Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jesus and Self-Defense

This is the third post in a series on Christian ethics and the use of force.

It is often assumed that Jesus' ethical teaching is uniformly pacifist in nature. Consequently, even those who identify as Christian and yet support the use of force for self-defense or protection of others will often feel the need to resort to claiming that while Jesus holds up absolute non-violence as the ideal, we will inevitably fall short of that because of the kind of world we live in. Force, then, in the contexts just mentioned, is usually justified as a necessary evil, a moral compromise that bridges the gap between the reality of a violent world and the ideals of Jesus' teaching.

However, there are several passages in the Gospels that might lead one to question whether Jesus really was an absolute pacifist. Before looking more closely at the two passages that I think offer a legitimate (albeit limited) challenge to the pacifist model, I first want to point out a couple passages that often get appealed to in this discussion by just-war folks that I think are not helpful at all in trying to show Jesus wasn't really a pacifist.

The Centurion 

The first is the story of a centurion (Roman army official) who comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his slave (Matt 5:8-13). Jesus is impressed with this man's faith and heals the slave. Just war folks have often said, "See, here is Jesus talking to someone in the army, and not a word about how he needs to quit his job. Therefore, being in the military and using force must be ok." Arguments from silence, though, are inherently suspect. Jesus also doesn't say a word in this conversation about slavery being wrong, but from that I don't think we should conclude Jesus had no problems with slavery. This passage offers little to us in our discernment about the ethics of force.

The Temple Demonstration

The second passage that is frequently appealed to is the story of Jesus "cleansing the temple." Whether it happened at the beginning of his ministry (John) or at the end (Matt, Mark, Luke), at some point Jesus went into the temple with a whip and drove out the animals and turned over the tables of the money changers as a way of protesting against what the temple had become in his estimation: a center of economic injustice and religious corruption. This story does offer a correction to the image of Jesus as a soft person, meek and mild, who merely went around playing with children and gazing at flowers. Jesus also could get angry and forceful, and could be intimidating to deal with (see also Matt 23). Yet, there is nothing in this story that indicates Jesus had any intention of hurting anyone physically. If Jesus had attacked anyone, he would have likely been arrested on the spot. Like the prophets before him, he employed a bold demonstrative action to bring attention to his charge of corruption, but there is little, if anything, in this story that could be used to justify force or coercive action against another person.

Take a Staff?

The next passage, I believe, contains more promise of relevance for our discussion, and it is one that is rarely brought up in these discussions. It concerns Jesus' instructions to his disciples we he sent them out on a preaching journey.

Mark 6:8-9 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

A staff was a multi-purpose object. In traveling, it could be used as a walking stick, but it also served the purpose of providing some basic protection as a means of self-defense from robbers and bandits. In allowing his disciples to take a staff, is he endorsing the legitimacy of using at least some degree of force to defend oneself? While that is a possible reading, there is no way to prove conclusively this is what is going on. Conversely, there is no way to prove this isn't what is going on either. The difficulty of interpreting this passage is compounded by the fact that Matthew and Luke record this episode differently, telling us that Jesus ordered them to not take a staff with them (Matt 10:10, Luke 9:3). So, while this passage may be relevant for the discussion, the conclusion we can draw is somewhat limited. What we can say is that at least some remembered Jesus as encouraging his followers to go out with a staff, and that one of the main uses of a staff was self-defense. Any stronger statement involves speculation and specification that goes beyond what the text tells us. 

Buy a Sword

The last story I want to look at provides the strongest challenge to understanding Jesus as an absolute pacifist. Luke records the following scene which happened shortly after the Passover meal and before Jesus was arrested:

Luke 22: 35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

This is a very difficult passage to understand. Broadly speaking, Jesus' words can be taken metaphorically or literally. Many, especially pacifists, opt to take these words metaphorically, and point out that elsewhere Jesus uses sword language metaphorically to talk about the divisions and difficulty allegiance to him will bring to people ("I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." - Matt 10:34). On this interpretation, the disciples misunderstand the metaphor and look for actual swords, and Jesus corrects them by exclaiming, "That's enough!"

While Jesus certainly does use sword language elsewhere in a metaphorical way, interpreting his statement here in this context metaphorically seems a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. In this context, Jesus is reminding them of an actual command at a previous time to literally not do something, and now he is saying that a changed context requires changing that previous command. It certainly seems that Jesus is talking in a very straightforward, literal way about the need to amp up personal security and safety a bit in light of the troubles to come with his approaching arrest and execution. 

Some pacifists acknowledge these points and interpret the passage literally, but argue that while Jesus wanted the disciples to get a couple swords, he didn't want them to use them, as is evident from how the story progresses. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Peter gets a sword and strikes one of them to try to protect Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him and tells him to put the sword away. 

So, if Jesus didn't want them to use the swords, why would he tell them to get them? Some would argue that Jesus wanted to make sure that he would be arrested, so he needed his companions to look like troublemakers (fulfilling the scripture to be "counted among the lawless"). So he wanted them to get some swords to look like a violent gang so that his plan to get arrested as a suspected revolutionary would go through. 

This interpretation strikes me as very ad hoc and strained. It is highly questionable that Jesus would need to deceive the Roman authorities into thinking they were a violent gang in order for him to be arrested. The Gospels tell us that the religious officials (who had the ear of the political authorities) had been intent on killing Jesus for a good while, and Jesus' demonstration in the temple was enough to mark him as a potential revolutionary. Add to that the fact that Judas had already betrayed Jesus' location to the authorities (indicating there desire to act immediately to arrest him), it seems that Jesus' fate was sealed and he certainly didn't need to do anything else to get arrested.

But the problem still remains: if Jesus wanted his band of eleven to have a couple swords, why then did he rebuke them when the sword was used? The early church theologian Tertullian wrote that "in disarming Peter, Christ disarmed every Christian." But is that true? What is clear from the story is that Christ did not want force to be used to protect himself. He was convinced he had a unique mission to go to the cross and offer himself up to God, and that his death would have a saving effect for all people. But while it is clear that Christ didn't want force to be used to stop his arrest, it is not as clear that Christ was against his disciples using force to protect themselves. 

Since the metaphorical approach to this passage seems deficient, and therefore some kind of literal approach seems to be the only valid interpretive option, Jesus must have wanted the group to have the swords for some reason, and self-defense seems as likely a candidate for that reason as anything else. If that is the case, though, then there is the apparent practical problem, often pointed out by pacifist-leaning interpreters, of how two swords could be enough to protect the whole band of disciples from the authorities who might be after them. But lets think about it: if Jesus encouraged them to get swords to protect them from the Roman army/police, then even if each of them had a sword in each hand that wouldn't be enough. They would be no match for Roman military force no matter how many swords they had. Perhaps, then, what Jesus had in mind is not self-defense from the Roman authorities, but the kind of self-defense that would be needed from small gangs of robbers and looters during the massive social and political upheaval he believed was soon to take place in Jerusalem. Presumably, having two armed disciples to watch out for the other nine would be reasonably effective for this purpose. This interpretation, while not free from difficulty, seems to me to be the least inadequate way of accounting for this passage. 

The final objection that could be made from the pacifist side against this interpretation is that the early church seems to have uniformly understood Jesus as rejecting all violence, and an early and uniform interpretation is likely to be the most accurate. In the next post, we'll look at the early church tradition and raise questions about the frequent assertion that it was uniformly pacifist. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Loving Enemies, Defending Neighbors

This is the second post in a series on the Christian ethics of the use of force. 

Although the pacifist position can certainly draw from a variety of teachings of Jesus and stories about Jesus, the central or foundational text for this view can be found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:38-48:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Admittedly, at least on the surface, these words of Jesus seem very hard to square with the idea of using lethal force in self-defense, or even in trying to protect others. Loving enemies and killing enemies certainly, and understandably, strikes many people as mutually exclusive options. In what follows, I want to do one main thing. I want to argue that this reading of this teaching, while it may be true, isn't obviously true. In other words, I want to show, at a minimum, that the pacifist position can't simply be justified by merely quoting this passage as a proof-text. In a later post, I want to talk more about a couple of gospel passages where it seems that Jesus does, at least on the surface, advocate using weapons in self-defense, which, if that is the case, would certainly influence how one understands this text. For now though, I want to just stick with this text and offer some considerations that might lead one to doubt if Jesus is here teaching an ethic of absolute non-violence. 

The first thing I would point out is this: Jesus frequently used startling, shocking, and presumably exaggerated language in order to make a point. Perhaps the most non-controversial examples of this would be where Jesus tells people to cut off body parts that might lead them into sin. I can imagine a pacifist responding that Jesus' teaching to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, etc., doesn't sound like exaggerated imagery or hyperbolic speech, it sounds like a straightforward practical command. So let's take another example, where Jesus' mode of speech seems to be a straightforward practical command:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal." - Matthew 6:19

We might ask, for example, how in the world this command could ever be reconciled with the practice of having a savings account or, especially, a pension fund. The vast majority of Christians (I would suppose) see no conflict between this teaching and having a savings account or paying into a pension. Most would interpret this, instead, as a statement about one's priorities and values, and would take from it that Jesus is teaching us that we should not put out trust or our sense of security in our money but in God. 

The interesting thing is that this interpretive move is exactly how a large tradition in the church, following St. Augustine, has handled the "love your enemy" text. It doesn't concern outward actions so much as inward dispositions. Just as you can save money as long as you don't put your faith and identity in it, so also you are allowed, if necessary for self-defense or the protection of others, to use coercive and even lethal force against others as long as you do not hate them in your heart. 

I don't presume to have shown this is necessarily the correct interpretation of the enemy love command, I only point out, at this point, that there are a number of things Jesus said that, while they may seem straightforward in their meaning and simple in their application, often turn out to be much more complicated. In this same passage that we are exploring, for example, Jesus clearly says that we are to give to people who ask of us. But do we draw from this that it would always be wrong to refrain from giving to someone what they ask of us? Most of us don't. Jesus puts forward an ideal in strong language, but apparently leaves it up to his followers to interpret and work out the details. I would suggest this is probably the case with the enemy love command. Just as one can't draw a straight line from "do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth" to a prohibition on all savings, I also don't think one can draw a straight line from "love your enemies" to the conclusion that lethal force can never be justified. 

It is also worth pointing out the examples or illustrations that Jesus himself uses as he fleshes out this command. All of the examples, even the one about turning the other cheek, are about responding in non-violent and creative ways to gestures or actions of others that seek to demean or degrade us. They are about how to respond to different kinds of insults, not how to respond to an assault that threatens one's life or the life of another. (As Walter Wink and others have forcefully argued, the turn the other cheek command probably envisions someone being given a back-hand slap as an insult, not being attacked. It is a situation that addresses how to respond when your honor is challenged, not when your life is threatened.) 

The situations Jesus talks about in this passage strike me as radically different than a scenario where someone's life is in danger because of an aggressor. He seems to be concerned with people not getting sucked into cycles of revenge, not with giving rules about the use of force in protecting others or self. 

Just as one can raise all sorts of considerations about why a literal and absolute application of the "don't store up for yourselves treasures on earth" would not work, one can also raise many questions about why a strict and absolute application of non-violence would sometimes not seem to be the most loving option. From what I have read, it seems that pacifists really hate it when people raise the "what if" questions and paint awful scenarios where someone is going to kill your child unless you kill them. Some pacifists (like Yoder) think these are illegitimate questions because they assume too much, like that you know that violence is the only resort or that you know you will be able to carry through the use of lethal force in the way the scenario requires. The most common strategy on the part of the pacifist is to not answer the "what if" question at all, but to question the assumptions behind the question. While challenging some of the assumptions is helpful in some ways, in other ways it simply avoids addressing a situation where the assumptions would hold to be true, and there are situations where the assumptions would hold to be true. These kinds of scenarios are not merely hypothetical. They really happen. Here is an example.

A couple years ago, a young man came to see me at my church office. He wanted to talk with me because he had just pulled a gun on someone and wanted to know if he had done the right thing. He was in a parking lot at a store and witnessed one man attack another man. The two men got in a scuffle, and they ended up next to his truck that he was getting in. The aggressor reached for a sharp piece of metal that was in the bed of the truck, and he put it to the other guy's throat and was attempting to stab him. The young man who witnessed this had a carry permit and had a pistol in his glove box. He quickly got the gun, pointed it at the aggressor, and told him that if he didn't let go immediately he would shoot him. The aggressor let go and ran off, and was apprehended by the police minutes later. 

Now, what would you say to this person? 

Here is a situation where it is hard to imagine any other possible way to save the man's life than to use the threat of lethal force. Perhaps there was another way, but he couldn't see it, and, in hearing the story from him, I couldn't see it. I told him I thought he was courageous and that he should feel good that he saved a man's life and that it all ended without any serious harm. 

Paul Ramsey, the influential just-war ethicist, once asked us to imagine a tweaking of the parable of the good Samaritan. He said to imagine that the Samaritan arrived earlier, when the man was being attacked on the road by the robber. What would the good Samaritan do then? It is one thing to turn one's own cheek when being dishonored, but it is another to turn one's face away from an injustice without acting to stop it. 

The pacifist would want to point out here that violence and inaction are not the only possibilities. Some type of non-violent intervention might be possible. Perhaps, for example, the Samaritan could throw himself on top of the man being beaten and hope that this display of love would move the robbers to stop what they are doing. Perhaps, as Yoder suggests, one should simply be obedient to Jesus and hope for a miracle in this kind of situation. I would suggest that if your ethical chain of reasoning involves a step that involves "insert miracle here," perhaps there is something amiss with your chain of reasoning. I believe in the possibility of miracles, but I don't there is any ground for assuming or expecting them in such a scenario. 

Although I would strong disagree with them, here is where I really respect the pacifists: most would acknowledge how deeply counter-intuitive pacifism is, how it seems to go against some of our deepest convictions, and yet they would respond by saying that Jesus is Lord and since Jesus commanded nonviolence we will commit ourselves to that and leave the consequences up to him. I think there is something praiseworthy about this posture. 

If I was convinced Jesus taught absolute nonviolence, then I would hope I would have the same approach. But I am not convinced. I have shown in this post that there are some good reasons to question using this teaching as a basis for absolute pacifism. 

I think the pacifists are right to challenge us by pointing out that our imaginations have been truncated and constrained by the myth of redemptive violence that is pervasive in the world. As someone put it, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." We are too quick, in many cases, to assume force is the only solution. But I think it is easy to make the same absolutist error in the other direction, and assume that force can never be the right solution. 

Although pacifists can certainly be, and often are, very articulate and sophisticated scholars, the pacifist reading of this passage always strikes me as rather fundamentalist. That is to say, it clings to the most literal and absolutized application possible without showing an openness to interpretive ambiguity and exegetical complexity. This is not true of all pacifists, to be sure, but it is true of those who quote this passage as if it ends all discussion. On numerous occasions I have had people of a pacifist bent tell me, "Here is what it comes down to: do you really think Jesus meant what he said?" 

Well, before we can ask if Jesus meant what he said, we have to ask if Jesus meant what we think he meant when he said what he said. I have suggested that the pacifist reading of this text goes too far and claims too much. I should hasten to say, though, that even if one were to agree with everything I said, that wouldn't mean the pacifist position has been discredited. Although appeal to this passage is central for most Christian pacifists, it is by no means their only argument or their only scriptural resource. Most would say that we should interpret Jesus' teachings by his example, and that his non-violent life and self-sacrificing death clearly shows what enemy love looks like, and it never involves violence. We'll explore that line of argument further in the next couple posts.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Did Jesus Really Teach Non-Violence?

Several months back, a crazy guy came to my house several times one night wanting to come inside. He said that heaven was in my home and that he had to get in. I assured him that while it was a nice place, it wasn't heaven. For several hours he persisted in his delusional rant, yet I was able to keep him outside in our front yard. Keeping him out of the house and away from my family was my primary concern, so I did everything and said everything I could think of to keep him in conversation outside. I listened to him, prayed with him, listened a lot more, and, to make a long story short, finally ending up having to call a neighbor to help out, and then the police. He left before the cops showed up. When they finally arrived, they told me to not go outside again if he comes. So, I went back in the house, and spent the rest of the night staring out of the window with a gun nearby.

This little incident got me to thinking a lot more about my beliefs about Jesus and the ethics of force. As a mostly decent person, I would hate to shoot someone. As a Christian, I struggle with whether it could ever be the right thing to do. I do, in fact, think it could be the right thing (otherwise I wouldn't own a gun), but I still struggle with it, which I suppose is a good thing. I am not a pacifist, but out of all the things I don't believe, pacifism presents me with the greatest challenge.

Some Christians throughout history have believed that Jesus taught absolute non-violence, or pacifism, which essentially boils down to the conviction that it is always wrong for a Christian to use violence. Some pacifists would allow for non-lethal uses of force (like, say, tackling someone and restraining them), but in general pacifists assume and assert that Jesus is against all killing, and at least many forms of physical force or coercion.

The pacifist case is very strong. As I said earlier, as much as I don't believe in this perspective, I find it very difficult to disagree with it. This seems to have been the majority view of the early church, and the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles certainly seem (at least on the surface, and perhaps even upon closer inspection) to point in this direction. Most Christian traditions, however, after the fourth-century and up until the present day, have not been pacifist and have assumed and argued that some forms of coercion and lethal force are not only allowed, but sometimes required in order to love our neighbors.

To help me work through some of my thoughts on this matter, I decided to do a series of posts on this question. Hopefully it might be of some help to others who also wrestle with this. Not sure yet how many it will be. I would like to explore the following topics, not necessarily in this order:

Can you "love your enemy" and shoot them? 

Is "WWJD?" always the right principle for Christian ethics?

Was Jesus really pacifist? 

Was the early church really completely pacifist?

What does Christianity have to say about "gun control"?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Why Wright is Wrong (Part 3)

This is the third post in a three-part series on N.T. Wright's arguments against same-sex marriage.

The Everybody-Has-a-Cross-to-Bear Argument

Here is Wright:
We need to remind ourselves that the entire biblical sexual ethic is deeply counter-intuitive. All human beings some of the time, and some human beings most of the time, have deep heartfelt longings for kinds of sexual intimacy or gratification (multiple partners, pornography, whatever) which do not reflect the creator’s best intentions for his human creatures, intentions through which new wisdom and flourishing will come to birth. Sexual restraint is mandatory for all, difficult for most, extremely challenging for some.

This response has its merits, with are worth touching on before addressing what I would deem to be a significant problem with this line of reasoning as it addresses gay people. Wright rightfully points out that just because a person has a deep sexual desire to be with a person of the same sex that doesn't necessarily make it right, because we all (or, at least most of us) have sexual desires that are not indicative of God's good purposes for our lives. One of the lines of reasoning from progressives on this issue often goes something like this: homosexual desire is innate, and therefore it must be right to act on it. Conservatives will then (correctly, in my view) point out that we have lots of innate desires that we are commanded by God not to act on, and that just because a desire feels natural, strong, and unchangeable, that doesn't make it ethical. 

Wright points to desires for pornography and promiscuous relationships, while others sometimes bring in pedophilia to make the point. Some people have a pedophiliac sexual orientation, but that doesn't make it right. In short, this response helpfully points out that just because a person has a strong and "natural" sexual desire, that doesn't necessarily make it right to act on those desires. If you accept the basic Christian understanding of humanity that we have some type of in-built propensity towards sin (as I do), then it shouldn't surprise us that a number of deep desires we have are not good for us or honoring towards God. The New Testament is full of language indicating that following the Way of Christ requires a great deal of "self-control," "self-denial," "crucifying the flesh," "putting the old self to death," "taking up the cross," etc. While this transcends merely sexual matters, and involves resisting lots of other kinds of desires (such as greed, pride, indifference, etc.), it certainly includes some measure of restraint in sexual matters.

But here is where I think this response becomes problematic: the situation gay people find themselves in is not the same as the situation straight people find themselves in regards to self-control as taught by the church. As a heterosexual man, I sometimes have desires that I must say "no" to in order to sustain a good relationship with my wife and to keep from hurting myself or others. But saying "no" to these kinds of sexual desires is rooted in a more fundamental "yes" to my sexual desire as such, and its proper expression in my marital relationship. As a heterosexual person, I am not asked to deny the goodness of my basic sexual nature, I am only asked to deny expressions of my sexual desire that are distorted and dehumanizing. 

You can probably see where I am going with this. For gay people, they are not just being told by the church to channel their sexual desires into mutually committed and loving relationships as straight people are. No, instead, they are being told to say "no" to their most basic and fundamental sexual nature. They are being told that, even though they will always be attracted only to people of the same sex, that they are to refrain from ever acting on their most basic desire for sexual intimacy altogether. This is far different from what heterosexual people are told. 

Christian teaching on sexuality is, as Wright puts it, counter-intuitive, in that we must all at times act against strong biological drives. We need to acknowledge, though, that in denying gay people the church's blessing of committed unions we are placing a yoke on their necks far heavier than the yoke we place on necks of straight people. We are not just telling them (as we tell straight people) that they must exercise restraint in acting on their sexual desires for the sake of cultivating a deep and exclusive sexual bond with another person. We are telling them they must deny their basic sexual desire altogether. We are now past the time when it can be assumed that gay people can change their orientation with enough therapy and prayer. Even the researchers most often cited by conservative Christians acknowledge that change in orientation occurs "less frequently and in a more fragmentary fashion than many conservative Christians would like to believe." It is not fair to gay people for straight people in the church to argue that we are all in the same boat because we must all say "no" to some sexual desires. Gay people are being asked to say "no" to all their sexual desires. 

It seems to me that the case for same-sex marriage from a Christian perspective, while certainly needing to go beyond this, should begin with two basic premises, one empirical and the other scriptural. First, that gay people exist. Second, that celibacy is a gift for very few people, not an imposition for a whole class of people (1 Cor 7). 

Wright is wrong, then, to imply that the church is only asking of gay people what it is asking of straight people. The church isn't asking straight people to live a life of imposed celibacy. Straight people are being asked to channel the stream of our sexual desires in a way that is ultimately life-giving and relationship-building; gay people, on the other hand, are being told to deny or repress their sexual desire in a way that, as the stories of so many have shown, is ultimately filled with despair and destruction. Some gay people can live celibate lives that are fruitful and joyful, to be sure. But, the possibility of some gay people being gifted with celibacy in no way leads to the conclusion that all gay people should be.

Those of us in the church on the liberal side of this issue should be clear that we are not asking for the church to bless just any sexual desire; we are asking the church to bless the kind of personal covenant that integrates sexual love into a holistic partnership of two people who want to give their lives to each other, and who, together, want to give themselves to service to God. Those who are conservative on this issue, like Wright, need to be more clear that what they are asking of gay people is far heavier than what they are asking of straight people. It is no good saying that "sexual restraint is mandatory for all" when, applied to gay people, what you really mean is complete sexual renunciation. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Wright is Wrong (Part 2)

This is the second post in a three-part series on N.T. Wright's arguments against same-sex marriage.

The Creational-Complimentarity Argument

Here is Wright:
With Christian or Jewish presuppositions, or indeed Muslim, then if you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.
I think it is fair to say this line of reasoning lies at the heart of the denial of the validity of same-sex marriage. I must say, as much as now think this chain of reasoning has some weak links, I still think this is the strongest argument against same-sex unions and the one that those of us on the liberal side of this issue need to grapple with the most. According to Genesis, God created men and women to "compliment" each other, and this complimentarity simply cannot be achieved in a same-sex union. Robert Gagnon's work, for example, is fundamentally rooted in the conviction that "anatomical and procreative complimentarily" is God/Nature's clue that only men and women should form sexual bonds. 

I want to respond briefly in two ways. First, it should be pointed out that while the first creation story in Genesis 1 highlights the need for procreation in regards to the creation of male and female, the second creation story in Genesis 2 highlights the need for companionship in the creation of female from male. In this story, the procreative complimentarity of male and female is not a factor in giving an account of marriage, but instead the need for a partner, helper, or supporting companion is the basis for the relationship. 

At this point we might observe, as James Brownson has helpfully pointed out, that "complimentarity" is not in and of itself a form of moral logic, but is in need of greater specification. What kind of complimentarity are we talking about? Sure, it is is obvious that only a man and a woman exhibit reproductive complimentarity, but women and men who are gay would obviously not exhibit relational complimentarity with people of the other sex. For a gay person, someone of the opposite sex could not fulfill the role of a supportive partner envisioned in Genesis 2. Since reproductive intent and/or possibility is not usually held as necessary for a heterosexual relationship by most Christians, it seems to be special pleading to use reproductive considerations to then disqualify same-sex relationships. Also, if reproductive complimentarity is the form of moral logic that you use to discount same-sex relationships, to be consistent you must follow that all the way where you will end up with the Roman Catholic position that bans all intentionally and basically non-procreative intercourse between heterosexual couples. Most Christians are not willing to go that far, but that is where the moral logic leads. Perhaps that conclusion should raise questions about the moral reasoning that takes one there. 

The second observation is more about the text of Genesis itself and how that functions as an authority on matters of sexual ethics. Throughout Israel's history up until the time of Jesus, this text certainly wasn't seen as only authorizing monogamous heterosexual marriage. The same people that accepted this creation story as coming from God also accepted polygamy as divinely-condoned and levirate marriage as divinely-mandated. While it might seem obvious  to us that it only supports one man and one woman marriage, that wasn't the traditional interpretation of this text. 

We could also point out that while the early chapters of Genesis present an understanding of marriage that was normal for most people, it does not present an account that is normative for all people. People who choose to be celibate come immediately to mind. It would be easy and natural to read Genesis as mandating marriage and reproduction for everyone, but we know that Jesus, Paul, and others did not see this mandate to be fruitful and multiply as applying to all individuals. I realize one cannot draw a straight line from an exception for celibacy to an exception to same-sex marriage, but I simply wish to point out that there are other accepted ways in which Genesis 1 isn't seen as normative for every human being, and this there might be room for thinking through other possible exceptions. 

One final thought. We have focused on the beginning of the Bible, but Wright points out that the end of the Bible utilizes male-female marriage as well as a sign of Christ and the church, and heaven and earth, coming together in an eternal union. This is powerful imagery, to be sure, but it is hard for me to see why a covenantal union of two people of the same sex cannot also be a sign of the self-giving, other-centered, and relationship-forming love of God and why it could not also function as a sign or foretaste of our eternal union with God. Is it really the reproductive fit of genitals that gives us a window into divine love? (I don't mean to denigrate procreation at all. It is one of the ways we can partner with God's creative love, but it certainly isn't the only or even the highest way.) Is it not the deep commitment and interpersonal communion we experience in heterosexual marriage that is what really points us to the consummation of divine love? 

Interestingly enough, throughout church history many of our major theologians have used the biblical vision of the world to come, not to absolutize our binary sexual identities, but to deeply relativize them. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, along with a host of other ancient Jewish and early Christian interpreters, envisioned gender distinctions falling away in the world to come where there is no marriage. That is not to say that they are necessarily right about that, but it is to say that it certainly shouldn't be treated as obvious, as Wright seems to do, that maleness and femaleness, and especially the union of the two, are needed to glimpse the life of the world to come. The scriptural images he appeals to are powerful and compelling, but to press them into service to exclude same-sex marriage seems to be going to far. People to the right of Wright have used the same argument against egalitarian heterosexual marriage: If Christ is over the church, then if you have a marriage where the husband isn't over the wife, then you don't have a marriage that can mirror Christ's relationship to the church. But most of us, Wright included, would hold that this is taking the analogy too far. It is the sacrificial and faithful love in the relationship that is most important for mirroring the relationship between Christ and the church, and it is hard to say why when we see this in a same-sex relationship we should not also be pointed towards the divine love we long for and hope to be consummated in our hearts and in the world. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Why Wright is Wrong About Same-Sex Marriage (Part 1)

N.T. Wright is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. No one's writings have influenced my own theology more than his. I have read all his books, listened to all his podcasts, and traveled long distances to hear him preach. I think his work on the importance of a literal understanding of the resurrection, especially, is one of the most important scholarly contributions to the church there is. In short, I would disagree with him only with fear and trembling. Yet, I do disagree with him on an important matter.

Wright has recently been the subject of a some controversy over some brief remarks he has made about same-sex marriage. (You can find those here and here.) Unfortunately, even though Wright has a reputation for a traditionalist stance on this issue, he has never written or spoke on the subject of sexuality in any kind of a substantial or extended manner. That should be kept in mind in my criticism that follows. I am responding to some brief remarks that seem to point to the lines of argumentation that he would employ, but he doesn't spell out his arguments in any detail. I am quite sure that were Wright to write an essay or book length treatment of this subject, it would be deeply impressive, even if one didn't follow all his arguments or accept all his conclusions.

That said, based on what little he has said, it is very disappointing. While Wright has a reputation for challenging traditional biblical interpretations with fresh and innovative scholarship, his remarks on same-sex marriage seem rather trite and tired. In his recent comments, I believe you could draw together his remarks under three rubrics or types of arguments. We can call these "the definitional consensus argument," "the creational-complimentarity argument," and "the-everybody-has-a-cross-to-bear-argument." Since these are very common lines of reasoning among those who are against same-sex marriage, I think it is worthwhile to interact with them.

In this post, I would like to offer a response to the first of these, and then spend two more posts responding to the others.

The Definitional Consensus Argument

Here is Wright:
Now, the word “marriage,” for thousands of years and cross-culturally has meant man and woman. Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female. Simply to say that you can have a woman-plus-woman marriage or a man-plus-man marriage is radically to change that because of the givenness of maleness and femaleness. I would say that without any particular Christian presuppositions at all, just cross-culturally, that’s so.
This is a common argument among traditionalists: marriage has always involved a man and a woman, and that fact doesn't even need specifically Christian revelation. It is just the way it has always been and that points to a moral truth embedded in the created order itself. The contemporary attempt to embrace same-sex marriage, so the argument goes, represents a radical and unprecedented shift in the basic human understanding of marriage.

Wright acknowledges that man+woman marriage has taken several different forms, not always monogamous, but the "essence" of marriage has always included a man+woman component in some form, and that is a non-negotiable of a genuine marriage. 

There are problems with this line of reasoning. Wright seems to be arguing that the meaning of marriage is radically changed when you allow two people of the same sex, but the meaning of marriage remains essentially the same as long as there is at least one man and one woman in the relationship. Monogamy is not essential for the definition of traditional marriage, but heterosexuality is. 

But one wonders why this should be the case? To be sure, extending the definition of marriage to encompass two people of the same sex is a break with tradition, but I am not so sure that it is as unprecedented or as deeply radical as Wright claims. Let me explain my reservation like this, working with the example of two very different kinds of heterosexual monogamous marriages. 

(1) Take, in the first instance, a marriage from antiquity where a 12-year-old female is given by her father to a 30-year-old male to be married. This is a marriage characterized by male-rule and primarily for the purpose of procreation and the proper transmission of land and property. 

(2) Take, in the second instance, a marriage from contemporary times where a 30-year-old female and a 30-year-old male decide to get married out of a desire for life-long companionship characterized by equality and mutuality. 

I am not sure that one can say that the meaning of marriage has remained essentially the same in these two cases even though both involve one man and one woman. The second seems to me to be a radically different understanding of what marriage is for.  

I don't think one can get away with saying that as long as there is a man and a woman involved you have substantially and definitionally the same kind of marriage, but if you have a woman and a woman or a man and a man then you have something totally different outside the essence of marriage. 

Think of it like this: In the post-Civil war era, a game began to be played involving a small ball and a wooden bat that would come to be known as "baseball." Interestingly enough though, when this game first began the pitcher did not have the goal of trying to get the batter out. Instead, the pitcher was usually someone from the offense's team who slowly tossed the ball to the batter so that he could easily hit it. As the decades rolled on, however, the role of the pitcher changed to what it is today: a defensive player whose primary goal to to get the batter out. 

Now, would it be fair to say that this early form of the game and the current form of the game are both properly described as "baseball" simply because they both involved a bat and a ball? I think not. The meaning and goals of the games are radically different even though they both involved the same types of components. 

I think one could argue that the meaning of marriage changes more radically from scenario (1) to scenario (2) than it does from scenario (2) to same-sex marriage. After all, a same-sex marriage can actualize all the goods of a scenario (2) marriage, or, in other words, of what most Christians would deem a valid heterosexual marriage (where one experiences the goods of self-giving and other-centered love, companionship, pleasure, joint service to others, etc.). 

In short, the definition of marriage has been anything but unchanging or stable throughout history. (I would recommend E.J. Graff's What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.) Yes, changing the understanding of marriage to include two people of the same-sex is historically unprecedented, but it is not conceptually unprecedented. That is to say, the meaning, purpose, and goals of marriage within Christian history has already changed significantly, primarily from a model centered on patriarchy, property, and procreation, to a model more centered on equal agency and mutual fulfillment. 

To my mind at least, same-sex marriage is not so much a radical break with our Protestant American tradition as it is a logical extension of this trajectory and shift that can be found within it. Once you dispense, as most contemporary Christian Americans have, with the two elements that have dominated traditional understandings of marriage throughout history and across the globe, namely, patriarchy (that marriage must include a man and a woman because it is of the nature of men to rule and the nature to women to be ruled), and procreationism (that marriage is essentially about making babies and raising children) then it becomes increasingly hard to exclude two people of the same sex from this institution without special pleading or duplicity.

This argument from a "definitional consensus," though, is by no means the foundation or heart of the traditionalist case against same-sex marriage. It is important to respond to it, though, because it often functions as an effective rhetorical strategy in debate since is depicts those with a liberal stance on this issue as doing some that disagrees with every human being that has ever lived until recent decades, and thus likely to be wrong. But this isn't a change from a monolithic and uniform past regarding marriage. It is one big change in a long line of big changes. Yet, as I have indicated, the foundation of the conservative stance lies elsewhere, and that is in their understanding of creation and complimentarity. We'll look at that in the next post.  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Transgender Controversy and the Real Gender Distortion in the SBC

While the recent Southern Baptist Resolution concerning transgender people is not surprising to anyone, it is shocking to many. 

The nation's largest Protestant denomination affirmed:
...God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception—a perception which is often influenced by fallen human nature in ways contrary to God’s design (Ephesians 4:17–18); 
...That we oppose efforts to alter one’s bodily identity (e.g., cross-sex hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery) to refashion it to conform with one’s perceived gender identity.
The focus of this resolution, as it is framed, is on people who have a clear biological sex identity, but whose gender identity is at odds with their body. As the framer of the resolution states, "Transgenderism differs from hermaphroditism or intersexualism in that the sex of the individual is not biologically ambiguous but psychologically ambiguous." 

Intersex persons (a conservative estimate of about 1 in 2000) are persons who are born with an ambiguous biological sex identity. "Intersex" is a term used to cover a wide variety of conditions where individuals may not have the chromosomal, hormonal, or anatomical make-up of an unambiguously and exclusively male or female. (See Alice Dreger's TED talk "Is Anatomy Destiny?" for a great introduction to this.)

This resolution from the SBC is not about intersex persons (biologically ambiguous) but about transgender persons (psychologically ambiguous). This way of framing the distinction is emphasized again when the resolution says, "That we grieve the reality of human fallenness which can result in such biological manifestations as intersexuality or psychological manifestations as gender identity confusion and point all to the hope of the redemption of our bodies in Christ (Romans 8:23)."

So, on this analysis, transgender people have a psychological problem caused by the Fall, while intersex people have a biological problem caused by the Fall. 

This biological-psychological distinction is not totality without merit, and is one often made in these discussions by lots of people beyond the SBC. I want to point out two potential problems with the distinction in this resolution, though, one scientific and one theological. 

First, as an empirical matter, while the terms "psychology" and "biology" can certainly accurately refer to distinct aspects of the human person, they do not refer to two separate realms altogether. After all, a person psychological make-up and outlook is grounded in and to a great degree conditioned by many biological factors (genetics, hormones, neurological structures, etc.). As in the case of one's self-perception of gender identity, it is complicated mix of "biological" and "psychological" factors. While there doesn't seem to be any scientific consensus on what causes a transgender identity, it seems that most would agree that it isn't just a matter of choosing to reject one's anatomical sex. 

The SBC resolution, therefore, oversimplifies things when it defines transgender identity as a psychological misperception of a biological reality. It would seem more accurate to describe most transgender cases, not as a clear conflict between psychology and biology, but as a conflict between several different biological factors, such as, for example, a chromosomal and reproductive make-up that is out of line with the neurological structures and hormonal levels that would render a person unambiguously and exclusively male or female. 

Second, as a theological matter related to this empirical observation, I find it interesting that the resolution acknowledges that "human fallenness" has biological manifestations, such as with intersex persons, and yet describes transgender identity as one of the "psychological manifestations" of the Fall. Now, I know that many Christians would disagree with this premise and would simply posit that sexual diversity is a part of creation. However, I think it is interesting to stay with this theological framework and observe a point of tension. 

If you acknowledge that human fallenness has biological manifestations- that the power of sin can affect (and infect) even biological structures themselves- then why not acknowledge this might be what is going on with transgender people? Why not suppose that it is possible because of the fallen state that we live in that some people might be embodied in such a way that goes against their true gendered identity? And why not then suppose that surgery or hormone therapy could be a way of cooperating with God in overcoming the curse of the Fall to restore someone to their true gendered identity? 

Recall the declaration from the resolution I quoted above, where it is affirmed that, "God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception—a perception which is often influenced by fallen human nature in ways contrary to God’s design (Ephesians 4:17–18)." 

Yes, our perceptions of ourself can be influenced by the Fall, but as the resolution itself acknowledges in regards to intersex persons, a person's very biological sexual make-up itself can be influenced by the Fall as well. If you acknowledge that, then it would be consistent to also believe it is possible that a person doesn't necessarily need to change their self-perception to fit their anatomy, but that they might need to change their anatomy to fit their self-perception. 

Again, I realize many Christians would disagree with some of the theological premises here (as would I), but my point is that within the assumptions made by this SBC resolution, one could have grounds for supporting transgendered persons. So, this hasn't been so much an argument for why Christians can and should embrace and affirm transgender persons, as it has been an attempt at showing how the framework of this resolution for rejecting such persons contains elements that could work against the conclusion it seeks to promote. 

I must say that while I don't share the conclusion of the resolution, I also do not share the righteous indignation and animosity of many towards the SBC over this specific matter. In all honesty, issues of gender identity are very complex and, for me at least, hard to understand. That doesn't mean I don't think they are wrong. I do. But we are going through a huge shift in our culture about matters of gender and sexuality, and I think we all need to be as patient with each other as we can, while at the same time working towards more clarity and understanding. 

My main animosity, if I can put it that way, towards the SBC is what I perceive "the issue behind the issue" to be, and that is maintaining gender inequality. The SBC continues to teach that "masculine and feminine roles as ordained by God" are to be largely defined by the authority of men over women, or as it is put in the Baptist Faith and Message, men are to "lead" while women are to "submit." 

Given that understanding, there can be little room for allowing ambiguity or fluidity when it comes to understanding and determining gender identity. Because gender roles are fixed and absolute, gender identities must also be fixed and absolute. If they were to acknowledge that gender identity isn't just dictated by reproductive anatomy, they would also have to acknowledge that gender roles are not dictated by reproductive anatomy, or, to put it more bluntly, that just because you have a penis that doesn't mean you are necessarily a better "leader" than a woman. I don't see that happening soon. Not as long as the male leaders see their role as mainly protecting women and not really listening to them. 

Of course, in not really listening, it isn't the women they are protecting, but their own fallen sense of power-based masculinity. Which, according to the Scriptures, is one of the main gender distortions of the Fall (Gen 3:16).