkey’s front legs together and the son tied his back legs together. Then they ran a strong pole through and carried the donkey on their shoulders.
This is how far things can go if you try to please everybody.
Humorous, yes? And yet also touching a central nerve in life: you can’t please everybody. Trying to please everyone ends up doing ridiculous things that don’t necessarily help anyone involved. Or, read a little differently, the parable illustrates that not everyone can be right.
This message is especially relevant for our culture right now where we have decided that everyone gets to be right.
June is—if you’ve missed it—considered LGBTQ+ Pride month. As a culture, trying to follow everybody’s different demands leads to inconsistent nonsense winning the day. In the recent past we have seen the increasing complexity and oddity of living in a culture where sex and gender are viewed as endlessly plastic, subject only to the whims of the sovereign self.
Here are just two areas of tragic irony in the move to “carry the donkey” instead of ride it like usual.
When a man is a “woman” is a “something”
As usual in American culture, sports have led the way in grabbing headlines.
Recently, one headline brought to a head something which pundits have long been talking about. A former-male now transgendered swimmer—who had competed for 3 years in collegiate swimming as a male—started breaking women’s swimming records in collegiate swimming, even winning the 500-meter freestyle at nationals. Naturally, this athlete is competing against biological females
The athlete in question, Lia Thomas, has said this about their relationship to swimming:
“(Swimming) is a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve been a swimmer since I was 5 years old,” Thomas said. “The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?
“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport and being able to continue is very rewarding.”
I have no doubt that personally wrestling with issues of uncertainty about sex/gender is immensely complicated. That being said, consider how Lia Thomas frames the issue as one of personal identity and personal reward: I am someone who likes to swim (competitively at college) and so I should be able to keep doing that because that is my identity; the rest of the world needs to make space for me to do this as trans, because that is my identity. While this is picking one line from one news article, it is telling that there is no wrestling with the question of whether this former man turned woman competing against women is a fair way to treat the biological women whose identity has also centered on competitive swimming, but who don’t have the advantages of having a biological male body.
Women’s sports has turned out to be a galvanizing issue. Having biological males participating in women’s sports kind of goes against the point of women’s sports to begin with. International swimming has banned people like Lia Thomas from competing in international events. We’ll see how long that common-sense approach holds up.
The prominence of “pregnant people”
On a related front, if you listen to political debates and talking points, you may have caught something recently. National politicians have largely stopped talking about “pregnant women.” They talk about “pregnant people” instead. This goes hand in hand with the highly publicized confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson where she pleaded unable to answer the question, “What is a woman?” As has been pointed out, this inability to define “woman” has not stopped her from using the word in her legal rulings, leading one to wonder what exactly she is ruling about. And the necessity of ruling about cases of sexual discrimination raises problems with this lack of certainty of what exactly makes a woman a woman, but I digress.
Back to “pregnant people.” A simple biological fact is that only human females can become pregnant. Until scientists develop artificial wombs, this will continue to be true. That is a bridge we will probably have to cross at some point, but not yet. In the meantime, consider this statement from Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, about why we should talk about “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”:
First of all, if we’re talking about “pregnant people,” that language says to people—to transgender men and to nonbinary people—“we see you.” It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination.
The question which emerges in my mind is this: why should we efface the identity of the vast majority of “pregnant people” (cough, cough, “pregnant women”) in an effort to assuage the difficult feelings of a minute minority of biological women who have decided—for whatever array of personal reasons—to live as a man yet keep their uterus and female hormones largely intact?
Again, I don’t in anyway want to minimize the personal difficulties of individuals who are struggling with their sex/gender identity. I want us to learn how to be compassionate in helping people as best as able. But I question the wisdom of trying to reshape the experience and labels—the identities, really—of the majority (the vast majority, at that) of people to help a few people whose experience is biologically aberrant. One wonders, why should we efface the identity of most women in order to give a few people a sense that their identity as a “pregnant-former-woman-now-living-as-a-man-but-not-really-because-men-can’t-get-pregnant” is right?
The category of redemption
These are just two of many points where the advancing LGBTQ+ agenda is creating a strange situation in our culture—the travelers are carrying the donkey, as it were. In insisting that each individual’s felt identity is sacrosanct (so long as that identity is LGBTQ+), we have created a situation where the majority must be effaced to protect the fragile feelings of the minority.
As Christians, we have something to offer to this strange situation. Namely, an important concept lacking in our culture’s vocabulary and view of self: redemption. Redemption insists two things at the same time: (1) each person is broken and (2) each person is redeemable. When the LGBTQ+ movement declares certain identities as inherently right, they have removed the need for redemption. In fact, they find the idea that LGBTQ+ people need redemption (like anybody else) as offensive.
But one of the beautiful advantages of redemption is it helps us hold together the ability to be loving to other people who are different from us (since we need redemption to) and to insist that not everything is right, good, and desirable. Rather than trying to please everyone and ending up in chaos, redemption insists that we all have aspects of our identities which need to be redeemed by God.
Insisting on LGBTQ+ identities as the standard for the good life leads a culture along the strange ride of the opening parable. Something wrong can be found with every version of the ride. Insisting on redemption as the baseline for human identity and society allows space for people to be different while always insisting that each one of our identities needs some amount of overhaul.
And God is able and willing to redeem any identity through Jesus.
 This is a mix between a personal translation of the original German and a bit of retelling on my part.
 And lest any consider this point sexist, I merely note that at every level of advanced sports with athletes of comparative skill and experience, the issues is with men going to compete in women’s sports, not vice-versa. There are very few sports where female athletes of comparable level can competitively participate against male athletes in a consistent manner.