It's just a picture. I saw it on Time's webpage in this series of photographs. But it evokes both Christ's call, and our attempts to follow Him, straight into the heart of the world's brokenness. Most Christianity is safe Christianity which is no Christianity. I can only speak for myself, but I can learn a lot from a picture.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
‘Love the Homosexual, Hate Homosexuality’? – Uncomfortable Thoughts on Nathan Frank’s Slate.com Article ‘Should You Respect Gay People If You Find Homosexuality Immoral?’
|Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican|
Nathan Frank has written a provocative piece that was published in Monday’s online Slate.com magazine entitled ‘Should You Respect Gay People If You Find Homosexuality Immoral?’ Frank takes aim at the many Christians who consider homosexuality to be an ‘abomination’ and yet claim to love individual gay people, otherwise known as the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ position. Frank skewers Roman Catholic (seeming) doublespeak in particular, where the current pope can say ‘Who am I to judge?’ of Roman Catholic priests who are also gay, while at the same time official Roman Catholic doctrine views homosexuals as ‘intrinsically disordered.’
Frank acknowledges that the cultural zeitgeist tends to suspend all moral judgment whatsoever (unless, of course, someone is ‘hurt’), and that from the standpoint of contemporary mores passing judgment on someone else, particularly someone’s sexual morality, is so 1950s. But, he argues, this is not what today’s social conservatives are doing. Accusing them of ‘having their cake and eating it, too,’ Frank argues that these conservative and (for the most part) Christian politicians, leaders and commentators are being completely two-faced on the issue, showing a smiling, accepting face towards homosexual people on the one hand while showing a morally judgmental face towards homosexual behavior when among their own constituency. Frank asks this question of those who think they can oppose homosexuality without hating homosexuals: ‘Why should you respect someone who’s constantly doing something you think is just plain wrong, something you may despise as intrinsically evil? Why on earth wouldn’t you judge people who routinely engage in activity you deem “intrinsically disordered,” sinful, or immoral?’
The rest of Frank’s article is worth reading, as he articulates the anti-social-conservative-Christian perspective more clearly than most I’ve seen who write on this topic. Given the amount of hostile and sometimes inchoate gay rhetoric towards mainstream conservative American Christianity, it is helpful to find someone who articulates a moral complaint against what has for so long been the position of the American Christian majority on the issue. And what he gets right, and what should make all of us who profess Christian faith very uncomfortable, is our complete and utter hypocrisy when it comes to the current attempts by many to accommodate a social acceptance of the homosexual with a moral condemnation of his or her practices. In doing so, Frank also unwittingly highlights our illogical and unbiblical stand towards sin and sinners in general, something I would like to pursue a little more deeply here.
It turns out that we Christians have a fundamentally disordered understanding of ‘sin,’ much more cultural than biblical, which propels us to a necessary condemnation of people as ‘sinners,’ demanding a consequential reckoning and punishment, if not now, certainly in the hereafter, if God be just. The root of this is a cultural, historical and theological bias towards a legal understanding of the problem faced by fallen human beings and of the saving solution provided by God in the New Testament.
This legal orientation of our theology of salvation is our inheritance as Western Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant (although Eastern Christians are in no way immune to such a legal orientation). We Westerners take our cue from Augustine’s brilliant and flawed exposition of Christian faith. Subsequent generations of Western Christians came to see that our (humanity’s) problem is that we have broken God’s laws and deserve the punishment such law-breaking demands. The ‘Gospel’ is that Jesus takes the punishment we deserve upon himself and sets us free from our just sentence by forgiving us of our sins and releasing us from the legal consequences. All subsequent attempts to communicate the ‘Gospel’ involve attempts to help ‘sinners’ understand that they have broken God’s law and stand under God’s condemnation.
|Sinner in the Dock. From an artist's rendering of a defendant in a UK trial in May 2012.|
In our zeal to ‘hold the fort’ against the perceived moral decay of our so-called ‘Christian’ country, many Christians have been zealous in their condemnation of what to them is the obvious immorality of our contemporary society. Thundering against moral laxity in general, homosexuality was a very easy target because it was seen as an aggregate sin, one that, on some readings of Romans 1, marked just how far one could get from God’s best, normally identified as heterosexual marriage and the right-with-God-and-the-world blessings that resulted. Fear of homosexuality (and thus of homosexuals) was a natural byproduct of Western Christianity’s ambiguous at best attitude towards sex in general and complete discomfort over practices considered not ‘normal,’ however ‘normal’ was defined. The level of discomfort with sexuality and sexual practices can be seen by the number of prohibitions issued against such things. Given that sex became the object of such negative attention from Christian authorities, the impression was given that sexual misconduct, variously defined, was about the worst thing one could do; maybe not as bad as murder, but not far behind. And given that homosexuality was often presented as the worst of a bad bunch of sexual sins, the resulting cultural aversion towards homosexuality and homosexuals among Christians is at least understandable.
Generations of American Christians thus lived with the false sense of security that, having avoided what was presented in countless sermons and books as the moral sewer, they were living a God-pleasing life. The resulting hypocrisy, seen most clearly where the utterly materialistic ‘American way’ is equated as God’s way (and on display most profanely as the so-called ‘health and prosperity gospel’), has left vast swaths of American Christianity devoid of any moral authority whatsoever in the contemporary culture. And though any number of smaller hypocrisies, such as a broken marriage rate that mirrors the wider secular culture, the petty power plays that deface relationships between Christians with positions of responsibility or authority, the inability of Christians to forgive each other despite the loud claims that they have been forgiven by Christ, as well as mega-‘churches’ that serve mostly as platforms for raising vast amount of money to pay for ever-expanding facilities that serve as testimonies of just how much God is blessing them, as well as for the self-aggrandizement of the leader and his/her media brand. We are seen by those who are not Christians or who, disgusted, have left the church, as being just as self-consumed as the rest of our society, but with a sickening veneer of pseudo-spirituality applied to assuage our consciences.
We conservative Christians can get away with this because our ‘Gospel’ says that all we need to do is ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.’ ‘I believe,’ I say, and so therefore I must be saved! Our own morality is no longer relevant, and those with tender consciences about the gap between their behavior and their Christian profession are discouraged from going there lest they become guilty of attempting to further their salvation ‘by works.’ In the meantime, we need new victims for our spiritual ponzi scheme, and so we continue to preach against ‘sin’ and have ‘altar calls’ so that poor convicted ‘sinners’ can come forward, acknowledge that they are God-forsaken reprobates, accept Jesus as the only way to be find forgiveness and thus be ‘saved’. Why this dysfunctional parody of New Testament Christianity is allowed to continue I have no idea. But it certainly has painted Evangelical Christians in particular into a rather ugly corner.
As we have seen, the core of this dysfunctional Christianity is a long-standing misunderstanding of Christianity’s relationship with the law. We Christians think we are supposed to ‘keep God’s law.’ This is why, in many of our churches, as well as in many of our public buildings (or at least until the US courts began ordering their removal), there was posted the ‘Ten Commandments.’ The ‘Ten Commandments’ were/are supposedly the bedrock of Christian morality, and we are under an obligation to keep them. The two great problems with this are that, first, despite such hue and cry, no Christians have ever kept the Ten Commandments because no Christian keeps the 7th commandment with regards to the Sabbath. Even so-called ‘Sabbatarian’ Christians modify the commandment to suit their circumstances. Secondly, these commandments were not given to Christians for us to keep, they were given to the people of Israel as the heart of their Covenant with God at Mount Sinai. It is a covenant that even the Jews themselves could never keep, resulting in them receiving not the blessings promised for keeping the covenant, but rather the terrible curses for breaking it.
Christians are not required to keep Old Testament law, not because some of the laws are obsolete, but rather the whole body of OT law is part of the Sinai covenant between God and Israel. The New Testament bears witness to a New Covenant between God and all people, Israel included along with all the Gentiles (that would be us). The ‘law’ we Christians are commanded to follow by Jesus is the law of love: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength and with all your soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the essence of Christianity – a life characterized by self-sacrificial love. At some point, someone threw a switch and the train left the track that’s described by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, and we’ve rolled on for a very long time in another direction until we’ve arrived at where we are today, a version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to what Jesus and the Apostles were talking about that first century.
The subsequent legal orientation of Christianity begins to explain all sorts of total aberrations, like ‘Christendom’, of the Byzantine empire, or the Crusades, of the idea of ‘Christian’ kingdoms or nations, not to mention the vast amount of legal pronouncements that flow from Rome or from the headquarters of any Christian denomination or parachurch organization. Or to put it another way, Christians have too often not been satisfied with just ‘the Gospel’. When Christians have achieved political power, again and again this has resulted in the codification of all those things that constitute ‘breaking God’s law,’ taking those things which Christians supposedly are not to do and enforcing the prohibition of them on the entire population. In this way was a ‘Christian society’ created, a ‘Christendom’ established. Never mind that hypocrisy has always characterized Christians when in power. Sexual sins (again following Augustine) have always been highlighted as really wrong (except when the people in charge are committing them). But other sins which the Bible seems to think are even worse, such as pride, gossip, lying, intrigue, hatred, gluttony, factionalism, schism, and corruption are often ignored.
Frank has unwittingly exposed these tensions within Western Christianity. In order for the (legal) Christian gospel to work, there must be condemnation, there must be acknowledgment that God’s law has been broken and that forgiveness and repentance are in order. And this will be measured subsequently by our ability to keep God’s law and avoid slipping back into condemnation. And we can become increasingly pleasing to God if we enforce these rules on ourselves and on an increasingly wider circle of people around us.
The tactic employed by Frank and many others in the Gay Rights movement has been to attack the codification of Christian morality in the civil laws as being unjust and obsolete. They have rightly demonstrated that these laws have denied them their own civil rights by giving preferential treatment for one moral system over any others. Moreover they have demonstrated that that moral system is obsolete and no longer relevant to today’s society. To enforce ‘Christian’ morals over American society would be to favor and thus establish Christianity, or even a particular and narrow understanding of Christianity, over all others. They have argued correctly, in my opinion, that this is unconstitutional.
This has all been disorienting to many Christians who thought they were living in a ‘Christian country’ and who hold that the Bible is ‘literally true’ and that it is the ‘Word of God’. Attacking the validity of God’s commandments seems to upend the whole apple cart. For if any of God’s commandments are shown to be false, then by implication, the whole foundation of Christian truth is shown to be unsafe.
The great problem with this stance is the assumption that this particular interpretation is God’s truth. The legal assumptions and interpretations of Christianity and its Gospel are indeed being shown to be misleading, even untenable, but that does not mean that Christianity is therefore proven untrue. It does mean that some rather severe unintended consequences of our legal orientation are coming back to haunt us, and at a challenging time for Christians in America.
To the point at hand, the grounds for Christians condemning homosexuality and (by extension, per Frank) homosexuals, have been pulled out from under us. But not for the reasons Frank argues. It turns out that Homosexuals have not broken ‘God’s law’. Having to keep some moral law is not the homosexuals’ problem, nor is it ours. There is no ‘law’ for us non-Jewish Gentiles to break. We are like the pagan Abraham, who lived before the Sinai Covenant. To apply Jewish law to Abraham results in the same miscarriage of theology that applying the law to us does, at least that seems to be what the Apostle Paul intimates in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. Therefore, we ‘Christians’ are in no position to look down on Gays or any other class of ‘sinners’ for having broken God’s moral law. That is not their problem, nor is it ours. Instead our problem is actually worse, as is theirs.
Sin is not breaking God’s law. Sin is choosing not to love. Sin is essentially a relational issue, not a legal one. What makes each of us created in the image of God is that God has created us with the capacity to love, to love God, to love our neighbor, to love our environment. We become icons of God when we choose to love. The image of God that is us is defaced when we choose to do otherwise. We are born into a world that is wracked by the consequences of all the choices by the men and women around us not to love, as well as flashes of unimaginable beauty when love is expressed. We too often selfishly follow those around us and the inclinations of our own heart in choosing to live for ourselves rather than for the other in love. We thus reap the self-chosen corruption of our lives, our communities, our environment, our world. This corruption leads inexorably to separation from those around us, and finally to the ultimate separation which is death and Hades. All of us participate in this disaster. All of us have been hurt by others. All of us have done our share of hurting.
Failure to understand this results in judgmentalism, of looking down on the other as being a worse sinner than me. If I can find one person who is more evil than me, then I can feel better about myself. But once again, this is the fruit of a legalistic understanding of morality. I can always find some thieving pervert who has broken more commandments than I have. But when we measure ourselves against the standard of what love actually is, the man Jesus of Nazareth, who then can stand? I fall short of the mark, far short. And so do you. And who am I to point out that I’m just a little higher on the scale of fallenness than you? To do so reveals that I have not understood my predicament, or yours, or indeed all of ours. Gay people then are no different from me. All of us are doing the best we can, having been born into a world overwhelmed by the consequences of our and everyone else’s rebellion against God, our and everyone else’s choices not to love. In that sense, all of us are disordered. All of us are acting out of our poverty. The goal should not be to change gay people to be like straight people, or to change alcoholics to be like the sober. Rather the solution is for all of us to be reconciled with God and with those around us, and to become more and more like the One in whose image we were created.
We do this in the Church. With the help of the Sacraments which Christ gave us to this very end. In the context of the new Community where we begin to learn anew how to choose to love, and how to help each other as we suffer through the consequences of all those choices not to love roiling around and within us. Without God’s help this would be impossible, as we are all very, very sick; in fact, sick unto death. But the good news is not only to we find forgiveness and a new life in Christ, but he is restoring his image in us and will save us from our death.
This is not, perhaps, the easy answer that Frank was driving towards, an answer that sees homosexuals being freed from the yoke of hypocritical Christian judgmentalism and allowed to live the life they choose in the way they see fit, which would be their understanding of freedom. His critique of the hypocrisy of many Christians is painfully correct. But ironically' neither he, nor the Christians under his scrutiny, have understood the core of Christianity. I would agree with Frank that the world would be a much better place if that version of Christianity were to just go away. But it also tells me that those Christians who have eschewed the legalism of so much Western (and even Eastern) Christianity are still not living in such a way as to make an impact on their world that changes much of anything. So there’s no room for judgmentalism, or triumphalism on anybody’s part. Instead, this should summon us again to recognize our true humanity, our true need, our continuous participation in choices not to love, and ask instead for the mercy and help to change. That Christ might be recognized in our midst. Only then might we begin to see something that approximates what the New Testament refers to as ‘salvation.’
|Icon of the Resurrection of Christ and the Raising of Adam and Eve|
Friday, January 3, 2014
There must be something deeply embedded in the human psyche that is allergic to dissent. I’m trying to figure out what lies behind the latest spasm towards intellectual totalitarianism that seems to be gripping our (American) society. I’m thinking in particular of the current discomfort felt by many in our country, especially in religious communities, over the legalization of homosexual relationships and the imposition of legal gay marriage in a rapidly increasing number of states. For many Christians in particular, our world seems to have changed, and to have done so with dizzying speed. Our views used to be the views of the land. Not so anymore. In fact, not only do most people seem to disagree with the traditional Christian perspective on the issue, any opposition to this very recent change in the status quo is branded by the new majority as bigotry, as if that settles the matter.
Adherents to the new norm behave as though they are shocked that anyone would dare to disagree with them, that anyone would attempt to impose any restrictions on their personal rights to do whatever they want to with their body and with whomever they wish. Dissenters to this new norm are the new heretics, and there are concerted efforts to shame them, ostracize them, bully them, force them to recant and, that not succeeding, deny them access to the public square and cut off any further discussion. We’ve seen this all before.
|Friends of Westboro Baptist Church making a point.|
In my comfortable, white, small town South Carolina of the 1950s and 1960s, personal and institutionalized racism was the controlling cultural ideology, dissent from which resulted in disparagement, ridicule, threats of violence and worse. And if one happened to be Black, worse is more often than not what resulted if one dared to differ. Any white person who questioned the prevailing standards of the day was immediately branded a ‘nigger lover’, as if that was the worst thing someone could be.
I remember the Sunday morning in the early 1970s when an African American couple entered our church and found a seat by the aisle in the middle of the sanctuary. I was sitting up in the balcony and watched as several of our elders approached the couple, spoke with them, and then escorted them back out of the church. Undoubtedly they were just being helpful by giving them directions to the nearest colored church on the other side of the tracks.
|The Triumph of Reason (my title) - The French Revolution|
The faction holding power, whether that faction is in the culture, the media the government, the church/mosque/synagogue, the school, the faculty, the clique, even the marriage, does not react kindly to having its place/power/position/perks/perspective challenged. When gentle reminders of who is really in charge do not work, the strategy to hold on to power becomes increasingly assertive, increasingly shrill, increasingly overt. Ridicule, disparagement, name-calling, mockery, derision – all are employed to keep others in their place. There is no place for disagreement, no place for argument or dissension. People who continue to disagree are denied a seat at the table of power. Ultimately those who stand in the way are systematically dehumanized. The next step is elimination. This makes it easier to dismiss their ideas as being Neanderthal at best, unworthy of the present debate.
|Someone perceived as a threat to Mao's Cultural Revolution|
We almost never learn from history, as all of this has happened before, with results that range from the pathetic to the genocidal. It would seem that the fomenters of every new round of intellectual, cultural or relational totalitarianism genuinely believe that they are right, and that rightness justifies imposing their rightness on everyone else, and of dealing with those who might disagree.
|A Recent Final Stop for Nonconformists and Other Uncomfortable People|
This is presently going with the apparent sea change in our culture’s perspective with regards to gay rights and gay marriage (I could make a similar argument with respect to drug use). Never mind that the status quo and the norm for 95% of our country’s history was a position that acknowledged sexual relations between a man and a woman within the boundaries of marriage as normal and desirable. Those who hold such a position today, along with the 10+ generations of Americans before the current one, are viewed as aberrant and enemies of humanity, at least according to some of the rhetoric to which I have been subject. Supporters of the emerging consensus are quick to point out that for generations, gay people were persecuted and forced ‘in the closet’ by the majority culture, and denied basic rights of relationship enjoyed by the recognized marriages of the mainstream. But though they loudly decry having been treated in a dehumanizing and discriminatory manner by the Christianity-informed wider culture, there seems to be no hesitation to use the same means to repress all dissent now that cultural power has shifted into their own hands. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, but not surprising.
|The Crusades. Remember them?|
The great problem facing our nation is not that gay rights is in the ascendancy, or that taking drugs recreationally is now legal (pot in Colorado, for example), or even that access to abortion is the law of the land. The great problem is that the Christian consensus that over-saw, balanced and bounded the constitutionally defined rights of the individual and the rights of the state no longer exists. The constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of course remain. But the guiding morality assumed by the culture that produced our constitution, one informed by the Christian faith of the vast majority of the citizens of earlier Americas, has been replaced by a noisy plurality of conflicting faiths and philosophies. The philosophies and secular faiths that now control the heart of our culture (media, entertainment, technology, education, the markets) are hostile to the values of Christians and their beliefs. And so now Christians find themselves increasingly subject to the same pressures to conform that other cultural minorities faced when Christians were the ones controlling the culture.
|Nobody likes heretics.|
‘Culture wars’ is a phrase I’ve heard for a number of years now, used in contexts having to do with mobilizing Christians to reclaim their culture for Christ and make America safe for raising Christian children. But I find it instructive to remember that neither Jesus nor the apostles launched a culture war. Jesus and the first Christians were all part of majority cultures, both Greco-Roman and Jewish, that were hostile to the values that Jesus taught and lived. And even subsequent ‘Christian’ cultures, achieved when Christians attained the levers of power in government and culture, turned out to be hostile to the values that Jesus taught and lived. One could make an argument that the American ‘Christian’ culture of the past decades and several centuries was actually hostile to the values that Jesus taught and lived, especially with respect to how one treats ones neighbor (and particularly, how one treats the neighbor with whom one disagrees). History demonstrates again and again that cultural majorities raison d'être is to maintain the position and perks of the majority. And when Christians have played that game (which we have again and again throughout history), the results may have been impressive with regards to Christian power and empire, but completely disastrous with regards to what Jesus himself seemed to be about. Power seems to have the same effect on us as on everybody else. Just saying.
|The Borgia Renaissance Pope, Alexander VI [NOT a role model for Francis I, or you and me either]|
So to sum up, the new cultural majority is doing unto Christians what Christians did unto them for so many years. And we are finding it uncomfortable. And while the new cultural majority finds no irony in their own use of abusive and dehumanizing strategies to neutralize dissent, the stories of cultures that adopt such tactics never end well. And we Christians, who have forever been tempted to adopt the world’s ways to advance our own agenda, should have learned long ago that groups that look like ducks, quack like ducks and behave like ducks are no longer Christian. They’re ducks. It is Jesus’ fault, after all. I don’t recall that he ever promised his followers that they would achieve cultural hegemony. Rather, he said ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’ Seems like we are having one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to rethink our place as followers of Jesus in the world. What do you think?
I’ve come across a two-part series on internet pornography by an Orthodox Christian psychologist, Dr. Albert Rossi, that is about the best brief exposé I’ve read. Dr. Rossi has a PhD in Psychology from Hofstra University and is currently an adjunct professor of pastoral theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Those of us who have been ensnared by internet pornography tend to live lives of increasing isolation, wanting desperately to be free of the addiction, and yet caught in self-consumed spirals of fear or selfishness or emotional pain that push us to turn to our ‘drug’ for relief. This ongoing battle occurs out of sight, out of bounds, as we are motivated by fear of what might happen if we get caught. But like any addiction, the consequences eventually catch up with us, the worst happens, we experience great pain and loss, as well as inflicting great pain and loss on those around us who must now cope with our behavior. We ‘hit the bottom’, which we must if we are ever to be delivered.
Sadly, most churches and Christians have not distinguished themselves in positive ways towards those who are so afflicted. Often there is a conspiracy of silence and shame, or, most usually, denial. We Christians don’t want to know that this might be going on in anybody’s life. And yet the statistics speak for themselves. Close to 40% of pastors/priests have viewed internet pornography. Most of our boys are not just exposed to porn but are regular users. If half of the marriages among Christians end in divorce, I’m sure there is a significant percentage of marriages that are affected by the husband’s use of pornography. Help for these men (and women) who so struggle hardly ever comes from the church (with exceptions I’m sure), but from accountability groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous (mentioned by Dr. Rossi), where these sex addicts are not judged but helped step by step to find a way out. Sadly, most men experience the gutting of their lives alone without finding the help they so desperately need.
|Maasai woman looking at laptop|
The first step in escaping the scourge of pornography addiction will be familiar to anyone who has experience in a Twelve-Step Program: ‘We admitted that we were powerless over lust – that our lives had become unmanageable.’ This simply states the reality, but it is the hardest step to take and for a flood of reasons that conspire to hold us back. The reason I am writing about this is that addiction to internet pornography is not some isolated problem of a few sleazy miscreants. Pornography is easily available and everywhere, to anyone with a computer/laptop/tablet/smart phone and an internet connection. And men and boys are lured like fish to bait, where we are hooked and reeled back again and again until our brains are addicted to the chemicals produced by our participation in lust. Maybe a third to half of the men who are reading this are addicted to internet pornography. It is the scourge of our hearts, the scourge of our relationships and families, the scourge of our churches, the scourge of our society. It will only get worse.
|Ethiopian boy in the middle of nowhere with a tablet|
But rather than condemn men and women for their addiction, it is time we offered them/us the way out. Condemnation on the part of churches and Christians has never worked as a strategy to deal with sin; it serves only to push the behavior underground. To that end, I offer these two links to articles/podcasts by Dr. Rossi. The first describes the problem, the second on the ways of recovery.
We Christians have been tempted since the beginning of the Christian movement to treat sexual sin as The Unforgivable Sin. Addiction to internet pornography is serious sin and has terrible consequences. But so does any kind of sin that goes unchecked in a person’s life, be it greed or gluttony or gossip or abuse or uncontrolled anger or alcoholism or theft or adultery or the choice not to love. The addict who is reading this has a choice to make. But so do the rest of us.