Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Slaves and Gays, Conservatives and Liberals

In a previous post, I commented on Rev. Adam Hamilton's recent article in the Washington Post where he compares the changing Christian attitude towards homosexual relationships to the changing Christian view of slavery in past centuries. I pointed out that while I think the issue of slavery provides a helpful conversation starter on how Christians can change their minds about an issue that has some biblical support and the weight of tradition on its side, this analogy shouldn't be used as a trump card in the homosexuality debate. The analogy opens up the possibility that perhaps Christians are also wrong in staying with the conservative view on homosexuality (as they were wrong with staying with the conservative view on slavery), but it doesn't in and of itself prove that this is the case. 

As expected, several have responded to Hamilton's little article by pointing out the differences between slavery and homosexuality in the Bible. Rob Renfroe and Thomas Lambrecht, in an article for Good News Magazine, helpfully summarize how many see the difference:
The Bible’s teaching on slavery contains within it the seeds of slavery’s demise.  The Old Testament regulations of slavery made the institution more humane than the ways it was practiced in surrounding cultures.  In the New Testament, Paul encourages slaves who have the opportunity to become free to take that opportunity (I Corinthians 7:21).  Paul also subtly encourages Philemon to free his newly-converted slave Onesimus (Philemon 15-16).  Most importantly, the New Testament asserts that in Christ all are equal—there is no slave or free (Galatians 3:28).  Paul reminds masters that they are subject to a Master in heaven, who will not regard them more favorably than their slaves (Ephesians 6:8-9).  The reason for the apostles’ advice that slaves should serve their masters “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” is to maintain a winsome Christian witness—“so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10, also I Timothy 6:1-2).All these qualifications and tempering of the Christian view of slavery show it to be culturally conditioned, and these qualifications eventually led to the ethical conclusion that slavery is immoral, not in keeping with the timeless will of God.  There are no such qualifications or softening of biblical teaching regarding same-sex intimacy.  Therefore, it is far less likely that such teaching is culturally conditioned.
To summarize the conservative response: With slavery, within the Bible there are many resources for critiquing the institution of slavery. Even though there are commandments that regulate it, there are also deep principles and themes would serve to ultimately undermine the very institution itself. With homosexuality, there are several specific negative commandments in the Bible and nothing that can be found to explicitly critique the heterosexual norm and support any kind of homosexual relationships.

I think this much should be granted and conceded by everyone: It is much easier to critique slavery with the Bible in hand than it is to critique heterosexism with the Bible in hand. Again, the Bible contains many passages that explicitly soften or qualify the institution of slavery, and many passages that implicitly critique the institution as a whole, but when it comes to homosexuality, passages such as these are not to be found.

Some on the progressive side have tried to argue that the Bible does contain some positive endorsements of same-sex relationships. I must say that I do not find the supposed examples of same-sex relationships in the Bible very convincing. I think the suggestion that Ruth and Naomi had a lesbian relationship is absurd, and while I think it is possible that David and Jonathan perhaps had some type of homoerotic relationship, I don't think it really helps the progressive case even if that were true. Just because the Bible reports something doesn't mean it endorses it. 

The problem, as I see it, by pointing out that slavery is not analogous to homosexuality because the Bible contains contains a mixed bag when it comes to the former but speaks unanimously against the latter, is that this response assumes that the ongoing revelation of God's truth (or, perhaps more accurately, the ongoing human understanding of the revelation of God's truth) ended once the Bible as we know it was finally and fully formed. 

The problem with this is that this isn't how reforms actually happened within the Bible itself. We need to remember that the construction of the Bible took many centuries, and that it was an evolving collection of documents throughout the life of faith for ancient Israel and for the early Christian church. While there is considerable historical debate about the specifics, scholars agree that what we Christians call the "Old Testament" went through a three stage process of a Bible that included first the Torah around 500 B.C. (first 5 books), then the Prophets were added around 200 B.C., and then the Writings became part of the Bible about 100 A.D. 

With this in mind, we should take note of the fact that the Bible itself witnesses to reformations of thought that had no precedent in its previously written scriptural literature. So, for example, in the first collection of documents to be considered "scripture" by ancient Jews (the Torah), we are told that the sexually marginalized and socially stigmatized eunuchs are forbidden in the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23:1).

Then, a few hundred years later, the prophet Isaiah attains scriptural status, and he says that eunuchs have a future in God's family after all (Isaiah 56:3-5). Isaiah had to go directly against previous biblical understandings of God's view of eunuchs in order to affirm what he understood God to be revealing to him about the place of eunuchs in God's family. 

Remember, at one point when just the Torah was scripture, there was nothing at all in "the Bible" to suggest any qualifications or softening of the biblical teaching about the status of eunuchs, but Isaiah was bold enough to say that the author of Deuteronomy did not have a full and final understanding of God's view of eunuchs. Isaiah made a declaration that went against what the accepted Scriptures said (because, remember, when Isaiah was preaching, he wasn't yet part of the Bible). 

So, the Scriptures we have now reveal to us the fact that the people of God can receive fresh understandings of divine truth that go against previous scriptural declarations. When the Bible's formation is understood in its historical context, it becomes clear that critiquing and questioning the Bible is actually a very biblical thing to do. I can imagine conservative folks in Isaiah's day objecting to his proposal by pointing to their Scriptures at that time (the Torah) and saying, "There are no qualifications. There is nothing to suggest that we should soften this restriction. The Bible is clear that these men are not acceptable to the Lord." They would have been right in saying this. It is just that Isaiah would then assert, "I know what Deuteronomy says, but this is what I am convinced the Lord now wants to say to his people!" 

When conservatives on this issue approach the Bible, they argue that there is nothing there that explicitly critiques the heterosexual norm. This is true, but not the end of the argument. Liberals on this issue can then point out that from within the Bible itself we have several strands (the eunuch example being just one of them) that witness to transformations of thought without prior biblical legitimation. The way revolutions of thought happen within the Bible is through people who claim a deeper and fresher understanding of God's will that breaks with prior biblical tradition.

Interestingly, the biblical tradition moves forward by people who are willing to challenge prior biblical traditions. 

It isn't that conservatives value the Bible and liberals do not. Conservatives and liberals differ on the best way to be faithful to the Bible. 

Conservatives tend to be more inclined to think that being rooted in the Bible means agreeing with all of its conclusions. 

Liberals tend to be more inclined to think that being rooted in the Bible means entering into and advancing the conversation to be found within the pages of the Bible.  

Conservatives tend to want to conserve what they see as a divine monologue. 

Liberals tend to want to go forward in what they see as a sacred dialogue.

I realize this is an oversimplified characterization, but I think does get at the deepest impulse of both groups, and it points to the deeper issue underneath many of the Christian arguments over same-sex relationships. Conservatives folks can argue forcefully that the Bible contains nothing explicitly to lead us in the direction of accepting same-sex intimacy. Point granted. But it is a whole other question whether God's Spirit can lead God's people beyond the understanding of sexuality as it is expressed by biblical authors. 

Once upon a time, God's Spirit led Isaiah beyond Moses's understanding of eunuchs. In a similar way, could God lead us beyond the apostle Paul's understanding of gay people? Many of us think so, while many of us continue to think that Paul got it right. The point is that this debate will never be settled by biblical exegesis alone. Our view will be heavily influenced by the assumptions that we have about the Bible in the first place. 

It cannot be stressed enough that it is not so simple as having a "high" view or a "low" view of Scripture. Many would equate the more conservative divine monologue model of Scripture with a "high" view, and the more liberal sacred dialogue model of Scripture as a "low" view. To label them that way, however, prejudges the issue of which one is actually more faithful to what the Bible is. 

Herein lies one of the main reasons that the "gay issue" is so divisive: it reveals our divergent understandings of the Bible itself. In this way, the gay debate and the slavery debate are perfectly analogous. The Civil War was a "theological crisis," as religious historian Mark Noll puts it. It revealed very different understandings of how the Scriptures function as our theological authority. Perhaps, then, the most important connecting point between slavery and homosexuality is that both issues compel Christians to think long and hard about how we think the Bible functions as God's Word for us today. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

DJesus Uncrossed: Will Jesus Kick Butt When He Returns?

This past weekend Saturday Night Live did a spoof on Tarantino's Django Unchained called "DJesus Uncrossed." 

Some are saying it is the most blasphemous thing SNL has ever done.

I think they have fairly depicted the way many Christians think things will go down when Jesus returns. 

I have heard many Christians say that even though Jesus came the first time meek and mild, he will return mean and wild, and will finally get his revenge. I don't think SNL was blasphemous for running this sketch. But I do think it is blasphemous to believe, as many Christians do, that when Jesus returns he will come with fury and wrath and will show his enemies what's up. This belief, though, seems to be rooted in the book of Revelation, particularly the following passage (19:11-16):
Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.
Read quickly and without attention to detail and literary context, this certainly sounds as if Jesus will be "uncrossed" and will take ruthless vengeance on his enemies. I address this passage in my new book because this image of Jesus as a ruthless warrior who returns to slay his enemies greatly distorts what the book of Revelation really has to say. The following is an excerpt from Flames of Love

Jesus Christ is referred to as “the Lamb” twenty-six times in the book of Revelation, and it is clearly the controlling metaphor for the message of this book. The image is meant to highlight the vulnerable, humble, sacrificial, and self-giving love of Christ. Even though John uses traditional apocalyptic images of divine violence, the meaning of those images is deeply trans­formed and subverted by his central metaphor of Christ as the Lamb who was slaughtered (5:6). 

Christ is declared to be the conqueror over all forces of evil, hence the graphic imagery of violence. Yet, the way he actually “conquers” is through the non-retaliatory, sacrificial love put on display on the cross. This is crucially important to keep in mind, because many people take this imagery at face value and conclude that the second coming of Jesus will be much different than the first coming. 

John Dominic Crossan, one of the most brilliant historical Jesus scholars of our time, puts the dilemma before us: “The First Coming has Jesus on a donkey making a nonviolent demonstration. The Second Coming has Jesus on a war horse leading a violent attack. We Christians still have to choose.”  (God and Empire, 218) 

Fortunately, we really don’t. 

Crossan misses the way in which the violent imagery in Revelation is transformed, not only by the central metaphor of Jesus as the Lamb, but also by the details of the supposed “violent attack” that Jesus leads. Even when Christ is pictured as a warrior on a white horse (19:11–16), it is highly significant that Christ’s robe is dipped in blood before the “battle” (which is never actually described), indicating that it is his own blood, not that of his enemies. Also, the sword that he “fights” with is coming out of his mouth, indicating that actual violence from Christ is not what is being described. 

The judgment that Christ brings is the penetrating message of sacrificial divine love that can leave the hardest of God’s enemies feeling “cut” to the heart. When read carefully, with attention to the details and to the central message of Rev­elation as the unveiling of the One on the throne as the Lamb that was slain (Rev 4–5), we are not forced to choose between competing concep­tions of Christ’s character. 

The apocalyptic Jesus is not the alter ego of the incarnational Jesus.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Slaves and Gays

Rev. Adam Hamilton, United Methodist pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, recently wrote a brief piece for the Washington Post where he compares the handful of passages that are often used to condemn all same-sex relationships with the over 100 passages that either condone or regulate the practice of slavery. He argues that the passages about same-sex relationships should be seen, and eventually will be seen by most people, in basically the same light as the slavery passages.

It will not surprise most readers that, on the whole, I agree with where he is going with this, and I have used this analogy myself, as have many people on the progressive side. I do think that when the handful of passages usually used to condemn all same-sex relationships are read in their historical and cultural contexts, it becomes much harder to use them as timeless condemnations of every type of same-sex relationship, especially those that express covenant love and monogamous fidelity.

That being said, I think making slavery an analogy for the gay issue can be misleading and offensive to those on the conservative side of the debate if we are not clear about how the analogy has points of connection and disconnection with the gay issue. We should be clear about what we mean with the analogy and what we do not mean. To that end, let me say where I think the analogy is helpful and where it is not.

It is helpful in pointing out:

...how Christians have changed their mind before over an issue that has had the backing of the majority of church tradition.

...how Christians have decided to relativize particular texts in the light of more general scriptural themes, such a love, justice, and mercy.

...how Christians have changed their position on a major ethical issue before by thinking more carefully and critically about how the Bible is not God's pure word dropped straight from heaven, but is instead God's word in human words that must be read with an informed mind and discerning spirit to discover God's will.

...how Christians have changed their mind on an ethical issue and the way they read Scripture by their experience of the people that they formerly oppressed or condemned.

It can be misleading and offensive if:

...people hear us saying that to be against Christian-sanctioned gay marriage makes you the moral equivalent of a ruthless slave driver.

...people hear us saying that since conservative Christians were wrong about slavery, then that means conservative Christians must be wrong about the gay issue as well.

It is this last point that needs the most attention. The slavery analogy, in and of itself, does not prove that conservative Christians are also wrong about the gay issue. The slavery analogy simple points out that it is possible for Christians to be wrong about something, even if they have the backing of several biblical texts and the majority of church tradition.

As I see it, the slavery analogy can be very effective in opening up a conversation about this issue, because it destablizes our sense of certainty in going with dominant tradition. However, it is up to those on the progressive side of the debate to then make the case why the traditional view is mistaken and why we think the progressive view accords with God's will.

In short, making the slavery analogy is a great way to begin a conversation on the debate about gay marriage from a Christian perspective, but it is an unfair and ineffective way to try to end the conversation.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Reading the Bible with Head and Heart

Denzel Washington's "The Book of Eli" (2010) is, on the surface, an imaginative tale about the battle for the Bible in a post-apocalyptic America. Just below the surface, it becomes apparent that it is a realistic and cautionary tale about the battle for the Bible in contemporary America. Whoever controls this book, controls the world. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about the diverse ways in which the Bible can be read and the polarized positions that can be supported with chapter and verse. The Bible can be (and often has been and still is) used to argue for and against...






gay marriage

interracial marriage


capital punishment

...just to name the few that immediately come to mind. This point is well-known, of course, but the significance of this is not often well understood. Speaking just for myself, I am only beginning to come to an awareness of the significance of this fact. 

I used to believe that the Bible really did have one right answer to give on all these subjects and more. Over the past 15 years, studying the Bible has occupied my time more than anything else. I still love studying the Bible's history, culture, and language more than most anything else. I used to think, though, that the answers are just "there" and that if a person just studied and prayed hard enough, all the right answers would certainly come, and you could be sure of them. 

I don't believe that anymore. 

It was hard to let go of that conviction. It hurt. But I let go of it because it simply isn't true. 

Letting go of illusions always hurts, but it is always the best thing to do, because we live in reality, whether we like it or not.

There is a personal risk that we must all take ownership of when it comes to what we think and how we act. We must all make decisions in the context of ambiguity and uncertainty. 

Saying this doesn't put us on a slippery slope. It just acknowledges that we are all already on one.

Yale New Testament scholar David Martin says in one of his books, "The Bible doesn't say anything. We say things with the Bible." While that might be an overstatement, it isn't much of one if it is. The Bible doesn't have a voice. We have a voice and we speak with the Bible. We choose what we pay attention to and how we fit it all together. The Bible doesn't come to us with footnotes that say "read this one in the light of that one" or "take this one metaphorically" or "let this one be more central than that one." We have to make those sorts of decisions. 

How we make those decisions often says more about us than it does about the Bible.

With the Bible, we can create worlds that look like this:

With the Bible, we can create worlds that look like this:

I don't mean to suggest that all biblical interpretations are equal and therefore must be arbitrarily chosen, or that there is no role for historical study in trying to figure out what an author was trying to say to his or her original audience. I just mean to make the point that we need to have (I need to have) more self-awareness, and potentially more self-critical awareness, about how we are using the Bible to say things. Who is helped and who is hurt by this interpretation? How might this interpretation keep me from loving others? How might this interpretation help me to love others better? How might this interpretation make the world more like the kingdom of God, and how might it keep the kingdom of God at a distance?

One of the theological giants in the Christian tradition, St. Augustine, said that no interpretation of the Bible could be correct if it doesn't cause us to love God and neighbor more.

An even bigger theological giant said that the key interpretive lens we should bring to the Bible is a desire and willingness to empathetically identify with other people and to work for their good as we would work for our own. 

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matt. 7:12)

I am starting to see that Jesus didn't just intend for the Golden Rule to be the central guide for how we treat each other. He also intended it to be the central guide for how we treat the Bible and what we choose to do with it. 

Reading the Bible with a head full of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing unless your heart is also full of love. 

Jesus said that "out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34). I think we could add to that: Out of the overflow of the heart, we speak with the Bible. 

Whatever is in our heart will show up in what we say is in the Bible.  

Shoot Christians Say

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Giving Up Giving Up Things for Lent

One evening several years ago during the season of Lent, I was sitting in class in seminary and it came time for our break. As I got up to go get a cup of coffee, I asked the person sitting next to me if I could get her some as well. She replied, "No thanks, I gave up caffeine for Lent several years ago and never picked it back up." A few minutes later, I got some chocolate candies out of my backpack and offered her one, and she replied, "I actually gave that up for Lent too last year and I still don't eat candy." After the class was over, some of us started talking about going out for a drink, to which the same person responded, "I'm sorry, but I gave up alcohol for Lent this year."

I honestly have no idea how this person could function.

Lent is a church season that focuses on self-denial and sacrifice as a way of getting more deeply in touch with the sacrificial life and death of Christ. It also focuses on our mortality ("ashes to ashes") as a way of preparing us to fully appreciate the Easter message.

I hate Lent. I really do. I have a history of doing special things and making certain sacrifices for Lent, but I really hate giving things up that I like, and I would prefer not to think about my inevitable death.

I know that many Christians give something up during this forty day period, but I really don't see the point anymore. Giving up coffee isn't going to make many any closer to the unfathomably perfect offering of love of Christ on the cross; it is just going to make me cranky. So I am not going to do it. I am not giving up anything this year.

I think sometimes we use Lent for the opposite purpose that our spiritual ancestors intended. We sometimes use Lent as a way to give ourselves the illusion of control over our lives. "If I can go without Dr. Pepper for forty days, I will enter into a deeper level of spiritual maturity and be able to better follow Jesus," we tell ourselves. We make Lent a religious legitimation for our self-help strategies.

Lent, if it means anything, should be a time when we come to terms with the fact that we are not in control and that no matter how much we do, no matter how much we give up, at the end of the day we are still going to be weak and fragile creatures in deep need of help from others and large doses of grace from God.

This Lent, I am not going to just do nothing. I am going to intentionally give up giving up things. For the forty days of Lent, I am going to try to remind myself that God loves chemically-dependent and weak-willed people such as myself. With every cup of coffee, with every 3 Musketeers bar, with every beer, I'll remind myself of that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

God's Ways are Higher than Our Ways

There is probably no quicker way to turn a morally sensitive believer into an atheist than by telling her that she has to set aside her deepest moral intuitions when thinking about God. People who are told to blindly submit to a harsh and vindictive conception of God that seems completely opposed to everything they know about what is good and just places an enormous psychological burden on them that is too great to bear. Oftentimes the only way people can see to be released from this is to stop believing in a God altogether. While I don’t blame them, and even think that atheism can be a much better worldview than bad theism, there is another option. That option is to let go of a certain conception of God, while still being open to envisioning God in a different way.

Traditional teaching on hell, and its insistence that God’s moral goodness is totally different from human moral goodness, has probably done more to contribute to atheism than anything else. Atheists have traditionally been branded as immoral, but many of them reject traditional theism out of deep moral convictions; convictions that say that a God who tortures people forever for sin that they couldn’t help avoiding in the first place is not worth worshiping. I think they are on to something, and they are right to challenge a religious response that appeals to divine mystery to justify actions that we would immediately and unequivocally label as evil if attributed to human beings.

Christians with a traditional perspective on everlasting punishment often appeal to the “God’s ways are higher than our ways” argument, implying that we should just believe the traditional view and not ask questions. I would point out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, not lower than our ways. I have always heard the higher-ways-of-God argument brought out when some kind of cruel picture of God is being defended. Before looking into it, I just assumed that wherever people got this argument from in the Bible, it must have been in a context where God’s vindictive and retributive punishment was being defended. I expected the passage to read something like, “My anger burns forever against the wicked, and my punishment, unlike that which comes from mortals, shall know no end. My ways are higher than your ways, declares the Lord.” That isn’t in the Bible, but this is:

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:6–9)

When Isaiah throws out the higher-ways-of-God argument, it isn’t to defend the vengeful punishment of God; it is to defend the abundant mercy of God! To take this text and use it to defend a conception of divine justice and goodness that certainly seems much worse than any human understanding of justice and goodness is to use this text for the opposite purpose than it was originally intended. Isaiah isn’t asserting that God can do evil and call it “good” because God is God. He is proclaiming that God’s goodness is infinitely deeper and wider than human goodness; that God’s ability and desire to mercifully pardon human beings is beyond our understanding.

We should not set aside our divinely-implanted moral conscience when evaluating different understandings of God. I know some will say this is too human-centered, and that it makes humanity the measure of all things. While there may be something to that worry, I would respond like this: if we don’t use our conscience, how could we tell the difference between a revelation from God or the Devil? Blind submission seems a far more dangerous route than critical thinking. I would also add that it was Jesus who taught us to think about God on the analogy of human goodness:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)

Jesus told us to use human standards of goodness in our conception of the divine. Jesus was confident that however good a human parent may be, the divine parent is far better. That should be our confidence as well.