Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Theology as a Craft

I am reprinting a series of brief posts on the nature of theology from my old blog Levellers. After I reprint each post, I’ll make an index page and put the series up on my page of “popular posts and series.” (The series was popular on my old blog, anyway, and I’m trying to make sure that former readers can still find material they liked on this blog, Pilgrim Pathways.)

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What IS ‘theology?”

Different definitions of theology lead to different methods/approaches of “doing theology.”  I propose the definition given by the late Baptist theologian of the “[b]aptist Vision,” i.e., the constitutive vision of the Believers’ Churches, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000).  Theology, McClendon said, is “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”  He intended this definition to be broad enough to encompass the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc.  If the “convictional community” in question is the Christian Church, then theology is the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of the Christian Church, including the discovery and critical revision of disciples’ relation(s) to one another, to the Triune GOD, and to the rest of Creation.” (My adaptation.)

Certain things follow from such a definition:  i. Theology is pluralistic; done in different, even rival, camps.  There is struggle in theology–the struggle for truth. This sometimes involves struggle against the perceived errors of others.  Because Christ prayed that the Church would enjoy the same unity that he enjoys with the Father, striving for ecumenical reconciliation in the fractured Church is mandatory.  But all the ecumenical good will in the world cannot disguise the fact that theologians (and churches) disagree and that some of these disagreements are sharp and deep. Another way to say this is that theology is contextual  –related to differing church traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, “baptist,” etc.), differing eras, differing cultural contexts.

ii. Theology is narrative based, construing the lived experience of the convictional community by means of Scripture.  There are, of course, different readings of Scripture:  A 12th C. Franciscan “take” on the biblical narrative differs from a 17th C. Jesuit take on the same narrative–but they are both much closer than either is to the “take” of a 16th C. Dutch Mennonite, of 19th C. antebellum African-American Christians in the U.S. South, of a WWI-era Pentecostal, of a Peruvian “base community” in the 1970s, of a Reformed “take” in South Africa during the “Boer War” resistance to British rule, of an African Christian response to both the British and Afrikaaner readings, etc.

iii. Theology is rational.  Some (Schleiermacher, Barth) have called theology a “science,” and in the broadest sense of the term, this is true.  But because in English “science” is understood after the model of the natural sciences, McClendon suggests (and I agree) that it is less confusing to call theology a discipline that is to display the rationality appropriate to its metier, just as the disciplines of art, law, and medicine display their own particular rationalities. Thus, like these other cases, theology is a practice, a craft, that is rooted in the other practices (e.g., mission, evangelism, worship, communal prayer, preaching, hospitality to the poor and the stranger, life together in the Body, nonviolent service to the neighbor, nonviolent encounter/witness with the enemy,  etc.) of the Church.  The theologian must likewise be rooted in these practices, in a particular Christian community, even if s/he is employed by a secular or pluralist university.

iv. This leads us to the fact that theology is self-involving.  Possibly in rare circumstances a Christian theologian could write a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist theology (Hans Küng has attempted this regarding Judaism and Islam) or some non-Christian could undertake to write a Christian theology.  But these would be exceptions that prove the rule.  In convictional work, self-involvement is the rule, exceptions must be explained case-by-case.  (This is NOT to say that Christian theologians should not be in dialogue with non-Christian movements. The missionary nature of the Church means that, in each context, theologians will dialogue with major forces and thought-forms in their cultural context.  But the theologian does not attempt to adopt a “neutral” or “detached” observer frame. S/he is not an anthropologist.)

I. Is this a good way to understand theology? Why or why not?

II. What does the practice of theology look like when understood this way?

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May 21, 2012 Posted by | blog series, ecumenism, moral discernment, theology, tradition | Leave a comment

Critical Variables in Moral Discernment: Index

This series, originally posted on my old blog, Levellers, and reprinted in revised form here shortly after starting Pilgrim Pathways last year, will be stored in my new page on “Popular Blog Posts and Series.

  1. Critical Variables in Moral Discernment (with chart developed by my Doktorvater, Glen H. Stassen).
  2. Convictions and Moral Discernment I. (How our beliefs about the nature of God and the way God works in the world and our beliefs about human nature influence our moral judgments.)
  3. Convictions and Moral Discernment II. (Different views of the nature of justification and the nature of sanctification and their relationship lead to different moral judgments. Using terms from the Gospels rather than Paul, differing views of forgiveness and Christian discipleship and their relationship lead to different moral judgments.  This post also examines how different views of love, justice and the relationship between the two affect moral discernment.)
  4. Convictions and Moral Discernment III.  (Different views of the nature and mission of the Church in the World affect our moral judgments.)
  5. Moral Discernment: Loyalties and Interests. (The loyalties, interests, passions, affections, and virtues of individuals and communities are factors in moral discernment.)
  6. Perception and Moral Discernment.  (What we “see,” how we understand “what is going on?” impacts our moral responses, including our answer as individuals and communities to the question “What, then, do we do?” In turn, our understandings of authority (who or what, how much, etc.), threat (what, how strong, etc.), social change (acceptable means, speed, acceptable allies, etc.), and integrity of information all affect deeply our perception, our answer(s) to “What is going on?”)
  7. Styles of Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse. (Deontological, utilitarian, or virtue reasoning? Level of situations, rules, broader principles, or basic paradigms?  This is the only dimension discussed in my basic philosophy or theology texts on ethics–as if moral discernment was purely a case of correct reasoning. It is an important dimension, but not the only dimension in moral judgment.0

January 22, 2011 Posted by | blog series, moral discernment | 1 Comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: Index

  1. Terms and Presuppositions.
  2. Use of Scripture in Moral Discernment
  3. Range of Christian Views on “Homosexuality.”
  4. The Sodom Story
  5. Two Texts from the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus.
  6. Addendum: Pro-GLBT “Over-readings” of Biblical Texts.
  7. Two Brief Texts from Paul (with major issues in translation).
  8. Romans 1:18-2:1. (The most difficult passage for the revisionist/inclusivist position I advocate.)
  9. Addendum 2: DVD Review of For the Bible Tells Me So.
  10. Richard Hays’ Argument, A.
  11. Richard Hays’ Argument, B.’
  12. Matt. 19:11-12: A Positive Word from Jesus?
  13. Addendum: Loose Ends.
  14. Sexual Orientation: Science.
  15. Identifying Threats
  16. Acts 10: Gentile Inclusion
  17. Bibliography
  18. “Final” Post: Toward a Single-Standard Sexual Ethic for All Christians.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | "homosexuality", blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment | 4 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

Sexual Orientation: The Scientific Evidence (Such As It Is)

[In reproducing this series, I left out this post and one other. When I give the index, all will be in the correct order. MLW-W]

As I stated at the outset of this series, the term “homosexuality” is coined in German in the 1860s and comes into English a few years later.  So, the idea of someone with a sexual orientation that is primarily directed to their own sex (as opposed to same-sex acts) is a modern concept.

Freud believed it was a neurosis caused by an overprotective or dominant mother and/or an absent or abusive father.  In the 1950s, especially, psychologists blamed mothers if their children were gay or lesbian. Psychologists and psychiatrists regularly used electro-shock therapy to “cure” gays and lesbians. They also used lobotomies and “aversion therapy,” all of which would now be considered torture.  In 1973, the American Psychological Association dropped homosexuality from its lists of neuroses and psychosis and the American Psychiatric Association followed soon after. 

What changed? Not the political culture.  The gay rights movement had not yet emerged until a little later in the decade of the 1970s (immediately leading to the anti-gay “crusade” of former Mouseketeer and orange-juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant!).  What changed was the groundbreaking study of human sexuality by Alfred Kinsey and the institute he founded.  Kinsey discovered that few of us are completely heterosexual (ONLY attracted to the opposite sex) or completely homosexual (ONLY attracted to our own sex). Rather, most of us are dominantly heterosexual or homosexual.  Kinsey also discovered that, although the persecution of homosexuals by church and society often leads to attendant neuroses, there is no neurosis or psychosis in the condition itself.  That is still the conclusion of almost all psychologists and psychiatrists, and is reflected in their Diagnostic and Statistics Manual.

UPDATE: In the comments, Daniel Schweissing (Haitianministries), corrects this statement slightly. I accept it as a friendly correction and, since some readers never read the comments, reproduce it here:

While Kinsey’s groundbreaking study was undoubtedly influential in the decision of the APA, et al. to change their views on homosexuality, politics also played an important role. Gay theologian Robert Goss, in his book _Jesus Acted Up_ (Harper San Francisco, 1993 –pp.44-45), documents how gay and lesbian activists demonstrated at and disrupted a number of psychiatric and medical conferences, beginning as early as 1968 in attempt to convince them to change their views. This, in part, is one of the reasons why many conservative Christians continue to reject the professional opinions of such groups in regards to homosexuality. A better reading of this change in thinking might be that the political pressure from gay and lesbian activists forced the APA, et al. to take studies such as Kinsey’s more seriously.

Thanks, Daniel.

One often hears conservative preachers claim that “homosexuality is only found in human beings,” and that it’s claimed non-appearance in animals is proof that it is unnatural and sinful. The claim is false as anyone who has spent time around animals will tell you.  In some species, like dolphins and dogs, the majority of the males will mount anything that holds still! (Also, see what penguins are up to here!)In species that mate for life, a small percentage form same-sex pairings.  I have personally observed this in red-shouldered hawks–with two male hawks actually building a nest together!  This is always a small minority or the species in question would not survive.  But it happens.  Human sexuality is enough different from animal sexuality that this point is of limited value, but I had to refute an oft-made, but false, claim.

Among humans, approximately 90% of us are dominantly heterosexual in orientation.  About 5% are dominantly homosexual in orientation.  5% or less are bi-sexual or nearly equally attracted to members of both sexes.

Studies of the causes of homosexuality have been few and inconclusive. Several of the studies have either been poorly designed or given inconclusive evidence or used too small a sampling, etc.

There have been studies of monozygotic male twins which have shown that if one twin is gay, the other is gay 50% of the time. This has proven to be the case even when the twins were separated at birth and raised in very different environments. This does not answer the question of causation, but it does indicate something not-chosen and not environmental.

There have been studies in brain size and chemistry which purport to show differences in the brains of gay men and straight men.

In the mid-’90s, studies of birth order found that the more male children a woman had, the more likely that her last male child would be gay.  The hypothesis is that her body treated the male child as a foreign object and that, over time and with many children, the mother’s body introduced chemicals to change the sex to female–and sometimes got a gay male child, instead. The study was suggestive, but far from conclusive.

The most profitable field of research for causes is genetic.  However, many gay and lesbian people fear research in this area, because they fear that parents will either abort or attempt genetic manipulation in utero to prevent having gay children. (The fundamentalist president of my once-great alma mater, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., opined on his radio show that if geneticist discovered a “gay gene,” it would be a Christian responsibility to be screened and to have corrective procedures in utero. Way to channel the Nazi doctors there, Al!)

No “gay gene” has been isolated, but the human genome mapping project has suggested promising areas of research.  The general “consensus” (to the extent there is one) in the field is that homosexual orientation is probably caused by a variety of genetic and hormonal causes prior to birth and to some environmental factors shortly after birth. The only real consensus is that dominant sexual orientation is set by age 5 and not really alterable after that.

The scientific evidence (including recent studies on rats!) is found here.

Note on transgendered persons:  Transgendered persons have a different gender identity than their outward biology at birth.  Whereas gay men identify as male and lesbian women identify as female, but are just oriented to their own sex, transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body.” We don’t know the causes of this, either, although they may be partly biological. A rare medical phenomenon is someone who is born with both male and female genitalia. They are arbitrarily assigned one sex or the other and “corrective” surgery is usually performed shortly after birth.  This suggests that transgendered persons also have some biochemical reason or genetic reason for identify with the other sex, no matter their outward primary and secondary sex characteristics.   Sometimes such persons choose sex reassignment surgery to finally find peace by no longer feeling “trapped in the wrong body.”

For more information on transgendered persons and the church, by the only Christian transgendered person I know, see here.  That is the website of Rev. Elise Elrod (formerly Ronnie Elrod), who speaks on bias, one-thing thinking (reducing people to one feature), and acceptance.

Now, why this interest in causes? Because moral responsibility usually implies choice; ought implies can.  But, this is not always the case.  Many like to compare same-sex sexual orientation to alcoholism or to violence. I may have a predisposition to violence–it does not justify my hitting anyone when I am angry.  I may be predisposed to alcoholism, but the conclusion would be that I should not drink (or if already addicted, seek help), not that alcoholism is “right for me” and I should pursue it.

This is what I meant above by saying that science itself provides no moral guidelines.  However, the relevant question to ask those who argue that “homosexual orientation is not chosen, but the behavior and can be changed,” is whether or not same-sex sexual orientation is really analogous to alcoholism or violence.  It seems to me that the conclusion of psychologists and psychiatrists that “homosexuality” is not itself a neurosis or psychosis rules out too close a similarity with alcoholism or violence.

Given the constraints in which most gays or lesbians live in our society, persecuted and outcast, subject to job loss or housing discrimination, often rejected by church and family, one would be very surprised NOT to find many gays and lesbians who have accompanying psycho-social problems. But we find such problems in heterosexuals, too. And the amazing thing is that we also find gay and lesbian Christians who lead lives of deep holiness. The ones I know personally are much better Christians than I am.

These things lead me to believe that same-sex sexual orientation is not a flaw, but simply a variation in nature, in God’s created order–like left-handedness. By itself, it is no more or less sinful than heterosexuality

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

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: 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: 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

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (B)

Okay, when Hays gets to Romans 1, he argues on the exegetical level for a very similar reading of the text that I give: Paul is describing first the state of fallen Gentile humanity and then the state of fallen Jewish humanity in order to get to his conclusion that “there is no excuse,” all have sinned, Christ’s redemption is the only remedy, and there is no cause for boasting for either Jews or Gentiles.

Hays, “The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms [italics in original]: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin (cf. Rom. 3:9).”  From here he goes on to make what he calls several important observations about Romans 1 and “homosexuality.”:

  • Paul is not describing the individual life histories of pagan sinners; not every pagan has first known the true God of Israel and then chosen to turn away into idolatry. When Paul writes, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” he is giving a global account of the universal fally of humanity.  This fall  is manifested continually in the various ungodly behaviors listed in vv. 24-31.  [But what if, I ask, a different understanding of sexual orientation means that some same-sex behavior, namely that in covenant relationship between two people for whom this is their natural expression of sexuality, is NOT an “ungodly behavior”–even if it bears surface resemblance to the same–but a variation in God’s creation like left handedness?]
  • Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s created order.  God the Creator made man and woman for each other, to cleave together, to be fruitful and multiply. When human beings “exchange” these created roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”  [I agree that this is how Paul sees things. It assumes that all sex is for procreation.]
  • Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in this passage (vv. 29-31)–no worse in principle than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents.
  • Homosexual activity will not incur [emphasis in original] God’s punishment: it is its own punishment, an “antireward.” Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely informed Paul’s thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this, “Therefore those who lived unrighteously in a life of folly, [God] tormented through their own abominations” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:23). [Here I agree completely with this exegetical reading. Paul understands gay sex as a result of human fallenness and idolatry.

Hays concludes that the contemporary church should welcome GLBT persons the way it welcomes all sinners, but should continue to teach that all same-sex acts are always sinful signs of human idolatry/fallenness. He concludes that the church should not bless same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage and should ordain gay and lesbian ministers only if they are celibate (as it would single heterosexual ministers).

He reaches this conclusion for several reasons–and it is here at the hermeneutical level that I think Hays’ argument fails.:

  1. The Bible speaks sparingly about homosexual acts (contrary to the impression from many preachers), but it speaks with one voice. The canon is unanimous in condemnation.  (I think there is a possible text he has overlooked–subject of my next post in this series–but it is ambiguous. Hays could be right. But, his conclusion need not follow. The Bible is also unanimous in never explicitly condemning slavery, but Hays would not conclude that slavery that followed biblical patterns, was not race-based, etc. could be legitimate.  In the case of slavery, the general direction of biblical message as a whole undermines the commands/permissions of specific texts.  The relevant question for our discussion is whether or not this is also true for same-sex covenantal love.  This is the metaphor making act of interpretation that Hays has emphasized–the embodiment of the Word in churches as communities of moral discernment.
  2. Hays points out that the Christian tradition is even more condemnatory than the Scripture. He’s right. But the tradition is also almost entirely supercessionist in its treatment of Judaism–and Hays conclusion on that issue is that the tradition gets it completely wrong.
  3. Hays is worried that revisionists like myself are simply substituting personal experience for the authority of Scripture.  There is always that danger. I share Hays’ concern here–he and I are equally critical of the way that, since Constantine, the churches have blessed war and militarism in direct opposition to the witness of Jesus and the New Testament writers.  He and I share a loyalty to biblical faithfulness against faddish trends.  But Hays’ misses the way that his own experience is shaping his interpretation, especially at the hermeneutical level: He begins the chapter on “homosexuality,” with a story about a friend of his, a gay Christian named Gary, who died of AIDS. Hays has personal loyalty to this friend–a friend who saw his inability to remain celibate as an addiction and who rejected as “cheap,” the revisionist welcoming and affirming line that I am taking.  (It is even more obvious in the original article in Sojourners from which this chapter comes that Gary’s story, including his interpretation that God had cured him of same-sex desires before his death, drives Hays’ interpretation throughout.) Likewise, it is Hays’ experience with Jews in a post-Holocaust world that directs his re-reading of the NT and rejection supercessionist readings–as he admitted personally at a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics under questioning from a former student. Thus, without the Holocaust, Hays would probably have drawn different conclusions–more in line with the supercessionism of the church through the centuries–on Israel and the Church.  So, experience and contemporary new insights affect ALL our readings of Scripture–Hays’ included.
  4. Hays’ normative conclusions turns Romans 1 into a set of rules: Do not ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians; do not sanction same-sex marriages or “Holy Unions.”  But Hays has said that we should not transform Scripture from one mode of ethical discourse to another (see previous post).

I think it makes a difference in our normative Christian ethics not only how we read Scripture, but with whom.  If black and white North American Christians had read the Bible together in the same church buildings, could white Christians have continued to justify slavery or segregation?  Likewise, the catalyst for many of us in re-reading Scripture on “homosexuality” was our experience of reading these texts in the company of gay and lesbian Christians–and the testimony of their lives of holiness.

The full theological argument for my revisionist position awaits.  But for Hays’ counterargument(s) to work, he has to modify several of his guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–or come to different conclusions on his treatment of the supercessionist texts. As it stands now, his conclusions on “homosexuality” show a use of Scripture that is in tension with the use he gives in Jewish/Christian relations.

Hays is codifying Paul’s presuppositions about the causes of homosexuality–and allowing no new information to challenge those presuppositions. I think that not only fundamentally distorts Paul’s argument in the structure of Romans (Paul could have used another illustration than same-sex acts for Rom. 1), but it turns an illustration in a moral argument into a rule. On every other issue in the book, Richard Hays is a better theologian.

We all have our blind spots and I conclude that this is one of his.

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

Can a Christian be Patriotic (and Still be a Faithful Disciple)? (Update)

 Sunday is Independence Day, celebrating that day in 1776 when the British colonists of 13 colonies in North America declared themselves to be an independent nation known as the United States of America. People will barbecue and wave flags and there will be parades that celebrate the greatness of the country.  Love of one’s country is fairly natural, but at times in our history, much of the U.S. has felt the need to show that love by putting down other nations–by not only singing our nation’s praises, but refusing to learn from other countries or ever admit to any of our faults.  Disturbingly, many U.S. Christians embrace a “civil religion” which identifies the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” (there is no such thing–just nations that have  Christian majorities and/or in which Christianity has been influential).  When (in my pre-pacifist days) I was in the U.S. army, guns, rifles, and other munitions were strictly forbidden in base chapels, but I have been horrified to see civilian churches (and not just fundamentalist ones) celebrate the Sunday closest to some patriotic holiday with ARMED COLOR GUARDS from local military or national guard units!  Christian faith and the commitment to the global, ecumenical, church as the New/Renewed People of God scattered among the nations are confused with patriotic love for the homeland.

But can a Christian be a patriot while being a faithful disciple of Jesus?  An honest study of the New Testament would incline one to the answer “no.”  I think one can give a qualified–and very cautious–“yes,” but I want us to hear the “NO” pretty strongly first.  Against perspectives like Jerry Falwell’s Listen America, or Peter Marshall’s 3 volume re-write of U.S. history (The Light and the Glory, 1492-1793; From Sea to Shining Sea, 1787-1837; Sounding Forth the Trumpet, 1838-1860;–all with the same subtitle of “God’s Plan for America”), the Bible never describes any nation other than ancient Israel (later Israel and Judah) as an elect nation. In the New Testament, it is the Church as the new people of God which inherits the promises of Israel–and not any earthly nation.  In the Great Commission (Matt. 28-1920), the Risen Christ sends his disciples forth to make disciples from all the nations.  In both 1 Peter and Revelation, the Church is seen to be the people of God called from every tribe and tongue and nation.  A Christian in the U.S. should have more in common than a Christian in Iraq (there were over a million Christians in Iraq before the war and occupation displaced most of them) or North Korea or Venezuela than with the non-Christians who share the same homeland.  As the great Christian philosopher of the Enlightenment era, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put it “Patriotism may be a good thing, but why should love stop at the border?”  Or, again from Pascal, “Can anything be stupider than that a man has a right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

One of the reasons the early church was pacifist and one reason I became a pacifist was the realization that Christianity is a global faith and that our ultimate loyalty is to God in Christ (not any earthly government) and that our loyalty to the global church should override national loyalties. If a Christian from one nation is in the military and asked by the government to kill members of a different military, how does the Christian know that s/he is not aiming at fellow Christians?  And if the person whom s/he kills for his or her government is not a Christian, then is s/he prepared to cut off that person’s chance to repent and convert?

Nation-states are part of what the apostle Paul refers to as “Principalities and Powers” or “Powers and Authorities,” i.e., earthly, created forces (depicted in mythical terms) with their own spiritualities which are fallen and rebellious toward God and which seek to enslave humans–but which God nevertheless uses for good purposes and which can be (possibly) redeemed.  Paul spends much time warning about the dangers of these Powers, including “thrones and dominions,” (i.e., nations and governments), not singing their praises.  The Kingdom of God is the revolutionary new order inaugurated by the work of Jesus Christ–and never to be identified with any earthly government or ideology or political party or causes. 

The early church knew this well–and so did their pagan neighbors.  In The Letter to Diognetus (c. 195 C.E.), an anonymous Christian writes to a pagan interested in the faith and says:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.  They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric form of life. . . . They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything [i.e., in all responsibilities] as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.  Every foreign land is their fatherland and, yet, for them, every fatherland is a foreign land.  . . . They obey the established laws, but in their own lives go far beyond what the laws require.  They love all and by all are persecuted.  . . . They are poor, yet make many rich. . . .

This is a perspective that was largely lost after Constantine when, under the influence of Eusebius, Christians began to endorse the empire in order to get special privileges.  It is one we do well to recover today. 

Yet, must one hate or be indifferent to one’s own country?  If one cheers for one’s homeland during the Olympics or World Cup, should one feel guilty? I don’t think so.  Patriotism has often degenerated into jingoistic, militaristic, nationalism, but it need not be so.  Though he reached out to Roman soldiers (in peacemaking initiatives), Jesus identified with his fellow Palestinian Jews and the zealot (terrorist) option of using guerilla violence to repel the occupiers from the Holy Land was one he understood–and evidently encountered as a real temptation. Among his followers were patriotic rebels and/or sympathizers and Rome crucified Jesus as a would be revolutionary (not understanding the nonviolent nature of his Kingdom, but correctly identifying his movement as a threat even if for the wrong reasons).  The Apostle Paul, though later counting it all “dung,” identified strongly as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and evidently also prized his Roman citizenship.

I think Archbishop Desmond Tutu was and is a better South African patriot than were those who championed apartheid. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though forced by circumstances to pray for the defeat of his own country during World War II, was a better German patriot than were the “German Christians,” who tried to combine Hitlerism and Christianity.  I think Martin Luther King, Jr., even when condemning the U. S. as “the largest purveyor of violence in the world,” in 1967, was a better American patriot than either the defenders of segregation or the unthinking supporters of the Vietnam War. 

We Christians can love our countries and be loyal to them–but we can never be uncritically loyal. We cannot confuse our countries with the Rule of God. We can never say, “for God and country,” because we remember that God is a jealous God and will not be reduced to a tribal deity, nor tolerate any idolotrous rivals.  We should not have national flags in our churches (and there is no such thing as a Christian flag–flags are for armies; Christians have a cross–which we bear and follow unarmed), nor pledge allegiance to any nation state (since, in baptism, our allegiance is already pledged elsewhere and since we are forbidden in the Sermon on the Mount from taking oaths).  We would not want visiting Christians from other nations to come into our sanctuaries and see a flag of our nation and wonder if they belong!  We can never say, “my country, right or wrong.”  And we must not allow love for our homeland to become contempt or hatred (or even a feeling of superiority) to others’ homelands.

I plan on grilling out this 4th of July.  I will celebrate the good things of my country–and call that patriotism.  But I will not pretend that my country has never had sins and faults. I will criticize its shortcomings today and seek to learn from other nations.  We Christians can be qualified, critical patriots–but never nationalists and never militarists.  Remembering the difference is crucial around national holidays.

UPDATE: As I mention in comments to my friend Daniel (Haitian Ministries), it is probably harder for Christians to be patriotic WITHOUT falling into jingoistic nationalism here in the U.S. than in other countries.  After WWII, Christians in Germany and Italy and Japan had periods of profound soul-searching concerning the way they supported the war–their tendency to be captured by nationalist ideology.  Both the churches and the wider national cultures underwent periods of repentance for past sins.  Nothing comparable has ever happened in the U.S.

The Civil War ended slavery, but there was no repentance.  In the South there arose the “Religion of the Lost Cause” which glorified the Confederacy and turned slavery into a footnote. In the North, the Civil War became seen as a righteous crusade with no mention of the utter failure of the Northern political culture to have found a way to abolish slavery without war, no mention of the continued racism (even of many white abolitionists!), nor of the war-profiteering of the Yankees.  The U.S. has become the nation that never sees a reason to repent and certainly not to apologize.  When Pres. Jimmy Carter renegotiated the Panama Canal Treaty in a more just fashion (Teddy Roosevelt had simply used the U.S. military to back a revolution in northern Colombia, creating Panama in exchange for the right to build the canal!), the rightwing hue and cry went up that “Jimmy Carter is giving away our canal!” Many were even outraged that Carter spoke Spanish when in Latin America rather than forcing everyone else to speak English!  Americans never apologized for the genocide of Native Americans, or for the Japanese internment camps or for turning away boatloads of Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.  And this heretical view that our nation never does evil pervades the churches, too.

So patriotism is more dangerous, harder to tame, in the U.S. than elsewhere.  Our churches often fail to portray a view of the Church that is global and fail to foster greater loyalty to the global Church than to any earthly nationality.  Perhaps nowhere else in the world is the failure to distinguish the nation from the Kingdom of God greater than in the majority of U.S. churches.  Given that reality, the skepticism that Paul F. and Daniel have toward the possibility of a humble (truly Christian) form of patriotism is well-founded. Maybe most U.S. churches should commemorate 04 July 1776 by holding days of repentance and confession of our national sins?

July 2, 2010 Posted by | ecclesiology, ecumenism, ethics, moral discernment, nationalism, peace, theology | 10 Comments