Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Jeremiah the War Resister: A Sermon

Nota Bene: A version of this sermon was published as an article in The Baptist Peacemaker in 2004.

Jeremiah:
The War Resister
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of Rev. Cindy’s major theological dialogue partners, says that it is time to put the “protest” back in “Protestant.” Specifically, she wants us to reclaim the prophetic traditions of the church—not absent from Catholic or Orthodox history by any means—that were nonetheless highlighted and emphasized by the Protestant Reformers. The renewed focus on close biblical study promoted, in different ways, by the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrich Zwingli, and the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation like Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, Pilgram Marpeck, Hans Hut, Pieter Ridemann, and Menno Simons, led to a recovery of the prophets of ancient Israel for the life of the church.
It has always fascinated me that Israel’s prophets flourished most with the institution of the monarchy. When Israel, and later the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah, desires to have kings “like the other nations,” God must continually give them prophets to remind them to be different from the nations, the empires. We need that, too. The church too often forgets to be different from the particular nations in which it lives. Especially in the United States, we are tempted to be “good Americans” first and “good Christians” only insofar as that doesn’t conflict with the other gods of this nation, especially the great gods “Free Market” and “War Machine.” “I knew just how much trouble we were in,” says the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, when politicians and pundits began to tell us that nothing after 9/11 could ever be the same as before.” They were saying that 9/11 was the decisive event in history, but, for Christians, the decisive event in history was the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And if we viewed the 9/11 attacks, and our vengeful response, through Jesus, things look very different.
We, like our spiritual forebears in ancient Israel and Judah, are too often tempted to understand our world and our lives in terms dictated by the empire. The biblical prophets can help us recover our own alternative readings of history. Today, in a time of greed, violence, war, and corruption, I especially want to highlight the life and message of the prophet Jeremiah, who, in the name of God, spoke out against greed, violence, war, and corruption in the Southern Kingdom of Judah 7 centuries before Jesus and did so for 40 long years.
Was the prophet Jeremiah a pacifist? If we mean to ask if Jeremiah was absolutely opposed to all uses of violence, then I don’t think the Scripture gives us enough information to settle the debate. Jeremiah makes no sweeping statements against all war and violence. His writings contain nothing similar to the Sermon on the Mount, nor does he ever suggest a disbanding of Judah’s army. What we can know for certain is that Jeremiah was a war resister. He resisted all the wars of his day and he inspires us to resist the wars of our day.
Consider Jeremiah’s resounding denunciation of Judah’s war plans in chapter 21. Zedekiah, God’s anointed King of Judah, wanted Jeremiah’s counsel in order to make sure that God was on the king’s side in the coming war against Babylon. Did Jeremiah give such assurance? NO! In fact, Jeremiah sounded positively treasonous to Judah’s pro-war party. The prophet claimed that their proposed war was an offense to God and that, if they went to war, God would fight against them and punish them!

Behold,[God says] I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands with which you fight against the King of Babylon. . . . And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger and in fury and in great wrath! (21:3-5)

This language is all the more startling when we realize that King Zedekiah’s war aims were so much more justifiable than those of contemporary imperial USA. Zedekiah had no doctrine of “preemptive war,” nor “preventive war,” nor any ambitions for “regime change” in Babylonia. He only wanted the prophet to assure him of God’s approval of Judah’s military resistance to the Babylonian Empire’s plans to annex Judah. King Zedekiah’s war aims were purely defensive and would probably have met the criteria of the later “Just War” tradition—something the “preventive war” doctrine formulated by Bush (and partially continued by Obama) definitely does not.

Yet, even if Zedekiah’s war aims would have passed muster with the Just War criteria of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (and Luther, Calvin, and many contemporary Protestant theologians), they could not pass Jeremiah’s criteria for divine approval. Using terms as harsh as those Jesus used against the disciples’ attempted defensive violence in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26), Jeremiah thundered against Zedekiah’s plans to resist Babylon with military might.

Why was Jeremiah so sure that God was against the planned violent defense of Judah (including defense of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH)? Why was Jeremiah so sure that God wanted no military resistance to the cruel invasion of the Babylonians? Jeremiah understood that foreigners and people of other religions could still be the agents of the very will of God. Like other pre-exilic prophets, Jeremiah saw the coming loss of Judean national sovereignty as the instrument of God’s corrective discipline for an unfaithful people.

Therefore, Jeremiah accepted the Babylonian king as a new overlord, under whom Judah would be safe from other would-be invaders and able to learn a better way to be God’s covenant people. Violent resistance would not succeed in saving Judah’s national sovereignty, Jeremiah knew, but it would result in a much harsher invasion, occupation, and deportation into a long exile. And thus it came to pass.

Jeremiah’s attitude was light-years away from that of contemporary nationalism or patriotism. By the standards of contemporary U.S. Christians, Jeremiah would be a traitor who shamelessly cooperates with the enemy. People of other religions justified in conquering the would-be People of God while God’s prophet consorts with those pagans? Strong stuff. Any Christian wishing to justify a current crusade against Muslims had better leave Jeremiah off the reading list.

Jeremiah insists in chapters 12 and 18 that God is free to make or unmake any nation of people as God’s own—with no exceptions for Judah—or for the U.S. or the modern state of Israel for that matter. To Jeremiah, God is universal and the moral rules of Torah are universal in application. The Way of God cannot be made the exclusive claim of any single nationality, culture, or ethnic group. A people can only demonstrate that they are God’s people by abiding in God’s will.

Jeremiah declares that God’s covenant with Israel/Judah is broken and nullified. He looks for a new covenant that God will write on the hearts of God’s people (31:31-33). Jeremiah anticipates and informs Jesus’ own revolutionary extension of the divine covenant to the Gentiles.

Jeremiah’s call for the men of Judah to “circumcise their hearts” instead of their foreskins will inform the Apostle Paul’s judgment that Gentile Christians do not need physical circumcision to be part of God’s covenant people. (See especially the argument Paul makes to the Galatians.) Women and eunuchs cannot be physically circumcised, but they can “circumcise their hearts” through baptism. Here is a universal invitation to be included in the People of God, but also a universal challenge to faithfulness.

So what is God’s will for any people that would call themselves the People of God? According to Jeremiah, God’s people make justice and not war. In chapter 5, Jeremiah denounces the way the rich people of Judah exploit their poor neighbors. Jeremiah describes the rich of his day as “setting traps” for their fellow human beings and accuses them of having no respect for the rights of other people. He accuses the religious leaders of his day of exploiting their positions and then he declares that the majority of the people enjoy this abominable situation.

All this sounds horrifyingly contemporary and applicable to U.S. Christians. The rich steal from the poor with the help of government. Government tax giveaways to the rich hurt the poor and the common good. The rich convinced the government in 1981 to repeal usury laws that once limited how much interest credit card companies could charge. In the late 1990s, the rich convinced the government to abolish the wall between investment banks and regular banks that had been in place since 1937—allowing huge “too big to fail” financial institutions to gamble with ordinary people’s money—and wreck the global economy. (By the way, that wall between ordinary banks and investment firms was not restored in the recent financial reform law.) Then the rich convinced the government to make it harder for the poor to declare bankruptcy but easier for wealthy corporations to do the same. In the name of “tort reform,” the rich convince the government to limit the amount of damages that courts can award people who have been harmed by corporations. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that government can use “eminent domain” to take private homes and businesses NOT for highways, parks and other public use, but to sell them to big corporations to “develop.” And, in the ultimate insult, that same Supreme Court declares that “corporations are persons” and “money is speech,” and, therefore, corporations may spend unlimited amounts of money electing tame politicians who help them continue to rob the poor.

Meanwhile far too many church leaders support all this “reverse Robin Hood” action. A nationwide study conducted by Baylor University found that frequent church attenders oppose government assistance to the unemployed because they identify the “invisible hand” of the so-called “free market” with the Providence of God! In this messed up theology, if some are rich it is not because they have exploited others, but because God has made them rich and, if others are unemployed or underemployed or even homeless, it is because they have sinned in some way. Nationally famous church leaders glorify violence, promote war, call for assassination of some foreign leaders while defending other dictators with whom they are in big business. Other famous clergy engage in the sexual exploitation of children and then scapegoat vulnerable populations such as minority ethnic groups, minority religions, single mothers, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. In 2009, A Pew Study was released that still has me in shock: It showed that the more frequently one attended church in the U.S., the more likely one was to think that “some torture is justified!” It is not hard to guess what Jeremiah would say to us.

Jeremiah also had much to say about exploited laborers and the unfair treatment of resident aliens. In chapters 7 and 22, Jeremiah rails against the exploitation of poor workers and resident aliens. What Jeremiah would say about the current demonization of immigrants and refugees in this country is not hard to guess. One of King Zedekiah’s predecessors, King Jehoiakim, is denounced for exploitation of the poor by building large palaces and employing the poor at low wages to build them. No doubt Jehoiakim defended his “jobs program” by explaining that living wages would hurt competition and small businesses.

Ever since 1981, U.S. labor law has become increasingly weaker and workers’ rights ignored or undermined, along with the ability to engage in collective bargaining through labor unions. Global trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, subordinate national labor laws to these treaties, along with using these treaties to override local environmental and workplace safety rules. Now, the government is free to give rich no-bid contracts for rebuilding to corporate cronies and exploit the workers they hire for this necessary work! Further, millions of resident aliens in the U.S. labor in slave-like conditions in U.S. fields and sweatshops (intimidated by the lack of “green cards” into keeping quiet about their abuse). Led by the state of Arizona, state after state in this country is rushing to pass ever harsher laws against undocumented workers and immigrants, culminating in Alabama’s new law that would cut off water to anyone who couldn’t PROVE citizenship!

Like all true prophets, Jeremiah constantly announced that economic exploitation and war were fundamental offenses to God and no amount of “prosperity doctrine” or “health and wealth” gospel by the false prophets of his day or ours can efface that reality.

A prophetic war resister like Jeremiah will not only be unpopular with the rich and powerful, but often with the common folk as well. Throughout the Book of Jeremiah we see him hounded as a traitor and a troublemaker. He was accused of destroying the people’s morale during wartime.

Early in his career as a prophet, the people of his hometown threw Jeremiah into the stocks. Later, he was thrown in prison. Still later, he was thrown into a partially dry cistern where he sank into the mud and experienced continual physical pain.

God wasn’t easy on Jeremiah, either. God forced Jeremiah to prophesy doom and destruction on the people he loved and when Jeremiah tried to be silent, the Word of God burned in his bones like fire! God refused to let Jeremiah marry or have children—a huge curse in his culture. Jeremiah was a priest who was forbidden to serve at Temple!

Having been forced to watch most of the people of Judah taken into Exile by the Babylonians, near the end of Jeremiah’s life, he was abducted and forced to go to Egypt by a group of Judah’s “freedom fighters” who had assassinated the Babylonian governor of their region. The group which kidnapped Jeremiah pressured him into prophesying things that would favor their actions, but he steadfastly refused. He died in Egypt.
Violent, terrorist “patriots” holding war resisters captive sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it?
In the passage we read for today, 29:1-14, Jeremiah writes to the people of Judah taken into exile in the Babylonian empire. He outlines a “mission strategy” if you will, that I think will serve a global church, scattered in exile in the various nations around the world.
“Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage. That they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the Shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its’ shalom you will find your shalom. ”
It’s a risky strategy. One is not to disappear into the greater culture. One must remain a distinct people—and this will mean resisting many of the customs of the surrounding empire. One has to continue to have children—a sign of hope in a world bent on destruction. But then one seeks the welfare, the shalom, the peace, of the city where one is in exile. Seek BABYLON’s peace and well- being? Babylon who has just destroyed the nation and the temple of God? Yes—and we have to seek the peace of Louisville of the U.S., of whatever city and country God sends us—and pray to God on its behalf. But the empires of our exile may not recognize that we seek their shalom: Our resistance to the values of violence and greed and corruption—our refusal to cheer military victories or delight in the downfall of those named as enemies—our continued welcome to those named by others as “illegal” or “deviant” or “unclean,” all this may make the empire’s inhabitants nervous about us, to say the least. The WAY we are to seek the well-being, the “shalom” of our places of exile may not look very “shalom-seeking” to our unbelieving and other-believing neighbors.
We are likely to be misunderstood, as Jeremiah, was misunderstood—for 40 years of painful witness. Yet, if we too will become “circumcised of the heart” (ch. 4), Jeremiah is an excellent example for us of how to be faithful to God, resist injustice, war, and violence in our day as he did in his.

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May 8, 2013 Posted by | Biblical interpretation, Just Peacemaking, nonviolence, peace | Leave a comment

A Tribute to Walter Wink (1935-2012): New Testament Theologian of Nonviolence and Power

On 10 May 2012, Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, passed away less than a week before what would have been his 77th birthday (23 May).  He had, apparently, been suffering some form of dementia for several years.  Dr. Wink was a huge influence on me through his writings, but I met him only once–in Washington, D.C. in 1989 when we were both arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience outside the White House–protesting the continued support of the Bush I administration for the apartheid-era government of South Africa.  (The protests, called “Stand for Truth,” had been planned for months and were huge that Mother’s Day weekend in ’89, but the news was somewhat overshadowed because less than a week earlier, the Chinese government had massacred protesting students and other pro-democracy groups in Tienenmen Square.  I met an amazing array of Christian peace and justice folk that weekend including Wink’s wife, June Keener-Wink, a young Jesuit priest named Fr. John Dear, S.J., who would soon make major contributions to peace and nonviolence theory, to theology, and to peace activism, but, who, that weekend before his fame was very quiet because his handcuffs were too tight and he was in great pain; Sister Joan Chittister, OSB; Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners; Joyce Hollyday; Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American Pentecostal whose work with the Boston 10 Point Coalition was greatly reducing violence in street gangs; many more. It was a life-changing weekend for me.)

Dr. Wink lived an amazing life of witness. He was born in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression. He was born and raised in Texas in the midst of Texas Methodism–coming to a very different form of Christian nonviolence than fellow Texas Methodist Stanley Hauerwas.  He earned his B.A., magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University (Major: History; Double minor: Philosophy; English), but rather than pursue his theological education at SMU’s own Perkins School of Theology, Wink earned his Master of Divinity (1959) and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies (1963) from New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary of great influence. There is some irony here:  Union Theological Seminary is known as a center of non-pacifist liberal Christianity.  True, there are a few pacifist voices associated with UTS: Harry Emerson Fosdick and James Forbes, both Senior Ministers at nearby Riverside Church, were pacifists who taught preaching at UTS. But “Union” has become almost synonymous with names like Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), proponent of “Christian Realism,” Paul Tillich (1889-1965), German-American proponent of Christian socialism and a neo-liberal theology,  James H. Cone (b. 1938-), one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, and Beverly Wildung Harrison (b. 1932–), foremother of Christian feminist ethics–and all of these voices represent strands of liberal Christianity that, while not militarist or “pro-violence,” are decidedly non-pacifist and endorse nonviolence only tactically and not out of principled conviction.

Wink was an ordained United Methodist Minister who spent time as a youth worker and a parish pastor before teaching at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. From 1976 onward, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NYC, a sister-institution to UTS in covenant with the Presbyterian Church, USA (and found on UTS’ campus).  During his time as a youth worker at East Harlem Protestant Parish, Wink came under the influence of the lawyer and Episcopal lay-theologian, William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s interpretation of the “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament would profoundly influence Wink’s own work.

In 1973, Wink published a small book called, The Bible in Human Transformation that declared “the historical-critical method is bankrupt.” I have to confess that I was unable to follow Wink’s point when I first encountered it.  I had come from a tradition of conservative evangelical Christianity and had found the historical-critical method to be liberating from biblicist literalism.  But Wink was not wanting to repudiate the gains of the historical-critical method, but to add to them–using insights from psychology (and later from sociology).

He is best known for his 3 volume work on “The Powers,” i.e., on the biblical terminology for power, especially in the Pauline corpus, that uses terms like “Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, ” etc. For centuries, these terms were simply dismissed as speaking of demons–and demythologized by the likes of Bultmann and fetishized by some Pentecostals and some Fundamentalists.  Hendrikus Berkhof, John Howard Yoder, and William Stringfellow began to see the importance of this language as pointing at once to political realities and to spiritual realities “behind” political institutions.  Wink, with insights from process theology and depth psychology, gave a metaphysic for the Powers that attempted to be non-reductionistic while acknowledging that none of us on this side of the Enlightenment can simply adopt the pre-modern worldview of the New Testament.  Wink also derived a theological ethic from his study of the Powers, especially in his third volume, Engaging the Powers.  The Powers form a world-system Wink called “The Domination System,” and the inbreaking Kingdom of God is “God’s New Domination-Free Order.” The Powers are not simply evil for they were created by God to bring order out of chaos. But they are “fallen,” twisted from their created purpose and used to enslave and dominate humanity.  They must be engaged–resisted and redeemed–by the followers of Jesus.

Wink also helped many reinterpret the Sermon on the Mount so that Matt. 5:9 is understood not as a call to nonresistance or passivity in the face of evil, but to a “Third Way” of Nonviolent Confrontation of Evil.  In a lexical study of the verb αντισθηναι (“antisthenai”), usually translated “resist,” Wink finds that it actually means “stand against” as in armed rebellion or murder, so that Matt. 5:9 should be translated, “Do not violently resist evildoers.” Wink demonstrates that turning the other cheek when backhanded by a social superior , removng both garments in court when sued for one’s outer garment (thus stripping naked in protest), and going a second mile when a soldier of the occupying army compels you to carry his gear the required one mile are all nonviolent direct actions against acts of domination and oppression.  He first published this is in a small book published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for black churches in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle–churches that were seeking a way to be true to the gospel but resist the apartheid evil.  (See Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa:  Jesus Third Way [Fellowship, 1984]).  He expanded and deepened his defense of this approach in several academic articles and book chapters aimed at changing the way New Testament scholars, especially translators and writers of commentaries on Matthew, understood the Sermon on the Mount.  Finally, he reworked his original popular study for a larger audience–beyond the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. See Walter Wink, Jesus and Violence:  A Third Way.  Because of this “active nonviolence” interpretation, Wink did not like the term “pacifism,” (too easy to confuse with “passivity,” and refused to be called a pacifist even though his dedication to nonviolence was strong–and he was a critic of the way that Christian admiration for the life and testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated into justifications of violence. (The liberationist left often uses Bonhoeffer to justify violent insurrection against conservative governments and the rightwing uses it to justify bombings of abortion clinics.)

Wink was an early defender of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church.  Eventually, he edited a collection of writings on the topic that did not simply include the “usual suspects,” but also the voices of pro-gay evangelicals like Peggy Campolo, Lewis Smedes,  and Ken L. Sehested.  See Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches.

Wink also edited one of the best collections of writings on nonviolence by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation over a 50 year period.  See Wink, Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It’s truly a remarkable collection.

Walter Wink seamlessly combined the roles of pastor, teacher, scholar, and nonviolent Christian activist.  I give thanks for his life and witness hope that God continues to raise up prophetic voices like his.

May 25, 2012 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, biographical entries, biographies, church history, Fellowship of Reconciliation, heroes, Methodists, nonviolence, obituary, peace, peacemakers, theologians | Leave a comment

Pentecostal Passion: A Poem by Ken Sehested

My friend, Rev. Ken Sehested, is a bit of an odd duck. (No wonder we’re friends. 🙂 ) A Texas Baptist by conviction and upbringing, he swam upstream enough to quit football when a student at Baylor so that he could devote more time to his studies! (A male athlete voluntarily quitting FOOTBALL–the REAL dominant religion of the South–in order to be more studious is unheard of in the South. In Texas, the debate would be over whether to call in the psychiatrists or begin a heresy trial!) He then bucked tradition further by studying for the ministry NOT in one of the six Southern Baptist seminaries, but in the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary, a school with a reputation for liberalism in that most un-Southern of places, NEW YORK CITY! He not only married a woman minister (Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested), but put her calling first–moving to her pastoral placements in Atlanta, then Memphis, and, finally, Asheville, SC.  Ken was the founding Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and led that fine organization for two decades. Today, is one third of a co-equal pastoral team (along with Joyce Hollyday and Nancy Hastings Sehested) of the ecumenical congregation, Circle of Mercy, in Asheville, NC–a self-declared peace church jointly affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Alliance of Baptists.  Ken is also a poet and writer on theologically-related topics.  This poem of Ken’s was inspired by his study of Ezekiel 34:1-14; Acts 2:17; Romans 8:22.

Pentecostal Passion

Pentecostal power has little to do with

exaggerated religious emotion. But

such power, when granted,

has everything to do

with passion, with conviction.

It’s not your head that

you lose4–it’s your heart,

which falls head-over-heals

in love with the vision of dry bones

re-sinewed and aspired to life.

When such power erupts, they

probably will call you crazy.

“Have you lost your mind?!”

Yes, we will say, because

these days the mind has

become acclimated to a culture

of war; has become inured to

the ravages of poverty in a culture

of obesity; has become numb

to ecological wreckage.

When Pentecostal power erupts, all

heaven’s gonna break loose.

The boundaries will be compromised;

barriers will be broken; and

borders will be breached.

Economies of privilege will be fractured

and the politics of enmity will be impeached.

The revenge of the Beloved is the

reversal of Babel’s bequest.

“I will pour out my Spirit,”

says the LORD; Poured out

not for escape to another

world beyond the sky but

here, amid the dust. Poured out

not on disembodied spirits but

“upon all flesh.”  It is to the

agony of abandonment that Heaven

is aroused.  Queer the One Who

fashions a future for the disfavored.

The groaning of creation is both

an ache and an assurance.  We

dare not insulate ourselves from

the one, lest we be deafened to

the other.  Birth is at work.

Though the labor is prolonged,

provision is tendered.

Pentecostal power is the wherewithal

by which we wager our lives on

the surety of this promise.

_______

Ken Sehested

August 13, 2011 Posted by | Biblical interpretation, liturgy, peace, Pentecost, poetry, worship | Leave a comment

Resurrection Day: The Heart of Christianity

The Adult Sunday School class at my small church (Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty) has been studying The Meaning of Jesus:  Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. (Tom) Wright.  At no point do these two Jesus scholars disagree more sharply than over the nature and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.  Wright defends a traditional bodily resurrection in which the dead Jesus is raised to a “transformed form of physical life” by God.  In a fashion similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach in Jesus–God and Man, Wright argues for the historicity of both the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ–as Wright does at much greater length in The Resurrection of the Son of God. 

By contrast, Borg argues that Jesus’ resurrection appearances, though real, were visions or apparitions. Reading 1 Cor. 15 very differently than Wright, Borg claims that Jesus’ resurrection is in some way spiritual, that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to Paul were not qualitatively different than believers’ experiences with the Risen Christ ever since that day.  He argues that the empty tomb traditions developed separately, that we, today, cannot know the historical reliability of the empty tomb stories and that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant to understanding Jesus’ resurrection.  He sharply contrasts resurrection with the resuscitation of a corpse (a contrast which implicitly mischaracterizes Wright’s view, since he clearly distinguishes Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitation).

I tend to side more with Wright than Borg on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.  He argues well that spiritual life after death would not be termed “resurrection” by first century Jews and Christians.  Like Karl Barth, however, I’m somewhat more skeptical that historians qua historians can demonstrate the resurrection.

But traditionalists like Wright, though having the better case than liberals like Borg on the bodily nature of the resurrection, are remarkably tongue tied on the tbeological meaning of the resurrection. (Wright does see that it leads Paul and other early Christians to rethink radically traditional Jewish eschatology.) Borg is stronger at this point. He outlines 5 dimensions of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament–or, more accurately, 5 dimensions of the death/resurrection of Jesus considered as one event.  While I am not sure these 5 (or any list) can fully exhaust the meaning of the cross/resurrection, I certainly think that these are important dimensions–and that each point would be strengthened by viewing Christ’s resurrection as a bodily resurrection–though our language, like Paul’s in 1 Cor. 15, strains to the breaking point in attempting to say what kind of bodily resurrection.

  1. Resurrection/Vindication.  The Domination System ( a term Borg borrows from Walter Wink) rejected and killed Jesus.  The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
  2. Defeat of the Powers.  This is the story of God’s victory over Pharoah in the Exodus now projected on a cosmic screen.  God in Christ, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
  3. Revelation of the Way.  Because of the resurrection, early Christians concluded that following Jesus is the way to God.  “I am crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  They remembered Jesus’ saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and takeup their cross and follow me.”  In his life and ministry, Jesus and his prophetic renewal movement within Judaism, tried to teach the Way to and with God.  Now, the early Christians conclude that not only are Jesus’ teaching and example the Way, but Jesus himself is the Way.
  4. Revelation of the Love of God.  The New Testament writers also see the Good Friday/Easter pattern as revealing the depth of God’s love for us. As Borg notes, this interpretation depends on developing the completed Christian story–in which Jesus is seen as God’s only and beloved Son.  Within this framework, the death of Jesus is not simply the execution of a prophet or the rejection of Jesus’ message by the rulers of this world.  It is also God’s giving up of that which is most precious to God–namely, Jesus as God’s only Son. John 3:16; Rom. 5.
  5. Jesus as sacrifice for sin.  Borg describes this dimension in greater length because it is central to many versions of Christianity–but some in ways that he believes are not helpful.  When Borg is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” he answers “no and yes.”  If the questioners mean “Do you think that Jesus saw his own death as a sacrifice for sin?” He answers “No.” (Here I side with Wright who argues strongly that many would-be 1st C. Messiahs saw their impending deaths as redemptive for Israel and there is no reason why Jesus wouldn’t view his death similarly.) If the questioners mean “Do you think that God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice?” Borg also answers “no.” (Here I agree. I find it strange that conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, many claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, can so quickly throw out all of the First Testament examples of God’s forgiveness!) But if the questioners mean, “Is the statement that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins a powerfully true metaphor for the grace of God,” Borg answers “yes.”

What would it mean in a 1st C. Jewish context to say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins?”  Borg notes that there is both a negative and positive meaning and both are strikingly radical. 

Negative:  In the temple theology, the temple claimed a monopoly on forgiveness of sins–and, thus, an institutional monopoly on access to God.  So, negatively, the statement “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins” is a subversion of the temple.  “You don’t need the temple; you have access to God apart from the temple.” “Jesus is our sacrifice” is an anti-temple statement.

Positive: “Jesus is our sacrifice” is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God and our unconditional acceptance.  To say, as the letter of Hebrews does, that Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God.  If our own sense of sin and guilt, or unworthiness or failure, makes us feel unacceptable to God, then we simply have not understood that God has already taken care of it.  Borg asserts that this is also what Paul is getting at by saying that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (I think I hear Borg’s Lutheran childhood coming out here.)

April 24, 2011 Posted by | Biblical interpretation, Christology, Easter, eschatology, hermeneutics, resurrection, salvation | 2 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: Today’s Gentile Inclusion?

In the second post in this series, I gave some guidelines for the use of Scripture in Christian ethics–a beginning, but not an ending. I have written several articles on this topic (and reviewed more books on hermeneutics, biblical authority, etc. than I could count in a day) and may one day write a book on the topic.  But, for our purposes (and to help bring this series to a long overdue close), I will try to draw out the similarities I see between this debate and the 19th C. debate over slavery–and the first Century debate over including Gentiles in the Church without circumcision and without requiring adherence to Levitical purity laws (see esp. Acts 10).

  • In the 19th C., almost all the actual texts of Scripture were on the pro-slavery side of the debate–the morally wrong side.  The abolitionists could and did argue that biblical slavery was not race-based–and try to argue against the racist use of the story in Genesis of Noah’s cursing of Ham and his son Canaan which slaveholders (mis)used to justify singling out Africans for perpetual chattel slavery.  They could argue that the Exodus and the liberating work of Jesus undermined slavery.  They could point to Paul’s attempt to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus.  But there are no actual statements claiming that slavery is always and everywhere wrong. From Genesis to Revelation,  the owning of some humans by others is assumed.
  • This was the first crisis of biblical authority in U.S. Christianity.  Modern biblical criticism that began mostly in Germany in the 19th C. barely penetrated the awareness of U.S. seminaries until after the Civil War–certainly not as a widespread phenomenon.  But slavery was another matter–as it was earlier in the British empire.  The moral high ground was with the abolitionists–but the letter of the biblical text was with the slaveholders. 
  • The debate over slavery and biblical interpretation has often been compared to the debate over the equality of the sexes and women’s roles in church, home, and society. (See, e.g.,Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women:  Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation [Herald Press, 1983].) And there ARE similarities. In the New Testament, for example, the biblical texts which are used to support the subordination of women in church, home, and society are usually the very same texts which were used to support slavery!
  • But there are also strong differences which those who are egalitarians regarding women and men, but not affirming of GLBT persons (folk like Catherine Clark Kroeger, David P. Gushee, Ronald Sider, Richard Hays, the late Stanley Grenz, Marva Dawn, etc.) point out with some frequency:  In the case of women’s equality with men, there are also strong texts that clearly support egalitarianism whereas, at best, this is ambiguous regarding both slavery and GLBT folk.
  • In both the 19th C. debate over slavery, and the current debate over “homosexuality,” the traditionalists employ a “flat Bible” hermeneutic which claims to place all direct commands on the same level unless they have been specifically repealed. (In practice, the literalism is far more selective and piecemeal, with little guiding it accept the biases of the traditional culture.)
  • In both debates, the traditionalists seem to use a hermeneutic of “control,” even of domination. Abolitionists and inclusivists, instead, are guided by solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

Can we find a new path? I want to argue that it matters not only HOW we read Scripture, but with WHOM. Reading Scripture with the poor is different from reading with bankers and Wall Street day traders.  If white Christians had been reading their Bibles with Black Christians during segregation, could white churches have continued to support it? (The same could be asked of white Christians in South Africa under apartheid.) Reading Johannine texts about “the Jews” is different once one has celebrated a Seder meal with Holocaust survivors.  Reading divine promises to Israel concerning the Land sound different when read with Palestinian Christians whose families have been Christian since the first C. and whose homes and farms were lost in 1948–or plowed under more recently to make room for THE WALL.  Likewise, I began to change my views on “homosexuality” when some Christian friends I had known for years “came out” to me as gay and when I began reading the handful of texts in Scripture used to justify exclusion in the presence of these friends–some of whom can never go back to their home churches or even their biological families since coming out of the closet. Some have lost jobs, been falsely accused of child abuse, been denied access to partners in critical care units in the hospital (reserved for “family members,”), had children taken from them as “unfit parents,” lost housing, been denied the right to adopt, received hate mail or death threats–and so much more.

A clue from Acts 10.  Peter is given a vision of animals that are ritually unclean and told to rise, kill, and eat. He refuses, keeping the dietary laws (kosher) of Judaism, as he has done all his life.  After the vision, he is summoned to the house of a Gentile (a god-fearer, near-convert, who had gone so far as to build a synagogue and had a good repute from the entire Jewish community), an occupying Roman soldier named Cornelius.  It was considered taboo even to enter the house of a Gentile (but Peter, following Jesus, had already begun to question such purity concerns–he is staying in the house of Simon the tanner–and tanners were considered unclean because they handled dead animals), but Peter does it.  Cornelius is converted in the middle of Peter’s sermon and the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles (they speak in tongues as proof)–without waiting for circumcision or anything. So, Peter figures he might as well baptize them since they ALREADY HAVE the Holy Spirit.

He is called before the Jerusalem council to answer for his actions and says, in effect, “Yeah, I know what the Bible (Moses) says, but I tell you I saw these perver–er, I mean Gentiles, receive the Holy Spirit–the same as we did!”

The decision of the early church to include Gentiles without requiring circumcision, as people from Ken Sehested to Jeffrey Siker have argued, should be a major clue to how the contemporary church should welcome gay and lesbian Christians–without adding burdens by demanding a higher sexual ethic (mandatory celibacy) of them than we do for heterosexuals.  The risk those early Jewish Christians took in deliberately setting aside the clear word of Scripture for the demands of the gospel was no less than we face today regarding GLBT folk.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | 3 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: Final Post for This Series

As we wrap up this long series, people still have questions–more than I can answer.  First, let us remember that this is a discussion of church life–not questions of civil liberties in society.  Those are also important.  Someone could decide that the church cannot change its sexual ethics but still work to stop the discrimination in society against GLBT folks.  This is a position I once held:  I thought is analogous to heterosexual adulterers–you would not let them be fired from jobs for their marital problems, nor denied housing, etc.  I am in favor of same-sex civil marriages–no church, synagogue, etc. is forced to recognize them.  It is a matter of secular justice.

But, at the same time, churches that agree to revise their sexual ethics (as mine has) are free to marry gay or lesbian couples–whether or not the law recognizes them.  One heterosexual couple in our congregation was married without a civil license–refusing the legal benefits of marriage until gay and lesbian couples can have them, too. It was a courageous stance of solidarity.  Legal marriage is the right to sue one another if you get tired of each other–it has little to do with Christian marriage or Jewish marriage, etc.

Some say that Gen. 2:24 is the reason we cannot allow Christian same-sex marriages. But that verse is not a command, just an etiological rooting of the practice of marriage in creation.  To turn it into a command would be to claim that every must marry.  See this blog on why “order of creation” arguments fail.

Others claim that celibate singleness is the default position for Christians and that it should take a special calling to marry. But the church would have died out with such an ethic.  It is true that Paul (who might have been a widower–it’s hard to see how a man who was never married could have been part of the Sanhedrin) wished for all Christians to “be as I am,” i.e., single–but that was because of his belief that the End was near and that single-minded devotion to the work of the gospel was needed. Even so, he did not command single celibacy–and, in fact, recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit.

So, what can we say about sexual ethics for the church?  More than can be said here.  These are some broad conclusions and not a complete sexual ethic.

  • Let us begin by recognizing that the Bible does not contain any single sexual ethic.  In different portions of Scripture, we have polygamy, concubinage, levirate marriage, and much else.  By the time of Jesus, monogamy seems to be the Jewish norm, but, as African Christians would be quick to remind us, no word of condemnation is said about the polygamy of of several Old Testament “saints.” Divorce is permitted in the Torah, but condemned in very strong terms by Jesus–terms that are slightly relaxed by Paul.  The Bible gives us an ethic of love–given different form in different cultural contexts. Those in the U.S. who promote a politics of “family values” based on the Bible seem never to have read the Bible. Which family values? Those of Lot volunteering his virgin daughters to be gang raped if only the men of Sodom will spare his male (and angelic) house guests the same fate? Solomon’s many wives and concubines? Abraham having children by his wife’s slavegirl–then later driving mother and son into the desert to make peace with Sarah? Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac? Tamar’s playing the prostitute with Judah in order to force him to grant her rights  under levirate marriage? (Judah pronounced Tamar more righteous than he was.)  The Bible does not share the Religious Right’s “Leave It to Beaver” romanticism about nuclear families.
  • Human sexuality, though sharing much with that of other mammals, including a drive for procreation, is far more complex.  Procreation is one purpose, but far from the only.  We must reject the view of the Medieval Church that saw procreation as the only purpose that justified marital sex–which leads to condemnations of artificial birth control and masturbation–not to mention the absolutely bizarre judgment of St. Thomas Aquinas that heterosexual RAPE was less sinful than masturbation or same-sex acts because at least rape allowed the possibility of procreation!!!!!!!!
  • Sex is a created good, but a human, mortal, finite good.  I think we must also reject the teaching that marital sexuality is a sacrament. Yes, Paul compares marriage to the relationship of Christ and the Church, but he does not say that married SEX is like the relationship of Christ and the Church! This sexualizes God–and is far too close to the “sacred sex” of ancient fertility cults. 
  • Nor is sex as sacrament fair to one’s spouse: One needs to be “in the moment” with the partner, not using the partner to (weirdly) get closer to God.  Sex is a good, but a human, finite good.
  • Sex is a powerful human drive and most people are not given the charism for lifelong celibacy.  To say, as the Church has for most of its history, that heterosexuals have the choice between celibate singleness and monogamy, but that gays or lesbians (or bisexuals or transgendered persons) must be celibate WHETHER OR NOT they have the charism or calling to do so is to add burdens that one is not willing to bear one’s self. That’s what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.
  • Monogamy is hardly a perfect thing, but it is the best thing we have.  If sex is to be Christian, it must be in a covenantal relationship–not some form of recreation or entertainment.  We usually call this covenantal relationship “marriage” for heterosexuals.  I am not particularly concerned with whether we call covenantal unions between gay or lesbian couples “marriage” or “holy unions” or whatever (a matter of debate even among gay theologians), but that we recognize and bless such covenants as places to fulfill godly callings.
  • Monogamy is not perfect, but it helps prevent or reduce chances for exploitation. Bi-sexual persons, if they are Christian, are no more permitted to live lives of promiscuity than any other Christian.  I suppose they may date members of either sex (we would assume such dating to be as chaste as we assume any other Christian dating would be), but in choosing a life partner, they would be expected to be faithful.
  • Update: I want to avoid misunderstanding of the last point. I am NOT implying that bi-sexual persons are any more or less promiscuous (as a group) than anyone else.  They are simply attracted to (certain persons of) both sexes.  I do not mean to play into stereotypes about bi-sexual persons. However, I am trying to correct a misunderstanding on the part of traditionalists that any modification of the church’s traditional sexual ethic amounts to “anything goes.” Throughout this series commenters (and others emailing me) have asked, “How can you welcome and affirm bi-sexuals? Are you not allowing three-ways and promiscuity?” I am not, but I am sorry that my refutation of that error was done so clumsily as to seem to reinforce the stereotype that bi-sexual persons are any more inclined or tempted to sexual promiscuity than any of the rest of us. (The evidence seems to indicate that, if anyone is to be tagged as more promiscuous, as a group, than any other, it would be heterosexual males.)
  • We must reject all sexual violence.  This does not go without saying:  In much of the world, marital rape is not even a legal concept.  ANY sex act (as any other act) which harms or humiliates the partner is wrong.  Within covenantal limits, feel free to experiment–as long as the partner is just as willing. No, must mean no, regardless of whether or not one previously said, “I do.”
  • Sex leads to great vulnerability, emotionally. Covenantal arrangements do not prevent this, but do create more of a safe space for “appropriate vulnerability.” Harm is done when only one partner is so emotionally vulnerable. This happens within marriage, too. One of the many reasons promiscuity is sinful is that it teaches people to detach themselves from the sex act–to objectify it and with it, one’s partner.
  • The issues around transgendered persons are difficult.  Should the church encourage those who feel “trapped in the wrong body” to have sex reassignment surgery? I contend that it should–hopefully before one has married.
  • Great harm is done not only to gays and lesbians, but to their heterosexual partners when misguided Christians encourage them to enter heterosexual marriages in order to be “cured” of their same-sex orientation. I have seen the shattered pieces of such marriages–including with my sister. (She would NOT believe those of us who told her that her fiance was gay. Three sons later, he left her.) The current church teaching, and so called “ex-gay” ministries, is just setting up heartbreak for spouses and children. It must stop.
  • Though we reject the teaching that procreation is REQUIRED of all marriages (or same-sex unions), that Christian couples who are childless by choice are sinning, we must reinforce the view that Christian marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual) is more than simply for the happiness or emotional needs of the couple.  Either by adoption or by making one’s home available to host others, or by some other way, any Christian marriage must serve the Kingdom of God.

For further reflection, I recommend Kim Fabricius’ Twelve Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church. 

I had imagined a more richly theological end for this series, but I have run out of steam. I do hope the series has been helpful. I hope it begins rather than ends questions. I think some readers came with closed minds and just wanted to see if they could criticize–but some of them nevertheless asked important questions. I think the majority of readers, whether or not they agreed with me, did come with open minds and with a desire to stretch beyond cookie-cutter answers. That can only be good for the health of the Church.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | 1 Comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: Bibliography for Further Study

A Bibliography for Further Study:

There are far too many books on this subject to read them all.  I highlight ones that have been helpful to me. In an attempt at fairness, I will include a list of the best “NOT affirming” books at the end of this post.

I. Anthologies that Cover Diverse Views:

Jeffrey S. Siker, ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

Sally B. Geis & Donald E. Musser, eds., Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality. (Abingdon Press, 1994).  (Most of those in this book are participants in the debate within the United Methodist Church.)

Michael A. King, ed., Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (Cascadia Publishing House, 200&). Participants represent the debate within the Mennonite Church, USA.

Timothy Bradshaw,ed., The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church. (Eerdmans, 2003).

Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. (Augsburg-Fortress, 2003). A debate between two well-known NT profs, with Via arguing for the revisionist/inclusive view and Gagnon arguing for the traditionalist/exclusivist view.

II. Revisionist Views:

     A. Biblical Arguments:

Alice Ogden Bells and Terry Hufford, Science, Scripture, and Homosexuality (Pilgrim Press, 2002). A collaborative effort between a biologist and a biblical scholar.

Jack B. Rogers, Jr., Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006). Rogers is an evangelical theologian (formerly prof. of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary; later president of San Francisco Theological Seminary; still later, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA) who describes his journey from the traditional to a revisionist view.

Walter Wink, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for Christian Churches (Augsburg-Fortress, 1999).  More than most revisionist collections, this anthology contains several essays by prominent evangelicals including Ken Sehested, Lewis B. Smedes, Peggy Campolo, and others.

Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality. (Augsburg-Fortress, 1983).  Although, I now see that Scroggs overstated his case on Romans 1, this was the first book on this topic to be a major help to me. Scroggs’ basic argument is that the NT condemnations of same-sex behavior have a different focus than our current debate and, thus, are being misused in most of the debates.  I think that broad argument still stands.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response, revised and updated edition.  (HarperOne, 1994).  Significantly stronger than the first edition. When the first edition was published in 1978, it was almost the only revisionist book from a Christian perspective, and definitely the first written by evangelicals. (Later, Mollenkott herself came out as lesbian, terrified that her friend, Letha would reject her as her home congregation had.) The original edition was written before the dominance of the Religious Right in North American evangelicalism–the book got a somewhat positive review in Christianity Today. (The CT review did not accept the thesis, but recommended it as a conversation starter in all churches!)

John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, 4th edition. (Beacon Press, 1993).  When published in 1976, this was one of the first studies of its kind–possibly the first revisionist study in English by a Catholic priest.  This was the book that converted one of my heroes (and a deeply biblical Christian), Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S. J., to a revisionist view. In 1987, Fr. McNeill was thrown out of the Society of Jesus for refusing to stop ministering to gays and lesbians.  Later, he was thrown out of the priesthood, despite having remained faithful to his vows of celibacy.

   B. Testimonies from GLBT Christians:

Mel White, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. (Plume Books, 1995). Mel White began as a member of the Religious Right. A ghostwriter and film maker for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell (his “autobiography”), Pat Robertson, and a speechwriter for Oliver North!  He worked for years to be “cured” of his gayness (and save his marriage), but eventually had to admit he was always going to be gay. He also came to a different view of Christianity. Today, White is the founder of Soulforce, an organization which uses nonviolent direct action to confront Religious Right and evangelical churches and leaders with the harm they do to gay and lesbian Christians.  (In recommending the book, I am not necessarily agreeing with all of the tactics of Soulforce.)

Michael Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church.  (Westminster/John Knox, 1994).

Gary David Comstock, A Whosoever Church: Welcoming Lesbians and Gay Men into African-American Congregations. (Westminster/John Knox, 2001).

 III. Best Books from the “Not Affirming” Perspective

Stanley Grenz, Welcoming but NOT Affirming:  An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998). Written by a Canadian Baptist theologian and ethicist who died unexpectedly.  The hardest part for me with this book is that I support Grenz’ wider views on sexual ethics–which are so much more Christian than much of what is sold as “orthodoxy.”

Thomas B. Schmidt, Straight & Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. (InterVarsity Press, 1995). 

Marion L. Soards, Scripture and Homosexuality: Biblical Authority and the Church Today. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995). Written by a former Southern Baptist who became a Presbyterian to escape fundamentalism, but still sees the revisionist/inclusivist view as a threat to the health of the church.

Paul A. Mickey, Of Sacred Worth. (Abingdon Press, 1991). Argues against the Religious Right’s singling out of gays and lesbians for persecution, but also against revisionism on ordination or same-sex marriage.

More could be added from all perspectives. This is the tip of the iceberg where this literature is concerned.

See also the books recommended or cited in earlier posts in this series.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews, ethics, GLBT issues | 1 Comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion–Identifying Threats

I have mentioned the late H. Richard Niebuhr’s dictum for moral discernment that, before asking the question, “What must I/we do?” we should ask “What is going on?” In my mentor, Glen Stassen’s lectures on ethical method (and, no, I am not saying that Glen agrees with my conclusions on “homosexuality;” When last we discussed this issue, which is not a frequent topic between us, he held to a “welcoming, but NOT affirming” position and may do so still. But it was Stassen who alerted me to the Manchester U. dissertation on Matt. 19:11-12 and he SEEMED to be reconsidering based on this–or at least open to doing so), he draws attention to the perception of the situation that precedes and informs our moral reasoning (biblical interpretation, etc.).  Certain “critical variables” (like variables in an algebra problem) have major influences as to how we perceive any given moral situation. We have already talked about the variable of differing loyalties and interests that we bring to bear:  Richard B. Hays’ loyalty to his deceased gay friend and that friend’s rejection of pro-gay Christian arguments; loyalties to certain understandings of biblical authority or certain approaches to biblical texts; others have loyalties to gay relatives or friends or interests for or against changes in the church’s moral stance.

Another critical variable in perceiving the situation we face with “the issue” of “homosexuality,” (and, once more, I understand why gay or lesbian people don’t want to be treated as an abstract “issue” and apologize) is the threat that is posed or that people perceive.  For example, if we were talking about capital punishment/the death penalty, one could easily see that if someone were threatened by the idea that innocent people might accidentally be executed, such a person would perceive the issue very differently than someone who is threatened by the rate of violent crime.

In the case of sexual ethics and the church (with special reference to GLBT persons), some see a threat to the (heterosexual and nuclear) family.  Any redefinition of “family” by either church or society, we are told by many, will weaken the family, lead to more divorces and children raised by one parent only with a knock-on series of ills for society.  It may surprise some of my more conservative critics, but I also see the nuclear family as threatened in our culture:  I just don’t think gay or lesbian couples have much to do with the real threats.  What are some of the real threats to (heterosexual,  nuclear) family life? How about the fact that we live in a culture which teaches us to commodify everything and treat all people and values as “market values,” and thus to use even our intimate loved ones in a utilitarian fashion? All day long our consumer culture teaches us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” and far too often this carries over, usually unconsciously, to our home lives.

Or take the threat that economic strains in a globalized capitalism place on families: Even in middle or upper-middle class families, there is the threat of having one’s job outsourced at any time to cheaper labor elsewhere in the world. To keep that from happening, the 40 hour work week has been replaced by 50-60 hours, with work brought home and less time with spouses and kids–and more stress when interacting with them.  If one is poor or working in a job without health benefits and has a sick kid, the strains become worse.  In periods of heavy unemployment or economic insecurity, the divorce rate soars–as do the rates of spouse and child abuse.  (Country music, as the music of the white working classes, is filled with songs of cheating and broken homes–because these songs reflect the strains that impact the working classes first!)

Or take the “Hollywood” obsession with “celebrities” who cannot seem to commit to any relationship for more than 20 minutes.  The glamorization of their empty lives of self-indulgence is a huge threat to the nuclear family. 

Others see the threat concerning GLBT inclusion to be a threat to the church’s faithful discipleship.  I can understand this:  Throughout most of its history the church has been profoundly unfaithful to Christ in one dimension or another–with some periods shockingly so.  I know that one of the reasons it took me 10 years to come to a welcoming and affirming view of GLBT persons in the church was that I didn’t want to jump on any faddish bandwagons.

There are real risks here. But I think the greater threat to the church’s integrity is its failure to look with compassion and identify with the outcast and the marginalized.  If we place concerns about purity ahead of matters of compassion for the outcast and ahead of dignity for all people, we will be far more unfaithful than if we risk changing the church’s sexual ethic in this area and turn out to mistake God’s will.  When I stand before the Last Judge, I would rather be able to say that I erred (if I did) on the side of standing with the marginalized than that I erred on the side of purity.

The loyalties and interests and threat dimensions are joined by the critical variable of one’s attitude toward social change.  During the Civil Rights era, some people who were theoretically strong for racial justice were nevertheless strongly opposed to the Movement–because they believed social change should be slow and ordered and come through calm deliberation of laws or customs, not from the agitation of a mass movement.  They did not share Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of the now.”  One can easily make the analogy regarding current attempts to change laws allowing same-sex civil marriages in the U.S.–and the way this spills over into electoral contests where the main issues seem to be other matters.

(After this series is over, I need to blog more extensively about ethical method.)

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | Leave a comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: Addendum–Loose Ends

Some “cleaning up” matters on these posts before going to the next stage.  I am rushing through some things in order to try to finish this series and be done with it. The series is tiring for me and I don’t want to neglect it again.

At any rate, there are some loose ends on the biblical survey to date that need to be cleared up.

  • Would the biblical writers, especially the Apostle Paul, have known of long-term, same sex, partnerships based on love? I have followed the likes of Robin Scroggs and Victor Paul Furnish in saying, “No.”  However, several classicists have pointed out that such pairings were well-known in the Greco-Roman world–something I did not know when I began this series. (Randle and others repeatedly cited Plato’s Symposium. The thrust of that discussion still seems to me to be Plato’s condemnation of pederasty in “mentoring,” but there are mentions of longterm male/male lovers. Ergo, Scroggs’ original claim, and mine by extension, was too strong.)   However, this does not settle the question of whether Paul would have known them or had them in mind in his condemnations. It is certain that he is condemning exploitive relationships like pederasty and temple prostitution. If, in Rom. 1, he is also including non-exploitive same-sex pairings more like marriage (which is possible), it is not because he knows the concept of sexual orientation, but because he considers such acts to be evidence of idolatry and “unnatural” behavior.
  • In 1 Cor. 11:14, Paul asks rhetorically, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him. . .?”  Here “nature” clearly means “custom,” because what is “unnatural” is cutting one’s hair.  So, it is possible (by no means certain) that Paul has the same meaning in mind in Romans 1 when he calls same sex pairings “unnatural.”  What is clear is that Paul is not a reliable guide to “nature” or to natural law arguments.
  • I have said that Romans 1 is the only place where lesbian acts, not just male same-sex actions, are under review.  What I didn’t know until quite recently is that lesbianism may not even be mentioned in Romans 1.  The early church, up to and including St. Augustine, interpreted “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones,” NOT as referring to female-to-female sex acts (i.e., lesbian behavior), but to male-female anal intercourse.  It is only beginning with St. John Chrysostom that the early church starts interpreting this verse as referring to lesbian actions.
  • If the earlier tradition is the correct exegesis, then nowhere in the Bible are lesbian acts discussed.  The focus is entirely on male/male acts and the concerns are purity/holiness concerns and concerns about men being treated “as women,” like conquering armies did in raping those conquered. Note the strong connection between condemnation of male homosexuality and patriarchy.

In my next post, I will briefly turn from the biblical texts to discuss the (little) we know scientifically about the causes of homosexual orientation. Science does not give moral guidance on its own. But, as H. Richard Niebuhr constantly reminded his students in Christian ethics, the first question to be asked is not, “What should I/we do?” but, “What is going on?”  This post will also include a brief discussion of the related-but-different issues surrounding transgendered persons.

From there, I will make some comments on ethical method and on hermeneutics (as it applies to our discussion).  My concluding posts will present a theological case for fully welcoming and affirming GLBT persons in the church:  Defending their civil rights in society (something I would expect even of “welcoming, but NOT affirming” folks since public justice matters are distinct from purity issues or moral issues for religious communities); blessing same-sex covenantal unions (whether or not the law grants them the status of “marriage,”); and ordaining those called to ministry with same standards of chastity used for heterosexuals (not restricting all gay or lesbian ministers to celibacy unless the same standard is required for heterosexual ministers).  I will conclude with a brief outline of a “single standard sexual ethic” for the church today–one which is open-ended and welcomes additions and corrections by my readers.

I will then update the index of all these posts and create a new page of indexed series.

I hope to post the science post this afternoon/evening.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues | 1 Comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: A Positive Word from Jesus?

It is commonly said by those on all sides of this debate that Jesus said nothing whatsoever pertaining to “homosexuality.”  Traditionalists conclude that Jesus simply accepted the Levitical prohibitions (and the negative view of 1st C. Judaism) without question.  Revisionists conclude that Jesus was unconcerned about same-sex issues and that contemporary Christians are free to take Jesus’ overall liberating views on the dignity and equality of all persons as our guide.

But there is one ambiguous passage in the Gospels in which Jesus MAY have indicated an openess to same-sex covenantal love.  I want to be very cautious here.  I have been told about a Norwegian woman (a Baptist pastor, actually) who completed a Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of Manchester in the U.K.  She investigated this pericope rather thoroughly. But the dissertation has not yet been published and so I have not seen the evidence for her conclusions. So, what follows, is a possibility that bears further investigation–but without that further investigation would be (in Lee’s words about how Richard Hays treats Rom. 1 on the other side of this debate) “too thin a reed on which to build a case one way or the other.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus condemns divorce (except for porneia, indicating some kind of sexual sin, usually thought to be adultery), using God’s created intentions to overturn Mosaic law (which allowed men to seek divorce). The disciples, blown away by the idea that they may have learn conflict resolution with their wives, mutter that it may be better not to marry at all.

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; others have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The one who can accept this word, should do so.” Matt. 19:11-12.

Now, traditionally, this passage has been interpreted to mean that Jesus was advocating celibacy, but that is not clear.

  • The word “eunuchs” is not really an English translation of the Greek ενουκοι. Rather, it is simply a transliteration. 
  • Because of the influence of the KJV, modern English uses the term “eunuch” to mean a castrated male. But did the term have that meaning in the ancient world?
  • In the dissertation to which I have referred (but I have seen only a summary, not the evidence),  a broad range of materials is consulted and it seems that “eunuch” had a much wider meaning in the 1st C. Mediterranean world–referring to any male who deviated from the cultural norm of marrying and begetting children. It was even used to refer to men who married and did not beget children. It was also used, I am given to understand, to refer to men who had longterm male lovers–NOT to pederasts or to temple prostitutes, etc.
  • Now, traditionally, this passage has been used to endorse celibacy, but the topic under discussion is marriage.
  • Jesus says that some are eunuchs (that is, men who do not marry and beget children) because they were made that way by men. These are probably castrated males such as many cultures used for herem guards.
  • Jesus says that some make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the early church, Origen took this to mean that some should castrate themselves and he did so.  Fortunately, most of the church did not follow this pattern.  Those who would be “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” have been voluntarily celibate–as apparently Jesus and Paul were. (In light of his belief that Jesus would return any minute, Paul wished all Christians were “as I am”–apparently meaning celibate, but recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit. 1 Cor. 7:7–a chapter in which Paul also indicates that an acceptable basis for Christian (heterosexual) marriage is to control one’s otherwise uncontrollable lust! Nice.)
  • Jesus says some eunuchs “were born that way.” Is he talking only of males born with some genital defect? Or is referring also to men who do not marry and have children because they were born with desires for their own sex?

Caution: Even if Jesus has people we would call “gay” or “lesbian,” those with homosexual orientation, in mind as part of the category of “born eunuchs,” the passage does not indicate what Jesus would have them do–except that it is clear that, contrary to his own Jewish culture, he does not order them to marry or condemn them for not marrying.  “Family” takes on broader than biological meaning in Christianity.  But Jesus does not say, “all born eunuchs must remain celibate,” either.

Is this a veiled positive word for gay and lesbian Christians?  I don’t think it is clear, but I do think it is a possibility worth further investigation.

Let those accept this who can.

Next, I will wind up this series by moving beyond reading of the few texts in Scripture relating to this topic to giving a theological rationale for welcoming and affirming GLBT Christians fully into the life of the church, including blessing same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | 1 Comment