hermeneutics

A Little Consistency Please

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Dr. Lisa W. Davison

I am a fairly open-minded and intelligent person, but one thing has evaded my comprehension for some time now. No one takes the biblical texts more seriously than I do; I’ve spent my life studying, exploring and learning about the bible gaining a working knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (the 3 languages in which the biblical texts were originally written), so that I do not have to rely on someone else’s translation that is far removed from the extant biblical texts and tarnished by human biases. Granted, my own translations are also influenced by my biases, but I have made it an intentional effort to remove myself from and critique those lenses with which I read the bible. I cannot say the same for all translators; some of whom have claimed that they are merely giving a “literal” translation of the original language (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, & Greek) into the target language (in this case English). This is absolutely impossible.

At this point, I must say a word (or more) about this term, “literal”, and all of its derivatives. In my lifetime, I have heard countless, well-meaning people of faith who claim that they believe the bible to be the very words of God; therefore they take/read the bible “literally.” Really? How can a thinking person make that claim with a straight face? If one begins reading at Gen 1:1, it is not very long before this “literal” approach starts falling apart. In what order did God create the world (humans first or last)? How many animals went onto the ark (2 every kind or 7 pairs of some with 1 pair of others)? I could go on and on. In addition to these inconsistencies of the Torah, there are more glaring examples of how folks who claim this “literal” approach fail to be consistent. Ask them if they have sold everything and given it to the poor, as Jesus taught (Luke 18:22, Mat 19:21, & Mark 10:21), and they will quickly tell you that Jesus didn’t mean that “literally,” and they do it with a straight face. Really?

As I once heard Rev. Peter Gomes, former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard School of Divinity and the Pusey Minister at Harvards Memorial Church, say: “There are no true literalists; there are only selectivists.” This is spot on! All of us, who claim that the biblical texts have some authority/influence in our lives, are SELECTIVISTS. We select which texts we take somewhat “literally” and which are meant to be seen as “metaphorical” or too outdated to be binding in this 21st century world. So, the question must be asked: “How do you make that choice between those texts that are to be taken ‘literally’ and those that must be further interpreted and/or discarded?” The problem I encounter over and over again is that people cannot answer this important question. They cannot tell me why Lev 18:22 is to be taken “literally,” even though this text does not say what they want it to say, but Luke 18:22 should not be taken “literally.” They cannot explain why a strange text from the Pauline corpus about some sort of orgiastic behavior is a clear condemnation of same-sex relationships (Rom 1:25-26), but Jesus’ clear condemnation of divorce (Mark 10:1-12; Matt 19:1-9) no longer has the same authority. They cannot tell me why they think 2 commandments (Lev 18:22 & 20:13) from among the 613 commandments in Torah are still binding, while they eat their bacon (Lev 11:7-9) cheeseburgers (Exod 23:19) with abandon and ignore the clear commandment that sassy children should be stoned (Deut 21:18-21). They must intentionally ignore the use of “Sodom & Gomorrah” by Jesus (Matt 10:14-5; Luke 10:10-12), or they would have to acknowledge that even he understood that it was a teaching story against inhospitality not homosexuality. Why do they want to argue that the age of the earth must match the internal (and inconsistent) chronology of the bible, but they do not want their doctors to treat them with only the “medical” knowledge and advancements available in the 2nd century CE?

Why, one might ask, are these people unable to answer my basic question, to provide a consistent hermeneutic1 by which they interpret and apply biblical texts? For many, the answer is simple. They do not want to admit that they only take “literally” those texts that do not step on their own toes or negatively impact their desired lifestyle. I hope they would still agree that the biblical endorsement of slavery (Lev 25:44-46; Eph 6:5- 9; Phil) is no longer justifiable, and surely we are not stoning adulterers (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22), otherwise D.C. and Hollywood would be a great deal less crowded. Perhaps their congregations would be as well.

In an effort to be candid, I will share my hermeneutic for reading biblical texts. As a follower of the way of Jesus, I value and recognize the two “greatest commandments” that at least 2 gospels (Matt 22:36-40 & Mark 12:28-34) attribute to Jesus: “Love God with all you are(Deut 6:5) & “Love your neighbor as yourself(Lev 19:18). Every text in the bible must be evaluated with these questions: does it teach me to love God with all that I am and does it teach me to love my neighbor as myself. If the answer is “no,” then I must delve deeply in research to seek an answer as to why this text might be in the bible. If the answer is “yes,” then I must also delve deeply into the exegesis of the passage, so that I do not just bend it to approve of what I do and what I value.

In addition to a consistent hermeneutic, I also weigh biblical texts in light of logic, scientific knowledge, and contemporary contexts. Do I believe that evil spirits cause human diseases? No, so I do not go to an exorcist or priest when I have a headache, fever, or other signs of illness. I would say that the same is true for many of the well- meaning folks I have been describing. So, I wonder why, if they are thoughtful people on other topics, they do not apply the same level of thought to the issue of same-sex relationships? I would welcome that conversation, that honesty, but I’m still waiting for someone to offer that opportunity.

_______________

1 “Hermeneutic” refers to the interpretative framework that one uses in interpreting and determining the applicability of biblical texts. In biblical studies, we seek to have a consistent hermeneutic, meaning we evaluate all biblical texts through this framework. 

Dave Ramsey's The Legacy Journey

By Rev. Loren Richmond

Dave Ramsey begins the book retelling his own riches-to rags-to riches again tale; how he earned his first million, blew it all frivolously, and then pulled himself out of debt by working 80 hour work-weeks.  But this book is about more than financial advice; it is about divinely sanctioning wealth.  So confident is Ramsey about God’s divine approval of his wealth that he recounts the certainty that “God smiled” (3) when he wrote the check to buy himself a Jaguar with his new found riches. Chapter two is titled, “The War on Success.” The Legacy Journey: A Radical View of Biblical Wealth and Generosity is first and foremost a defender of wealth.  Published in 2014 it seems almost certain this book is in response to the critique he faced a year ago.  

Rachel Held Evans accused Ramsey of promoting a “prosperity gospel,” basically that if one is in right relationship with God, one’s bank account will flourish.  This book only seems to continue that trend.  In the first chapter Ramsey confidently asserts, “If you do the things I teach from God’s Word… then over time you will become wealthy…you will become at some point one of those ‘rich people’” (5).  A couple pages over he declares that handling money God’s way “you end up wealthy” (7).  If this isn’t prosperity gospel, what is?

Not only is Ramsey certain all good Christians are meant to be rich, anyone asserting otherwise is a “toxic ‘Christian’ voice” (yes he put the quotation marks around “Christian”)(13).  According to Ramsey, this idea that Christians are meant to live in a “spirit of poverty” is a reincarnation of the Gnostic influence of early Christianity (26).  Apparently the countless monks and nuns throughout the centuries that took a vow of poverty had it wrong.  Apparently the millions of Christians in developing nations in Africa and South America are not following God or else they would be flat out loaded.  

Conveniently, while Ramsey has no problem telling his readers what they should and should not buy, “I can tell you with 100 percent certainly that anything you buy with debt—is not a blessing” (69), he’s far less willing to let his own financial dealings be held to a similar scrutiny.  The money God has given Ramsey is his to manage and apparently God only trusts Ramsey to manage that money (186) and the amount a (rich) person has is solely between them and God (77).   One can only wonder, if it really is “God’s money,” why is Ramsey so concerned with keeping and protecting it? 

And if Ramsey’s assessment of spirituality is scary—his exegetical skills are even worse.  Despite openly admitting he’s “not a biblical scholar” (51), Ramsey has no problem interpreting the passages of scripture critics point out such as Luke 18:27 and Matthew 25:14-30.  Failing to cite a single biblical commentator (six of the sixteen citations in the book are to his own books); Ramsey asserts that the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18 isn’t about money at all but instead grace (46).  Continuing on into Luke 19 and the story of Zacchaeus, Ramsey somehow conveniently stops reading when Zacchaeus promises to give half of his money to the poor and repay anyone he had defrauded four-fold.  The Bible tells that it was only AFTER this promise that Jesus said salvation had some to Zacchaeus’ household.  But of course neither story has anything to do with money.

The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 is perhaps the preeminent text of Ramsey and his ilk.  This story, according to Ramsey, is the biblical justification for wealth acquisition and why equality isn’t biblical.  Yet Ramsey’s interpretive shortcomings are apparent to anyone paying attention to the context.  Jesus had just come from the temple when he began this long diatribe.  He tells three parables, the parable of the Ten Virgins, the parable of the Talents, and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  Ramsey would surely admit Jesus isn’t literally talking about ten virgins, or literally talking about sheep and goats.  So why does Ramsey think Jesus is literally talking about money (a hyperbolic amount of money at that?).  Because it justifies Ramsey’s entire system. 

Amazingly enough, Ramsey fails to see himself in the parable of the rich man who builds bigger barns in Luke 12.  Referencing the story himself (169), Ramsey asserts the only problem of the rich man was his worship of wealth. Yet despite the rich man being called a “fool” in the Bible for preparing  to “eat, drink, and be merry,” Ramey says it’s okay to live it up and enjoy one’s wealth (53).  For all his talk of contentment, it’s hard not to think Ramsey is just as guilty as the rich man of worshipping wealth—nearly the entire second half of this book is dedicated to maintaining and preserving one’s wealth.

What seems most perplexing amongst his many inconsistencies and flat-out hypocrisy is his assertion that one should be “careful not to let politics set you up to misinterpret scripture” (52).  Surely Ramsey is the impartial interpreter!  So certainly it couldn’t be Ramsey’s politics influencing his idea that those critiquing him are “envious” (71) and should “mind your own business” (73).  No, Ramsey clearly keeps his politics and religion separate.  That’s why he says, no one wastes money like the government and that he “doesn’t need the government to redistribute the money” God asked him to manage (156).  If there was any doubt about where Ramsey’s true allegiance lies he reveals such when he states that “we do not all bring the same level of economic service to the marketplace.  Service to the marketplace generates wealth, not your inherent value as a human” (43).  That’s right, free-market capitalism determines a person’s worth, not God.  It seems pretty obvious that Ramsey’s god is actually free market capitalism.

In the end, Dave Ramsey’s The Legacy Journey is an unabashed defense of wealth and the 1%. It is an attempt to divinely sanction a global economic system which has enriched a small fraction of people like himself while exploiting millions (probably billions) of people.  It promotes an individualistic spirituality that is neither historically Christian nor in any sense biblical. It simply ridicules the poor and financially insecure for not being rich and privileged.  The Legacy Journey, and the teaching of Dave Ramsey it promotes, is neither Christian nor biblical—but rather worldly, selfish, and uncaring. 


Loren is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) an is serving in a United Church of Christ church.  He is a 2013 graduate of Phillips Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity. He can be found online at  therelentlesstheologian.blogspot.com, with sermons in text form at Hendersonchurch.org.

A Letter to Someone I Love: Responding to Questions about Why I Believe What I Believe Concerning My LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

Dear _____, I appreciate the tone of your note, since I often get correspondence that appears much angrier. Let me see if I can address your concerns, if not in a persuasive—then perhaps in a clear manner.

a. You take issue with your opposition to LGBTQ inclusion being labeled “hate,” since you consider yourself to be a loving Christian, someone merely attempting to follow scripture faithfully. Some people may genuinely hate, but you don’t consider yourself to be one of them. You’re also worried that when some people use the word “love” they are twisting it out of shape, making it merely a synonym for "permissiveness."

I hear you. With respect to the whole “hate” thing: If you don’t hate gay people—as I believe many people do not—it can’t help but be disconcerting to find yourself lumped in as an antagonist with people you don’t even recognize. That’s one reason I don’t use that kind of language. I think it’s possible to disagree on this issue in good faith without hate.

However, the people I work with have been systematically told by folks in the church that they are fundamentally flawed human beings—flawed in an especially appalling way that other people are not. I spoke with a teenager recently who’s family believed they were “loving the sinner, while hating the sin,” when the treatment they sent him to used shock therapy, beatings, and threats to make him “normal.”

Now, you might say that this is surely outrageous behavior that you would never condone, and that it must represent, if true, the exception. I’m not going to lay down any statistics, but I hear horror stories all the time about people (usually Christians) who’ve threatened, verbally and physically abused, ignored, or disowned their friends and family because of sexual orientation.

I also realize that “love” can be a very pliable word, one that is often much tougher than popular culture gives it credit for. Love is not just magnanimous feelings toward another. So while there are, I believe, “good actors” among those who disagree, it might be easier, after hearing as many stories as I’ve heard, to see how being at the sharp end of the stick your whole life one might get “tough love” and “hate” confused, thus tarring everyone with the same brush (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

b. You have some questions about the material contained in Hebrew Scriptures.  Genesis seems to ground the parameters of human sexuality between “one man and one woman” (2:24). Additionally, Mosaic law sets up what appear to be acceptable boundaries to sexuality. Why is it now permissible to discount those boundaries?

As far as biblical arguments go, I think this ultimately is a discussion about authority. Here is the question for some folks: “Is the bible intended to be a timeless and universal blueprint for human behavior, social, political, and economic organization?” We might need to be more explicit about our definitions of words like “blueprint” or “political,” but having said that, I think it’s a defensible characterization of one method of reading scripture.

Another way of reading scripture is to ask the question: “Is the bible intended to lay out the story of God’s interaction with God’s people in an inductive fashion—leaving God’s people to determine how God is moving at different places and times, not by uncritically following rules set down for people thousands of years and thousands of miles removed?” Again, some words might need to be defined, but I think this is also a defensible characterization of another method of reading scripture.

The larger problem—that is to say, why conservatives and liberals often talk past one another—is that these two interpretive strategies are, for the most part, incommensurate. It’s almost impossible to believe both at the same time (e.g., I can believe George is a human or I can believe George is a wildebeest; but I can’t believe both at the same time). Which incommensurability leads me to the more particular problem you and I face: I suspect you feel more comfortable with the former strategy for reading scripture, while I feel at home in the latter.

Consequently, I fear our discussion is bound to get bogged down fairly quickly. Take Genesis, for example. I don’t read the creation story as an attempt to lay out a set of immutable guidelines for human life for all time. Instead I see it as an attempt by exiles in Babylon to try to explain the apparently chaotic world in which they found themselves: why there is evil in the world, to help give justification for how it was that their relationship to creation and the kind of social arrangements they enjoyed had come about, and how it was that God was in the midst of it all.

Now, I expect that you’ll find that to be an unsatisfying reading of the first few chapters of Genesis, a feat taking an amazingly dextrous hermeneutic—just as I find a reading of Genesis through the former lens unpersuasive.

The Mosaic Law, to take another example, is also (at least in the hands of modern Americans) a fairly pliable concept itself. It gets pretty well picked over in terms of which laws are time bound and which are timeless—another case in which hermeneutical gymnastics must be employed (but this time by those who hold parts of the Mosaic Law to be binding, while other parts are disposable—e.g., Leviticus 18:19 or 19:33–4 or 20:10, to name just few).

I read the Mosaic Law as in no part literally binding in all times and all places as such, but as instructive of the kind of just community God was trying to create among bedouins in the desert. Had it been dockworkers in Jersey, I suspect the laws would have looked entirely different. The issue is not the laws themselves, but the kind of worshiping community those laws were intended to create.

The point I am trying to make is that I read the Mosaic Law not as a potential source of legislative detail per se, but as a principled (and in this case, general) guide to the way God wants humans to arrange themselves in communities so that God can be rightly worshiped, so that people will have enough to eat, and so that no one jeopardizes the integrity of the community through transgression or misuse of power.

c. You also want to follow up on what Paul has to say about the issue.  Even if one says that the issues in Genesis and Leviticus are discountable as “Old Testament,” what does one do with Paul who seems to have a very decided understanding about human sexuality as precluding homosexual behavior?

In terms of Paul and his relationship to the Roman world, I think we’re going to run into the same difficulties. I take Paul to be expressing outrage at a particular kind of activity in Roman society that had to do with idol worship and men who mentored boys, the payment for which was the obligation of sex—arrangements for which no one I know is arguing.

However, even if you take idol worship and pederasty not to be the target of Paul’s comments, one thing is clear—whatever Paul is addressing, it’s certainly not the kind of mutual, committed, and persistent relationship entered into by two people capable of giving and withholding their consent. He could not mean what we mean, because there was no such convention even conceptually possible until recently. Paul couldn’t hold forth on nuclear weapons or the adverse effects of Nintendo either, because, well … why would he?

Here, you might say, “Yes, but Nintendo and human sexuality aren’t moral equivalents.”

I agree. Where we differ, however, is in the belief that in this instance Paul is talking about human sexuality. I happen to think he’s got his eye on a problem of the way power is exercised in a relationship where people do not have equal standing—that is, between temple prostitutes and those who pay them, or between men and boys. In other words, I think Paul’s reference to sex acts in Romans 1:24–25, for example, is about human sexuality in the same way rape is about human sexuality, which is to say, it’s not. The context in this passage is ritual prostitution at pagan temples. The tip off that this is about idol worship and not about two people who love each other and who are prepared to commit to one another for life is the reference in verses 22–23—which immediately precedes 1:24–25—to the practice of worshiping and serving “the creature rather than the creator.”

The long and the short of it is that what Paul meant by the word translated in some English translations as “homosexual” is not what people who hold the positions I do mean by the word “homosexual.” In fact, I’m reluctant to use the word “homosexual,” since it focuses on the “sexual” part of the issue, which for LGBT people is only one portion of the lives they envision together. Moreover, it is possible to read Paul as speaking not to sexuality per se, but to sexuality-as-it-exists-under-Roman-occupation-with-pagan-temples-as-a-backdrop.

But when Paul does talk explicitly about sexuality, he does so with a particular set of societal expectations in mind about the function sex fulfilled in stabilizing the Empire. Sexual immorality in the otherwise “family values” oriented culture of Rome was seen as subversive, and therefore, potentially corrosive—a charge that Christians by the time Paul shows up on the scene as an apostolic force (who were already viewed as troublemakers, and potentially as revolutionaries) were most anxious to avoid.

Regardless, though, if you are inclined to see Paul speaking for all places and all times, the argument I just set down won’t be convincing. It cannot but appear to be only a capitulation to a certain set of political commitments that appear antecedently to the interpretive act. That is to say, if you don’t already agree with me, what I just said will only look like liberal weasel words. However, if one believes that that’s all I’m doing, then it’s important to be clear once again how one goes through Paul’s letters and determines which parts are meant only for people in that specific time and place, and which parts are for all people in all times and places. What, for example, does one do with 1 Corinthians 8 (a chapter devoted to food sacrificed to idols) or 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings)? If we’re meant only to read those now as analogs or placeholders for modern problems, how does one arrive at that conclusion about these things, while at the same time holding that other parts of the same document are universally binding?

d. You express some confusion as to why monogamy is the place progressive Christians want to hang their hat when it comes to same gendered relationships. If you allow same gendered relationships, aren’t you opening the door to such practices as polygamy and bestiality? Where are the boundaries?

As to your question about monogamy, I’m not sure why polygamy and bestiality are the logical extension of this argument. I understand that you mean to suggest that same gendered marriage is a step down a slippery slope, the bottom of which holds these practices we all should want to avoid. However, without being misunderstood to be arguing for them, let me first point out that polygamy was apparently a perfectly acceptable arrangement for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for an unusually long period of time—a problem for those who would argue some version of traditional marriage being rooted in creation and persisting until now in an unbroken conceptual line.

[Moreover, though we don’t any longer sanction coterminous polygamy, because of the high rate of divorce—which cuts across all theological lines—it’s hard to argue that we’re not already practicing serial polygamy.]

But setting aside the issue of what appears to have been the temporary biblical sanction of polygamy, the assertion that allowing for committed relationships between people of the same gender takes away an important hedge against more objectionable practices like polygamy and bestiality (you might also add incest and child molestation, to complete the poker equivalent of an unbeatable hand) runs into problems.

For one thing, the kind of same gendered relationship I am describing meets the demands of just relationships (which I take to be at the heart of the vision of the reign of God, and therefore a hermeneutical key) because it requires a kind of mutuality available only to two people in a position to give and withdraw their consent. Mutuality and an equitable distribution of power isn’t a component of the other sexual relationships you name. So, to compare same gendered relationships with these other things is to make a comparison between things that differ not in degree but in kind.

For another thing, nobody I know of is arguing for those things.

Here you might say: “Ah, not yet. But that’s exactly my point. If you allow same gender relationships, you will have taken down an important barrier to someone advocating for just these sorts of practices.”

But the fact that nobody is advocating for these things is my point. The slippery slope argument suggests that there is a set of causal relationships between two actions, such that if you do one thing, you will eventually find yourself doing the other. What this fails to account for, however, is that there are gradations of difference (steps, if you will) between the two acts—none of which must necessarily lead to the next. Just because you pierce your ear, that doesn’t mean that next thing you know you’ll wake up with ear spacers and a host of pierced body parts.

The objection to that might be: “But once you open the door to piercing, what’s to stop you from continuing to get pierced, until you end up ineligible for airport security? The point is: you could now if you wanted to.”

My response to that objection is: “Yes, but I don’t want to. If your real worry is ear spacers and excessive body piercing, then you should concentrate your efforts on outlawing those things, and not in trying to set up hedges back up the line.”

I’m not sure where the confusion about those who are for same gendered monogamy lies, unless the love between same gendered people is reduced purely to the sex act—a move I’m not clear why anyone would make, since we don’t even do that with Brittany Spears or the Kardashians. LGBT people who want to get married want pretty much the same things everyone else wants—love, companionship, joy, somebody to clean your Depends when you’re too weak to do it for yourself. They want to raise families, celebrate old-fashioned Christmases, go to their kids’ t-ball games, and grow old together.

And a bunch of them want to go back to church. As odd as that might seem, many of them still want to see the face of God in the very the place that has told them (and nobody else, it should be noted) that their faces are not welcome—in many cases, not even human.

But they also want not to be bullied, fired, turned out of their apartments, or made to leave restaurants just because they happened to love someone with the same anatomical make up. They don’t want to be told over and over again that the way they were born is aberrant, or ill-formed, or mentally ill, or reprobate in ways different from everybody else.

You see the problem, though. These arguments aren’t compelling on their own. What makes them compelling is when you come to know and love people who are otherwise no different from you.

Disclaimer: This part is going to come off a little strong. And I’m not speaking directly to you, since I think you’re a wonderful and genuinely loving human being, and since I don’t know whether you have gay or lesbian friends—and by friends, I mean, people you hang around with, go to the pool or play basketball with … that is, people you love.

This is the problem I have with the generalization of the “love the sinner and hate the sin” argument abstracted from real life: It’s an easy argument to make from afar. It’s easy to talk about loving someone in a notional sense, while still saying things that harm and belittle them—because you never have to sit across the table from them and explain why what you said (or didn’t say) isn’t really hateful, but loving and “for their own good.”

I would be much more inclined to take an interest in what the average person who “loves the sinner and hates the sin” said if that person were taking opportunities to spend time actually loving the sinner—in the here and now, after picking up the groceries, and putting the kids to bed. If the only love we ever show another is telling them why they’re wrong, we have misunderstood love. (I heartily believe telling someone they’re wrong can be the most loving thing to do. But if that’s the only time they hear from us, we’ve seriously “underserved the population.”)

Coincidentally, the reason I think younger generations are increasingly convinced the LGBT thing as an issue is so uninteresting is because they know and love LGBT people, all kinds of them—people they go to school with, people who are parents of their friends, people who’ve come out to their families, people who don’t stand for the collapse of society, but who just seem normal and everyday to them. Young people don’t see these folks as threats, but merely as people struggling to get through life with a bit of love and a shred of dignity still intact.

I suppose that’s enough for now. I hope that, while perhaps not entirely persuasive, that gives you a sense of not only where we differ but why.

I must say, I really do appreciate you taking the time to ask these important questions. I hope my writing voice doesn’t come off to you as an entirely self-satisfied smartass. I don’t mean it that way to you—it’s kind of a force of rhetorical habit. I really do respect what you believe about this stuff—which is, as you know, pretty much the stuff I grew up believing too.

However, I really don’t want our differences on this issue to jeopardize our relationship, and from my standpoint, they need not.

At any rate, I love you and I look forward to continuing our conversation.

I love you.

Derek

Obama's Announcement and What It Means for "Liberal" Christians

This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.

.

But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

~Pres. Barack Obama

That President Obama’s announcement of his support of marriage equality for LGBTQI people was met with consternation by many in popular Christianity shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. That his “brand” of Christianity fails to be persuasive to a portion of the Christian world should surprise no one either. It is common to dismiss anyone who supports hospitality to those created LGBTQI by God as deluded (at best) and evil (at worst).

What I continue to find troubling, though, is the extent to which people who oppose marriage equality maintain that any support of it by those who call themselves Christian is some kind of hermeneutical dodge. The working assumption seems to be that if you fail to employ some form of traditionally conservative interpretive schema, you can’t reasonably expect to call yourself Christian. Because everybody knows that “liberals” don’t actually believe anything important about God or the Bible or following Jesus; they’re just trying to baptize their godless agenda and impose it upon the unsuspecting majority of real Christians.1 What many people apparently find too difficult to fathom, however, is that some people—among whom I take President Obama to be one—hold these “liberal” positions not in spite of but because of their commitment to following Jesus.

On a “liberal” reading of scripture, “loving one’s neighbor” isn’t a frothy placeholder for moral action nobody cares much more about than to feel it deeply in the heart; it is the very thing of which moral action is an embodiment. Put more simply, to progressive Christians “love” isn’t so much something you “feel” about God or another person, but a way of life that seeks to demonstrate its own authenticity by seeking justice and peace for those kicked to the margins by the powerful—which is to say, by seeking to love those whom God loves, but for whom love in this world is often illusory.

The greater (and more damning) criticism of “liberal” Christians is not that they don’t believe the Bible, but that they don’t live up to their claims about “justice” and “peace.” This is a real danger in progressive Christianity. Talking about justice and peace, without actually going to the trouble to see it realized rightfully leads to charges of hypocrisy—that is, failing to walk the walk.

In President Obama’s case, however, the criticism has for some time been reversed: His words about justice and peace for LGBTQI people weren’t matched by his deeds (e.g., refusing to uphold DOMA, doing away with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc.). His failure, according to his critics, was in not being willing to “talk the talk.” In other words, people from both ends of the spectrum were inveighing against him for failing to say in words what he was already doing in practice—a perhaps rarer, but no less damning criticism.

Since I don’t hear the you’ve-also-got-to-talk-the-talk line of argument very often, it got me to thinking about denominational officials, who privately will offer reassurances that they are in support of affirming the full inclusion of LGBTQI folk in the life of the church, but who publicly find it difficult to articulate that support. I understand why taking a stand publicly in support of a controversial issue presents all manner of political land mines, and it makes a certain amount of sense when politicians hesitate to do it. Even religious officials must weigh the political costs of taking, what we religious types call, a “prophetic stance.” But whereas in the case of our political leaders (to our shame, I would argue) we tend to expect political calculations to trump the integrity of personal convictions, one would hope that we haven’t yet reached that level of cynicism about our religious leaders.

Is it to be the case once again that the church can’t quite get its theology straight until the culture shows it the way? Because, let’s not fool ourselves, inclusion is the way things are inexorably headed.

The upshot of it all? If David Kinnaman is right, as Rachel Held Evans deftly points out, what our continued silence risks is the better part of a whole generation coming to the conclusion that they can find better ways to spend their time because they believe the church and its leadership to be “anti-homosexual”. And while I realize that speaking openly about support for our LGBTQI brothers and sisters carries its own risks, I think—like President Obama, it would appear—that silence is a risk no longer worth taking the.


  1. I know that description may sound like an exaggeration of a seriously held position, dear reader, but in my own defense, you haven’t read the kind of correspondence I receive. I do know that there are serious people who disagree with me about the issue of biblical interpretation, but they don’t seem to have maintained good relations with the gatekeepers of the interwebz—since their voices are routinely drowned out by that seemingly professional class of the perpetually aggrieved. ↩

Being the Poem: Liberal Christianity as Subversion

This article originally appeared on the wonderful blog, The Seedbed.  Many thanks to Sarah Morrice-Brubaker and the great group of bloggers there.

“It is a tenet of liberal Enlightenment faith that belief and knowledge are distinct and separable and that even if you do not embrace a point of view, you can still understand it. This is the credo Satan announces in Paradise Regained when he says, ‘most men admire / Virtue who follow not her lore” (I, 482-483). That is, it is always possible to appreciate a way of life that is not yours. Milton would respond that unless the way of life is yours, you have no understanding of it; and that is why, he declares in another place, that a man who would write a true poem must himself be a true poem and can only praise or even recognize worthy things if he is himself worthy.” (Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle, 247).

Over the last 10 days, I’ve had occasion to be congratulated and insulted (usually with a lot of capital letters), since Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, where I am senior minister,voted to support marriage equality by refraining from signing marriage licenses until LGBTQ people are extended the same rights.  It is surreal to watch people who’ve never met you argue about what kind of person you are. Some people are certain that I wear my hair long to cover up devil’s horns. Others have suggested that our stand at DBCC must signal some latent truth about my own sexuality. While, still others are convinced that I recline only on beds of freshly picked spring flowers, tended to by angels still in their probationary period. But, for the most part, it’s difficult to take any of it too seriously. They don’t really know much about me apart from a few news reports.

There is one criticism, though, that I find difficult to look past. It goes something like this:

The bible clearly says that homosexuality is wrong, and if you say it’s not, then you must not believe the bible.  In fact, you’re only doing what you’re doing because you’re a liberal boot-licker.  Any good Christian can see that you only care about a left-leaning social agenda, not about obeying Jesus.  You should just drop the pretense, and quit calling yourself a Christian.

Underlying this allegation is an assumption that I think liberal Christians need to challenge—vigorously and often. Sentiments like this, it seems to me, center on the conviction that what is most important about following Jesus is believing all the right things about him (e.g., the correct human/divine ratio, the substitutionary nature of the work he accomplished on the cross, the precise blend of personal ethical maxims, capitalist free-market economics, and national pride, etc.). If you happen to raise questions about any of those, or, more actively, to offer disagreement, you will have ventured into some form of vicious heterodoxy unknown since the days of Torquemada. That is to say, that well-known 1960s Christo-hippie chorus has been transformed at the hands of some Christians, so that now it proclaims that “they will know we are Christians by our appropriately worded bumper stickers.” This presumption of the necessity of verbalizing correct belief is what constitutes Christianity for some folks. If you know the right answer, you should be fine. On this account, the church’s job primarily revolves around disseminating correct information, while enthusiastically seeking to overwhelm those whom it perceives to be its opponents.

The claim that I think liberal Christians ought to defend more scrupulously, however, is that the actions they take, the positions they stake out are not merely self-conscious attempts to avoid taking scripture seriously.  Quite to the contrary, in fact.  The liberal Christians I know seek justice for the poor, the marginalized, the powerless precisely because they believe that in so doing they are being faithful to the witness of scripture.  That liberal Christians don't view the bible as some sort of casuistic step-by-step guidebook to discerning, for instance, whether God opposes any Rock 'n Roll not preceded by the qualifier "Christian"  doesn't mean that they don't value scripture as authoritative, any more than saying that conservative Christians who read the Sermon on the Mount and come away from the experience believing that "Jesus would have been cool with thermonuclear weapons" means that they don't value Jesus as authoritative.  It really comes down to the interpretative strategies one employs--an issue I won't try to solve here.  My point is that though liberal Christians read the bible with a different set of assumptions about the kind of truth the bible is capable of producing, it does not follow that they are not committed to the bible--or, less generously, that they are not even Christians--just because they don't share the same set of assumptions as conservative Christians.

I am aware that my description of the value placed on scripture by liberal Christians will be heard by conservative Christians as rationalization, as merely a justification for making the scriptures say whatever liberal Christians want them to say.  And that, I think, is the problem.  It is this primary posture of suspicion that forecloses conversation.  To say that liberal Christians have some ulterior motive in interpreting scripture (while conservative Christians "just read the clear truth of what's there"), is to begin from the premise that liberal Christians are either the overeager but unwitting dupes of 19th century German theologians or 20th century French philosophers, or that they are evil dissemblers disguising themselves as Christians for the purpose of . . . what?  I'm not sure.  On this reading, liberal Christians are being led around by the nose at the hands of their cigarette-smoking post-structuralist overlords, or they are the mendacious toadies of the coming one-world government.  (Let me be quick to point out that liberals can shut off conversation with the same kind of dismissiveness--namely, conservatives as handmaidens of a discredited form of overconfident Enlightenment rationalism, or as rubes and hicks who learn theology at the feet of preachers who've spent too much time in front blow-dryers.)  I think liberal Christians ought not to cede the hermeneutical high-ground.

It's not that liberal Christians are trying to figure out the most diabolical ways to dismantle "old-fashioned Christianity"; instead, the liberal Christians I know love Jesus so much they can't imagine living in a world organized and structured in ways that would grieve him by doing harm to those whom he loves.  Liberal Christians, in other words, aren't just trying to speak the poem correctly; they are, as Milton said, trying to be the poem.  Because as Christians we believe that scripture isn't something first to be understood, and then lived.  It first to be lived, with the hope that understanding will meet us somewhere along the way.

That the way liberal Christians go about honoring Jesus' compassion and concern for justice for those on the outside subverts some conservative ways of reading scripture shouldn't surprise us.  Jesus was always stomping about in someone else's petunias, always dismantling traditional expectations of who's in power, and who ought to go to the back of the line.  He was all about breaking down the walls everyone had always thought were insuperable.  I'm not sure what they call it now, but in liberal Christianity we call it Easter.  And Easter's as subversive as it gets.